Last week, my 18-year-old stepdaughter put on a white cap and gown, accepted a diploma and a handshake, and said goodbye to 13 years of public school.
Her graduation ceremony was the cherry on a gooey sundae of springtime celebrations that included parties, cash, special senior events at school, cash, congratulatory dinners, cash, and cash. It was fun while it lasted.
But now that sundae is melting, as we enter one of the most bittersweet seasons of child rearing: the interminable Summer Before College.
For parents, it is a time to come to terms with the end of our teenager’s childhood. We watch with nostalgic tears in our eyes as our grad lazes on the sofa, munching on chips and watching MTV. We heave sad sighs as she empties our refrigerator of its contents, and think of how much we’ll miss discovering that the crucial ingredient for our recipe was eaten in a 2 a.m., hormone-fueled raid the night before. We sit up bleary eyed late at night, waiting for our grad to come home from a party and wondering how we’ll possibly survive the many, many nights of restful sleep that will come once our child has left home.
Meanwhile, for our graduates, the Summer Before College is an endless three-month stretch of time that stands between them and total freedom. In the interim, they wish to remind us that they hold both a voter’s card and a high school diploma, thank you very much, and therefore deserve the full rights and privileges that come with being an adult.
Except for that bothersome “financial responsibility” part. We parents can keep that.
Realizing this flawed understanding of adulthood was occurring in my own home, I firmly suggested to my own grad that she get a job this summer to help offset some of her expenses.
“Why should I?” she asked. “I’ll have the rest of my life to work.”
Bless her heart.
I kept my mouth shut only because I remember being in her shoes once and operating in the very same manner. Of course, I went on to learn the hard way that real adulthood was very different from what I’d imagined at the tender age of 18. With that in mind I have a few words of advice for my stepdaughter, to help her discern the difference between becoming a grown up on paper and becoming one in real life.
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:
You’ll know you’re an adult when you have your own permanent residence and are paying all of your bills by yourself.
You’ll know you’re an adult when covering those bills sometimes means you eat Ramen Noodles for a week in order to make it to the next paycheck.
You’ll know you’re an adult when the word “hella” is no longer part of your vocabulary.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you realize the world really does keep turning after your heart gets broken.
You’ll know you’re an adult when 30 no longer seems ancient.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you clean a toilet for the first time.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you learn how good it feels to admit when you’re wrong, and apologize.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you discover that having children means a whole lot more than the death of your social life.
You’ll know you’re an adult when it occurs to you that most other adults really aren’t any smarter or better behaved than when they were teenagers.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you grasp that life isn’t fair.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you understand that your parents didn’t ground you because they were jealous of your rockstar lifestyle, and trying to keep you from having fun.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you can balance a checkbook.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you put up with a rude and verbally abusive boss because you really need the money.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you decide that while being a teenager was fun, you would never want to be one again.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you understand why we smirked so infuriatingly when you told us at 16 that there was no point in learning to cook, because you were going to be an actress and would have someone to do that for you.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you grasp that your loved ones won’t be around forever.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you realize you know a lot less about life than you’d thought.
You’ll know you’re an adult when you figure out that your parents really do love you more than anyone else ever will.
Of course, I’m certain my advice will be lost on any high school grad that happens to read it. These are realizations you have to actually live out to understand, and it takes some much longer to do this than others.
Still, I have an 18-year-old who is about to begin the transition. I’m excited about all she’s about to learn.
And I am also very, very afraid.