Parenthood as Adulthood

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

The most common theme among all the emails we got from Julie’s callout involved the experience of becoming a parent. Here’s our first reader, Jack:

On a cool, rainy, Sunday morning in July 1952, I received a telephone call that the love of my life had been admitted to Bethesda Hospital in St Paul, Minnesota. She was having our first child and I had been on “Alert” at an Air Force station in Wisconsin. I drove, recklessly, to the hospital, approximately 40 miles away, and as I approached the parking area I realized for the first time I had become an adult. I was a father at 18 years old and the love of my life was 17. It is now 64 years later and we are still together.

Carol looks back 24 years:

It was 7 am on Christmas morning, 1991. I was in labor ready to deliver my first child. I couldn’t reach my parents by phone and no one knew we were at the hospital—just my husband and me. I distinctly remember thinking “this is my family now.”

Jeff Carter’s first child was also born that year:

I remember the moment of my adulthood quite vividly. I was 23. It was April 19, 1991, and I was standing in a hospital corridor. My wife at the time had to have general anesthesia for the Caesarian, in a room from which I’d been excluded. Nobody was around, and the silence was broken by the cries of a newborn. *My* newborn. My blood ran cold, and afterwards I never just did anything randomly again. My daughter and her sister figured into every decision I made and still do, even though they are both well into their 20s.

Deb Bissen remembers her momentous day:

I think I only truly felt like an adult driving home from George Washington University hospital, sitting in the back seat of our Honda Accord with our tiny, premature daughter.

While my husband drove more carefully than he ever had before, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I worried that she seemed much too small for her car seat, that she might suddenly stop breathing, or that her little head could tip over. I think we both couldn’t believe that we were now in charge, by ourselves, of this teeny, tiny human. Armed with our What to Expect the First Year bible, we were totally responsible for this baby’s existence, and it felt enormously overwhelming, and so grownup.

Carly Callison didn’t truly feel like an adult until her second child was born:

I was 29 years old, had been married for six years, a homeowner for almost seven years, and I had an almost two-year-old little boy. On February 22, 2009, my youngest son Wilson was born. A very easy and uneventful labor turned into a dramatic turn of events. The nurse practitioner believed he had trisomy 21 or Down Syndrome. He also had what they suspected was a heart defect.

Fast forward two days and I’m sitting in the NICU with my mom rocking my baby boy. The neonatologist came over to me and started explaining how Wilson was doing and what tests they were ordering, including an echocardiogram. After he finished speaking I looked at my mom and said “Was he talking to me or you?” She replied, “He was talking to you.”

At that moment everything changed. Decisions I never imagined considering were part of our lives now.  Six and a half years later, Wilson is a thriving, healthy little boy who does have Down Syndrome. I wouldn’t change a thing, and it’s a happy memory realizing that he is responsible for me growing up.

Mike Anderson reached that threshold even before his kid was born:

I feel like I became an adult when I found out I was going to be a father. I was 23 and had been married for three years. I had a bachelor’s degree but really hadn’t started a career yet. When I knew that I had to be responsible for my child for a very, very long time, I had to stop living my life day to day; I had to plan for the next 20 or more years.

Milt Lee went the adoption route:

I think I was 23 before I started to think of myself as an adult. That was when we adopted our first child and brought him home. It was then that it was clear that my life was not just about me; it was about this little guy who needed to be cared for every day. Every hour of the day somebody had to be sure to be paying attention to him, and if it wasn’t you, then you needed to find somebody to watch him for a few hours, until you were back to keep watching him.

It’s interesting that lots of things happened to me before then that someone would think would make you feel grown up, such as getting two women pregnant, and various other things that have had a huge effect on my life (my mom died when I was 17—that was a big deal). But none of those things, or another dozen or so major events (such as getting married), felt like I was an adult. They merely made me feel like I was a dumb kid (or helpless).

P.S. I’m a documentarian, and we are working on a play and a video called “Tribe: Blood and Belonging.”  My wife, Jamie Lee (she publishes under Patricia Jamie Lee) wrote a book on rites of passage (The Lonely Place) that addresses many of these issues of becoming an adult.

Here’s Matthew in D.C., a stay-at-home dad:

I would say that I really felt like an adult when I held my child in my arms for the first time. It’s when I started to deal with real compromise and financial sacrifice. It’s when I stopped living only for myself.

Before this event, I felt like an adult on and off throughout my 20s and early 30s, but never really had a grasp of the thing. When I was going to bed at a decent time and waking up on time to get to work, refreshed and ready to go, I generally felt more grown up. Yet if I started going through a bout of partying, playing lots of video games, and looking for drunken hookups, I stopped feeling like an adult. I spent most of my 20s like this, so I never really grasped the upper rings of adulthood.

Nowadays, when I very rarely wake up late in the morning with a hangover, I have brief flashes of guilt that make me feel like an irresponsible college kid again. But I power through because I don’t have choice.

That makes me think of Jim Breuer’s brilliant comedy special, “And Laughter For All,” when he talks about parenting with a hangover:

One more email on parenthood, from P.J., who merges another Notes thread:

After reading Julie’s callout for coincidences, I just so happened to be reading Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life before bed and came across these lines in the book describing the story's four best friends grappling with their own perceptions of adulthood:

But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling with possibilities. Without them, one's status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, or perpetual doubt.

As a non-parent, I found this description to be spot. Regardless of how many other metrics of adulthood I master, there's a societal stamp of approval as an adult that comes with having a child that will always be waiting. Until then, if ever, I'll be charting my own course, continually attempting to convince myself and others of my adulthood.

Coincidentally, Julie just posted her essay on coincidences, before I started putting this note together. A thread on your own crazy coincidences is coming soon.