Reporter's Notebook

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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Eating Your Vegetables

I love this little entry to our adulthood series from Valerie Earnshaw, who offers some lighter fare to the stories of infirmity and death and tyranny:

I was really jazzed to make and eat a beet salad one day—luscious beets, crunchy walnuts, and sweet cranberries on a bed of baby spinach drizzled with balsamic vinegar and oil. The realization hit me as I took my first bite: I was, quite officially, an adult. Non-adults simply don’t get excited about beet salads. By this point, I had blown by several adultish milestones without feeling like an adult: I had earned a PhD, lived with someone whom I referred to as my “partner,” paid bills and taxes, and took care of a dog. It wasn't until I felt that excitement for that beet salad, however, that I knew I had become adult.

Several readers answered the adulthood question by recalling the time they had to become a caretaker for someone who once raised them. Here’s Kate Hutton:

I’m steadily approaching 28, and I thought I was an adult when I got my first “real” job—salary, benefits, a commute to complain about—at 25. Turns out I was wrong. I don’t think I was truly an adult until I had to take care of my parents. Moving back in with my mom to help her through a new disability, staying by my father’s side through a week at the hospital, burying him unexpectedly—all in the span of a few months. You do a lot of growing up when you transition from being taken care of to a caretaker.

Another reader prefers that we “please post this anonymously so as to preserve my father’s privacy.” She recalls a grisly experience:

I think that I finally became an adult when my dad got very sick last year, when I was 25.

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.

A reader reflects on her freshman year of college, in 1978:

We had been watching one another in the dining hall from the first day of school and finally danced together at the Halloween party. By Thanksgiving, we were an item. He was a DJ on the college radio station and took me from my hippie music to dancing wildly in his room to The Cars, The Clash, and the new Rolling Stones album. His bed was up high on the frame so we could look out the window at the mountains and meadows and watch the dawn light fill the room from under his thick duvet.

So far in our series we’ve heard from readers who felt they reached adulthood through a variety of significant emotional events: abandoned by parents at an early age, getting busted by the cops, barely averting the wrath of a communist regime, losing a comrade in combat, getting properly diagnosed with autism, and coming out of the closet. Our latest reader experienced a far more common event:

I became an adult after my first marriage ended. Up until that point, I was living my life in service to and at the direction of my husband, my father, my mother, and every other figure of authority that moved through my world. When my marriage ended I was faced with the reality that those to whom I had I trusted my life had not actually agreed to accept that responsibility.

It took another year and a half to fully grasp what this meant. January 4, 2010. The day I broke. This is also the day that I found my bootstraps, grew up, and moved into adulthood. Today I have designed a lovely life that looks and feels and sounds and behaves exactly like me.

From a woman in her early 30s:

I was always a tiny adult from a young age—an only child of an only child, with a single mother who herself was the daughter of a single mother. I related better to adults than children and couldn’t wait to grow up. I knew what all the signifiers were, and I was on track to attain them all.

Dave Dixon recounts a traumatic experience:

For me, pinpointing the day I became an adult is very simple. My transition to adulthood was a sudden, jarring occurrence. The day was 7 April 2004, and the place was Taji, Iraq.

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.