Isn’t it interesting how a seasoned outlook can change our perspective?
When my daughter turned 21, I felt singularly responsible to “carry” her across that threshold of adulthood as I had for other major milestones in her life: learning to read, learning to drive, selecting the right shade of lipstick (yes, the latter is a taught skill). Surprisingly, her 18th birthday had not evoked that same sense of duty.
Maybe being knee deep in the college admissions process, a feat requiring Amazonian strength and focus, made the 18th birthday feel Lilliputian by comparison. It’s as if age 18 simply kicks off a 3-year probationary period that counts down to age 21—which marks that undeniable hallmark of adulthood in the good ole US of A: the legal consumption of alcohol.
But, my daughter turning 21 felt differently to me.
I thought to myself, maybe it feels different because I need a marker, a grand gesture to demonstrate to ALL who are watching what a wonderful and wise mother I have been for 21 years. Um…reality check. The only one watching with interest is my own inner critic.
I undertook the task of how one navigates young adulthood successfully as if preparing to write a thesis. I tapped friends whose children had turned out reasonably well for wise words to pass along. I compiled all manner of sage wisdom into a laminated 3-page booklet of tips (masquerading as a 21st birthday card) and presented it to my daughter with appropriate solemnity.
My tips were profound. Relevant. Needed!
If you know something must be done, do it now.
Don’t complain without doing something about it. Complaining is just wasted breath.
Anyone who makes you feel small is not big enough for you.
To my delight, she embraced the booklet as if it was THE road map to success. She even let me tape copies of it (yup, I had extras) on the wall of her college apartment bedroom above her desk. Perhaps she, too, was feeling the import of the moment and wanted a talisman.
As her 25th birthday approached earlier this year, I found myself again feeling that this was a milestone that required special note. With a quarter century of living under her belt, my baby was no longer a baby. From what I’ve gleaned from parents who are really honest, the intense parenting years run to about age 25, IF you want your child to be locked, loaded and fully launched. I was coming to the end of the road in the “parent” phase of my life and it made me reflect on my own 25th birthday.
I do not remember celebrating or even taking time to acknowledge that quarter-life moment. My 25th birthday was a footnote in the swirl of law school graduation, moving back home from D.C. to Detroit and studying for the bar exam. It was the true definition of a non-event. Only after looking at it through life’s rearview mirror do I understand I deprived myself of honoring the first, and most pivotal, 25 years of my life journey. This made me doubly determined to find the perfect pearls of wisdom to share with my daughter to reinforce the significance of this birthday.
Something surprising happened in my search. This time, I was not drawn to the serious, the profound nor anything related to career. No “how-to’s”. No polling friends. No checklists. No laminated booklets with the extra set taped to the wall. In my search for wisdom for my daughter, the most compelling thing I found was a different me — a more mature mother who had gained enough confidence in my parenting to not feel the need to constantly “parent”. This was both revelatory and freeing! No longer did I feel guilty if every interaction was not a teachable moment.
I asked myself, what wise words would’ve been the most defining for me at 25? And, what would be for her?
Instead of advice, I felt compelled to give my daughter a vision, one in the form of her life story. The many pictures taken of her first 25 years became a thrill ride through the past: goofy toddler pics, awkward middle school years, annual Christmas tree star hanging with dad, school grandparent days, dorm room pics with roommates, birthday parties and more. The one thing that each photo had in common was the look of delight and happiness on her face.
This is what my seasoned outlook on life has taught me: happiness and joy are key to having a life well-lived. I knew that unless my daughter actively pursued happiness and put knowing what brought her joy at the top of her to-do list, all of life’s hard work would not matter.
I wanted the pictures to channel that even in the midst of the hustle bustle and frustration that is a part of daily living, the moments of joy are what stay with us. I want her to be inspired to make the next 25 years more joyful and happier than the first, a daunting task as any adult with gray hair and a few wrinkles well knows.
The photos were a reminder to me too – to actively create the “joy” and to savor it in the moment, not 20 years later. Sure, I wish I had known this at age 25. But the beauty of parenting is that it gives us a do-over, in a way. As we encourage our children to be their best selves living their best lives, some of that effort rubs off on ourselves. And, we too have an opportunity to become our best selves living our best lives.