Life with Sub-adults: Prepping for Flight
“Uuuuum mum?” This is the way my younger son starts any conversation when he is tentative about approaching me. In his teens, it would have been to push the boundary out on something we had already agreed. Or if he were in trouble…Like the time he was the main instigator of a “fight club” championship in school. “Uuuuum mum? Just thought I’d let you know the headmaster will be contacting you soon.” To this day, this seemingly innocent utterance still sends shivers of panic through me.
I am the mother of two sons. They are only two years apart and according to the lifestyle experts who monitor such things, one is a millennial and the other one is a gen z. To me they are both twenty-somethings; sub-adults, navigating the adult world at large and preparing to take flight.
This transition fascinates me, mostly because it was unexpected. The fact that children don’t just fly out of the nest, fully formed, once they are 21 is one of those things, like childbirth, that no one ever really tells you about.
From the outside looking in, they both have the semblance of complete independence; gainful, full-time employment and one of them has even moved out of the family home. And yet, from their own internal worlds looking out, they are not quite there yet. Sure, they can now feed and clothe themselves. But for the less tangible — that existential undercurrent of emotional anxiety which runs continuously through all our modern lives — they still look to us, their parents, for advice and support.
They have challenging jobs. There’s a lot to learn and they are expected to perform at a high level. And I watch them struggle with their desire to do well within the context of circumstances which are not always in their control; as if any of us are ever in control. Our advice comes in the form of getting them to understand the bigger picture of their own self development while we cheer them on through the slog. Not too dissimilar to when they were in school and we helped them understand their disappointments when things didn’t go the way they expected. Not making the sports teams that their friends were on ranks high in my memory.
The other morning, while Sub-Adult No. 2 was drinking his coffee and getting ready to go to work, he sidled up to me and said, “uuuuuum mum?” Breathing deeply, I smiled a little too cheerfully and said, “yes?”
“My manager came up to me at work the other day and said she wanted to meet my mother.” Images of bare-chested graduate, management consultants swinging ties around their heads and engaging in rounds of “Fight Club” in the office conference room flashed before my eyes. I took another deep breath. “She said she wanted to thank the woman who brought up such a great addition to our team; hard working, never complaining, always with a smile on my face.”
When the boys were little, I had to learn to resist the strong urge to “fix it” for my children. And over the years, I have come to recognise that the strong urge to make things better for them never really goes away. It will always be with me. But I have also realised that the more I fixed, the more I was taking critical parts of their journey away from them. The parts they needed to build confidence and an understanding of who they are in the world.
It’s reassuring to know that boundary pushing youth can and do develop into more gentle and highly palatable versions of their raw teendom sketches. Mine have. Delightful to have around if a little messy, they can always be relied on for their good company and conversation. And after years of listening to haranguing headmasters at the other end of the phone, I’m ready to take his manager out to lunch. Not just because she said nice things about my son but also because she recognises that he and I were on the journey together.