When my nan was twelve years old, she was forty seven. Not literally of course, she’s not part dog. What I mean is she was born and after she’d had a go on a bottle of powdered egg made up with spit, she was given a generous hour or so to have a bit of a whinge, you know, get it out of her system, then she was handed a wire brush, pointed in the direction of the nearest hearth and told to get sweeping. No doubt hacking off her own umbilical cord with one of the knitting needles she was using to knit her own babygro as she went.
Times were hard then, oh yes. There was no lollygagging around doing unproductive things like having conversations or getting an education, not when you’re a woman and there’s washing to wind through a mangle, indescribable chunks of offal to be boiled and coal to be hewn from the very earth with your bare hands. A girl was expected to replace childhood with manual labour then go straight to marriage (someone with a solid job like farmer, not one of these ‘intellectual’ types who could read). The only career prospects my nan had were childbirth or typing (frequently at the same time, I imagine) or being a ‘woman who does’, which roughly translated means doing everything you’ve done at your house, only in someone else’s house for a pittance. There was no choice except that of her husband who occasionally let her read the back of the paper while he read the interesting bits inside if she promised not to breathe too loudly and kept the cups of tea coming.
When I was twelve years old, I was twelve years old. I had a perm, and braces and an attitude that could slam doors simply by giving them a dirty look. I was lazy, selfish and insufferably hormonal. I messed around at school, bullied my little brother, listened to New Kids On The Block, smoked and generally behaved like a pre-teen she devil. I thought I had the hardest life of anyone I’d ever read about, even those suffering jet women, whatever they were called. They never had to wash up instead of watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, did they? They did NOT.
I was, of course, a twat. But then I was twelve and most twelve year olds are total twats. The difference between me and my nan is two generations but in terms of choice and experience, it’s light years. By twenty one she was married with two children and another on the way. By twenty one I thought my Vauxhall Corsa was my ticket to independence, I practically lived in Topshop and I drank Archers and lemonade as though it was the most sophisticated thing ever to be poured into a glass.
Now I’m almost thirty two. By thirty two my nan had raised her own children, adopted another kid for good measure (well why not? There’s always enough pickled tongue to go round) and was working as a secretary, spending her evenings trying not to upset my grandfather by accidentally straying into his line of sight and making sure he could always reach his cigarette lighter. I on the other hand, have spun out the last few years making poor choices, relying too heavily on my parents and gadding around selfishly with barely a thought for anyone else.
Society (yeah, I said it let’s move on) says that’s fine. We have more choice than any of the generations before us. We’re living longer, we’re getting married later, if at all, and we’re having children whenever we’ve decided that drinking and staying out until 5am, only coming home when you stink of sick and it isn’t even yours, is just no fun any more. We are wealthy and we have leisure time. My nan’s only leisure time was her honeymoon; a week in Torquay then nothing again until my grandfather died when, after waiting for a decent period of mourning, she hopped on a plane to California (we cheered when she told us she’d booked a ticket).
Apparently it’s fine for me to rinse a month’s wages on a pair of shoes and I can, without judgement, move back in with my long-suffering parents if yet another poor decision leaves me virtually destitute. I could not have survived the kind of life my nan did, the unimaginable hardship and suffering she endured, often alone, would break your average thirty-something now. We are indulged and indulgent with little thought for the consequences of our actions or even the immediate future.
I don’t feel thirty two inside; I feel about eighteen most days. I can’t believe I’m allowed to drive cars and go to meetings and pay bills. Occasionally I’ll catch myself saying something grown up (admittedly not that often) and I have to fight the urge to suddenly shout ‘Why are you listening to me? Can’t you see I’m just winging this?!’ I keep expecting to grow up. I keep waiting for the day when I suddenly understand what an ISA is, or why everyone’s upset over the Gaza strip (and where it is, now we come to mention it). I attended my friend’s thirtieth birthday lunch yesterday. There we all were, sitting around a table, making conversation and laughing together and it hit me. The longer I keep waiting for the day of maturity to hit me, the more I’m missing of my life as it is now with it’s optimum balance of silliness and financial stress. The time has come to get a grip, be grateful I’m not nearly dead of consumption and living off pig’s tail broth and embrace turning thirty two for the life adventure it is. I’m having my birthday lunch in a Wimpy, though.