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Building an Adult

adulthoodAs my daughter gets older, the mantle of adulthood falls more squarely on her shoulders. At sixteen, Schuyler is beginning to get a better idea of what that looks like.

I feel like the past few weeks have held some milestones, large and small, in Schuyler’s journey to adulthood. That phrase is problematic for me, the “journey to adulthood”. It’s not really a journey at all, is it? It’s not inevitable, other than the physical process of aging, and it’s neither steady nor consistent. Adulthood is a thing that Schuyler will build, in fits and starts, with mistakes and do-overs, missed opportunities and mistakes both grand and awful. And as much as I wish otherwise, it’s not something her parents or teachers can really do for her. We can guide and advise, and we all know how cheerfully teenagers take that kind of advice. In the end, Schuyler will create her own version of adulthood. It’ll look like hers, and no one else’s.

Over the weekend, Schuyler and I were fortunate enough to participate in a project related to disability advocacy and the diverse ways in which it manifests. It’s not my project so I can’t really say a lot about it at this early stage, but the concept behind it is exciting and one that I’ve already given a great deal of thought to and spilled more than a few words about over the years. For a few hours, Schuyler and I answered questions and submitted to a photographer (who was hopefully concentrating mostly on the pretty young lady and not the grouchy old man with the Nick Nolte mugshot hair). It was an enriching conversation for everyone, I hope.

I’ll be honest. I was a little nervous for Schuyler going in. She’s had uneven success with situations where she’s expected to answer questions and express independent thoughts and opinions. Part of it is just social anxiety (I say “just” as if it’s not the worst thing in the world to those of us who have it), and also there’s the issue of being understood. She did pretty well with her iPad, but more importantly, the interviewer has a kid with speech apraxia, so she was able to understand Schuylerese pretty easily. That helped tremendously.

Another cause for Schuyler’s anxiety, which she spoke about with a little less hesitation than she has before, was her fear that expressing her own thoughts would make her look dumb or weird. Schuyler has an uneasy relationship with the term “weird”. She hears it as a positive descriptor a lot, as she is surrounded by people who find weirdness to be something of a badge of honor. (A familiar saying around here is “What’s the opposite of weird? Boring!”) But it’s clear she’s also heard that word tossed at her from peers in the past, and a kind of low-grade paranoia has set in, as is often the case with kids with disabilities. She doesn’t have to hear it to fear the scorn of her peers, most of whom treat her with warmth and respect. She understands her own difficulties enough to fear being perceived as unintelligent, but she is still working on embracing her own differences. Neurodiversity is not Schuyler’s gig, not just yet.

Schuyler is in the process of building a sense of self, and she doesn’t have very many relevant role models. As she talked about her own ideas of who she is and what she might hope to be, Schuyler was clearly turning over that self-portrait in her head as she tried to describe it. And as she discussed her desire to make helping others her life’s work (a concept she’s expressed many times), I couldn’t help but wonder if she’s gotten as much help for herself as she needs, from everyone who has been tasked with assisting her in the process of building her future self. Myself perhaps most of all.

Schuyler is grappling with emotions that are new for her, and with the idea of relationships and a family of her own one day. It’s all been so fantastical until now, and her ideas of the kind of person she might be in a relationship with are still very fluid and mostly kept to herself. (“I think I might like girls,” she said timidly at one point in the interview. Sorry, grandparents.) Last week, at my aunt’s funeral, Schuyler’s natural sensitivity and empathy overwhelmed her a little. She wept openly for someone she’s essentially never met, because she looked around and saw people she loved crying, and because she was faced with the reality of The End. On the long drive back to Dallas, she asked a lot of questions about death and the people she loved. I could tell she was thinking of her parents in particular and what the world would look like after we’re gone. She’s catching on that adulthood has some hidden traps, and some deep sorrows.

Schuyler doesn’t know what adulthood will look like, and honestly, neither do I. She’s making some good choices so far, such as when she wandered into the chat function on one of her iPad games and suddenly found herself getting uncomfortable questions from a man in Portugal. We keep pretty close tabs on her online interactions, but this one snuck up on us. To her credit, Schuyler brought it to me as soon as it started getting strange and asked me to delete the game altogether. I’m not naive enough to think she’ll always share those situations, but I feel relieved that she felt comfortable doing so this time. I’ll gratefully take that for now.

Time enough for adulthood in stages. No one’s in a hurry here.

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