When family talks about my childhood, they’ll often say something like, “Ijeoma was always a little adult” or “Ijeoma was born forty.” Something like that. The general consensus was that I was, from a very young age, a very serious person who spent a lot of time taking care of other people.
I’ve always been the person that people come to for help. I’m the one who will lend you money. Who will help in an emergency. I’m the person to go to for advice (also apparently the person to avoid when that advice is ignored). This has been the story of my childhood and my adult life.
I married and had kids young in life, and it was pretty easy to take care of a family, as that is what I had always done. Ok, so I didn’t love being married, because it turns out that saying yes to the person who “needs” you the most doesn’t make for a healthy marriage. But I am a dedicated mother, and I have been a really good mother for over twenty years.
When I was younger, we didn’t really talk about children who were “parentified.” It wasn’t a bad thing to be a really responsible eldest child who took care of younger siblings and helped their single mother run a household - especially if that eldest child was a girl child. I was, for a long time, really proud of how I’ve been able to care for myself and others, especially when so many of my peers seemed to be so messy.
As I entered my mid-thirties, I started making a few choices that, to me, seemed reckless or selfish. I quit my well-paying job - even though I had a mortgage and kids and very little savings - to write full time. I started avoiding people who seemed to drain me of energy I couldn’t figure out how to stop dating people who needed me to fix their lives so I just stopped dating. For about three years or so I said no to almost all social invitations and I focused on my writing and my kids. This might not seem like a lot, but it was honestly the biggest adventure I had ever been on in my life. People were legit worried about me.
Four and a half years ago I decided to ask a friend that I had a huge crush on to travel halfway around the world with me. I had never, ever, ever, done something so rash in my life. I booked the tickets the moment he said yes so that I wouldn’t lose my nerve. I fell in love on that trip, more deeply than I ever thought was possible. And for the first time in my life I had a relationship that didn’t revolve around me being a caregiver. I was with someone who resisted all of my efforts to fix his life, because - as he regularly reminded me - he was a grown-ass adult who had managed to survive to his late thirties without my intervention. He just wanted to spend time with me because he liked me. I honestly didn’t know I was like-able until then.
I always assumed that I would live “my” life once my kids were grown and out of the house. Then I would move. I would take multiple lovers. I would travel the world. I would become funny and interesting and people would like me for more than my ability to solve their problems. But I would be somehow, like, a completely different person. In the meantime, until my magic transformation, I would just keep taking care of everyone.
But my life started asserting itself earlier than planned, and it’s been looking different than I imagined. I’ve been realizing how little I actually know myself.
Here’s the thing about being a kid who’s also an adult: you’re not a kid who’s also an adult. You’re just a kid. You’re a kid who’s trying their best to play a role. And you’re trying so hard that you don’t even get to fully be a kid either.
I’ve been trying to step away from my need to be a caregiver to everyone in my life, at my therapist’s constant urging. And though it’s pretty obvious that part of me knows that this is what I need to do, it’s also really scary. Because the part of me that needs to assert itself now is a part that doesn’t have it all under control, a part that is still very messy and not fully-formed.
Basically, a large part of me is still a kid pretending to be an adult.
We can often easily see the people who haven’t “grown up” - the adults still acting out in childish ways, never provided the consequences or structure to grow out of destructive habits. But we don’t really talk about people who never got to have any childish, wild, self-destructive phases to grow out of.
It’s so weird to be 42 and realizing that I don’t know what type of people I like to be around. It never occurred to me to pick friends and loved ones based on what they could bring to my life or what we might have in common. And goodness - in order to know what I have in common with people, I’d have to be somewhat aware of my own personality. It often takes me a while to realize when I’m feeling angry at someone or hurt by them. Because those have never been useful emotions in my relationships in the past. I’m realizing, just in recent years, that I’m a rather sensitive person, and that a lot of the relationships in my life were hurting me. And I’m just now realizing that that is a good enough reason to walk away.
Sometimes I feel really lost. I feel like I’m too old to just now get messy. I worry that people won’t have patience for me as I try to figure this all out. I don’t have the energy to fuck up the way I probably could have in my twenties.
But I don’t really have regrets. We all are doing the best with what we’ve got in life, and as a young mother, I probably couldn’t afford to fuck up in my twenties the way a twenty-something person needs to be able to. My kids would have paid the price for my journey, so it just had to wait until my life felt safe enough to fuck it up a little. I made the choices I made and here I am, a middle-aged woman trying to give younger me a chance to be. And honestly, my kids really like seeing me this way, even if sometimes they are scandalized by the fact that their mother, who has always been very solid and dependable and boring, can also be weird or goofy.
Is this what a mid-life crisis is? I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m in crisis. I feel a little (maybe a lot sometimes) scared, a little lost, and very joyful. I’m not really entertaining fantasies of becoming a wild woman in her late forties who travels the world taking a bunch of lovers anymore. I really wasn’t expecting marriage to be one of the more youthful adventures that I would find myself on, but I can honestly say that this one of the most monumental things that I’ve done just for me (I mean, I do, of course, have a spouse in this equation, but he has his own motivations for deciding to marry me. I guess I’m just lucky that the thing I wanted to do and he wanted to do matched up). I’m really looking forward to spending a lot of years experimenting with writing, making friends, traveling with the love of my life, and watching my grown children embark upon their own fantastic adventures - hopefully while they’re still young.
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I was in my late 70s when the pandemic showed me I am a much more introverted person than the oldest of 7, helper, teacher, and manager of crises my life had required of me.
I'm still working through all that at 80. It's never too late to live the life of the person you really are.
Wow, THIS is where I find myself as well. It was confusing when I was an Actual Child to have people who both were threatened/annoyed by my "you think you're grown" vocabulary and competence, and yet relying on my being a "good little mother" adultified child who apparently never needed either oversight or emotional support. I married someone I thought needed me, too, but we made it to the world of therapists and meds and he gently suggested I back off... Now, I have to make decisions about my own preferences and opinions and I so empathize on feeling like it's too late for fumbling or being messy while we figure it all out.
I don't know what I'm doing, though, so viva la mess, I guess.