“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 10 years I’ve learned a whole hell of a lot, primarily thanks to my two beautiful 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, mind you. My daughter came as quite a surprise when I was still in college, when partying was my priority and 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 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 it’s totally new to us. Either way, we’ve all been there, right? We’ve all looked at the world with their eyes and now we’re seeing it through ours. But who are we? And how are we different now from who we were then?
I think one way to answer this is to say that with age comes responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great power. (Great words spoken by Uncle Ben just in reverse. No, not my Uncle Ben.) At any rate, responsibility is power. I have the responsibility of raising two tiny people and that gives me more power than I could have ever dreamed of, not only in their lives but from a sociological standpoint, as well. Because it is now that the seeds of personal responsibility must be planted in order for someone to grow up embracing the obligations that accompany adulthood. Most conservatives downplay the need for social services because they believe a person should help themselves, take responsibility for their own lives, stop depending on other people to solve their problems. And as a social worker and someone who’s been involved in the “system” personally, I can tell you that while the need for social services is great and shouldn’t be dismissed so readily, there are all kinds of people out there abusing and taking advantage of the system, not taking any responsibility for their actions, their lives, or their families. And it is a sad state of affairs, indeed.
Because who wants to grow up, right? Growing up can be frightening. All 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. Not that 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 good things for anyone to hold onto at least to some degree. But then there is that thing called reality, a.k.a. “the real world”. And for so many I want to say, “Welcome! Stay a while!” Surely we’ve all encountered someone who, as an adult, seems to resist growing up as much as possible.
Take the story of Peter Pan. Here is a boy who rejects his role as a man 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 back.
In fact, psychologists have used the example of Peter Pan to describe a paradox so prevalent in society today. Never before have people–both women and men, though it appears to be more common in men–been so resistant to growing up and becoming an adult with adult-like aspirations, achievements and responsibilities. And reasons for this are better left to another discussion. 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. A person with Peter Pan Syndrome (PPS for short) ages physically but refuses to age mentally, spiritually, emotionally… That’s the paradox.
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?? We’re all crazy! But a man who wants to remain a child forever, totally rational!) 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 his (her) life unless (s)he is 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 his (her) 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 often 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 allowing them to live carefree, devoting 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 and 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. That’s because the Wendys of the world 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.
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.
I look at my family and I see that it’s the perfect example of the Wendy/Peter Pan paradigm. My brother is approaching 40 and he still lives at home. Would you say he’s resisted growing up? Yes. And I would also say it’s at least partly because he was never encouraged to. Because allowing him to remain dependent benefits my mom greatly. Doing for others is the only way she can gain acceptance from others (in her mind; no doubt some of this mentality wore off on me). And she’s been doing for him all his life. But also, what example has my brother had to go by? 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. Would you say he’s resisted growing up? Yes. And if I were my mother I wouldn’t tolerate such infantility for a single second. Grow the fuck up.
At the same time, I can also identify with Peter Pan. Even though I take care of my responsibilities (I raise two kids independently, maintain a full-time job, pay my bills and do what needs to be done; I’ve got a savings account, life insurance and a 401K for crying out loud), I 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. I don’t care about putting too much thought into a future I may never know. 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. And often it takes very little to satisfy my desires. But I take it for granted. I expect love from a romantic partner to be unconditional. But it’s not even if it claims to be.
My ex accused me of being a child right after I banished him from our lives forever. Rightly so, even if it is the pot calling the kettle. Sometimes my inner wounded child comes out to play and I have to fight the resistance to grow up. My feelings get hurt and I act out in a dimwitted attempt to protect myself. And 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 a love never to be returned than move on? 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.
*All quotations and information from this blog can be found in Peter Pan Syndrome and The Wendy Dilemma, both by Dr. Dan Kiley, as well as the following link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070501112023.htm