Alice's Voice

My 2020 Curriculum: Adulting 101

Henry, clearly frustrated, was pacing. I made him come out on the porch with me — the outdoors has a soothing effect on both of us. He was irritable because our schedule changed and I told him to get dressed so we could leave.  

Henry and Alice, his mom, on the porch.

“I’m a man. I’m an adult man,” he said and then he sat down and cried.  

He didn’t want to be told where to go and what to do by his mother. Even with limitations from autism, he wants his independence. He wants to be an adult man. 

That exchange happened pre-pandemic, moments before we were locked down. Here in December, at the end of this long year, we continue in total, constant, schedule disruption. The worst thing for autism. Turns out it’s not so great for the neuro-typic brain either. 

Scientific America puts it this way: “You didn’t need a crystal ball to forecast that the COVID-19 pandemic would devastate mental health. Illness or fear of illness, social isolation, economic insecurity, disruption of routine and loss of loved ones are known risk factors for depression and anxiety.”

Yes, you read that right. Loss of routine is right there with loss of life, income, job, and safety. 

2021 promises yet another new normal.
photo by Olya Kobruseva on

I have long thought that Henry’s brain shows me what’s really going on in my brain. Since the loss of my predictable schedule in March, I feel him. I feel the loss of control, the assault on my adulthood and my autonomy as I face an almost weekly ‘new normal’. This phrase, the new normal, seems to have been conjured to soothe our collective souls. I’m not sure it’s working as well as it was intended. 

On another week, following the ‘adult man’ declaration, we were dealing with yet another schedule change. I learned my lesson on the porch so this time instead of telling him, I reminded him of our new plans and asked his opinion on the changes. 

“I’m a little boy on Wednesday and Thursday and I’ll stay home,” he said. “Then Friday, I’m an adult man and I’ll go.”  

I couldn’t agree with him more.  I should schedule days where I am a little girl and days of adulting. 

I’m in my fifties. It is the end of the era of finding out who I will be and the beginning of the realization of who I am. Much like Dorothy, I’m discovering that I had the power to realize who I am all along, I just had to learn that lesson for myself which basically takes until you’re fifty. I feel strong and powerful but it is a new feeling, so I also feel small and little — like a toddler reaching for a sippy cup on a just too high table. I’m almost there.  

I didn’t think Henry would follow the same identity journey as me, or as other neuro-typics. He looks like an adult and yet he presents as a young man. Physically, his low muscle tone means he doesn’t have the muscular shape that most 24-year-old men have, and it’s an easy mistake to relate to him in a childish way. 

Also his giddy enthusiasm is not exactly Western-adult-male behavior. This month he greeted everyone walking a dog on our street with, “Hi, I’ve got my new haircut!”  

Picture an adult man coming eye level to you, with a wide grin and a proclamation like that.  You can understand, possibly even forgive, my tendency to relegate him to child-like. 

He’s not having it. He very much wants to be an adult man. He wants to be independent. This is always the crazy balance for me — asking him, inviting him to do what he’s capable of doing while making sure it is safe to do it.  

I understand this might be a typical phase for other women in their fifties — our parents are becoming like children and our children are becoming adults and we are coming into our own. I admit that I didn’t give Henry, or myself, credit that we would make it to this phase.

I imagined we would be perpetual child and caretaker for the rest of our lives. Now that I think of it, I wonder — is this new normal of ours that much different from me and my dad?  When I was twenty-five my father gave me his old car, traded in my car and got himself a new car. He did this every two years until he was in his mid-eighties. I bought my first car, and had my first car payment, when I was forty-eight. Caretaker and child. We want to baby our kids. We want to meet their needs, special or not, so they don’t have to be adults.  

Henry’s desire to be an adult man has freed me to come into my own adulthood. He doesn’t need me in the way he did. He is capable of declaring his adulthood, even deciding that one day is adult day and one day is little boy day. That’s more adult than I’m able to muster on my most self-actualized days. Like Henry on that day on the porch, I want to declare my independence then sit down and cry. That may just be the most healing and helpful response to this year and a mature behavior to keep in my 2021 new normal. 

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