By Caitlin Kelly
It happened to me at 14, when a series of frightening events beyond my control collided within a few days while I was living in Mexico.
My mother became ill and suddenly incapacitated; a friend my age had just arrived from Canada for a two-week visit and, while staying with us — we were then on our own — she burned her eyelashes and eyebrows off while lighting our hot water heater.
We had no phone, few friends and no relatives anywhere nearby.
We figured it out. Mostly because we had to.
I left my mother’s care after that and have never lived with her since. I keep reading blogs by women who talk about being “unmothered.” After 14, that was pretty much my new normal; my step-mother, only 13 years my senior, was not a nurturer.
So I’m always fairly fascinated by discussions of what it means to be(come) mature and responsible.
A recent New York magazine article focused on women in their 30s choosing to freeze their eggs as they have no luck finding a man eager — let alone willing — to take on the responsibilities of marriage, let alone of parenthood:
Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist…
“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”
“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”
He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.
“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”
People who fetishize parenthood assume that only by getting married and/or having and/or raising children can you truly become an adult.
I don’t buy it.
I’ve seen too many sloppy, careless brutes wearing wedding rings, running their vows ragged. I’ve also seen too many careless parents.
I do think that caring for others, actively and consistently, is key to maturity and generativity, the desire to give back. It might be a pet or a child or your neighbor or your students.
I recently watched an odd indie film, Obvious Child, in which the main character, a young comic named Donna Stern, gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion.
I enjoyed the film in some ways, but found her neurotic compulsion to date losers and make lousy life choices in general, even with loving and solvent parents nearby, depressing and irritating.
Grow up, I wanted to shout at the screen!
I feel the same way (cliche alert!) when I hate-watch the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four whiny white girls in their 20s as they try to find jobs, men and friendship in Manhattan. I know many young women lovelovelove the show and its outspoken young creator Lena Dunham.
I just can’t.
We all make terrible choices and we usually get most of them out of the way in our 20s and 30s. (I married the wrong man, moved to NYC with no job in sight, etc.)
When I met the man I’m now married to — 15 years together this spring! — I wondered if he was mature enough to be a husband, which is both a noun and a verb meaning to care for. (Well, actually to manage frugally and carefully, which is close enough for me.)
He ticked all the boxes, as the Brits would say: handsome, great job, funny, snappy dresser, global travel, devout Buddhist. But he felt somehow rooted in single life.
My doubts blew away in one powerful action, when we flew out to help my mother after she was found to have a very large benign brain tumor and we had to take care of her home, dog and paperwork with only three days in a foreign country.
He dragged her soiled mattress onto the verandah without a word and started scrubbing it clean. I’d never seen someone so nonchalantly do a nasty job with no drama, foot-dragging or avoidance. It meant a lot to me.
He stepped up.
I now teach college freshmen and am intrigued to see which of them are more mature than others and why. I’ve also met some lovely young people in their early to mid-20s, maybe old souls, who seem able to just get on with it, with grace, style and humor.
I don’t believe you have to be old to be wise nor do I assume that someone young(er) is de facto foolish and unable to make excellent decisions.
But I do fear for the current crop of children and teens whose parents and grandparents hover incessantly over them in a desperate and misguided attempt to protect them from every possible owie.
The world does not arrive with a big pile of bandaids to hand out.
Do you feel like an adult?
What did it for you?
41 thoughts on “When did you finally feel like an adult?”
I actually like Girls because it’s random flukiness is entertaining and Lena is a contradiction of common sense. Reminds me in a strange way of ;Monk”. An eclectic mess.
It can be fun, but not — for me — in large doses.
I always thought I’d be a lot smarter now at 58, then I am. I grew up with a single mom who was handicapped. Being her crutch and helping her rise from a fall, taught me quickly, to be beyond myself and be empathetic toward others. My early teens I felt like an adult.
I bet we all feel that way! 🙂
Like you, I was “parentified” early and learned some of the same lessons as a result.
I think that defining oneself as an adult is an ongoing process – sometimes I feel like I am one, but then I am quickly reminded that there’s plenty more growing to be done … 🙂 I am concerned about the “owie generation,” too. They are so very childish, many of them. Or is that just me being a curmudgeon? I don’t think so. Their parents are so desperately trying to prote t themfrom failure, to make everything be perfect for them – they don’t seem to realize that this is the path to monster-creating.
Luckily, I don’t see this behavior in the college students I’ve been teaching, and the school is very expensive, so I expected that. Many of them seem pretty resourceful, thank heaven.
PS – great wedding photo! 🙂
Thanks! We had such lovely weather and a terrific young female photographer who’s now on staff at the Houston Chronicle.
Today I do feel older, more mature, though not really sure what an adult looks like or how it feels, if the accumulation of responsabilties which include children, a home, pet, husband, work, make you an adult, then yes I am an adult and it’s not the most fun thing I’ve done so far I was expected to stop acting childish, though not become an adult, when my parents divorced and my mom insisted on me being her left or right hand, depending on what she was trying to accomplish. I did skip, unknowingly of course, a huge chunk of life, supposedly the best one, being the other pillar at home. Looking back, it wasn’t so much fun being the mature one among my group of friends, however the moms appreciated I was there “to take care of their girls”: If Alexandra’s going then you can go, was the common phrase before each school trip or party… I’ve made it a point to make up for lost time, to have fun, to find people who make me laugh, my sister-friend gifted me at Christmas my first ever pair of Vans, in support of making “this” my personal best time, despite my adult status and all the seriousness that entails. Great post… thanks for asking 🙂 Alexandra
Love the Vans! Great gift.
I’ve been the same way…much younger at midlife than I “should” be, more playful and adventurous, some of the stuff I really missed out on earlier in life. We need to do it.
I’ve felt like an adult for about a year or so. Renting an apartment, paying bills and doing grocery shopping, working a part-time office job, being a resident manager, and writing, editing, publishing, and marketing all my books on my own makes me feel very adult-like. I’ll feel like a successful adult when I have some more savings in the bank.
Sounds like a lot to me.
It is. But growing up isn’t supposed to be easy. You take on responsibility and you either live up to it or face the consequences. And for me, that would be a deadbeat on my parents’ couch. To which I say, no thank you!
Exactly. How refreshing to hear it from someone your age.
Self-sufficient around 9-10, because all of my parents worked. My mother would tell you that I raised myself. Old soul. More mature than my peers at any age, precocious child, only child, kept company better with adults, or as the caretaker of smaller children.
Ability to predict and accept consequences for my own actions around 24, within months of leaving home.
I’m fairly certain I’m still maturing, self-realizing, whatever you want to call it, at 41. I know some people who are decades behind me, despite being my age. It’s, as you wrote, not an age issue.
I was always in awe of people at college, who were supposedly adults, but lived like pigs and behaved like babies. I wondered what exactly their parents taught them.
I encountered fewer of them in work environments, but there still were some. They never lasted long, as though professionalism was torture.
I can’t watch Girls, either. I wanted to like it, but it borders on the absurd for me. I think I’m too old.
I don’t think I’ve ever had to be so self-sufficient as when my husband was gone for deployments and I handled all four kids, the household, the vehicle, every medical crisis, the money, all by myself. I did a bang up job, but it felt like the weight of the world. I’m glad he came home.
I think military wives/mothers (and fathers) carry tremendous burdens when their spouses are deployed or traveling for long periods of time. I salute you!!! 🙂
Our family broke up when I was 11, and even prior to that, as the eldest child, I had a lot of responsibility. I was always described as an old soul and was very willing to be responsible and mature, for the most part. Leaving home at 18 and going to university and staying in a hostel with no responsibilities lead to a very fun year, many mistakes, and much more acting my age. Also to dropping out of university when the year was over. Which lead to working and a ‘grown up’ lifestyle at 19. And even in those fairly carefree years I did seem to collect people who needed support. I know I felt very grown up in my mid 20s with a couple of serious relationships behind me and heading off to Europe for a couple of years with my then boyfriend. Now with a pile of kids, and a second husband, and approaching 50, I certainly have all the responsibilities of an adult. I work, care for my family, contribute to the community and am absolutey reliable. I allow my children to take (some) risks and make a lot of their own decisions – even bad ones. My life often feels very pedestrian, but also very grown up.
And yet I don’t feel grown up. I don’t feel any different to how I felt in my 20s. I still look around for the grown up to clean up cat and child vomit, to clear away spiders, to help me decide if the current injury is a break or a bruise, or if that temperature is high enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. I often think that there must be someone else to get up at night with the children (apart from my husband andI) and yet there never is!
And I still find so much to wonder at. The world is an amazing place. I find peace and beauty and joy in places I go and people I meet. I am amazed at my children and what they are capable of and how much they can understand and what they achieve.
So in answer to your question, I feel that my LIFE is an adult life. But I still mostly don’t feel like an adult. Great question!
Thanks for such a candid answer — and good to hear from you again!!!
I hear you on the “Where’s the grown-up?!” It’s much harder work being fully responsible than anyone really tells you, and it doesn’t necessarily get easier the more you do it. I still freak out when I have to have surgery (ugh) even though I know now what to expect. I am in awe of your caring for so many children and really admire it.
haha, Still waitin’ 🙂
Great post! I was born and grew up in Albania towards the end of the communist dictatorship years. Although I was an only child and remained a child until quite late, in the middle of my 20s I had some life changing experiences that matured me early. I had to be careful about my own safety, I left home at 18 to go to France to study where I was “on my own” and had to work while studying and adapting to a new culture. These experiences were hard and they made me fragile in some regards but also strong.
I think today’s generation living in developed countries, a life of comfort, entertainment and consumption just don’t get enough occasions to be faced with real life difficulties – defending themselves, facing injustice and reacting to it, defending ideals and beliefs. They even go to complete extremes such as not having a motivation to vote or even worst idolising the wrong things, some young men terrorists, some young girls pop stars who don’t honestly inspire much else apart from fame and money.
So it is like an artificial world they live in and are conditioned by and haven’t got a living experience of other realities. It’s a blessing for them but also a shame.
Your reply is so interesting! I cannot imagine that world — and agree that few pampered young people would have a clue. As I’ve blogged here several times before, resilience, as you and others know firsthand, is a learned skill.
are you really that surprised that I’m still a child? lol
I think you undersell yourself.
I don’t mind 🙂 When I was young, I was always told I had an old soul. At 43 I forget I left my twenties. I think my mental age is pretty fluid.
It can also depend on what fluids are involved at the time! 🙂
Oh Jesus. My sister (bartender by trade) says I can’t have fluids anymore because I get reeeally happy, and try to befriend like the entire world, which somehow always starts these fights that she has to stop to keep people from beating my face in. Meanwhile, I’m just standing there, oblivious, grinning like an idiot.
I bet seltzer is safe. 🙂
I’d probably shake it too hard and have it fizz in my eye while driving and take out a public park. Bet that’d be worth bloggin about!
put that on my headstone 🙂
I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who gets annoyed. Everyone raved about “Wild” and I found myself wanting to shake the author and say stop whining and grow up. I think, truly, even though I grew up in many ways when I moved away from home, etc., the death of one’s parents forces a growing up. As does divorce and the accompanying financial issues, etc. I’m not sure we “grow up” all at once, but rather we master various areas of our life when the timing is right.
We read the first chapter of Wild recently in my freshmen writing class and I warned them that, even if it was a NYT best-seller, I found it overblown.
Thanks for weighing in!
It’s so hard to define “adult.” For me, the first time I remember feeling responsible for not just me, but for someone else (my little sister) was when I was about 7. My older sister was sick and my mom was widowed. She had to visit my sister in the hospital an hour’s drive away. We lived in an area where we had no family and no friends. The ancient couple upstairs owned the home we rented the bottom of, so I guess they counted as semi-responsible adults, but we were told NEVER to bother them. I would take care of my sister and me for the whole day while Mom was away, making sure we followed all of her rules. I guess that counts as being “grown up” at least for those times…and there were many of those times until my sister had an operation and finally returned home–recovered and anxious to boss us around!
Good for you…that was a lot to handle! 🙂
It was, but it brought us very close as a family–and we’re still very close. 🙂
i do feel like an adult. i married young and had children young and divorced young and then began my life as adult after all of that. a bit out of order but it was how it happened. i really stopped depending on my parents at quite a young age, though that does not mean i was grown up at all. you are right, about many people not being ready to be real grown ups in the world, and it always amazes me, probably because of how i had no choice but to grow up, there were no other options, really.
It’s interesting you say “there were no other options.” I agree. Good for you!
It’s consciously choosing to be responsible, for yourself, that is the transition. Once you can take responsibility for yourself, you can consider being responsible for other things, too. Perhaps its not an event, but a journey, which for me started with a year out to raise the money for college. I guess if we don’t let young people take risks we don’t allow them the opportunity to start being responsible for themselves, and so they come to fear it, rather than welcoming it as a vital step towards autonomy and real freedom.
Great point…and good for you! I put myself through college through freelance writing — so I was working for national magazines as a junior. There was NO dicking around or missing deadlines, so I learned those lessons early.
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