Everyone keeps telling us that we are so young. When they say that, I think about World War I. At twenty-three, I would have been a well-seasoned soldier. Or, of course, a well-seasoned nurse, stenographer, fiancée. War crosses my mind in these moments not out of morbidity but in some attempt to contextualize that word: young. At twenty-three I leave a plastic packet of rice boiling for too long while talking to a friend on the phone. The packet is charred and smoking. In some other slice of time and space, I could be a mother. There is no 10-minute, boil-in-bag option for babies.
Surprisingly, humans are one of the only species in the world that experiences childhood. True childhood: a period of physical independence but material and emotional dependence. The human child is weaned, and independent from its mother in the most basic sense, yet depends on her and on its community for every other need. Unlike weaned, juvenile chimpanzees, it can count on food to be supplied by grandmothers, aunts, siblings, neighbors: the village, as it were. The human infant has no pressing need to mature. It takes its time. Rather than urgently needing to learn how to suck the termites from the mound with a blade of grass, it can sit in the grass, look at the sky, and wonder: how high is that?
According to anthropologists, “the extra time for growth and development afforded by childhood enabled greater investments in physical and social capital of the youngster before maturation,” and possibly “greater brain growth and behavioral complexity.”(1) Chimpanzees fight clan-on-clan, on the ground, for territory and food. Humans fight wars across continents, against people they have never met, for things like Liberty.
When people tell me I’m young, I calculate how many offspring I could have produced by now. I have produced none. In my brief career as a fully-grown human I have produced a seventy-page thesis in English literature, a CD, approximately sixty loads of laundry, and now, a mangled plastic package of long-grain brown rice, which I chose over Basmati in the grocery store because it looked healthier. Taken over the longer term, my career as a reproductively functional homo sapiens (since 2006) mostly boasts elaborate AP study guides, slack-jawed photos now stored for eternity on a nameless Facebook server, and small notes in the margins of books by Tamora Pierce.
There are no spinsters in the evolutionary world, only failures. Happily, I count myself as neither; I’m an overgrown child.
In 1918, in the United States, I could have been married at twenty-three. In 1952, I could have been married, as indeed my grandmother was. There are people from my high school class and yes, from my college class who are now married. But with the average age of marriage rising, and along with it the average age of first childbirth, we are seeing an even greater extension of what it means to be a child. Some call it lazy, or self-serving, or entitled. At the same age that people have and still do give their lives for their nation, we forget to separate whites and colors. We are Snapchatting our homemade mayonnaise (guilty). We are patting ourselves on the back for knowing the difference between a Roth and a regular IRA, while still relying on our parents’ health insurance. We are overgrown children.
Most of the time, this bothers me. There is something alluring about basic, unyielding independence, even at its most trivial. I feel it in Bed Bath & Beyond when I purchase hand soap or the Tupperware value-pack. Or in the grocery store, placing the carton of eggs deliberately in the basket, reflecting for a flippant second: I Am Buying Necessities For Life. Or at the restaurant, when the bill arrives, and three credit cards go into the receipt tray, the conversation not stopping. Split it evenly three ways, never mind that Jay’s shrimp was a couple of dollars extra. And I still call my mother to ask if the wool work pants really have to be dry-cleaned. Childhood, it seems, is lengthening yet again.
I stand in the metro each morning, studying the skin of my fellow passengers. I am older than almost every gymnast at the Olympics. I am older than my grandmother was at her wedding. I am older than all of the sword-wielding heroines in the Tamora Pierce books I used to read. I am also younger than everyone at my office. I am younger than the three 30-year-old men who are my housemates.
My housemate had a party this weekend. I got home around eleven and went straight to bed. It was my bedtime.
(1) Bogin, Barry. “Modern Human Life History,” p. 197-230. http://grammar.ucsd.edu/courses/hdp1/Readings/BOGIN_SAR.pdf