‘Do we have to grow up?’ Ziya asked, at the end of Tuesday night, on her sixth birthday. I could only shake my head.
I don’t remember wanting to stay small. I remember wanting to grow up, become a teenager, become an adult. Adults seemed to have so much freedom. As Zi says, pouting, no one bosses around adults the way adults boss around children. At least, like her, that’s what I saw.
Unlike some other adults, I don’t want to go back to my childhood. I like this age, this stage and the control, power, insight and influence that years of school, work and hard knocks have provided, which I hope to use to make the world a better place, to mentor and inspire another generation, and to define the priorities and values I want to live by.
But, I also understand that along with those come ever more responsibilities, compromises and stress, which, like all of us, I take in stride even when they feel exhausting or overwhelming. In those moments, childhood seems so much simpler, so much more a world of magic and play, so freer of complexities, whether global or interpersonal, than now. Children don’t feel so world-weary, do they?
Yet, as many know, such nostalgia is pointless. Far too many of us were in fact negotiating complicated, even dysfunctional childhoods, managing lack of control over our world as children do, with resilience, with whatever coping strategies we can invent. I always wondered why adults thought that children didn’t understand what was going on in their midst, giving what they thought were age-appropriate explanations, as if children were not fully clued in to what adults thought they could hide or pretend wasn’t true.
So, I shook my head, not knowing quite what to say to a girl, six for only one day, who, in her own way, was weighing these existential dilemmas. I wasn’t going to assume she didn’t get it. I think children do.
Yes, we have to grow up, I answered, though I’d keep you this age for another year or two if I could. I could hear her thinking in the dark. ‘I like being a child’, she said. ‘Of course you do’, I thought.
One of my friend’s sons had told her she was so lucky to do all the things she loved, like mopping, cleaning and washing dishes. Zi had said similar things about how I got to do all the things I want, like go to work all the time. That feeling of entitlement of children, the expectation that they should enjoy life, even while we give them chores and teach them to take up responsibilities so that they come to appreciate and reciprocate our efforts, is an achievement. It’s a happiness they only get now, precious and fleeting.
‘I wish nothing was real’, Zi concluded, ‘then there would be nothing to change’. Maybe she thought that if everything was imaginary, you could imagine things however you wished, the way she wished her toys would come alive as Doc Mc Stuffins’ did or the way she imagined making real tea in tiny tin toy teacups. Maybe if nothing is real, then their passing doesn’t matter so deeply.
‘You don’t want things to change?’, I asked. ‘I don’t want things to be different’, she answered. I can’t say that I understood all she was experiencing, except she was happy and didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want to have to start again tomorrow.
Is there any of us that haven’t also felt that way? Is there any of us who haven’t wanted to hold one night, one achievement or one relationship like that forever, even as we watched it turn to mist and dissipate?
Ah, six year-old rueful observance of life’s passing.
What’s a mom to say except that this is only the beginning of that feeling and there isn’t an adult alive who doesn’t know it.
Welcome to your one wondrous life, little warrior of light.
There is only one lesson. Whatever your fears and joys, seize every second. Then, refusing rut and regret, let go, as the next moment to live to the fullest inevitably and irretrievably beckons.