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When I Woke Up This Morning, I Was 27

It amazes me how often I find myself thinking that I’m not an adult. I’ve been employed full-time for close to five years—isn’t that adulthood? I can support myself financially—isn’t that adulthood?

I’ve signed rental contracts, had utilities under my name, given to charity, tried and failed and occasionally succeeded at creative projects, nurtured and neglected friendships, gone on road trips, rented hotel rooms, gotten lost, bought a car, had surgery, lost family members, tried new recipes, took out a loan, cried myself to sleep, graduated from college, gotten into fights, slept just five hours in seventy-two, been a bridesmaid more than once—aren’t these things that adults do?

I don’t have some of the big, traditional hallmarks of adulthood—no partner, no children, no house (that’s partly mine but mostly the bank’s). But if I am not a full-fledged adult, what am I? I’m certainly not a teenager anymore. Can I claim adulthood provided I put some adjectives out in front, like young or single or twenty-something?

Sometimes I think adulthood is something that I can earn, like a bachelor’s degree or an Olympic medal. If I can just do X, Y, and Z (though these criteria change daily in my head), I’ll unlock the Adulthood Achievement. This is nonsense, of course—by every legal measure in the U.S., I am an adult and have been for several years. (Adulthood is a very boring achievement to the government, one almost everyone gets for simply playing the game long enough.)

I don’t feel like an adult, though. Or at least, I don’t know what adulthood is supposed to feel like. Is it knowing that your fears are real and that failure is possible? Is it mourning for the lost people and places and things? Is it the hard-earned caution and suspicion after being burned? Is it the sense of wonder you get when you realize just how small you are compared to the rest of the world?

Perhaps it’s just the ability to laugh at yourself when you realize that the questions you’re amateur-philosophizing over are neither interesting nor revolutionary.

If that is the case, then sometime between the Ethiopian food and the hazelnut chocolate cake and the off-key singing, I’ll finally become an adult.

5 comments

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  1. Mary Decker

    Oi, whose off-key singing are we talking about, here?

    But yes–this is a question I’ve often struggled with, as I try to reframe my understanding of myself, my place in the world, and what I can do. It was a little startling when I turned 25 and realized I could rent a car, or when I traveled to a new continent all by myself, or when I stayed in a hotel room all on my own (though, hah, my parents paid for that one.)

    I think my standard for adulthood is self-sufficiency and independence–by which standard you’ve been an adult for a long time! But it involves emotional maturity as well as financial, and the borders are very fuzzy.

    I still have difficulties adapting my language and my worldview–the guys I date aren’t boys anymore; my little sister with a baby isn’t a kid; I’m a woman, not a girl. It’s weird.

    1. Audrey

      Well, you three were more on-key than my younger siblings!

      I’m with you right there on the linguistic problems. I still refer to men as boys when they’re my age/social level, even though they definitely aren’t anymore. Emotional maturity isn’t something I think I’m particularly good at, though it’s not as if I know all the time what other people are feeling and how they handle it. It is hard to have a way to compare yourself to others in that way.

  2. Eliza

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign sums up how I feel very nicely:

    “Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste years trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just take it. Give it to yourself. Say ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ and walk away. But that’s hard.”

    To me, being an adult is being responsible for the things and people that you are responsible for, whether those “people” are children and spouse, or just yourself. I happened to get married at 20, but I considered myself an autonomous adult before that. Being an adult meant that I decided what I wanted to major in even if my parents disapproved (they weren’t thrilled about it), I was responsible for paying my bills (even if my parents helped me pay for some things while I was in school), for going to class, having a job, etc.

    There’s no magic threshold of adulthood, it’s something that you take for yourself and you decide for yourself. For me, being an adult is liberating. Other people can offer their opinions, but I make my own decisions and take responsibility for them. I really love that.

    1. Audrey

      That seems like a really healthy way to look at it. (And one of these days I’m going to have to read more Bujold.)

      For me, being an adult tonight meant that I got to eat leftover birthday cake for dinner. :)

      1. Eliza

        Having the liberty to eat cheesecake for breakfast is, I admit, one of the things I relish about being an adult.

        Not that I’ll let my kids do that. Somebody has to be the fun police around here.

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