We need a new fairy tale

snowwhiteLadies? Remember the story your mother told you when you were growing up?
About how one day you’d meet a lovely man who you’d fall in love with and get married, have children, buy a house and live happily ever after?

(stop laughing)

This weekend, as I was hiking in the foothills, I heard a mother telling her daughter exactly this story as they walked up the trail. The little girl had asked the woman – her mother I assume – what being a grown up was like. Her mothers answer.. straight out of the 50s’ complete with the man, house, kids and happily ever after. I had to bite my tongue to not turn around and say something (plus if I had, I’d be the ‘crazy angry person’ likeness sketch featured on 9News).

It frustrated me, because while  that story might be true for some percentage of the population, its increasingly not true for a larger percentage. In fact as of last year, 53% of all American women are single, and 44% of both sexes overall. Only 65% of Americans own their homes (or co own with Bank of America), and roughly 20% don’t have children. Of those who do, around 30% will raise those kids on their own as a single parent.

That little girl who’s on the receiving end of the fairy tale might grow up to be one of the 4% of Americans who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, which doesn’t exclude them from the rest of the fairytale, but sure as hell makes it a more challenging journey.

And forget that ‘somebody for everybody’ myth. 5% of females and more than 6% of  males report that they have never had sex in their lifetimes – somewhat throwing my year of crap dates into perspective. What’s their fairytale? A mortgage and Netflix?

As I hiked on (and stopped mumbling under my breath), the larger question continued to irk me… ‘what does it mean to be grown up?’ After all, if its based on the fairytale she told her daughter, then I’m fucked (and clearly still languishing in childhood). No white knight here. No house, no kids.. though quite a few fairy’s (the Dan Savage approved term these days is ‘fag’ I believe).  ‘Happily ever after’ is always a work in progress.

Which got me thinking. What does it mean to be “grown up”? And what is the new fairytale you could honestly tell a child who asks, without making them want to walk in front of the nearest bus? I’m not always kid friendly, but even I wouldn’t want to dispel the fantasy myth that is ‘doing whatever you want, whenever you want, and no bed time!’ No kid needs to know about credit card debt, dates with angry men or watching your career fade when you can’t put in the hours you used to.  What does it mean to be grown up? Whats the new fairy tale?

The word responsibility springs to mind, but hey, I’m Queen of avoiding that so I refuse to pin maturity to that anchor. Wisdom is too wishy washy (and clearly a lie based on Denver drivers), and sensibility too dry (plus I own too many pairs of ridiculous shoes).

The UK Telegraph had a whole list of 50 things which indicated that you were now an adult, but since many of them were tied to traditional life events such as home buying and garden planting, I found it beyond depressing. Some of the ‘fun’ things on the list included ‘being able to bleed a radiator’, ‘going to bed before 11pm’ and ‘you like receiving gift vouchers’. If that’s what I have to look forward to when I’m 9, where’s that bus?

Dr Robert Epstein has a test to tell you how adult you are across 14 different functional areas, but as it was 100 questions long, no ‘grown up’ has ever had the time to complete it.

It used to be a standard measure that you were ‘grown up’ when you moved away from home – whether to a musty bedsit or the safety of a college dorm – but with increasing numbers of kids heading back home as soon as college is done, I guess that old marker is as obsolete as the handsome man coming to scoop me up.

Having a job? Nope, had one of those since I was 13. Having a bank account? Again, age 13. Reaching drinking age? Since you can legally drink at 14 in France, I hardly think that counts. Not caring what your parents think? I didn’t get that one until 38 (my first tattoo) so hopefully not. Being more externally focused on other people? Since that eliminates anyone in their 20s or those born after 1990, not a good marker either. Financial security? I’m still waiting so..no. Psychologists say its around age 25, when the brain stops maturing.  But I think I’d have to go with buying a vacuum cleaner. I can still remember that day and how I felt a) excited to have clean carpet and b) totally depressed to be spending $200 on something specifically built to clean a floor (rather than something that would make me feel pretty, cool or get me laid). And I knew for sure I was an adult when I handed over my 20% off voucher. ‘Adult responsibility’ summed up in one purchase at Bed Bath and Beyond.

But back to the original question. What could that woman have told her daughter about the thrills and excitements that life has in store for her, that might be a bit more 2013 and a little less 1950? (and certainly didn’t hinge on vacuum cleaners)

Here’s my take:

‘When you’re a grown up, you’ll have many adventures. You’ll have the opportunity to see and do almost anything that you can imagine. You’ll meet many amazing people, some of who you’ll know for years and years, some will just pass through. You’ll be happy and sad, that doesn’t change as you grow up. And if you like who you are, you’ll live happily ever after. And no, you probably won’t grow up to be a princess or live in a castle but that’s highly overrated and with the money you save on tiaras and heating, you can afford some fabulous shoes’

One thought on “We need a new fairy tale”

  1. To be honest, I think the one marker of adulthood is the ridiculous expectation that you have any of those things that you listed: a spouse, kids, a house. There was a time when achieving all of those things was the only way of measuring accomplishment, but that’s not the case anymore. I think your definition is a lot more pragmatic and attainable.


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