When we were children, I think we all had some idea in our heads of what being a Grown Up would be like. For me, aged about three, being a Grown Up involved lipstick and shoes with heels. Our expectations tend to change as we grow older and by the time I was five or six I’d added being a nurse, a writer, a singer and an actress (all in the heels and lipstick obv) to the mix. As I reached my early teens, top of the list was being Duran Duran’s PA, and then as I headed towards the lofty heights of being 16, and adulthood being a tantalising two years away, it meant travelling, having lots of money, attending glamorous parties on boats (it was the 80s) and having a fantastic career (what in I wasn’t sure, but I was possibly going to be an actor, or maybe a business magnate, like Emma Harte from A Woman of Substance – as I said, it was the 80s). Only the heels and the lipstick remained constant in my vision of what being a Grown Up would be.
Of course, when I turned 18, I didn’t really think I was a Grown Up – that was the people ten years older than me who were getting married and having children. I was still young – being 18 was being a kid, but with legal access to alcohol and the right to stay out all night without having to explain myself (not that I ever did, but you know, I *could* have done). Over the next ten years as I completed my degree, started my career and bought a flat with E, I still didn’t really consider myself old enough to be a Grown Up. At work I was surrounded by people older and more experienced than me, my friends were all a similar age and we were all doing the same things – we didn’t have children, we had no real commitments. Even when my friends started getting married, the weddings were lovely, mostly sunny days where we all looked gorgeous, enjoyed each other’s company, got drunk and then (with the clear heads available only to those in their 20s) got up without a hangover the next morning. When the first of my friends had a baby, pregnancy didn’t change her or stop her, and she still appeared on stilts in a big top that summer (she wasn’t completely insane – we were doing a production of Barnum at the time). Her pregnancy was the first inkling that we were growing up, but when the baby arrived the following February, he was so gorgeous, and his parents were still part of our gang, so nothing drastic changed. Suddenly babies seemed like something young people (not just Grown Ups) did too. I was 28 when I fell pregnant with Oldest Daughter and far from making me feel Grown Up, approaching motherhood was something other young people were doing too, it made me feel young.
I’m not sure when I first felt like a Grown Up. When we had Youngest Daughter, I remember noticing how Grown Up the people who had children the same age as her seemed – they had savings accounts, and knew when their mortgages would be paid off, they drank responsibly and just seemed more in control of things than E and I were. I think it was about this time, that I began to realise that the perpetual Peter Pan way that E and I were living wasn’t realistic. I’d always fretted over money, but I’d let myself be carried along by E’s assurances that we could accrue some debt now because he’d have a massive pay rise at some point in the future. I agreed to an interest only mortgage because 25 years in the future seemed a long time away, and E was sure it would be no problem clearing it. He was an accountant, he knew about money, he was always so very confident, so I believed him. I also wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that everything would be ok. It wasn’t exactly hard to sell me the idea that the future would be great. I gradually began to feel slightly inadequate next to my savvier friends, who had a financial future already mapped out, but I still believed E, I still thought we’d be ok financially *one day*. As the years went on, I was less assured by E’s attitude to money, but whilst I worried about money, I did the accounts and always had a ‘plan’ for if things went wrong. We kept adding to our mortgage to clear the debt, but property prices were rising, and we never owed more than the value of our house, so I consoled myself with the knowledge that if we had to, we could sell the house and start again. I don’t think I ever knew the real extent of E’s credit card and loan debt, I’d have worried more and believed less if I had.
I think the first time I felt ‘old’ was when I was 38 and I discovered E’s affair with K. For me, that was a real loss of innocence. Up until then, no matter what we’d been through, or how much we’d disagreed, the one thing I was sure of was ‘us’. I’m not a jealous person and it never once occurred to me to be suspicious of E, or even consider the notion that he would be unfaithful. Even when I found his phone full of messages saying ‘I love you’, I initially assumed it was a student with a crush on him and it took me a good few minutes of staring and scrolling before I realised that it was HIM saying it. Discovering this infidelity was the first time I looked at myself in the mirror and saw that I wasn’t ‘young’ any more. I’d never been worried about what I looked like until then. I’d been weight conscious since my teens, but I’d always quite liked my face. I thought it was kind, I had a nice smile, blue eyes, balanced features, clear skin. I rarely bothered with make-up unless I was going out. I’m not being vain – I never thought I was a great beauty or anything – but I thought I was ok. Looking at my face after I discovered this affair, all I could see was the lines around my eyes, the fact that my skin didn’t ‘bloom’ the way it did ten years ago, the fact that I was approaching 40. That was the day I started wearing make-up every day.
I suppose, discovering the first affair made me realise I was a Grown Up, living in a Grown Up world. Until that point, I’d had a kind of childish belief in E and I and our future together. Infidelities and betrayals happened on TV and to other people. I knew of people my age who had had affairs, I’d even been at social occasions where the flirtations began, but I’d been oblivious, I hadn’t noticed. I used to laugh at myself because I was always the last to know/notice. Discovering that E had betrayed me made me look at the world completely differently, it made me slightly cynical where before I’d always been blindly optimistic. I guess I’ve felt Grown Up ever since.
Of course, I’ve now also done possibly the most Grown Up thing of all – I’ve split up from my partner of 25 years. I’m not sure how or if I ever envisioned this. When I was a kid, I believed absolutely in True Love. I was going to meet the man of my dreams, we’d fall head over heels in love and that would be it. As I got older I realised that relationships involved a lot of compromise (and huge amounts of squabbling over who loaded the dishwasher), but fundamentally my view didn’t change, I’d made a commitment and that commitment was for life as far as I was concerned. Until 18 months ago, to me splitting up was what happening in soap operas and films – it happened to other people. I’ve discovered that being a Grown Up has levels. Getting a mortgage, getting married, having children – they’re all beginners’ level. Discovering affairs is another level up. Splitting up with a partner is one of the top levels of Grown Upping.
I’m not sure what I expected splitting up to be like. My only frames of reference were my sister’s divorce and various tv and film dramas. Most of my close friends had either split up with their partner before I met them, or they have been with the same partner since I’ve known them. I knew from the soaps and films that it involved tears and lots of alcohol. I guessed that it would probably also involve lots of pained conversations with E over seeing the children and money. I assumed that as we were parents to four children that we’d still communicate about them and continue to parent them together. After what had happened, I knew that I would never like or have much respect for him again, but I suppose I sort of assumed that we’d be civil to each other and would be able to act like, well, Grown Ups.
What has happened is so far removed from my expectations that I’m still slightly confused. At no point did I expect to be in a situation where E had only spoken six words to me over the course of 18 months (these words were “I’m sorry”, “I’m sorry” and “Fair point” in response to me asking him if he was married). I’d expected difficult and strained conversations, not silence and sitting in the car, unapproachable, whenever he picks the boys up. Of course, I could march up to the car, tap on the window and insist on a conversation, but this would probably upset the boys, and, given the way the only conversation we’ve had since he left went, would probably get me nowhere anyway. Even, if I accept he doesn’t want to talk, it’s really hard to understand why he won’t answer an email. I’ll happily admit that some of the emails I send can be a bit snarky, but they’re all polite and they’re all essential. I’m still trying to get him to answer me regarding our finances going forward. I know he has commitments with P, but we have four children and he was committed to them long before he met her (in fact, P was just 13 when Oldest Daughter was born). I’ve never asked for anything other than what I need for the children and yet he still won’t respond. The most recent refusal to communicate is regarding Oldest Son’s birthday. Up until now, E has always agreed a sum with me before the children’s birthdays and we’ve agreed what we’re getting for them. For some reason he’s now even refusing to communicate with me about that. I have no idea what’s going on in his head, but I suspect it isn’t very Grown Up.
It seems that the reality of splitting up, like the reality of being a Grown Up, is very different from the expectation. I guess, even though I never planned to split up with E, I sort of hoped that there would still be a happy (or at least amicable) ending. Like being a Grown Up I accept it’s finally happened to me, but, like being a Grown Up, I just can’t help feeling that other people do it better than me (and that I should probably be wearing heels and lipstick more often).