RITES of passage seem to be best carried out in the spring.
The inspiration for them is all around us, in the blooming of tulips and the hatching of eggs. My own 5’11” baby bird is about to fly the coop, so such transitions have co-opted my thoughts.
My daughter Petunia, 20, is leaving this week on her first adult trip to Europe, the classic adventure with a handful of friends. Her dad did the same thing when he was about her age, as countless young people have done for many hundreds of years.
In fact, I’m pretty sure William the Conqueror was enjoying a belated gap year when he and his chums invaded England and he wound up as its first Norman king. If only they hadn’t brought bows and arrows in their satchels, a lot of unpleasantness could have been avoided. As I’ve warned Petunia, thoughtful packing is key.
The path from childhood to adulthood, of course, has many way stations, and their permutations vary according to culture, religion, tradition, and family peccadilloes.
They include official acknowledgements of the arrival of puberty, and public reiterations of faith. There are traditions that involve physical scarring, and others that are intended to harrow the young person and turn him or her into an adult with a defined place in society. There are parents who take their children on special expeditions to mark their leaving childhood behind. Other families have lavish ceremonies after the youngster reaches a certain age, featuring garlands and music and special foods.
These events provide symbolic recognition of the fact that a child is facing up to taking on adulthood. They’re festive and enjoyable and even meaningful for many. The real transition, however, comes when a young adult, of his or her own accord, leaves the warm but perennially instructive bosom of the family and takes giant steps, outside that group, toward personal independence.
Clearly, that’s one reason Australian aboriginals go walk-about, and some native North Americans pursue vision quests -- the family must be shucked off, like a husk, for the child to authentically become an adult.
I’m not sure how ready a mother or father ever really is to accept that this is possible, that these beautiful, vulnerable, wrinkle-free creatures -- who may still need occasional comforting and financial support -- will be able to fend for themselves in a big wide world full of shysters, lechers, and pickpockets.
Nevertheless, they all have to leave us eventually. What better way for them to start the process than by physically departing and getting a good look at what the world has to offer? Though it’s painful for us, as parents, to watch as they make exciting plans that are all the more delightful because they don’t include our frumpy interests or finger-wagging, we must hold good thoughts and bite our tongues. Barring a few always-welcome dollars, our input isn’t required.
Anyway, there are plenty of people better equipped to give them advice –- adults who are seasoned travellers, experienced friends who are their own age and like the same things they do, people who come from the countries they will soon explore. The information that I, for example, have about the places that Petunia is going is entirely suspect, born of my own fearful prejudices against massive party destinations and exploitative or inefficiently run societies. It’s not for a parent to say where a 20-year-old should or shouldn’t go, or what she should or shouldn’t do when she is away. This is, literally, her journey.
The most impressive thing about watching your children make this foray into the unknown is witnessing the maturity they display in planning it. Petunia, a former party animal, drastically changed her ways so she could save money for her “trip of a lifetime,” as she calls it. She’s worked several jobs, none of them glamorous or fulfilling beyond the fact that they have helped her meet her financial goals. Even better, she actually made financial goals.
She has researched her destinations, met with her friends regularly to collaborate on plans, learned to compromise with them on those plans, consulted adults who are experts in the countries she’ll visit (while taking notes), and has spent the last week saying her goodbyes to the people who mean the most to her. This is a mind-bogglingly far cry from the plan-averse wild child she was a mere three years ago. She has grown up before our eyes, before ever boarding a plane.
It’s lovely to watch this change take place in your children. While you can’t help but feel left out, that really is the point. They’ve spread their wings, and right now it’s your job to stand at the edge of the nest, smiling and waving as you watch them take flight, and trying your damndest not to cry.