It’s back to school time around here. Four of my friends have packed sons or daughters off to college for the first time and are learning how to reconfigure patterns set over the last eighteen years of parenthood. As my friends face their new version of parenthood, their children have the gift of an extended transition, a prolonged adolescence as they negotiate the four years of college.
Mariah’s moving on, too, though not to college quite yet. After the flurry of college acceptances, second-time-around visits, and last minute decisions about waiting lists and financial aid last spring, she decided she needed a breather from the whole thing: from school, from the seemingly endless round of tests and papers and all that goes with them. For a year, then, she’ll step off that particular treadmill — and right onto another, the working one. Her gap year activities so far include two volunteer jobs and one paying one. Though all support causes she believes in, and involve people she not only likes but admires and respects, she’s not that thrilled with the work she’s doing. “I’m just making phone calls, Mom,” she complains. “And most of the people aren’t even home, or they hang up on me, or they harangue me — but I can’t hang up on them.”
Like so many of us, she’s finding her first brushes with the working world a little disappointing. She’s eager for independence and a bit more self-determination than she’s been able to claim in the past, but the day-to-day routines of getting up and going to work even when you’re tired, even when the work isn’t terribly exciting, are difficult. Adulthood, at least as we practice it now, has its drawbacks.
So why grow up? J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, perhaps the most famous character in children’s literature, offers an alternative. He comes into a family in which adulthood looks both dull and silly. Mrs. Darling, the children’s mother, alternates between romping with the children and making sure the family keeps up appearances, while Mr. Darling throws a temper tantrum about being unable to tie his tie.
‘I warn you of this, mother,’ [he says to his wife], that unless this tie is round my neck we don’t go out to dinner tonight, and if I don’t go out to dinner tonight, I never go to the office again, and if I don’t go to the office again, you and I starve, and the children will be flung into the streets.’
Of course, his tie is tied, and he and his wife do go out to dinner, and when they do, Peter Pan comes into the children’s bedroom window. And he carries them off with him to Neverland, where, when children seem to be growing up, Peter “thins them out,” leaving a place of boyish adventure and eternal childhood.
But — as that menacing phrase “thins them out” suggests — an eternal childhood is not only impossible, but hardly desirable. Although Peter chooses to remain a child, living in an eternal present where loss is immediately forgotten and the only thing that matters is “good form” and a constant supply of enemies to fight, the rest of the Lost Boys eventually choose, along with Wendy and her brothers, to return to our world and grow up.
It’s a bittersweet choice, of course. Barrie’s narrator addresses his imagined audience directly as he outlines the futures of these children, who once fought alongside and against pirates and “Redskins” in a dream-world of their own making.
All the boys were grown up and done for by this time, so it is scarcely worthwhile saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine-driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out at the iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John. Wendy was married in white with a pink sash.
Barrie stacks the deck here, of course; yet even as he depicts lives of dull routine for his former children, he also acknowledges the tragedy of Peter, the child who can’t grow up. Desperate for a mother, he returns to London yearly — except when he forgets — to bring first Wendy, then her daughter, and finally her granddaughter to Neverland with him to serve in that indispensable — but infinitely substitutable — capacity. Childhood isn’t childhood without a mother, the novel tells us, but becoming a mother necessarily involves abandoning one’s own childhood.
Or does it? The most interesting character in Peter and Wendy may be Mrs. Darling, who recognizes Peter from her children’s descriptions and who yearns to incorporate him into her family along with the other Lost Boys. If Mr. Darling is an overgrown boy, all temper tantrums and bravado, Mrs. Darling is a mystery, the true power behind Mr. Darling’s bluster and yet as much a child of the nursery as her own children. (She hires a dog to be a nanny!) Mrs. Darling and her daughter represent a kind of eternal feminine in Barrie’s text — mothers before they are grown, children who also parent. Boyhood may be fleeting, the novel suggests, but it can be infinitely revisited — as Mr. Darling and too many boy-men haunting both frat parties and the tabloids suggest. Girlhood and womanhood, on the other hand, are — at least for Barrie — much the same.
Barrie, writing at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, invents a version of childhood — bound by the nursery and governesses and tales of empire and conquest but freed by imagination — that few of us would embrace or even recognize today. But in the contrast between adventurous, expansive childhood and narrowing, limited adulthood, he captures an anxiety still shared by both children and young adults. Is our adulthood as adventurous as childhood, as open to possibility, as free? If not, how can we make it so?
Mariah is trying out adulthood, and while that status comes with some burdens, it also comes with some rights that she’s not willing to give up: she can drive, and vote, and work for change. For all she sometimes finds her work tedious, she is grateful to have it, and to have the opportunity to make a difference in the world. In Barrie’s world, her opportunity would be singular: to be a mother. While I wouldn’t give up motherhood for anything, I also value my wider choices. And hers are even wider than mine were: her gap year may, indeed, represent a sort of Neverland in reverse, a taste of the adult world before she returns, next year, to the delights of college and its prolonged adolescence.
All quotations are from Peter and Wendy, a novel based on the stage play Peter Pan; both are by J.M. Barrie.