By Shelley Murphy
It’s the last quarter of the calendar year, and the clock races ahead, but before calling it quits for 2017 my family has a few milestone birthdays to mark: 21, 50 and 80.
Depending on the number of candles on the cake, or the individual, big birthdays are a time of celebration, frustration or reflection.
My Generation X cousin is halfheartedly planning her party as she nears the midcentury mark. My Silent Generation dad is wholeheartedly refusing to attend any event honoring him. But, my Millennial son’s exuberance over his 21st birthday more than compensates for their party-pooper attitudes.
Prior to his big birthday, my youngest son downloaded an app on his iPhone to countdown the days to his milestone celebration. Daily, his phone reminded him that soon he’d see his bare hand covered in multi-colored stamps—a symbolic gift courtesy of the big city bouncers at the numerous bars visited on his birthday.
In the days leading up to my son’s celebration, as his anticipation grew, my anxiety escalated thinking about the liberal libations and downtown clubs.
On the date of his birth, I called my son to wish him a happy birthday and deliver my usual words of caution, “Have fun, but not too much.” On cue, my son repeated his ritualistic reply, “I won’t, I’ll be fine.”
My happy-go-lucky husband deemed my worry about the planned celebration unnecessary, but I defended my stance citing science. Legally, my youngest son is no longer a minor; the state he resides in considers him a full-fledged adult, but science and this mom aren’t so sure about his status.
Neuroscience suggests that most young adults don’t reach their full brain maturity until around age 25. Of course, brain development is as varied as the individual, but most experts agree that the prefrontal cortex is still developing into one’s early 20s.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for decision making, impulse control and risk assessment. I think it’s the cruelest irony when young adults—living in a culture of instant gratification—need logical thought the most, yet their prefrontal cortex functions aren’t fully formed.
Despite an outward adult appearance, most of those in their early 20s are still waiting for that last part of their brain to catch up and reach maturity.
Thankfully, my science-based worry proved to be unfounded, as my carefree spouse repeatedly reminds me.
My son’s big birthday bash, and ensuing hangover, mark his rite of passage. Twenty-one is without doubt a milestone, but it’s a somewhat watered-down version, like the overpriced cocktails in the upscale bars where he celebrated his birthday.
My son didn’t mark becoming an adult on his 21st birthday; that occurred on his 18th birthday when he registered for the selective service and to vote.
Since turning 21, my son can add beer to his cart at the grocery store and well-meaning waiters might offer him wine with dinner, but otherwise very little changes.
Taking time to reflect on the changes this birthday brings, I realize as both my son and I age, we begin to share more in common and our differences seem more subtle.
Of course, my Millennial and I still disagree from time to time, most often about technology, or my high-tech indifference. I continue to watch my favorite network programs on a television. My son streams popular shows and views them on his phone. I rely on my mailman and check my mailbox daily. My son equates his mailbox with a landline and has no use for either.
Today, our disputes are relatively few. After decades of parenting, it’s gratifying to like, and love, the company of my adult son.
Twenty-one is more than candles on a birthday cake, it is a milestone. The swift hands of time took my son’s childhood and made him an adult; but time can’t change the fact that I’ll forever be his mom. To that I’ll raise a glass, cheers!
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband for the past 18 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the San Clemente Times since 2006.