Sort of Enfranchised

The Thinker by Rodin

If my 50th birthday in February was a big deal because the number was a very big and very round then arguably my daughter’s 18th birthday tomorrow is a much bigger deal.

My turning 50 included neither new responsibilities nor privileges. Perhaps AARP membership could be construed as a new privilege. However, the AARP no longer requires you to be age 50 to join. On the other hand, when you turn 18 then like it or not you become a (mostly) official member of the tribe. Should you transgress the law, there is no juvenile court for you. At age 18, while you cannot drink you are free to do other arguably stupid but legal things like smoke with impunity.

It used to be that at age 18 or so your parents were helping you pack your bags. Often you would move from your parents’ house to the local YMCA or YWCA, which was something like a community halfway house. There you could find single room housing, people about your age with perhaps some sense of morality, some older adults to keep an eye on things and cheap weekly rents. While you established yourself in the adult world, you had some structure. I imagine there are still YCMAs that offer such a service, but I do not know of any. Our local YCMA is merely a health club. Moreover it is hardly restricted to young Christian males. Old men, women and children can hang out at our YMCA. I am not even sure you have to attest to being a Christian in order to be a member. One thing is for sure: our local YMCA has no SRO housing for young adults.

When I turned 18, while I could probably have survived on my own, it would have been a rough and angst filled transition. Today, modern life is both more complicated and more expensive. In addition, young adults have upgraded both their expectations and lifestyles. Since they are used to convenience, they expect convenience. Since they never had to pay the freight to live a convenient life, they expect that their parents will help subsidize their transition into adult life. Generally, we parents, out of parental love but also out of necessity, have bought into this new vision. Sending your young adult off to college with a couple lockers stuffed with clothes, knickknacks and a thick collegiate dictionary is no longer enough. Today’s collegiates require ATM cards, health insurance, prescription drugs, and laptop computers and maybe even a car. These may not actually be essentials, but the likelihood of their failure appears to increase if they do not have them.

If there is good news for this change of life, it is that you are finally allowed to vote. My daughter has registered to vote for our election this November. Although she accompanied me many times when I voted, she may find the actual voting process underwhelming. She may want to vote for a new president. Instead, she will have more ponder more prosaic choices, including who should be Clerk of the Court. In addition, she may discover that being one voter among millions generally means your vote does not matter too much. If you want your vote to matter, it is better to move to a swing state like Ohio and Florida. She will learn that attempts to change the course of government mostly fail. They may bitch about things, but rarely does this mean they will vote out the incumbent.

When I turned 18, I was fully enfranchised. My new privileges included the right to buy out all the booze at the local ABC store if so inclined. Since that time, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have succeeded changing those laws. While newly liberated adults like her can vote, they cannot legally imbibe. I hope I am not the only adult to be troubled by this inconsistency. If we are going to prohibit drinking until age 21, it is far more honest to also raise the voting age to 21. In addition, some states have other asterisks next to this change in life. For example, here in Virginia while our daughter can get a driver’s license, she must get a certificate from a state approved driving school before an examiner will test her. A year from now when she turns 19 this will no longer be an issue.

Therefore, tomorrow she really becomes a qualified adult. Although she has committed no transgressions, she is an adult under probation. She has all the responsibilities of full adulthood without necessarily all its privileges.

For her parents there are some benefits to her change in life. She becomes responsible for her actions, not us. However, there are also downsides. She is harder for us to declare as a dependent. It is more difficult for us to tell her what to do, and likely counterproductive should we actually demand it. There are both legal and natural forces at work. These forces are impelling her to take full responsibility for her actions and her life, whether she is ready or not. For my wife and me these are reminders that parenting is a limited mission. Our daughter, while much loved, is really a passenger on our train. We have punched her ticket. The train is slowing. She needs to get her off the train.

As a young adult in her gap year, she now often navigates by herself to the local Books-a-Million. While she shelves books for a bit over the minimum wage, she ponders what she really wants to do with her life. Our evenings, which used to be consumed with monitoring her homework and Internet usage, are starting to become quieter. The cat, who is very bonded with our daughter, pouts because his human is spending more and more time away from her. Meanwhile, I am envisioning a much quieter and lower-key life in my near future. I am seeing a time when her bedroom morphs into a guest room or a study. Indeed, I am seeing a time when our house goes on the market and we retire to some place smaller. I am seeing my wife and me with grey hair, living in a retirement community and going to Elder Hostels. While this vision still seems quite a way away, what is new is that we can see it clearly now.

Our cat will not be happy by our daughter’s change in life but he will adopt. My wife and I will experience a mixture of feelings, but will move toward acceptance. Our lives will continue to intersect with our daughter’s, but invariably we will see less of her. There may come a day when we call her regularly just to find out what is going on with her. There may come a day when our relationship devolves into occasional Thanksgiving dinners and exchanging Christmas cards.

We have to let her go. She has to let us go. That is just the way it is. Meanwhile, we can expect measured steps by her toward self-sufficiency and many more evenings and weekends free of the distraction of supervising her life, while not entirely free about worrying about her choices.

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