“It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of a man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him.”
–Erik Homburger Erikson
Just less than 10 years ago I became a parent for the first time at the age of 22. And in that time I’ve learned a whole hell of a lot, primarily thanks to my two amazing children who have taught me so much about myself and the world. Becoming a parent wasn’t something I was planning on doing when it happened. My daughter came as quite a surprise when I was still in college and I was my only priority; the loom of adulthood and all of its expectations hadn’t quite settled into my bones.
With that said, becoming a parent is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, for many reasons. But one is that kids enable us to see in us that which we’ve long neglected and forgotten. The lessons they teach or reinforce can occur in any situation whether it’s one we’re familiar with and can recall from our youth or the experience is totally new to us. Either way, we’ve all been there; we’ve all looked at the world with innocent, curious eyes and now we’re seeing it through ours. But who are we? And how are we different now from who we were then?
With age comes responsibility, but there are those who refrain from having authority over their own life, let alone someone else’s. After all, growing up can be frightening. All of that power and responsibility can be intimidating. What happens if (when) we get it wrong? And so there seems to be an increasing phenomenon of young adults staying confined to their child-like state of mind, which in the world of psychology is known as Peter Pan Syndrome.
According to the classic story, Peter Pan is a boy who resists manhood by remaining in the imaginary Neverland as a child forever, much to the heartache of Wendy who has true feelings for Peter, despite his inability to drop the fantasy and love her in the way she needs to be loved. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with retaining some of that innocence, wonder, and vitality that is so much a part of one’s youth. I think those are things more adults could benefit from.
But insisting on acting like a child throughout one’s life is something different. Psychologists point out a paradox with Peter Pans, which is that as they age physically, they refuse to mature mentally, spiritually, emotionally. This condition seems to be more prevalent than ever, and we tend to see it more in men. But the thing about not wanting to grow up is, you could be a great lover, provider, parent, what-have-you and not be a day older than you would be if you resisted all that “growing up”. Everybody has to get older. Everyone notices funny things happening to their bodies as they age. Everyone has a lesson to learn.
Following is a very general description of individuals with PPS (not to be confused with PMS which, unlike PPS, is actually listed in the DSM as a psychological disorder. Did you get that ladies?? Our menstrual cycles classify us all as crazy!! But a man who wants to remain a child forever– totally rational! Please note the sarcasm.):
It is said that when reality is pushed upon such a person they will often respond with rage in order to intimidate others and protect their fragile self-esteem. Indeed, “rage is the wall that keeps the PPS victim isolated from close contact with others”. One consequence of this, however, is that it also keeps love, concern, and warmth away.
In addition, they often blame others for their perceived shortcomings and are intolerant towards criticism. They are quick to experience feelings of rejection and since they don’t know how to protect their feelings from getting hurt, Peter Pans have learned to withdraw from emotional areas, maintaining an “I don’t care” attitude. However, these individuals want desperately to belong as they actually feel very, very lonely. Alas, “there seems to be an immense vacuum in [their] life unless [they’re] around people, preferably the center of attention”. As a result, there is often a “constant desire to be doing something as a coping mechanism for dealing with the hollow emptiness of [their] life”, be it drugs, sex, alcohol or some other vice.
Oftentimes, a great deal of permissiveness was experienced during childhood which led to a lack of self-discipline and is demonstrated by laziness and irresponsibility, as well as an inability to handle emotions properly. Due to their lack of internalized controls helping them to initiate responsible activities on their own, they often face pressure from outside sources (parents, employers, spouses/partners) to take on more responsibility.
Furthermore, Peter Pans are generally unable to make commitments or keep promises. Whenever their relationships begin to require a higher level of commitment and responsibility, they tend to bail. Consequently, they often find themselves in relationships with younger partners which provides the advantage of having low expectations, allowing them to devote less time to planning and thinking about the future.
They also tend to feel that “the love of a mate should be like the love of a mother – unconditionally positive”. Peter Pans commonly take lovers for granted. In their eyes, a lover is not supposed to expect more of them than what they choose to give at the time they choose to give it. In the story of Peter Pan, Wendy plays a vital role in his life, but she is never allowed to challenge his behavior and childlike fantasies; she is simply to remain an unquestioning aficionado.
Similarly, real life Peter Pans seek out women who base their self-worth off of their ability to care for others. Because in order for Peter Pan to exist there must be someone willing to deal with the things Peter Pan doesn’t do. These kinds of relationships don’t tend to evolve past the first phase of emotional and sexual intensity; they never fully mature. This is made possible by the Wendys of the world who gain what they need (acceptance, control, etc.) by allowing their Peter Pans to live in a fictional world where they never have to grow up. This doesn’t give these men much of a reason to be anything more. And so, conflicts inevitably arise.
My family is a perfect example of the Wendy/Peter Pan paradigm. My brother is approaching 40 and still lives with my parents. And this is at least partly because he has never been encouraged to move out. Allowing him to remain dependent benefits my mom greatly. Doing for others is how she attempts to gain acceptance from others (which is something I came to adopt). And she’s been doing for her children and her husband all her life. My dad is nearly 70 and aside from the time he spent in the Navy, he’s probably never done a load of laundry or dishes in his life. My mom has to center her entire day around him because he is “unable” to cook a meal for himself. I spent my life resenting this and if I were my mother, I wouldn’t tolerate such infantility for a single second. It’s high time to grow the fuck up.
At the same time, I can also identify with Peter Pan. Even though I take care of my responsibilities (raising two kids independently, maintaining a full-time job and a house, paying bills and doing what needs to be done; I’ve got a savings account, life insurance and a 401K for crying out loud), I somehow feel way less responsible than other people my age. I prefer not to engage in boring “adult” discussions about things I don’t care about. I don’t care about a career path. I don’t care about chasing money. And I’m honestly not overly concerned about my future or that of my children. After all, what’s the point in putting too much thought into a future I a) may never know and b) may not have control of? I feel like a child in that all I really want is to be happy and to be loved. That’s it. Just those two things. But I expect love from a romantic partner to be mature enough to stand the test of time. And in my experience, it hasn’t been, even when it’s claimed to be.
To evolve implies an ability to learn from mistakes, become something better, and not remain stuck on the past. It requires an ability to forgive, to move beyond. Without someone’s willingness to evolve (read: grow, adapt), what more can you do? Simple. Stop enabling.
My ex accused me of being a child right after I banished him from our lives for reacting to my child like a child. If you ask me, it was the metaphorical pot calling the kettle black. But he had a point. Sometimes my inner wounded child comes out to play and I find myself resorting to adolescent behavior. My feelings get hurt and I act out in a dimwitted attempt to protect myself. I’ve done this my whole life, fluttering back and forth between fantasy and reality, forgetting that the rules don’t crossover.
But now I think what hurts the most is knowing how many little things throughout my day remind me of our life together. And yet I can’t let him know. I can’t reach out. I can’t be fucking real. I just have to pretend he doesn’t exist, pretend I don’t care, pretend none of it ever mattered. Except that he does, I do and it did. That means something to me, even if it no longer does to him; even if we’re better off; even if we both still had more to learn in order to have more to offer. And I have to wonder, do I hate myself to care so much for someone who could never care that much about me? Or am I just a relentless romantic who’s ran out of pixie dust and would rather pine away for an impostor love than move on to a place where real love is possible? I just wish our worlds weren’t so far apart. I wish I could at least stand on the edge of my terrene and wave to him from the edge of his. Because I’m tired of pretending. And I could use some more happy thoughts.