“What we are without in childhood is what we are about in adulthood.”
Yes, until we are not.
I don’t remember where I first read or heard this folk wisdom statement. It could have been at a continuing education event for therapists, or maybe in a self-help book, or perhaps it was a post on social media. Regardless, it instantly made sense to me. Even more, it made sense of several insights and observations about our maturing process as human beings.
Clearly, we see in ourselves and one another the tendency to seek in adulthood what we did not experience in childhood. Many of us know people who grew up in very poor families during the Great Depression in the United States, with food scarcity as constant companions. In adulthood, many escaped poverty and the deprivations of their childhood, yet the experience of not having enough followed them. In adulthood their homes are like food pantries, with enough food stored away to feed multiple families for months. There’s no way they are experiencing food scarcity in adulthood. They are consciously or unconsciously proving to themselves they have enough.
They are not alone. Each of us works to make up for whatever we did not have in childhood. Typically, the process is unconscious. Adults from families where accomplishments were the highest priority find themselves yearning for the ability to accept themselves just as a they are, apart from their accomplishments…simply because they are human beings made in the image of God. Adults from families wherein love was rationed and sporadic find themselves marrying a person who’s liberal with affection and nurture. Adults from families with poor boundaries find themselves constructing strict boundaries around their personal privacy, enjoying the gift of personal space and time. What we are without in childhood is what we are about in adulthood.
Until we are not. This tendency to swing to the other side, filling in the gaps or experiencing the other side of life, shapes the themes when we are fresh out of the gate into adulthood. We need to experience what we did not get, proving to ourselves that we are capable of finding what we need in life. This need drives us to fill in the blanks and erase the deficits.
But then, for those who keep growing, there comes a time when this personal work is done. We prove to ourselves that we can take care of ourselves. We experience what we missed. We find the love, food, security, freedom, or whatever we missed. We fill the holes in ourselves until we prove to ourselves that we are sufficiently full.
That’s when the opportunity to live as free people emerges. This first phase of adulthood is actually a reaction to the past. We are living in reaction to what was, working to make up for early experiences. There’s no way around this; a normal part of human development. It’s just not the stopping place. Once we prove to ourselves we can take care of ourselves, filling in the gaps from childhood, then we enter a new season of freedom to choose our way. Now we are more free to chart our course, follow our callings, and make our way in the world. We are freed to take life as it is in the present and future. Our reference point for life moves away from the past and into the present. In this season of life we lean into ourselves in new ways, less driven by reactions to the past.
It’s funny how we are adult-ish for so long, before we become adults. Evidently growing a mature self is a long term life project. May we prove to ourselves that we are capable of filling in the gaps, growing into fully formed adults, moving through the seasons of this wild life journey.
What we are without in childhood is what we are about in adulthood, until we are not.
-For the common good