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Balancing Act

Grown-up? Who, me?

It can take a long time to feel like an adult

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

May 5, 2013

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Kristin van Ogtrop and I are so much alike.

I mean, apart from the whole editor-in-chief of Real Simple magazine thing. And the published author thing. And the myriad speaking engagements thing.

Apart from those things, we are basically kindred spirits. She has a job; I have a job. She has kids; I have kids. Her book is called "Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom" (Back Bay Books); I end every night of every week begging my children to, please, seriously, just let me lie down.

But here's the clincher: In addition to those similarities (uncanny, aren't they?), she — like me — was well into adulthood before she realized she was a grown-up.

"I have two distinct times when I finally felt like a grown-up," she told me. "One personal and one professional." (We'll get to those in a minute.)

She's actually a step ahead of me. I still spend many, many moments wondering when I'll finally feel like a grown-up.

I recently hosted a dinner party with no napkins.

"Where do you keep your napkins?" my friend asked. "I'll set them out!"

They're … um … gosh, I think I'm out of napkins! Crazy!

"Oh, that's OK! We can use paper towels."

They're … um .. gosh, I think I'm out of paper towels too!

"Oh! No biggie! Let's break out your cloth napkins!"

Yeah, so, I don't really own cloth napkins!

We used Kleenex. It was funny and, also, sad.

Am I waiting for some defining moment to hurl me into adulthood? Some stark, unmistakable sign that I am really, truly, the one in charge here?

I reached out to some people I admire — people whose lives are full of career success and family obligations and, best of all, wisdom — to ask when they finally felt like grown-ups.

"I'm grown up?" replied Dana Suskind, a cochlear implant surgeon at University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital and mom of three who, in her free time, launched a program to improve language skills among impoverished kids.

That made me feel better. But I wanted answers. She had a few.

"Hearing 'Dr. Suskind' for the first time and realizing they weren't talking about my father," she said. "Hosting my first Thanksgiving with my entire family. I had it catered."

(Good way to ensure you have napkins.)

"The day Genevieve was born and realizing there was no return policy," she said of her first-born.

Which brings us to van Ogtrop, who also felt like she grew up upon giving birth.

"I was leaving the hospital with my first child," she emailed me. "As we crossed the threshold of Mt. Sinai hospital and walked out onto the sunny sidewalk, I thought, 'Wait, that's it? We just … leave with him? Don't we need to pass some sort of, like, test? Do these medical professionals really believe that we know how to keep this baby alive, all by ourselves?'"

Her professional growing up happened in her first week as Real Simple editor-in-chief, at a meeting with the editorial staff.

"The meeting was starting to get a bit boring. We had accomplished what we needed to and everyone was getting itchy. I began to think, 'When in the world is this meeting going to end?' And then I realized: They are all waiting for me to end the meeting. Because I am the boss. Right! I stood up, and then everyone else stood up, and the meeting was over."

Again, this reminds me so much of my life! So many nights I look around and wonder, "When are these kids going to get in bed?" Then I realize: When I put them to bed. Because I am the mom. Right!

So here's what I think: Many of us have moments of feeling grown up, but the moments pass. Van Ogtrop's were eight years apart. Somewhere between Mount Sinai and Real Simple she forgot she was grown up and needed a staff meeting to remind her. I think we grow — and grow up — when we thrust ourselves into brand-new, terrifying, high-stakes situations with no experience to draw on and every intention of succeeding.

We rise to the occasion. And then we go back to being curious, bewildered amateurs who are feeling our way through this life and collecting new ideas and laughing at inappropriate times and forgetting to buy paper products.

And I suppose that's pretty grown up of us.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13