Licence to Adult
By Lucy Wormald (she/her), illustrated by Yi Jong (she/her)
Standing at the edge of childhood I would peer at the border that marked the entrance to adulthood through binoculars. This border was a jungle, peculiar and thrilling, strewn with first-times, fragranced with teen angst.
From my perch, this space was tinted with the romance of adulthood, life was to unfurl – grand, big, vibrant. I felt lured across, both by my eagerness and the weight of inevitability. And yet the space was muted with a trepidation – rationale, monotony, life, circled like buzzards.
The passage across this border can be a tricky one. Almost always it cannot be done alone. If you want to get across equipped with the kit required to stand on the opposite side, something is needed to aid your passage.
The spaces occupied by an individual change between childhood and adulthood. The progression from one group into another is often accompanied by a marking act – an act that punctuates time, observes our chronologies, and structures the stories we tell ourselves.
The Enkipaata, Eunoto and Olng’esherr ceremonies of the Maasai people in which young men are transferred power to safeguard lineage and transmit knowledge. The tattooing of Pe’a and malu in Samoa to mark the privileges of adulthood. The bar and bat mitzvah. Inuit children venturing into the wilderness of North Baff in Island with their fathers to test their hunting skills. The world over, it can be seen our cultures inherently comprehend the importance of marking the transition from child to adult.
A rite of passage – a term first coined by French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep – is a ritual that moves an individual from one state of being to another. This act is, arguably, most critical at the transition towards adulthood, signposting one's step into power and self. By defining beginnings and endings in this developmental phase, a rite of passage helps structure our social world, giving shape to our understandings of time and change. These rites give us the opportunity to turn the change into sacred initiation – empowering and enlightening the child for the stage ahead. It also supports us through the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, allowing an adolescent to mourn and release childhood and acknowledge and welcome adulthood.
Today, our Western rites of passage are a little blurred – softer around the edges, their importance less directly acknowledged. We generally do not think of ourselves as an overly ritualistic society – relegating the language of its practices to history and our Indigenous peoples. Yet there is a pattern to how we mark life. Birthdays, weddings, funerals are all deeply ceremonial and weighted with significance. And we seem to be oblivious of the ritual in our morning coffee, in our sporting events, in the commemoration of our histories.
With this obliviousness can come a risk of not giving our children the rites of passage they need to cross the border. Without a rite of passage the journey between spaces may miscarry, the transition becoming messy.
Taking on the function of a rite of passage in our time, is the earning of your driver’s licence. It is an act that proves responsibility for yourself and others. It demonstrates your awareness of, and your commitment to, a set of social and legal rules. Being granted the freedom to determine how and when and why you get and go somewhere expands the space in which you may explore and possess your growing autonomy as a young person.
I was not allowed to learn how to drive until I was 18. My parents, sweetly but perhaps misguidedly, feared for my safety on the wild roads and felt I wasn’t yet ready for this step forward. In Australia, where I was raised, it is normal to first get in a car when you turn 16. On this birthday the question on everyone’s lips is if you are sitting your learner's test that afternoon. I remember being confused at the concern in my friends' eyes when I meekly replied with a “no”.
Already holding a natural affinity for the magic and spirit of youth, and lacking the structure of a rite of passage, I found myself desperately hesitant and forlorn to let this era of childhood go. I felt a safety in the innocence of being a child and I was deeply comfortable in the child-parent dynamic of my family. I could not comprehend living outside of this identity.
Without a rite of passage at this time I had no outer structure to reflect my own power back to me. I had not the tools nor the permission to acknowledge the presence of my autonomy. And so I felt scared and unentitled to step across the border into adulthood. Without this rite of passage the step was messy and I struggled for two years with rebelling against my parents, with knowing myself and with locating my freedom outside the shelter of my family.
I found myself caught in this between-phase for five years, definitely no longer a child but not quite a self-determining adult either. Until at the age of 23 I found myself frustrated and stunted and licence-less.
When our usual rites of passage are absent, this can produce a profound sense of dislocation and alienation that can be exhausting. Existing in this space of limbo can be undermining for the creation of identity and so it is important a clear path forward from this border is illuminated. This process of transitioning from one accepted social role to another is a monumental task, requiring the careful attention of our support network to ensure that the potentiality held is properly channeled into the next stage of one’s life.
In lieu of a rite of passage, the process of crossing the border into adulthood took me a lot of introspection and several tantrums (a childhood last hurrah). I broke and mended the closeness of my relationship with my parents – restructuring the power dynamics between us. I pushed myself to live outside of my comfort zone, alone and self-sufficient, to prove I was capable of owning myself and my decisions. I had to teach myself that I have the power and the authority and the desire to step into this new phase of my life.
Two weeks ago, I got my licence to both drive and be an adult.