Growing up backwards

Two weeks ago, I was walking along the water in Hallandale Beach, FL, talking with my childhood best friend, Jori. We were comparing notes on our childhoods — an uncanny thing if you’re like me and negative memories get locked up in the subconscious. Both of our families were large, creative, unruly homeschoolers, loving to read and play games and create imaginary worlds and art. We spent a lot of time in each other’s homes, as our parents would swap sets of kids for weekend getaways (you watch ours for our anniversary and we’ll do the same for yours!) and were close in that way where you stop pretending to have it all together when these people are around. My mom made them do chores at our house, and her mom had us babysit for her grocery shopping outings when we were at hers, and so forth.

We were both the oldest, and both introverts in loud groups of people living in tight quarters. Jori and I were both really good at hiding out to read in peace, and really good at “having it all together” to keep the family drama to a minimum and set good examples for the younger kids.

There was a blog, then a book, that influenced me a lot during these years. The premise was that young people could be responsible and mature if they were expected to be responsible and mature. That teenage-dom was a cultural farce to promote immaturity. That 15 year olds could be adults if they tried.

These ideas went hand-in-glove with the way my parents raised me and what our church expected of Jori and me. Godly teenagers don’t give in to hormones and emotions and set an example for their peers and take their faith and life seriously. Good children respect their parents and are responsible and mature and don’t set bad examples for their siblings.

I was always complimented by the moms of my friends and my parents’ friends for how mature and responsible and articulate I was. I did all the right things. I helped out with my family, I was the good kid. If I was upset about something, I talked about it with my parents. If I was really bad, I broke curfew by 20 minutes coming home from a babysitting job or a church function.

When I went to college, I made myself really obnoxious to my peers by being a snob about pop culture and refusing to do spontaneous, sophomoric stunts (like pull all-nighters or drink energy drinks or go to Niagara Falls for the weekend instead of writing a paper). I was painfully responsible. And painfully awkward and naive.

My friend Ashleigh posted yesterday on this, and her comments about getting married young were so similar to my own experience:

When John and I were engaged and I was approaching both my high school graduation and my wedding day, people who asked about my post-graduation plans would furrow their brows and cluck their tongues, warning against getting married “before I knew who I was.” My eyes would roll into my skull while I sweetly recited a sentence or two about growing up together, being confident in my own being, not seeing the need to wait until I reached an arbitrary milestone and suddenly knew who I was before I married this guy.

Naivety is both endearing and infuriating.

At 17 and still even at 23, I believed I was above the process, I could avoid the messy years by simply not living them, jumping ahead, becoming the older version of myself sooner rather than later.

But 25 crept up on a muddy, bruised version of me. Hair flying, face streaked with tears and sweat, grieving the security I had taken for granted, I remembered the line from that Anne Hathaway movie.

Apparently everyone is a little bit lost at 25.

I’m discovering something: there were a LOT of us who grew up this way in the conservative homeschool culture. We were the high school poster kids for successful parenting in the Christian world. We did all the right things we were supposed to do, and then we set out to be successful adults for real, only this time we were entering normal society to do it.

Life doesn’t really go the way you expect it to go. And humans are not machines you can program to walk the straight and narrow all their days by restrictions and moral instruction.

People are messy creatures, who love and feel and breathe and weep and rage. I don’t think the system accounted for us loving and grieving and asking hard questions. Growing up is hard and messy and a messy season or three will happen to you, no matter how hard you try to have it all together and do all the right things.

Jori and I were talking about the people we knew from our childhoods, about how it seems now like it’s just a waiting game to see when people from that legalistic subculture will hit their breaking point and let go and be messy. Even adult women, moms of many years with grandchildren and grey hair are bound to go through this — if they never let go and learned to be comfortable with themselves and with not knowing all the answers to deep questions.

The saddest stories, though, are those who fight it, who hide their struggles and isolate themselves to keep up the facade of idyllic Christian homeschoolerdom. It’s not worth the depression and loneliness and anxiety.

I feel like I aged backwards — like I went from age 12 to being 30-something and mature, to finally letting myself free from all these expectations and let myself be messy and explore and enjoy life, and now I’m back at an age that’s closer to my real one, loving life and learning lots and meeting people and experiencing things. Embracing the questions and the process of stretching and growing. It’s been so good for me, and all of those on the “other side” who talk to me about this backwards growing up and the freedom they’ve found have similar stories. The healing and wholeness and delight in being yourself, loving yourself where you’re at, and not performing for your church or homeschool community.

If you’re on the brink of this, if you feel yourself losing control of things, needing rest and grace and acceptance, let go? God’s love for you is not based on doing hard things or being the right person or having it all together. In fact, it’s going to be harder for you to accept God’s unconditional, boundless, intimate love for you if you can’t accept yourself where you’re at, not where you think you should be.

Breathe into the stretch. It’s okay. You’re held.

12 thoughts on “Growing up backwards

  1. Love this. I’ve written a lot in my journal about how I finally feel like a teenager. Like there’s space for me to be wild and fun and impetuous and that it’s a gift. All of the crushes that I wouldn’t let myself have are coming up. All of the silly antics and ideas that I subdued so I’d be ABOVE that sort of thing are still there. And I’m finally letting them free. It’s hard, because sometimes I think they’d be easier if I had gone through it all sooner. But I’m so grateful I get to experience all of me now. Finally. Freely. And I love it.

  2. This is a great way to express this phenomenon. I’m right with Emily! I think that this backwards process can happen for many reasons that make a child feel like they have to be an adult. Because I had different experiences in childhood that forced me to “mature” in a heartbeat. But the growing backwards process seems to be the same.

    Even adult women, moms of many years with grandchildren and grey hair are bound to go through this — if they never let go and learned to be comfortable with themselves and with not knowing all the answers to deep questions.

    So true… Believe it or not, this happened to my grandmother! She was married at 15 years old and had really hard responsibilities all her life… Until my invalid grandfather passed away. Then she CUT LOOSE in her 80s. Did whatever she had been dreaming to do. Her freedom was beautiful to see.

  3. Oh god I needed to hear this. Thanks, Hannah, for saying the things that need to be said, for letting us know we´re not alone in this experience. Beautiful.

  4. Yes!! I’m going on 40. And yet, in my teens emotionally. Hating rules, sorting through what I believe. Wanting to have time to be irresponsible occasionally, while trying to learn to support myself and having to work hard. It’s awful. And wonderful. Because I’m finding ME. The me I was always meant to be.

    Yes, you can fake maturity in a sheltered environment very easily. But that supposed maturity crumbles in the real world.

    Thank you so much for writing this! I totally identify!

  5. Growing up this way is better. Nothing is perfect in life .I’m thankful I was shielded as long as I was. Life is tough and getting a head start on grief , in the long run, doesn’t make it any easier.

  6. Yes. *Sigh* “I feel like I aged backwards.” Yes. College was when I did begin to cut loose. I learned how to have fun. But oh, I developed some toxic patterns of relating to people too. Now–where am I? I don’t know. Sadder than I’ve been in a while. Struggling–with epistemology and evil. Ugh. I’m going in circles and can’t get out. It’s being a mother that’s brought all this up again: I can’t just enjoy my baby without imagining terrible things happening to babies like her. The hungry ones, the abused ones, and where is God? I’m making myself crazy. I wish I could ‘cut loose’ and just believe your last lines… I can’t. Not right now anyway. I’ve tried. Sorry for the, uh, somewhat off-topic and angsty comment. I’m continually amazed out how similar our experiences are… thanks for putting these things in words.

  7. “I don’t think the system accounted for us loving and grieving and asking hard questions.”

    You are wrong about that. The system accounted for you very well! When you stopped putting on the good girl game face It set up very expensive “therapeutic boarding schools” or wilderness camps in Montana,or Texas or the Dominican Republic, where authorities on the subject labeled you bi-polar or clinically depressed, or worst of all schizoaffective. You became the Identified Patient. Authorities on the subject looked at their diagnostic bibles and told you that your mind was defective, and would require expensive pills that would deaden all those terribly rebellious feelings, and quiet those nagging questions so you could go back to being Mommy and Daddy’s good girl.

    That’s how we treated our girls. And it breaks my heart. I am doing what I can now that I truly understand what we did, to expose that false authority systemwhich labels as defective those who ask perfectly sane questions, but because of their deep trauma, often ask in peculiar ways.

    And I thank you Hannah for this blog, it is a place where your first childhood friend (until you moved), who was also the responsible eldest among many siblings –until she cracked under the pressure — can make sense of what happened to her. And how she feels right now is perfectly legitimate, from someone who writes it down so well.

    I think and pray for you often, and love checking up on you here. I am happy when I see you staying close to Jesus– look full in his wonderful face, dear child. You are growing up just fine.

  8. What a godsend this site is for me! I am 46 and still trying to unravel the issues brought on by years of physical, mental and spiritual abuse. I’ve often felt like I’ve experienced my life’s development chapters a little out of order – your phrase, growing up backwards finally puts a name to it for me. I’m doing my best to have a healthy adolescence finally, trying to recapture some of the fearlessness and sense of adventure I had crushed out of me. Seems like others here are doing the same. Hail and well met, fellow travelers! I wish us all the very best time 🙂

  9. This is beautiful, thank you! The facts are slightly different but the story is the same. As the oldest of eleven I spent my teens (well really beginning in Elementary years) teaching my siblings to read, changing diapers, supporting my extremely depressed mother and though I was exemplary and did everything right and was praised as amazing by everyone except my parents, but inside I was in a prison of self-hatred. It has been a long slow journey for me but at 30 I’m finally learning how to be spontaneous, to care for myself, to have fun with my kids. Its magical 🙂 People are always telling me to enjoy my children while they are young because when they get to be teenagers the fun is all over…as though they morph into monsters…I for one can’t wait to see them get to discover who they are with confidence, surrounded by respect and love. Like a dream of my own childhood come true.

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