Very shortly after my 30th birthday, when I still lived in Brussels, I went for a haircut. I don’t like having my hair cut, and I never feel very at ease; when I was about 15 a barber’s scissors nicked the corner of my ear, which then spouted scarlet until I turned green. It’s hard enough explaining how I want it cut in English, let alone French, and when the barber, with a heavy Maghreb accent and words I could not remember started gesturing with his scissors towards my eyes, I had a sort of embarrassed panic before realising that he was trying to ask if I wanted my eyebrows trimmed. I thought it amusing that no sooner had I left my twenties behind, I had suddenly become a man with excess hair. It sounds stupid, but this made me feel satisfyingly grown-up.
I don’t always feel like this. For whatever reason, I associate grown-up-ness with stability, good sense, forward planning, a kind of self-satisfaction and mastery of your surroundings that is paid for in boredom, lacking variety, stuckness. Another time I felt grown-up was when I bought a washing machine, spending an inordinate amount of time selecting one that seemed to blend performance and value – but there’s something strange about it, because while my eyebrows tell me that I am definitely grown-up, I often feel like a stranger to responsibility, stability, or self-satisfaction, and then think that my eyebrows must be lying. People who are grown-up are like many of my friends, and even my family members: they can tick off more than one from a stable career, a stable relationship, sound financial planning and a kind of wise maturity. That, and they often seem to have the emotional resources to do something quite attractive and yet utterly insane: they have babies.
At the moment, I’m also doing something else that makes me feel quite grown-up: I’m buying a new flat, becoming an ‘owner-occupier’.
In the past I’ve imagined property ownership to imply permanence and roots, and have been instinctively hostile to it. But since I want to live on my own, and can put down a deposit, nothing but a mortgage makes financial sense. The whole process has involved a series of other grown-up decisions, on matters like furniture and (another) washing machine, and choices between various professionals who queue up to advise, conveyance and insure me. It’s forcing me to think further into the future than I’ve probably ever done before; the mortgage will last me until I’m fifty-six (I can picture myself being very old, but not fifty-six, for some reason). It happens elsewhere, as well, since I’ve started a new job and am trying to work out how much my pension contribution should be. Thinking about all this stuff is responsible and rational, and I can do it, but it doesn’t fire me up at all, and too much of it can deaden everything else. In the past, I nearly sensibled myself into a marriage that would never have worked, by doing what I thought was right or what was expected, and not what I wanted.
I have a strange relationship with the things that I want. I’m not very used to noticing them, being conscious of them, but they are lurking down there, nudging me into action here and (by their absence) making me apathetic there. Behind the decision to get a flat is a powerful want for some space to myself, a need to do my own thing after years of living with others. At the moment, I also feel really fired up by my job; there’s something I have always liked about being respected professionally, and getting to take on a new challenge is always invigorating. Meanwhile, the last two significant relationships I’ve been in have both been what I thought I wanted, but both leave me questioning whether I really desire validation at the cost of so much vulnerability. What we want, to some extent, is love and recognition, but like the feeling of being grown-up, it’s to be found in different places.