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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Becoming an Adult After Losing a Parent

Many readers have written in detailing how they didn’t truly become an adult until one or both of their parents died. Our first reader, Crystal, was a 20-year-old college student when tragedy struck:

On July 5, 1987, Mom called and told me Dad had died. My life changed dramatically after that, and I felt alone and vulnerable. My dad always helped me whenever I needed him—advice about guys, helping me move, fixing my car … he was always there.

We also shared a birthday on July 29th. I knew I was truly “on my own” when I celebrated the first birthday without him.

This reader was also 20 when his dad died:

I’m the youngest of five siblings and the only one who left home (at 18), never to return. When I lost my father, my uncle told me that “No boy can be a man while his father is alive.”

John Mason pinpoints the day his father passed away:

Sunday, March 16, 2014.

The process began on a Friday. I was home for Spring Break during my junior year, and my dad, Bill, was feeling a little under the weather. I didn’t think anything of it. But my mom insisted he go to the doctor, which was prescient and wise, but it didn’t matter in the end: He was diagnosed with cancer. Specifically it was a type of leukemia that to this day the doctors still cannot identify.

He passed that Sunday, as suddenly as he was diagnosed. We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

Our video team shot a charming video of short interviews on the streets of New York centered on the question, “How do you know when you’re a grown-up?”:

A reader who watched the video writes:

The “responsible for yourself” has it right. You don’t need to have kids, get married, buy a house, etc (though all that will certainly give you more responsibilities). Some people are 18-years old and grown up. Some are double/triple that age and haven’t reached it yet.

Speaking of New York City, the following email came in responding to our callout for stories of reaching adulthood. Here’s Lauren:

After I got married and had my first son, I thought I would start feeling like an adult. Then after I landed a dream job, bought a house, and relocated my family to a new town where we didn’t know anyone, I thought I would start feeling like an adult. Even after I had my second son three months ago, I kept waiting for the feeling to kick in.

Then the other day my eldest, almost four, watched an episode of Reading Rainbow about September 11.

Last week, our video team revived our long discussion thread on adulthood by producing a series of person-on-the-street interviews in Manhattan (re-embedded above). We still have a ton of your emails and are trying to post as many of the best ones as we can. One of the most common themes for the question “When did you become an adult?” is financial independence, namely from parents. Here’s reader Michelle, age 38:

Great question! I felt like an adult at age 26. For the earlier part of my twenties, I rarely lived at my family home, but I searched out opportunities to live for free—friends’ homes, non-profits that offered housing, jobs where you could live on-site. But at 26, I got a studio apartment in a big city and paid rent through my own efforts. Living alone for the first time was my entry into true adulthood; financial independence and self-knowledge occurred in those rocky but wonderful years.

Megan Von Bergen gets a bit more specific with her marker:

One of the first times I really felt like an adult was when I started paying my first utility bills, during graduate school. This was my very first apartment. Paying bills was something I’d seen my parents do, it was something I was never involved in, and so to take responsibility for a mundane task made me really feel like an adult.

Ironically, for the first few weeks, this made me really excited about paying bills.

Stephen Grapes, on the other hand, isn’t quite there yet:

I don’t think I’ve become an adult just yet. I’m a 21 year-old American student who lives almost entirely off of my parent’s welfare.

Our reader note about New Yorkers becoming adults made me think of a New York magazine essay by the late humorist David Rakoff, one of my favorite writers, about coming of age in New York City. He arrived there from Toronto as a college freshman in 1982:

It was what I took away from most every encounter: an almost obliterating desire to “pass” as a New Yorker, to authentically resemble one of the denizens of the movie Manhattan. More than the Deco penthouse aeries of characters in old musicals, more than the moral elasticity and heartless grit of backstage Broadway in All That Jazz, perhaps on par with the gin-swilling savagery of All About Eve, it was the city as embodied in Manhattan I ached for. The high-strung friends with terrible problems, the casual infidelities, the rarefied bohemianism—ERA fund-raisers in the garden at MoMA, gallery-hopping followed by filling one’s simple grocery list at Dean & DeLuca.

There was no one specific moment when the rigorous self-consciousness gave way to authenticity. It was more of a dim realization that the very act of playing the “Are we a New Yorker yet?” game means you aren’t one yet.

We’ve heard a variety of takes from New Yorkers on their markers for adulthood, which spurred Jillian to reflect on her own experience in the Big Apple. Our latest NYC story comes from reader Tricia, who contends that it’s “actually the easiest place in the world to be an adult”:

When I first gave thought to this question, I thought the answer was financial independence—that it must have been in October when I got my first paycheck as a lawyer and paid my first month of rent on my own without my parents’ help. But then I thought no, it was actually a few months before that. I was up late at night studying for the New York Bar Exam when a mouse appeared from behind my trash can.

I screamed, as one does. As if in a cartoon, the mouse screamed back, jumped, and ran back behind the trash can. I wasn’t sure what to do.