Walter James: The Balance Sheet of My Life


My parents being my parents, my dad, Walter, was galvanized to write his own “adventures in adulting” as a partner piece to my mother’s. Walter is a sleep specialist in Atlanta, an avid reader, and history buff. 

Fdador me, becoming an adult (and realizing I was becoming an adult) happened in discrete stages. This may sound prosaic, but I’ll list them here:

1. Getting a job
2. Getting a mortgage
3. Getting married, and
4. Having children.

As you know, this sequence is not the same for everyone. One person may marry while still renting an apartment, free from mortgage responsibility; another may have children before getting married. Some never have a job at all (are trustafarians really adults?). But my sequence is a common one in western society, even if not so much elsewhere (probably few mortgages among Ural Mountain sheepherders). You get the idea.

What I experienced at each stage was, perhaps predictably, reassuring and confidence-making, while at the same time terrifying and, always, a gamble.   In retrospect, it was like mountaineering, with each stage a new ledge and altitude to be bested, with some peak in distant sight.

I didn’t have my first real job until I was thirty—all that before was semi-paid medical training.   When I did get my first paycheck, I realized I could finally separate from family support, stand unaided, and be independent. It felt good, and I felt grownup. I was on my own, living thousands of miles from my origins, and happy. But I sensed that I was not complete. My day-to-day efforts were spent in working and building a life, but just my life. I had friends, dates, relationships, but felt no real outwardly forces. The gist of my life was still me, me, me.

At thirty I got my first mortgage, when I bought my first house. Actually, the bank bought it, 80% of it at least, and I promised to buy it back from them over the next 30 years. That’s what mortgages are. Thirty years! How’s that for a commitment?   Sure, I could sell it before thirty years were up (and I did), but sales are not easy, not quick, and sometimes not profitable. But adults have mortgages.   Adults make longterm commitments and keep them. Mortgages are proof of adults’ setting down roots, of dedication to fulfilling grownup responsibilities.  “First-house jitters” is a well-known phrase amongst real estate dealers, referring to those assuming their first mortgage. After the jitters are over, usually by the first monthly payment (only 359 to go!), one feels like a real adult.   Still, only inward forces: no committed feeling, except to the bank, and banks are not fun to snuggle up to at night.

12342293_10208108751146434_5599441465252625253_nYears later I married. Is there a commitment bigger than this? That she and I converged on the same city at about the same time, she from a thousand miles north and I from twice that from the west, that we met and instantly realized something special had occurred, remains a miracle to my thinking. Now this I contend is a real test of being an adult: can one step outside of oneself completely for the first time, love and respect and care for that other in a relationship that succeeds only if all vestiges of former self-centeredness are jettisoned? This is what real adults do—turn outward from themselves, give, give, give daily, knowing that the sum is so much greater than the parts: one plus one equals infinity.   I have since told, and probably bored, more than one groom-to-be with my avuncular advice: the mantra for a successful marriage is contained in the phrase “As you wish.” Cannot be said enough.   Apply, rinse, repeat. And in a good marriage, both adults share in the selflessness, which is the basis of love.

Then came children:   Caroline and her brother Drew. It is another truism that this is when the parent’s life changes from black and white to Technicolor. And now the dad2outwardness becomes complete: these initially small, helpless beings require all of an adult’s time and effort, all the emotion and feeling and care one can muster on any given day, and then some. It felt distinctly liberating to experience this persistent need, combined with the required denial of self, the evolutionarily-based pull to surround these new organisms, these outward extensions of oneself, with protection and love. Every decision was made with consideration of its effects on today, tomorrow, next year, decades from now.   Parenting is like a mortgage you will never buy out from. And this, dear reader, was the best of life, the payoff for all the foundations laid down over the years before in each step of building a life, then some lives: each step of adulting.

My favorite sonnet of Shakespeare’s is his second, part of which says,

…this fair child of mine
shall sum my count

that is, shall add up the balance sheet of my life.

And somewhere along these years, I realized that, step by step, I had become an adult. But I also realized that in so doing I had become a complete person, knowing myself as good and whole and even possibly lovable, all stemming from the need to give up myself for others. This to me is the prize of growing up, of adulting.

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