Every time I am asked my age, I have to stop and think for a moment. Am I really just a couple of weeks away from turning thirty-seven? I mean, my life looks like that of a thirty-seven year old: I have worked for the same company for almost eleven years, I have been married for twelve, I have two children in elementary school, my husband and I have had our own business for more than eight years, and I even found a couple of gray hairs last month. All of these facts add up to a person who should be at least thirty-seven, but inside, I honestly feel like I’m still twenty-three.
At twenty-three, many of the people I went to college with were either working in their first job, or were still looking for the “perfect” career opportunity. Many still lived at home, and instead of rent, their paychecks were spent on clothing and going out with friends. For me, twenty-three was a defining age. It is the age I was when I moved to Istanbul to start my new life. It was how old I was when I knew that I wanted to share my life with another person. It was also how old I was when I learned what it meant to be responsible for someone other than myself.
A few months after moving in with my future-husband, he told me about his brother, a boy of thirteen, who was miserable at home and who desperately wanted to move to Istanbul to live with his older brother. I could see how consumed with worry he was over his brother’s fate, and it moved me to seriously consider what it would mean if he were to come live with us: we would need to move to a new apartment with a second bedroom; our evenings would no longer be spent going out to bars until all hours; we would no longer eat all of our meals in restaurants; and I would definitely need to learn to cook. Life as we knew it would change drastically. All of those reasons aside, the thought that kept running through my mind was “It isn’t about me”—a thought I had never had before.
I remember the day he was due to arrive, I was so nervous—he didn’t know about me—he thought he was coming to live with his brother, not with his brother’s American girlfriend. Yet, I will never forget what I felt when I saw him for the first time—he was so much younger than I had imagined, looking more like a boy of ten or eleven, as he barely reached my shoulder when standing next to me. I suddenly found myself feeling unbelievably protective of another person, and all I wanted was to give him a new life, one that included a room of his own—something he had never had before—along with whatever else he needed to make him feel like he belonged with us. So, at twenty-three, I went from being like most people my age to being a full-fledged adult with responsibilities and people who depended upon me—and I couldn’t have been happier.
For the next two years, the bond between us grew, and at times our relationship resembled that of a mother and son—I gave him an allowance for doing chores around the house, I made sure he did his homework each day, and I was even forced to ground him once for going out without telling me. In many ways, though, we were more than a mother and son, we were a sister and a brother, we were friends. We spent most of our time together, sometimes going to the movies, other times just hanging out at home watching television or talking about life. Even then, it was incredible to me that a teenager would share his personal thoughts and feelings with me, and I knew that this was something to be treasured.
When I became an actual parent three years later, I wouldn’t say that this experience somehow made me more prepared than other new moms: I still didn’t know how to give a baby a bath, I needed advice on how to get the baby to sleep, and I knew nothing about feeding schedules. What I did gain was knowledge of what an ideal relationship with a teenager could be like—something that I still think about as my own daughter approaches the teen years. So, although I am almost thirty-seven, I don’t feel any older than I was then, when—at the age of twenty-three—a young boy entered my life and taught me what it is to be a parent. I wouldn’t change anything about the choices I have made in my life, so as I think about the advice I would give my daughter, the main thing I want her to know is that sometimes being selfless has its own rewards. I was given a chance to change the life of another person, and if she ever finds a time when she has the opportunity to put the needs of others before her own—at whatever age—I hope she chooses to do the same for it will change her for the better.