Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

When Did You Become an Adult?
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Spurred by Julie Beck’s essay, readers describe the circumstances that led them to realize the moment they crossed into adulthood.

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Adulthood Means 'Accepting the Things I Cannot Change'

That’s the insight from reader Sara Luterman:

My parents and I just assumed I was mentally ill, lazy, and/or a bad person. I thought if I found the right psych drug cocktail or figured out what I was doing wrong, I’d be better and like everyone else.

I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until about a year and a half ago (although I suspected I might be autistic before that). I was kind of scared of getting a definitive diagnosis, honestly. Psych problems are fixable; autism isn’t.

Atlantic reader Erin Fitzhenry writes:

I’m 33. I’ve been married for eight years. My kids are nearly seven and four-and-a-half. I’ve had three “real,” “good” jobs. I’ve moved across the country twice with babies. I’ve bought and sold three homes.

Yet it was only this year that I started feeling like an adult. I fell in love with one of my friends. I came out of the closet.

I realized my needs conflicted with those of my family in a way that was more substantial than the everyday exhaustion I had learned to handle. I understood, for the first time, that sometimes there really are no perfect solutions, and I started to see that everywhere in my life. I realized everyone has needs that aren’t being met. Everyone is a little bit broken. All of those people who hurt me in my life were probably doing the best they could. I can hurt people. The best I can do sometimes is to minimize the damage, to apologize when apologies are due, to offer empathy and validation of others’ perspectives.

My husband and I decided to stay together. I understood over time that I was bisexual, but there was a very long moment when I was not sure. I feel like I grew up in that moment.

Valbona Bajraktari Schwab shares a dramatic story for our reader series:

Adulthood happened very early for me—the change, that is; that moment in time when you stop seeing the world around you as a big playground and you realize that it’s a minefield.

It was April 1985 in communist Albania. Our dictator, Enver Hoxha, had just passed away. I was 11 years old, in 5th grade, and as part of the youth leadership group of my middle school, I was asked to participate in the wake for our leader.

That’s the theme shared by these two readers. The first was in his early 40s when this happened:

I became an adult in December 2009, when I was stopped for a minor speeding infraction with a friend of mine after a night of drinking. Having no license, I decided in a moment of bluster to take off rather than take the ticket. I went on a 1.2 mile “high-speed” chase at 56 mph through downtown Brattleboro, Vermont.

But I quickly decided that I was out of my mind and pulled into the restaurant where I managed, parking my vehicle. Since I didn’t want to get my new clothes all nasty on the ground, I got up rather than stay down on the ground, as per the officer’s directions—and was summarily tased, twice.

Four years of Christian college, $60,000 a year job, a homeowner for 13 years, $25,000 lawyer’s fees … all of it disappeared that moment. I spent five years in prison. That’s when I knew I became an adult: the day I walked into prison.

The other reader, Brandon, also got into major trouble with alcohol:

I became an adult when I no longer trusted my own infallibility and survived.

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.

Julie explores that question at length in her popular new essay. Interspersed throughout the essay are excerpts from readers reflecting on adulthood, derived from a callout Julie made last month. About 150 of your emails arrived in our inbox and we carefully read through all of them to organize by theme and post the most compelling ones. To start off our series, here’s Rachel Mattingly:

I still remember the moment I first felt like an adult. Nothing particularly interesting was happening. I was sitting in the back of a car, admiring the scenery while being driven to a good hiking spot. I was just over 18; it was October, and my birthday had been in June.

The car was being driven by my host-grandparents while I was spending a year as an exchange student in Germany. I had already graduated from high school in the U.S., so I wasn’t there for the grades; I just wanted to see more of the world. I had grown a lot in the previous two years after leaving my parents’ house to go to a public residential school. It was the first time I’d really encountered people from different backgrounds and beliefs, and it had challenged me personally even more than it had academically.

In the back of that car, something clicked. I felt like some of the emotional chaos I had gone through over the previous two years as I lost my faith and struggled to find my place in the world was subsiding. Instead of feeling like I was in transition, busy becoming someone, I felt like I finally just was.

Another reader:

I went home for Christmas one year. It was the first time I had been able to afford non-crappy presents for everyone. My little brother and I went out to the bar and were comparing our health insurance and retirement plans.  That’s when I first had the thought, “Oh shit, I’m an adult!”

Another ah-ha moment:

I was writing out a grocery list with my husband. I was six months pregnant, though I didn’t own a home or even a car.  “Wow, I feel like such an adult right now.” It was definitely an epiphany moment.

I think the moment you realize you are an adult is the moment you had always imagined it to be. Or what you saw as a child—all the adult-like things people did. How cool it seemed. Well, here we are, discussing our vegetable preferences, and it isn’t half bad.

This reader takes a more dramatic turn:

I was born on January 30, 1967, but I didn’t become an adult until July 23, 1999, when my wife took our child and left me in the middle of the night. Reading the note she left on the kitchen counter was the first of many things I did as a grown up, including therapy, numerous reconciliations and split ups, single fatherhood, middle-aged online dating, achieving licensure as a professional engineer, running for elected office, remarrying and adopting a child from Haiti, becoming a published author, and admitting all these things to The Atlantic.

Many more of your admissions to come.

Or, for all you young readers like Trent, when do you think you ​will​ feel like a grown-up? In almost every part of the United States, Americans are legally adults when they turn 18, but that’s a fairly arbitrary cutoff, especially since they can’t legally drink until 21. Your body is mature after puberty, but that happens at different times for everyone, and your body keeps changing after that, of course. The brain continues to develop throughout life, so there’s no point at which it stops and you stabilize.

Are you an adult when you’ve got a job? Children as young as seven used to work in factories before the advent of child labor laws, and even now plenty of high schoolers have part-time jobs. Is it when you’re financially independent, or when you feel like you’ve figured out “who you are?” Some psychologists have begun to study the new life stage of “emerging adulthood,” which lasts from 18 to 25 or so. Are emerging adults not truly adults?

So when do you become an adult? No, I’m really asking. I’m asking in an article I’m working on (forthcoming!) and I’m also asking you, our readers. In a time when the traditional markers of Leave It To Beaver adulthood—employment, marriage, kids, home ownership—are not reliable guides, what are the milestones we make for ourselves? When did you really start to feel like a grown-up? Is there a moment or achievement you can pinpoint? Was it sudden or gradual?

I want to hear your stories. Send them to hello@theatlantic.com and please let me know if you are willing to have your name attached to your story in the article, or if you prefer to be anonymous.