What it really means to be an 'adult.' (It's not what I thought.)
There are defining moments in life, for example, the horror of realizing that it’s four pm on a weekday and you’re still in your pajamas. Ring a bell? No? Just me then? Well there I was feeling disgusted with myself, having a Helm’s Deep moment, wondering how did it get to this? I had no job to speak of, no real savings, and had been putting off the school work that I was paying dearly for. And maybe this would have been fine if I was eighteen and just figuring out living on my own, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. I was in my mid twenties and this was grad school. I expected to be more of an adult. Instead, I had managed to Benjamin Button back into my college self.
Don’t get me wrong, college was a great time in my life, but I was also grateful it was over. I grew up. Or at least I thought it was a matter of growing up. I had taken on many of the responsibilities of adulthood—holding down a job, paying taxes, bills and rent, doing my laundry. Grad school was a responsible trajectory to pursuing academic and career interests, but my food-stained sweats suggested otherwise. The term man-child comes to mind here, but I’m not sure there’s female version of that word that doesn’t sound creepy.
The strange thing was that I was actually making it. My grades were up, I had good relationships, I was paying my rent on time, but I still felt like a slacker. The judgement of many an adult before me rang in my head, “Wait until you get into the real world.” It was the snarky opinion that looked down higher education as a place where pragmatism died and idealism bloomed beyond reason. Obviously someone had sour grapes, but they weren’t entirely wrong in recognizing that adulthood comes with responsibilities.
Part of the problem was that there seemed to be a kind of robotic definition of adulthood. It’s a crude, functional description resigned to the idea that when childhood ends you’re facing an uphill hike of rules and responsibilities. This basically boils down to an extended to-do list. Do you do your laundry? Check. Have you managed to rent an apartment without your parents? Check. Do you cook your own meals? Check. Can you drink, vote, and rent a car? Check, check, check.
The irony of it all is that no one really knows what it means to be an adult, yet there is a general understanding that we should be busy on our path to adult-actualization. And so, right out of the gate, we follow these checklists. As much as I like having an ordered life, no amount of laundry folding or check writing will make me feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be, like I’m done. The truth of the matter is that no one’s really done until they’re dead.
My childhood was shaped by the idea that the key difference between myself and adults were that I was still learning how to do things and they already knew what they were doing. Maybe they just told me this so I would shut up and behave, but I believed it. Now on the other side, I am in the process of discovering the millions of ways that this isn’t true. I’m not even sure adults really exist beyond the biological classification of physical maturity. I’ve stopped expecting enlightenment. More and more it seems as though being an adult is process rather than an end goal. The trick is to be confident enough to, to be savvy enough, to negotiate between what the world expects of you and who you really want to be.
(Image via Fox)