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 on the Witness Stand

Jennifer Tonti has a poignant story for our reader series:

I was 18, in my freshman year of college. My father had been killed in an auto accident three years prior and our family was suing the insurance company of the driver who hit him. There were a lot of mysteries surrounding the circumstances of the accident—mysteries that the defense would certainly use to poke holes in our case—and our lawyer thought it was important to our success that we paint a picture of the man, a picture independent of that fateful night.

Which is where I came in, as a character witness.

From reader Sumayya Tobah:

I was 15 when I moved schools, moved countries, moved continents, to a place where I was deemed a stranger, an outsider, unwanted. Specifically, I went from Cairo, Egypt, to a little Canadian town in Ontario called London. And in that move, I found my voice and my strength. I was unable to hide in the crowd and just be a face in the hallways. I became a spokesperson for my faith, my people and myself. It was terrifying but most liberating.

I like to think an “adult” cannot be defined in superficial terms, but rather the characteristics a person embodies. I believe a person becomes an adult when they are capable of holding opinions that may be deemed unpopular or controversial, but they have enough conviction and self determination to stand by those opinions.

If you have your own immigrant experience to share, drop us an email. From another reader, Mohammad:

My dad’s story appears to me as something unique and profound, but the truth is, it’s a very common American story.

One of our previous readers was left alone by her parents as a teenager to care for her younger sister. Two more readers were basically abandoned after their parents divorced. Here’s the first:

This may be kind of a sad story, but I’m sure it won’t be the only sad one you’ll be getting. I’m now 37 years old, homeowner, wife, Registered Nurse, mother to a three year old and a two month old—all adult things. But I think I became an adult when I was 15.

My parents separated when I was 14 and I moved from a very rural area to a small town about 70 miles away. I went from a tiny rural school with seven kids in my grade level to a high school with about 300 kids in my grade. I was shy, or perhaps “slow to warm up” to new situations, as I still am today.

A year after their separation, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. I was told by my dad when I woke up one morning to the two of them arguing. When I got up for school that morning I remember asking, “What’s going on?,” and my dad saying angrily, “Your mom and I are getting a divorce and I’m going to treatment.” I was then expected to get ready for school as usual.

For our reader series addressing the question “when did you become an adult?,” Jennifer Goodland recalls a horrific experience from 1987:

You may identify me by name, unapologetically. I became an adult when a man who was staying with my neighbors broke in to my house one summer day and raped me. I was 11.

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.