The Myth of Adulthood

Do grownups even exist?

Back in elementary school, I had two teachers in a row go through major adulthood milestones while I was their student. One teacher got engaged, and the other got pregnant. At an age where merely spotting your teacher outside his or her natural habitat—the classroom—was sort of like spotting a unicorn, these exciting facts were mind-blowing for us all. Coincidentally, both the newly engaged and the pregnant teacher happened to be twenty-four years old. “Ah,” I remember thinking, in my childhood mind. “Twenty-four is an age where some very grown-up things happen.”

Fast forward to my own twenty-fourth birthday, when I was—blessedly—neither engaged, nor pregnant, having only just met the man who would eventually become my husband. When I turned twenty-four, I thought about those teachers I had back in the day, with their jobs and fiancés and babies on the way. I felt so young compared to them, even though I had reached the same age they had been when I last saw them in my elementary school classrooms. At twenty-four, I was still in school myself, but I was pretty sure I’d start feeling like a real adult when I finally graduated in a few years.

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(many) TINY STEPS TOWARD ADULTHOOD

Graduation came and went, and this “adulthood” feeling I had been waiting for failed to materialize. Maybe it’s because I’m still unemployed and living at my mom’s, I decided. It’s hard to feel like a proper grown-up when you’re sleeping on a futon mattress and asking for rides from your parents. But then I got a job, and Nick and I got our own apartment, and we even bought a car. Then we got married—one of the true hallmarks of adulthood, as imprinted in my elementary school-mind. And yet, I was still left with a nagging feeling that I wasn’t really an adult yet.

Maybe I just needed to get some more adult-type things in order, I thought. When you remain a student until your mid-twenties, you fall behind on tasks like opening a savings account and securing life insurance and establishing a retirement fund. Over the past year or so, we’ve worked diligently on making these tiny steps—no, more like giant leaps—toward adulthood.

The question is, how will I know when we’ve actually arrived at our destination?

FAKE IT ’TIL YOU MAKE IT?

I’m not sure what’s missing from the adulthood puzzle I’ve been trying to put together in my mind. On the surface, we’re basically model grown-ups. We have steady jobs, and show up to work on time. We file our taxes and pay our bills and buy (mostly) reasonable groceries.

But then sometimes, when I’ve done a ton of laundry and it’s all piled on the bed waiting to be folded and I’m just too tired, I’ll convince Nick that we can just push it to the bottom of the bed and deal with it in the morning. As I drift off to sleep, curled in a tiny ball at the top of the bed, I wonder, is this something other grown-ups are doing? Do other grown-ups have scrambled eggs and Pinot Grigio for dinner, three nights in a row? Do most adults have to reset their password to pay their student loans every. single. month. because they don’t want to write it down, and at this point they’ve reset it so many times that the only new passwords they can come up with are gibberish that they have no hope of remembering again in thirty days?

Occasionally I’ll start to feel like I am really getting the hang of this adulthood situation. A nice man came to install a new thing for our cable box (if I were a real adult, maybe I could be more specific than “install a new thing”), and I offered to make him a cup of coffee. For me, this strikes me as a very grown-up thing to do. Someone is in my house, and I am offering him a cup of coffee, which I brewed myself! I am basically June Cleaver right now. But as I hand him the carefully prepared coffee, I see his eyes drift to the side of the mug, which says, in bold letters: “Shhh… there’s wine in here.”

Moments like these—when I fall asleep amidst a pile of clean clothes that I am too lazy to put away; when I hand a visitor in my home a mug emblazoned with a slogan that is decidedly un-adult—I feel like I am not a real grown-up, but an impostor. And I wonder if that will always be the case.

ADULTHOOD: YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT

Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m failing at being a grown-up. Maybe the problem is that I set the “adulthood” bar a bit too high. I assumed that all these external markers of getting older—job, apartment, spouse—would be accompanied by some massive internal shift, where I’d suddenly become flawlessly responsible and meticulously organized. I thought that I’d learn to seamlessly balance work and play; I thought that managing the never-ending dishes, laundry, and bills would become streamlined and simple.

But if anything less than absolute perfection feels like a failure, the solution isn’t that I need to try harder to be the perfect adult—whatever that even means. The solution is that I need to adjust my expectations of what it means to grow up. I’m a functioning member of society, and in the grand scheme of the adulthood spectrum, I think I’m doing pretty damn well. Having breakfast for dinner and owning sassy coffee mugs doesn’t make me less of an adult, but it does make adulthood a bit more fun. Balancing greater responsibilities and the demands that come with growing up will surely become slightly easier in time, but I’m starting to let go of the notion that a day will come when it will all fall into place and I’ll manage it all effortlessly.

We have these friends who seem to be really nailing adulthood. They established careers and bought a house and had two kids before any of our other friends were even thinking about doing these things. (They don’t seem to be the sort of people who, for example, fall asleep with a pile of clean laundry at the foot of the bed.) On holidays, they have people over to their lovely, clean house for hors d’oeuvres and fancy drinks, and I feel like I might as well be at a costume party, here in my grown-up costume in my fake grown-up life where my friends have terrifying grown-up things like kids and houses.

On one recent holiday at my friends’ house, though, I excused myself to use the bathroom. After I shut the door behind me, I took a quick peek behind the shower curtain (as I always do, because I am paranoid, and like to make sure no one is hiding in there). Upon pulling back the curtain, I found the tub filled to the brim with stuff – toys, picture frames, trash, you name it. This was a classic case of the pre-party panicked cleaning frenzy! This, I could identify with. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief knowing that even the most put-together grown-ups I knew had a secret stash of decidedly non-adult messiness lurking just behind the curtain.

Grown-ups. They’re just like us. Maybe—just maybe—they even are us.

THIS POST ORIGINALLY RAN ON APW IN SEPTEMBER 2014.

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