The Girl: Adulthood Doesn’t Happen in an Instant

By Cathy Oliver

The girl

I drove past a girl today. I should say woman really; the age when you’re not quite one or the other. She had that aura of youth about her: long brown tousled hair, ripped high-waisted jeans, black long-sleeved crop top. A hesitant trace of arrogance at the corners of her mouth – the mask teenagers wear to hide a plethora of insecurities.

I’m projecting. But anyway…I thought she was beautiful.

In the second I saw her, a flurry of memories came: cassette players, Cosmo magazine, worn-once clothes piled on a teetering candy-pink chair. The smell of Ralph Lauren perfume, biscuity fake-tanned skin, the tang of vodka and cigarette smoke. Standing on a train station platform shivering in scant clubbing clothes on winter nights, breath clouding in the air. Collapsing into the warm bobbled bed covers in my old bedroom at my parent’s house, the knot of anxious guilt tugging at my gut as I walked to college recounting the funny and humiliating events of the night before with my best friend.

Life then was counted in encounters – anticipating them, preparing for them, living them, analysing them. Boys, teachers, parents, friends…mostly boys. I moved from one encounter to the next in a flux of uncertainty trying to mold and shake off my own skin, to make it fit. One minute I would think I had it, the comfort of settling in to self-worth like shrugging on a warm winter coat – then a touch of eagerness, the wrong words, a new zit, and I would falter.

I feel things keenly, a trait my daughter has inherited. My skin is vulnerable, a fizzing bundle of exposed nerves and apprehensive enthusiasm, treading the line between helpless giggles and hopeless tears. An explosion of colour swirled in my belly long before life grew there; but staring into the mirror in the high school toilets, I often failed to see the colour. Instead there stood a dot-to-dot drawn by the pens of others, incomplete lines connected at the wrong points. I didn’t have the confidence to grasp the pen, draw myself, or snap it in half.

Despite the wobbly insecurity of those years, I felt a weightlessness, cocooned in my teenage bedroom. One I didn’t recognise until I realised it was gone. The difference between having someone with you in the house at night, and being alone.

The gaps in which I waited for things to happen were filled with light anticipation. Anything could happen. The future was set out before me in the haze of linear, grandiose events a girl comes to expect for herself: engagement, wedding, motherhood. The events came and they went, always beautiful in their way. But different to live than imagined, filled with those imperfect moments we come to know – life isn’t Instagram, right? Heels get stuck in a wedding dress; hair and teeth sit wonkily in a photograph; labour, birth and recovery are traumatic, transcendent, transformative – not possible to imagine until lived.

So that girl changed.

I don’t believe we ever stop changing. Our identities remain in flux as we react and adapt to what life presents on any given day. I do believe that some life events are deeply transformative, and shift something integral about the way we see ourselves and the world. For me, that was becoming a mother.

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