You know how child actors are always going on about how they “skipped their childhoods”? Well, I didn’t do that. I was good and irresponsible during those key formative years. But I did have some expectation that six or so years spent traipsing around on sets alongside people twice my age followed by four years of pretty excellent education would spit me out on the other side capable of…you know…being an adult. Not through any effort of my own, mind you. Just because I figured someone would implant that knowledge directly into my brain with zero exertion on my part.
…What, that’s not how it works?
I started acting professionally when I was twelve years old and a director who lived in my building asked me to audition for a commercial he was shooting. I got an acting agent, and then hooked up with Ford to do some modeling, and within a year I was going on auditions and go-sees more days than not. I went to a relatively arts-friendly high school, and they let me rearrange my schedule so that I took the majority of my classes in the mornings, leaving me free for work in the afternoons.
And it was fun, mostly.
Above all, having to figure out how to juggle schoolwork and work-work made for an excellent learning experience, and balancing work and school is not a bad thing for a city kid enrolled in a high school alongside a lot of very, very rich and very, very spoiled kids to learn how to do. Now, it wasn’t all deep and maturity-building: trust me, I was still very much a Looney Tunes of a teenager. As an example, I struggled with fairly crippling stage fright and didn’t handle the “not getting a part” thing particularly well, and unfortunately you don’t get many, many more parts than you do get.
I remember one afternoon having a drama-queen-sized crying fit in my agent’s office over not landing a part in The Devil’s Own (it went to Julia Stiles) right next to Anne Hathaway, who was having a similar crying fit for a similar reason (spoiler: things turned out OK for her). But the point is that while I may not have been the Poster Child for Emotional Maturity, I think that overall my work experience had the effect of forcing me to grow up a bit faster than I might have otherwise. Sure, there’s a lot of hand-holding for actors, but still: spending days on sets alongside for-real professionals, signing contracts, paying for my own Tasti D Lite (my parents let me keep 10% of my earnings as a kind of “allowance” and socked the rest away for my post-college years)…it was good for me. It made me grow up. But it didn’t make me a “grown-up”; not even close.
Being in my twenties didn’t make me a grown-up either; I was a disaster. I mean, I paid my bills, dealt with my rent, and had health insurance courtesy of SAG…but I definitely skipped over the whole “how to be a functional adult” thing in many ways. I think a big part of the problem was that I didn’t want to grow up, because I was lonely and confused, and I hadn’t yet gotten a handle on how I saw my future…and to admit that I was a grown-up was to admit that this was it: this was my life.
I remember one night, right in the worst part of trying to figure out what in the world I wanted to do, going to a Harvard mini-reunion and standing in a circle with a bunch of friends who were in business/finance-type jobs, and being completely floored by the words that were coming out of their mouths. I can’t even tell you what they were, because they sounded like Chinese…but I think they had to do with investments and acquisitions and other things that were way, way beyond the scope of what I understood. And I’ll tell you: that made me feel like crap. I mean, these were my peers. They were people I’d done keg stands with at tailgates; people who I’d helped out with their Ec 10 homework. And they were doing things like buying and selling properties and negotiating major business deals. I was waiting for a callback for my Capital One commercial and not buying coffee because my rent was due that week.
I still have these nightmares sometimes where I show up at school and it’s Final Exams Day, and I accidentally forgot to attend the class all semester long and have no idea in the world how to answer the questions on the test. That Harvard cocktail party felt like that: like there was a class on Being An Adult that everyone else took, and I forgot to show up, and boom: they all went and grew up without me.
And then guess what happened?
I grew up.
I don’t mean in the “kinda don’t want to go out to a club again ever ever ever” way (though that’s true too, for the most part); I mean in the “knowing how to get stuff done” way. I didn’t used to know how to even begin to apply for a bank loan, and now we own a home. Before our son was born I freaked out (a lot) about how in the world I would know what to do with a baby, and while the past year and a half has certainly brought its share of rocky times…I’m a Mom now. I mean, I was a mom in every single part of me from the moment I saw my son’s face…but now I’m a Mom. Capital “M”. I carry tissues and snacks and Boogie Wipes (they’re actually called that; I wish they weren’t, too), and I worry about nutrition and car seats, and I have sit-downs with our pediatrician about things like homeopathic ear infection remedies.
What made this really hit home: my mom is coming up to stay at our place this weekend so that Kendrick and I can spend a night alone at a B&B in a nearby town – our first night without Indy since he was born. And my mom…you know, she’s a pretty on-top-of-it lady. And probably knows how to handle a baby for 24 hours, having done it herself quite capably. But last weekend – a full week in advance of our departure – I wrote her the world’s longest email with a list of instructions, tips and suggestions so comprehensive that I even annoyed myself (Mom was nice about it, because she is nice, but I promise: it was annoying). But writing that list, I realized…Mom’s not the only mom now. I’m the mom. I’m the one who carries the Kleenex and makes the lists and keeps the files and calls up the insurance company or the cable company or the contractor or the Public Works Department to deal with whatever disaster happened this week (this week, incidentally, it was our plumbing: super fun).
Which isn’t to say that I don’t screw up or realize that I really don’t know what I’m doing pretty frequently. I do, because I am a space cadet and could be a better wife and often have trouble getting a hold on my anxiety. It’s just to say that I’ve been stunned by the fact that you can be one person one year…and the next year, you’re another person entirely. All that stuff I couldn’t imagine ever knowing, you see…I know it now.
Or at least…you know…some of it.
The point of all this isn’t that I get an A+ on my Adult Exam (I think I’d score a solid B- at the moment, because I do things like this and this and this)…it’s that all that stuff that didn’t used to seem even remotely within reach (learning how to buy a home, get on top of taxes, handle insurance, negotiate with contractors, be a parent) is, once you decide both that you want to figure it out and that you can.
The point of all this also isn’t that I learned how to do a fair percentage of those things that used to sound like Chinese to me but now just sound like reality…it’s that I learned that I can learn these things. That it’s OK not to know how to do stuff even when it feels like everyone else does, and it’s OK to admit that you don’t know something even when you’re kind of embarrassed because you feel like you really should, and it’s also OK to ask for help, because guess what? All that not-knowing and question-asking pours you out on the other side able to handle things you never imagined you could. Right now, for example, I’m trying to figure out the basics of investment. I’m starting from a basis of knowing exactly zero about this stuff, because we spent many, many years living hand-to-mouth, and before our son was born 529 accounts and life insurance and retirement funds weren’t a huge priority, and now they are. It’s scary. I don’t want to screw it up.
But you know what? That’s OK. Because those Grown-Up Pants that I mentioned back in the day? They’re on, and they’re not going anywhere, and they’re telling me that I got this. All of it. Even the stuff that feels unknowable and frightening and that I sometimes wish I could keep in the far-off distance; it’s too important to ignore, and too exciting not to embrace.
Growing up, you see: it’s the very best part. And that’s the secret, the big thing that they taught on the very last day of that Being An Adult class that you didn’t enroll in because you were scared of getting old and getting boring: It’s fun. Empowering.
And, maybe most shockingly of all: possible.