My 7-year-old son went on his maiden elementary school excursion to the fire station last week and wouldn’t stop talking about it. There was a time when he ardently believed he wanted to be a fire-fighter, but as he got older and realized the obvious hazards involved, he changed his mind. “Maybe an artist like Daddy,” he decided, “or a doctor like Grandpa if I get to live in a bigger house.” Then, more recently: “Something that doesn’t require me to study too much, maybe? School is so boring.” We were standing at my condo driveway, bleary-eyed and awaiting the arrival of his 6.10am schoolbus. Oh, the fickleness of youth.
But back to the fire station trip. “It was crazy awesome!” he described. “They had this…and they had that…and they showed us this…and they told us that…”
“So do you think maybe you wanna be a fireman after all?” I asked, wondering if this unbridled enthusiasm signified a rekindled desire.
“Nah, not really,” he said dismissively.
“Why not? I thought you said it was ‘crazy awesome’.”
“Yeah but I still don’t wanna get burned.”
I decided to leave it at that. After all, me at my age, doing what I do, I’m still unsure about my rightful place anywhere. There was a time in my childhood when I earnestly wanted to be either of these things: a teacher, an actress, a ballerina, an artist, a concert pianist, an author, a fashion designer, or—this may surprise some—my mother. Well obviously none of these dreams materialized, or maybe they did but somehow missed the mark (I’m a pianist only in the sense that I can play; the author thing is still a work in progress). In some cases like “teacher” or “actress,” the desire ran its course as I became more cognizant of my skill sets (or lack thereof), but in others, I still ponder imaginary scenarios that might’ve been had my father not put a premature end to my explorations of what he felt were “too arty-farty” or not within my reach (“You have to be reeeeaaaally good if you want to major in music”).
I will also never become my mother whom I idealized from a young age. I believe there was a defining moment—I was probably four at the time—when this fascination began: we were at the Times bookshop in a mall across my brother’s school, killing time before picking him up. She singled out a giant Ladybird series box set, then casually strolled to the cashier’s and paid up for it. Watching her, I was in awe. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s who I wanna be when I grow up.” It wasn’t just about her taste in books (Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were a big deal then); it was just something about the way she conducted herself—so purposeful and decisive, like she was born to be a mother and knew exactly what she was doing. Basically I was sold. But life just didn’t work out that way for me. Besides the obvious differences—she was a housewife, I work; she was driver/tutor/cook/housekeeper/church volunteer, I am none of the above—she possesses a pragmatic, indomitable spirit of “getting on with things” while I’m a hypersensitive soul often verging on the melodramatic. Case in point: the mere thought of how my son has his two oral reading assessments and one spelling test—all lined up tomorrow—is making me paralyzed with worry. C’est la vie.
For a long time it seemed I was done thinking about ambitions, my supermom/concert pianist aspirations far behind me. But my son has a knack for resurrecting old topics. One day, rather out of the blue, the questions came.
“Mummy, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I’m already grown up.”
“So you’re done? It’s too late?”
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to change who you want to be when you grow up?”
I went to bed that night with a Rainer Maria Rilke quote on my mind—that you’re not too old and that it isn’t too late. It struck a chord on many levels. What’s it mean to be done, really? And what’s being grown up have to do with anything even?
When I “grow up,” I still want to go on wanting to be something.