03 Dec Adulting with Helen Sharp and David Swales
A flood of students pours out of the doors of the library, once the flood recedes I walk inside and spot Helen Sharp working on her laptop. It’s 8pm and she has just finished supervising prep for students. “I see you’re here for your interview”, says Helen, “could you please give me 10 minutes, I need to finish off student reports.” “No problem”, I reply as I take a seat beside her. After a few minutes waiting, David Swales walks into the library and takes a seat in front of me. “Just finishing up some reports David”, says Helen. “I just finished mine actually, took up so much time” replies David. Watching them talk about reports I get reminded of the difference between them and the rest of the people I’ve interviewed – the adulting process isn’t in its infancy for them, it’s been in full flow for some time. Amidst the plethora of experiences I’ve been privy to over the course of my interviews their’s exist on a different plane. “So what are talking about Dami?” asks Helen. “Adulting,” I respond. “I don’t suppose that’s a word now is it?” she returns. “No, it’s not,” I answer. “I’m guessing Helen would know, seeing as she’s the English teacher”, says David laughing. “I suppose I would, wouldn’t I?” says Helen, “Now then what would you like to know about ‘adulting’?”
Damilola Ayo-Vaughan: What do you think about adulting? Do you think it ever stops?
HS: I think 30 is a real milestone actually, for some reason, it probably coincides with getting married and having children. In the sense that I went travelling 29, 30, and then came home and got married; up to that point, I think you have a liberated sense of adventure and total disregard for anybody else. It’s great. (She laughs) You can go bungee-jumping in the dark, throw yourself off a raft, all of those exciting things, forget to contact anyone for weeks on end, which is brilliant and not give it a second thought. So I think, for me, becoming an adult was having a family and not being able to do that. Having spent years travelling and not worrying for anybody else but myself, which I loved, I have to say, and not having any responsibility for anything. You do different sort of exciting jobs, you don’t have any mortgages, no possessions, just a rucksack and a couple of pairs of shorts. And then all of a sudden you have to have all of this paraphernalia, for babies and children, and you think you are not going to. My family teased me, I was like I was going to kayaking with my baby on my back and they were like ‘yeah we’re going to watch that Helen’. And then, you don’t get any sleep for a year! There’s no way you’re going kayaking! So I think in practice when you have children you lose a sort of sense of yourself and it becomes much more about caring for other people, and that is sort of an adult responsibility. Although, if you never have children I think it might be different.
DS: I think that’s a good point actually. Obviously, when you turn 18 for example, because that’s the kind of legal adult age, at that point you get various responsibilities for yourself that you didn’t have before that point. You’re accountable for things that you weren’t for before. But Helen is right, in the sense that, when your only responsibility is for yourself, that’s different. You could think of it almost in tiers of responsibility, this thing of becoming an adult. In response to your initial question, I don’t think you ever do stop developing. In my experience anyway, at the age of 40, I feel as though you just learn new things and become responsible for new things and that develops over time. I mean, I had my haircut today and I was sat there and it was someones 50th birthday; I said to my hairdresser it’s strange ’cause that’s my next big milestone-50, and it kind of feels odd to me and she said to me, hers is 30. It’s quite interesting ’cause she was telling me that she had these ideas that by 30 she wanted to be sorted, which was interesting for me. I think you view this thing through your background and experience; some people go through their 20s thinking I want to have my life sorted at 30, have a family, children and all that. When I got to 30, I was still living in this sort of teenage mindset even though I had been working as a teacher for 6, 7 years.
HS: I think it’s children.
DS: Yeah, that made a big difference. Children and, I think, relationships change you. It sort of alters you over time, your interactions with people.
HS: I think it’s easier being a young adult in many ways, which is why you take to it easily. (She addresses me), when you’re your age for example, I think it’s very heavily policed. Everyone your age polices each others behaviour, how you dress, how you respond to each other. If you’re in relationships, everyone is interested in how you’re running it. That couldn’t be less an issue when you get to our age. I couldn’t give a monkeys how anybody else is running their relationship. Whereas it’s very heavily policed when you’re your age, which can be tough, I think. Because it is probably the beginning of your relationship adventure, so people are looking at how everybody else is doing it. It’s much easier when you’re an adult to manage that yourself. So I think there is a point when you just manage that, maybe unsuccessfully, but it’s not quite under such a spotlight as it is when you’re younger.
DS: Around my 30th birthday, I got to the point where I was a professional, had been supporting myself for the past 6- 7 years, I had my own place, so it was all good; and then the relationship I was in that time broke down in a really disastrous way and caused me to really reflect inwards, turn my eye in on myself and my own emotional life and self-image. I completely had to re-organise that and re-address that, and that’s at the age of 30- when my hairdresser wants to have her life sorted at 30! I’m pretty secure now in my family and that’s great, but there will be other things that happen in my life down the line, which may cause a similar moment of revision. I think it’s dangerous to think once you become an ‘adult’ that you have got that sorted. You are always questioning and learning and changing and developing as the circumstances of your life move forward.
HS: One of the good things about having children is children are often joyful about really small things and in a way you get to relive that. Some of the best times have to do with snowball fights or everyone getting totally soaked. Things that you wouldn’t really anticipate will be funny. You get that sort of childish joy in the ridiculous. Recently, I went to a restaurant with my family and we turned into this sort of dyspraxic family. I had a glass of wine miss the table, I hadn’t even had that much wine (she muses) and it just completely missed the table, my husband is like ‘what’s going on’ one of my daughters knocks something down and we all start laughing. Everyone in the restaurant is looking at us and there are just giggles around our table. It was just such a funny, funny moment for all of us to share. If you were there with an adult, you wouldn’t have found it funny. So children tend to bring back the child in you. I think you can regress in a really lovely way to that giggly, happy, funny age which I think is very lovely. I think you get that as an adult that you don’t get as a young adult. I think that you are probably more confident about yourself by the time you’re in your mid-thirties, and that is part of being an adult. Just the time that’s it’s taken you to get to your mid-thirties means you’ve experienced enough about life, you’ve had your ups and downs, interesting relationships and therefore by 35 you might not necessarily be successful but you would be more successful in negotiating things, and learning stuff about yourself. So your less likely to go massively the wrong way I think.
DS: Yeah I agree with that, I think that’s absolutely right.
So for the both of you, adulting doesn’t just exist in the bubble of 18-26, it carries on, leading you to new paths with each new circumstance you meet in your life?
HS: I think life is quite stressful. When you’re young you think it’s going to be less stressful. You don’t see beyond university, you work till university and then it’s all very vague, isn’t it? (She laughs) It is quite vague I think, as is your perception of your final partner if you want to get married. So what happens is you trip along a bit, gaining experience and doing lots of different things and unless you’re pretty dull you’ll be in a variety of different situations, exploring lots of different angles. So your growing really does carry on largely and I don’t think that ever stops, but I do think once you get to your mid-thirties you’re much better able to negotiate life.
DS: I think that’s true. I mean it’s interesting how our age, looking kind of forward as well as my parents are pretty old now and that’s on my mind, I anticipate, will be the next big change in my life is to become responsible for looking after them and caring for them. I guess that’s another one of those threshold moments that you go through as a growing adult. These things just occur regularly through your life. Sudden moments of incredible joy. Having children, goodness me (his face lights up) that-
HS: It’s a rollercoaster that, isn’t it? (She muses)
DS: It is a rollercoaster. I remember when my daughter, Ayla, was born, (he pauses) I mean, when my partner and I got together, she had a 1-year-old son, Harry, from a previous relationship. So that was odd, ’cause it was like being parachuted into this step-father role, not having really experienced any of the build-up, with pregnancy and conceiving and all that, so that kind of is a prologue for a father with the responsibility to follow. So when Ayla was born it was this incredible moment of her coming into the world, I mean that was the most extraordinary experience of my entire life, and that happened when I was 35. So you know, thank God ’cause I was ready for it. (He laughs)
There’s quite an interesting thing in this, which is that we’ve talked about adulthood, but we’ve also talked about parenthood … I find it quite interesting that, in that sphere, the mindset of being an adult is regarded as being distinct from the mindset of being a parent.
HS: My mum was 22 when she had me and my twin sister, I can not imagine how you would cope at such a young age.
DS: I get that, but I mean some of my friends when I was in school, had kids at a really early age. One girl had a kid at 17, and now her kid is older than you (He muses pointing in my direction). So I do think it’s different for everybody, because, people like this girl I knew at school, she no doubt felt as though she made this rapid progress through the experience of growing up into an adult at a very very young age, compared to me who just sort of drifted daily through my 20’s.
I think definitely one’s culture plays a big role in one’s adulting process, depending on where you find yourself in the world. I think in Nigeria, most people get married at around 27-30. I also think for most people, and especially someone like me who’s studying abroad, there’s that pressure on you to find a job quickly when you’re done with school ’cause your parents have spent a lot of money on you. There’s not really much time to mess around, you have to get a job as quickly as possible.
DS: I would say the experience of most young adults in the UK is close to what you’ve just described in terms of there being an urgency to earn money and all that sort of things. It’s stronger now than it was when I left university for sure.
I would say freedom brings a lot more responsibility than you’d think, most definitely. Lack of freedom has hardly any responsibility when you think about it
HS: My parents actively encouraged us to go away and experience the world. I got a one-way ticket to Bangkok and disappeared for 2 years, I was in touch by email, only sporadically. I mean there were times when I hadn’t been in touch for ages and my mum freaked out but basically, they were sort of okay about that. Honestly, they have been such brilliant experiences. In a way they seem like a very mature thing to do, taking care of yourself on the other side of the world, but actually its total indulgence. (She laughs). You have an amazing time meeting new people, doing new things and you’re never bored, which is a luxury. Sometimes when I’ve got to order food and get it delivered cause I’ve got to time to go to the supermarket, and we’ve run out of milk and cereal, that is a total disaster for a family. (She laughs). I’ve got to remember so many different things, you’ve got five million things going on, and it’s just occasionally I talk to people in the department who haven’t got kids and they’re like ‘I’m so tired, I’m just going to go home and watch a film tonight’ and I just want to kill them. (She laughs).
DS: There’s quite an interesting thing in this, which is that we’ve talked about adulthood, but we’ve also talked about parenthood and the sort of psychoanalysis theory in which you can talk about being in a child mindset, an adult mindset or a parent mindset. I find it quite interesting that, in that sphere, the mindset of being an adult is regarded as being distinct from the mindset of being a parent. Maybe what we are talking about is something else, the experience of being an adult past us at a certain point and now contains so many other things. It’s hard to put a kind of fence around it and say that’s what being an adult is right there. You know it’s difficult.
HS: It’s simply because of the plethora of people as well. There are so many different types of people and they cope with life in many different ways- different parenting, different ways of being an adult, different ways of being a child. (She faces me). What was your initial inception when you thought in terms of being an adult? Did you locate an age? At what point was it for you?
It was probably when I started schooling in England and there was no one forcing me to work at a particular time, and I had to structure my finance expenditure to how I saw fit, obviously within the amount provided by my parents. It was that increased sense of agency that really started the change. You think when you get that freedom it is going to be plain sailing, and then it hits you. I had to start thinking about what university I want to go to, what course I want to study etc. Over the past year, I’ve changed my mind like 5 times. Another major moment was when I was writing my personal statement and it dawned on me how much I had to sell myself on that, then you add stuff like job interviews and you find yourself having to sell yourself a lot and really thinking about how you rub off on people.
HS: I would say freedom brings a lot more responsibility than you’d think, most definitely. Lack of freedom has hardly any responsibility when you think about it. Children don’t have very much power, their lives are very heavily controlled by adults either through school or parenting, so the burden is taken from the child. Once you are grown or growing, you have an awful lot more responsibility, ’cause you have freedom of choice and that brings responsibility with it. It is more onerous the older you get.
DS: I agree with that. (He addresses me), the point that you’re at and the point you’ve been through is interesting in that context, ’cause you’re sort of managing that transition of personal responsibility.
HS: Moments, where you haven’t got that, tend to become happy moments, bizarrely, I can honestly think about moments like that for me. Before the children, I can remember sitting at the back of this pick-up truck I had hitched a ride on, I was trying to get from Lao back into Vietnam and I was with a couple of Canadian boys. We were drinking this rubbish tiger beer from Thailand and watching the sun go down; it was so peaceful and really happy because you have to make virtually no decisions. (She laughs). You’re just sort of going with the flow, which is tremendously liberating because as an adult you rarely get that. It is sort of like retreating back into childhood really.
Everyone your age polices each others behaviour, how you dress, how you respond to each other. If you’re in relationships, everyone is interested in how you’re running it… which can be tough, I think. Because it is probably the beginning of your relationship adventure, so people are looking at how everybody else is doing it.
So to round things up, if you could go back in time and give 18-year-old you any advice on becoming an adult, what do you think you’d tell yourself?
HS: I don’t think I would listen. You have to have the life experience. I honestly think you have to, painfully or not, or joyfully, or a mixture of everything, go through it. In order to get to your position of a bit more confidence, you have to have made the mistakes. So if you go back to your younger self and say ‘oh don’t do that, that’s a total disaster’ you would never have the scars to make different choices in the future. I think it’s very important for your younger self to have the mistakes they made. I think mistakes often make you a nicer person, much more compassionate. So if you have difficulties, you’re much better at empathising with other people, which in the end is what makes people happy. Unless you’ve got that emotional intelligence, and that only comes from messing up and making mistakes and living life in all its many varieties.
DS: I think that’s a really good point. I totally agree with Helen. I wouldn’t listen to my older self, it’ll be like my dad telling me ‘remember this son’, I’d be really sceptical of it because I’d be rebellious, young and want to go my own way. (Pause). I think if there’s anything at all I had to say younger me, it would be, don’t beat yourself up over the mistakes you make because everybody makes mistakes, whoever you are, you’re gonna make a mistake and you learn from them, but you’ve got to accept them as part of the process as well.
HS: The other thing is probably at a younger age is much more difficult to be philosophical, that’s what you would probably wish, be philosophical, properly philosophical i.e take the rough and the smooth, but it’s actually very difficult to do that as you’re growing through life. It’s much easier to do that once you’ve had a bit more experience of life. If I was going to advice myself I would say chill out a bit, (she laughs), just chill out a bit, you’re in for the long haul. (She laughs). But on the other hand, the fact that I do get very passionate about things means I won’t chill out when probably that’s a good thing, so I think you’ve just got to do the time and get to a point where you feel better able to cope with it. Sometimes, being an adult could be, I think, from your perspective being happy, sorted and secure, and I don’t want to pop the bubble, but I’m not entirely sure that’s ever the case.
DS: Not completely.
HS: Not completely, but you get better at it, maybe, some people get better at it. Hopefully. Fingers crossed (They both laugh).