I’ve always been drawn to films like Peter Pan, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Vagabond, which are about the pursuit of identity and the bold ways in which people claim their own. Navigating how to become an an autonomous person can be difficult, especially when you’re young and most likely rely on your parents or guardians for financial support. Even now, at 18, I’ve supposedly become an adult, but I continue the struggle of simultaneously being independent enough to dictate the path of my life and living up to my family’s expectations. In times when you feel bombarded with external advice, demands, and restraints, it’s OK to take your own Bueller-style time “off” to do you. (Just make sure it doesn’t end with your parents’ car in pieces.)
The journey to independence and self-discovery is all about claiming and RECLAIMING your autonomy. To me, autonomy means having the freedom to make choices for yourself. It’s deciding what color to paint your room, what social issues to support, and whether or not to get that tattoo of your favorite singer that you know you’ll regret in 30 years. Growing up, I often felt like the subject of a test tube experiment. From the moment I was born, my neighbors and family had set a framework for whom I’d become and what I’d do with my life.
This happens to most everyone, but the scrutiny I faced was extra palpable because of the circumstances under which I was born: My mother, a Mormon living in a religiously conservative community, had me out of wedlock just weeks after graduating high school. Her boyfriend (I like to refer to him as my “chromosome donor”) was a heroin addict. He was, and is, absent from our lives. My second father, who my mother married when I was three, wasn’t any better. Over time, he revealed himself to be an incredibly hostile, abusive man whom, luckily, my mother divorced after two years. Each time she took initiative and came back from these bad situations was a stunning display of her self-possession.
Following her divorce, my mother and I found ourselves scattered all over the place, living briefly with my grandmother before hopping around to other horizons. While working toward obtaining her college degree, my mom took jobs as a showgirl in Vegas, cleaned toilets in Utah, and even modeled in Denmark to make ends meet. Traveling so frequently was really exciting, but left me with a void in terms of where “home” should be. Watching my mom struggle as a single mother developed a strong urge in me to take care of her amidst the inconsistency. She was my best friend, and we looked after each other during these years of constant upheaval.
Wherever we went, there seemed to be a stigma that followed us, and I got so annoyed when people stereotyped me after hearing my story. I made my past with my biological father seem exciting and cinematic so people wouldn’t see how sad it really was. In my stories, I left out the drugs and the times he never showed up, saying that I was the “love child” of two people who had had a passionate romantic tryst. In middle school, my friends blamed my disinterest in dating on “daddy issues” and called me as a misandrist when I became interested in feminism. My mom and I refused to let others’ assumptions influence our decision, and we took pleasure in defying the odds. We were determined to prove to anyone who doubted us that the challenges we faced wouldn’t inhibit us from living invigorating, wonderful lives.
During my early teenage years, I began to recognize myself as an independent entity. Part of doing this had a lot to do with feminism. I became aware of gender issues in the Mormon Church. I wondered why women couldn’t be ordained, why same-sex marriage wasn’t OK, and began to find it strange that God is often portrayed as a white male. Even though I was going to church and following the Word of Wisdom, a Mormon health code that prohibits consumption of coffee, tea, and alcohol, I felt like I was immoral in associating myself with a church whose ideas conflicted with my personal values. I constantly debated with classmates and religious teachers my sophomore year in high school, and was very vocal in sharing my questions and considerations.
During lunch one day, a group of guys from my economics class (The Economics Boy Gang/EBG) circled around me and amused onlookers watched as the schools “token liberal” defended feminism. This became somewhat of a lunchtime ritual: Every week, I found myself confronted by the EBG, who bickered with me about everything: trivial topics like Morrissey’s awesomeness (though we know that could never really be trivialized), and more serious ones, like immigration. I felt the same pressing need to defend myself in my religion class. I was never afraid to bring up the issues I had with church doctrine or culture, and was really lucky to have teachers who were totally understanding and interested in my opinions.
Word traveled fast, and my mother and stepfather soon heard about my public disputes and feud with the EGB. They encouraged me to pray, deliberate, and delve deep into my religious questions. When my answers didn’t align with the religion I was raised to believe, I thought that my inability to convince myself of blind faith made me a bad person. I recalled drinking coffee for the first time in middle school while on a trip to Maine with my best friend. After, I was totally guilt-ridden and confessed to my mom, who was SO angry with me.
If my drinking coffee let her down, I couldn’t imagine how disappointed she would be if she knew the extent to my disillusionment with the church. Sometimes I still feel that way, especially when I’m asked church-related inquiries from my mother and extended family. My cousins give me disapproving looks for wearing crop tops, my aunt will ask me if I’m going on a mission (18 months of traveling, proselytizing, church service, and converting people to Mormonism), and my grandparents want to know if I’m attending church regularly. I dance around these topics, giving them ridiculous or vague responses because I don’t want to let them down. They might look at me differently, or worse, blame it on my childhood situation.
Realizing that most of my family doesn’t support my ideology was one of the most difficult things to accept as I transitioned from high school to college. It became especially challenging when I enrolled at a private religious university in an attempt to rediscover my faith and make my mother and stepfather happy. I never really felt right about my decision, but was convinced that attending the university was necessary. The tuition was cheap and there were cultural quirks I could write about, but above all, it was important to me that my parents were proud when they told their friends where I would be spending the next four years of my life. After everything my mother went through to raise me, I thought attending the university was the least I could do to repay her—even though she was one of my most autonomous role models herself. Now, at the school, my views are no longer shown the same understanding of my high school teachers, either. Direct quote from one of my professors: “The women’s liberation movement triggered the moral decay of traditional family values.” WHAT THE HECK, GUYS?!
When I committed to the university, my life felt very much out of my control. I was preparing to move yet again, and was also in the midst of dealing with a really frightening experience of sexual assault. Feeling emotionally drained and physically powerless, I felt an urge to claim power over my life, which I never fully accessed until then. I contemplated a lot of big changes—chopping my hair off; joining a commune. In the end, I decided to pack up and embark on a series of road trips. Some were spent with friends and family, but my favorites were the ones I took alone: There’s something magical about walking around in an unknown place, listening to playlists you made to create the exact vibes you’re looking to feel.
Zig-zagging across the country from North Carolina to Utah, I felt more alive and more myself than ever. During the last weekend of summer, I flew to Calgary in Alberta, Canada and had the most enthralling night with a complete stranger. Walking around without a sense of direction, we were drawn to each other, and spent the night laughing over dinner, crying over past heartbreaks, and salsa dancing at a local club. When we parted ways, I gave her the wrong contact information. After asking myself why the heck I did this, I soon realized that I wanted to keep the spontaneous encounter magical. If I kept in touch with this stranger, she would become a REAL person with REAL flaws. I needed to keep her surreal so I could cling to the memory when I felt lost or lonely at school.
Memories of these new experiences and unknown places gave me the confidence I needed to adapt to spending the next four years of my life at my new university. That night in Canada, I learned that the beauty of autonomy is realizing that you aren’t obligated to be completely transparent all the time, which I can’t be at my strict school without risking bad grades or suspension. I never told my parents about my solo trips, either, which I had more of a choice about. I wanted them to belong only to me. Choosing to keep certain thoughts sacred or unshared doesn’t mean that I’m lying to my family or living a double life—it just makes me human.
So much of my self-esteem used to, and still does, rest in the hands of parental perception. I often worry about disappointing my family, and, as a result, disappointing myself. After heated arguments or uncomfortable encounters, I’ll sometimes cry and even begin to hate myself for not being the person my mother had hoped I would be. I ask myself why I can’t believe in a traditional Christian God, why I’m attracted to guys and girls, and why I am the way I am. When I reflect on these moments, I know that just because I’m not other people’s definition of success doesn’t mean I’m not a success. And despite our disagreements, I know that my mom is always there for me at the end of the day. I guess that’s what it means to love someone:You recognize their duality—their “good” and their “bad”—and decide to be there and support them anyway.
In your struggle for independence, I encourage you to travel!! Write, go on hikes, and try new things until you find the thing(s) that keep you going. Asserting myself to my family, peers, and self was far from easy, but it has allowed me to reach a level of authenticity and strength that I have never felt before. No matter where I am, I know that I’m going in the right direction, because it’s the direction that I chose. I’m a success to myself, and that’s all that matters. ♦