When does a child become an adult? Opening a bank account. Your first pay cheque. Taking an interest in the news. Dealing with hangovers. Losing your virginity. Instinctively shaking hands with people you don’t know. Some are more obvious, such as moving out of the family home or getting married.
No matter how much we would like to believe that the transition is a smooth, simple affair, it is not. Some people move from childhood to full-blown early-to-bed must-open-a-pension-plan adults in a very short period of time, perhaps just a couple of years. Others drag it out over a decade or longer, afraid of the ceaselessness of ticking clocks, physically developing in one direction while psychologically staying put or even going backwards.
A little under two years ago I came back from a three-month stint working in Ghana for the Ghanaian Times. About a week after I returned, my mother said to me, with a mixture of melancholy and pride, “you’ve come back a man.” I didn’t know whether to say ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’, or (as the wise philosopher Ronan Keating said) nothing at all. I had made no effort to consciously act more manly, but three months in West Africa would certainly develop even the most immature being.
It has now become clear to me, however, that the metamorphosis from child to adult ought not to be counted out with weighty actions such as marriage or jobs. Rather, it should be assessed in a more nuanced way by one’s evolving priorities.
It was last week, and a couple of years after my mother’s wistful words, that it occurred to me that yes, I am now a man. It only took 25 years. I did something that only an adult could do: I bought a piece of furniture. I got the sofa-bed not because I needed it, but because I thought my apartment needed a bit of jazzing up. That, and the fact that I can now offer overnight guests somewhere quasi-comfortable to sleep.
I built the flat-pack sofa and parked it in the corner of my room. Sweating after cursing for over an hour at nuts, bolts and pillows, I stepped back to look at my not-so handy work. It was only then, after the process of deciding I needed some more furniture, buying it, and building it, that I realised adulthood is now the only game in town. Next to the new sofa on the floor was a football, so at least I knew I had not rejected my passions from childhood.
Moving from childhood to adult life is therefore not a zero-sum game, where every stone added on one of the scales equally tips the balance on the other side. Instead, it is a process that we as humans don’t really understand until it is done; more importantly, every little gradated step on the one-way road towards proving one’s mortality need not be a rejection of childlike behaviour. I know plenty of more aged adults than me for whom brief, controlled escapades into childlike behaviour are a form of proof of adulthood. It seems that the only way to stay sane in advancing years is to sometimes act slightly insane, and every sofa bought must be balanced by a sofa jumped upon. Otherwise, that one-way road is travelled with tinted windows.