When did you finally feel like an adult?

By Caitlin Kelly



 Crossing the Atlantic -- thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!
Crossing the Atlantic — thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!

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?

The Six Warning Signs Of Adulthood

Land of Oz
Image by _rockinfree via Flickr

For some Americans still finishing up the last scraps of their Thanksgiving turkeys, hosting a meal for 8 or 10 or 16 or 20 is a feat worth celebrating in itself. Here’s a totally subjective list of activities or events I think mark the end of innocence:

1) Your first successful dinner party. I chose dinner, instead of lunch or a shower or a party with chips and dip, because, done well, it demands forethought, planning, shopping, inviting, re-minding the people you’ve invited, making sure they won’t die at the table of allergic reactions, choosing a menu that makes sense and, if you’re as insanely fussy as I (and my name has been used as a verb, meaning “to fuss”), choosing the dishes, flatware, linens, candles and flowers to make the table lovely. Nothing has to cost a lot, but it does require effort and grace and timing and coordination; sweating and shouting tend to run the effect. This is why the cook always needs a good stiff drink beside them in the kitchen. You’ve got the desire and skills to make a lot of people comfortable, welcome, happy and well-fed all at once.

2) Coping with injury. It might be a broken bone or recovering from ACL tears or rotator cuff surgery. Pain and months of rehab force you out of your private, swift-moving individual self into the wider world of the slower, those who wince when they reach for things, the land of imposed patience. It slows you down so much you start to notice much more. You also see who gives up a bus or subway seat or who kindly opens a door for you and those who let it slam in your face. It’s really hard for some of us to ask for help, to be visibly wounded, to accept generosity. It’s not a bad thing. People’s kindness can stun you.

3) Attending more than five funerals of people unrelated to you. It’s an arbitrary number, but it marks your soul to see someone you loved and respected lying in their coffin, and to watch a room fill, as I did at the service for New York Times photographer Dith Pran, with so many people they run out of chairs. People who met him once for an hour years ago and who drove four hours one way to be there to pay respects.  Another Times colleague, David Rosenbaum, who was murdered the day after he retired; people came from across the country to be there for his family, as they did for Pran. A neighbor’s husband, who died a brutal death from cancer. A neighbor’s wife, my age, dead of cancer. It’s anyone whose family you want to support. You know someday you, or your loved ones,will need it. It’s our job to be there for one another. It is often not much fun, but it’s essential.

4) Buying or re-financing your home. Unbelievable! We’re, thank heaven for our good fortune, almost through the tunnel of re-financing our apartment, a process that’s included almost a month, so far, of negotiating with and coordinating with eight busy, and some incommunicative and deeply confusing individuals. (Talk to the paralegals, not the lawyers!) I’ve been on the phone sometimes three times a day bird-dogging everyone and trying to keep straight who’s doing what and when. People charging you $$$$$$ for their time need a lot of managing to get to your timely goal.

5) Coping with a friend’s serious illness or that of their partner. Right now, a friend from church is battling cancer and a friend out West has a husband likely to die of it within a month. What can you possibly say? Or do? It’s terrifying. They’re terrified. Their partner or spouse might be angry and lashing out at them, which I’ve heard of many times and have seen in my own family. It is so tempting, and so many people give in, to just flee. To hide behind your own fears or inability to help. I call, send flowers and cards. It’s not much, I know. I’m not sure what else, from a distance, one can do. I helped one overwhelmed neighbor find a hospice for her husband. Cook a meal, babysit their kids, walk their dog. Do whatever you can. When it’s your time, you will need help as well.

6) Prolonged unemployment. Much has been written of late about how all the fresh new grads will be scarred by coming out of school into this recession. It will hurt their incomes and their ideals. It might.

It might also, as those of who who’ve now lived — and survived — through three recessions since 1988 know, toughen them up, albeit sooner than they’d planned or hoped. Yes, student debts are onerous and scary. Yes, it’s deeply frustrating to not do what you want and have worked and studied hard for. Join the line! Right now, millions of unemployed people who have done the same are also staring at the walls and wondering what, if anything, they are going to do to find paid work and put food on the table. Your dreams may change, even for a while.

I moved to New York just in time for the first recession in my industry. I knew no one, had no job, no alumni ties. I cold-called strangers for six months and finally, truly in the depths of despair by that point, found my first Manhattan publishing job from a newspaper ad. Those six months of incredible frustration forced me way beyond my comfort zone and challenged every comfy certainty I’d had about my skills and talents and experience. It was useful prep for the next two recesssions.  It sucks. It won’t kill you. You will, and will have to, find new reserves of strength, flexibility and ingenuity you had no idea you had. It will also remind you that a laissez-faire capitalist system is based on “shedding” labor whenever and wherever and as quickly as those million-dollar-earning CEOs think necessary. Don’t rely on their goodwill or loyalty, ever.

I know this list skips three standard measures, having kids — which some of us never do, getting married (which some people do four or six times) and facing the death of one’s parents. I am lucky enough still to have both of mine and dread those days.

What are your signs?