Becoming an Adult When You're Abandoned

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last month, Julie wrote an essay exploring the question “When Are You Really an Adult?” Biological development, legal thresholds, and cultural touchstones all play a role in her piece, but the question is essentially a subjective one—or as Julie puts it, “Adulthood is a social construct.” She broached the question with readers and got a ton of your emails, filled with eloquent stories and insights, and we will air them over the next few weeks. The first comes from a college senior:

I think I became an adult at 17. Yes, I had gone through puberty. Yes, I had boyfriends. Yes, I had jobs. But none of those traits specifically defined my adulthood.

In July of 2011, my father took a job in Arizona, leaving me and my sister alone. My mother has paranoid schizophrenia, and at the time she lived in upstate New York. (My parents are divorced.) I’m the oldest child, so I always assumed responsibility for my younger sister growing up. But that July, a responsibility I was not prepared to handle hit me in the face.

I’ll never forget the day, because for some reason I was up at 8am on a Tuesday. My sister was in summer school. After finishing a shower, I checked my phone to find a missed call. My high school nurse had left a message saying there was an emergency and that I needed to go to the school.

I get there to find my sister curled up in a ball in one of the patient rooms. A few police officers are there as well. The nurse tells me that my sister has hasn’t eaten any food in days and is close to dying and needs to go to the hospital. Because I was only 17 at the time, I did not have the legal authority to sign as my sister’s guardian. We had no one.

So my school called someone at Child Protective Services and they signed as my sister’s guardian. I remember sleeping in the emergency room with her as we waited for her to be admitted. I remember thinking how much I loved my little sister.

A few days later, I visited my sister in the hospital. The situation was terrible to begin with because she was in a psychiatric ward and you had to be 18+ to come during visiting hours, so they needed to schedule time separately during the day for me to see her. I’m in a room with the doctor and a man I’ve never seen before. He introduced himself as Mike and that he was assigned as my social worker. Perplexed, I asked why I’ve been assigned a social worker. He tells me that the Division of Youth and Family Services is investigating my father for child abandonment.  

Everything that happened that week changed me forever. Life was no longer was about me; it was about my younger sister; it was about my sick mother; it was about my surroundings. I sat through meetings with councilors and doctors, with people telling me that the way I was raised was not normal, that the abuse was not acceptable.

I knew I was an adult at that moment because I remember being sad for a little bit—but I remember trying to keep everything together so my sister could come home. I remember sneaking in Sour Patch Kids and a cell phone so we could communicate. I remember trying to make a plan. I remember bouncing back and moving on—and I think that makes someone an adult.

I’m so blessed today to still have my sister by my side, at a healthy weight, in college. I felt like a proud parent, cheering when she got to 80 pounds, 90 pounds, 100 pounds, 110 pounds! Love really has the power to change lives, and the love I have for my younger sister changed me. It made me become an adult.