My brother is four years older than I am. When I was 13 and he was 17, he dove head-first into drug and alcohol abuse. It all began simply enough, as apparently these things do. Most kids grow out of it. But what began as hidden packs of Marlboro Reds and vehement, nearly hysterical pleas that his eyes were only red because his contacts were dry, eventually turned into missing valuables, violent eruptions at the slightest provocation, court dates, lawyer’s fees, rehab, nights in jail, my mother driving around the streets with street dealers hoping desperately to find any sign of life.
But there was one pivotal night where I finally understood that this wasn’t just a phase my brother was going through.
The summer before my 15 birthday I spent most of my time at home holed up in my room, reading or writing or chatting with my friends on the now-ancient AOL Instant Messenger. My brother had become verbally and physically abusive towards me any time he was around, because at 15 I had no money to give him and I wouldn’t let him steal anything else of mine for drug money.
I had become so angry about what he had turned my family into, about how sharply his behavior shined a light on my parents’ inability to say no to him and further inability to say yes to me. In my mind, I had asked them to keep me safe from him and, in their way, they told me that his safety (staying off the streets) was more important than mine (feeling safe in my own home, feeling safe from the social stigma he had caused me at school, feeling protected by my parents).
So, one balmy night I was listening to sad music and zoning out online when I heard a rumbling downstairs, like a thunderclap. I walked through the hallway and down the stairs and saw my brother, utterly inebriated, moving like a Frankenstein monster toward my father. He was carrying a broom handle and trying to hit my father like a piñata.
In his stupor, he missed. He flipped our kitchen table and its contents over on its side. He swung again. This time, my father, a Vietnam vet, wrenched the broom away from him and knocked him down with one punch. Then my father collapsed himself, down to his knees, clutching his heart.
God help me, I ran to my brother first. I leaned down to him and with breath bordering on smokey from the stench of Southern Comfort he said, “Krista, I’m sorry I ruined your life.”
A few feet away, my father wheezed and heaved and I ran to him, frenziedly trying to understand what happened. But I knew what had happened. My brother came home piss drunk at 19 and my father had tried to be a parent about it. In turn, my brother got violent, and in order to save us from him, my dad did something he had never wanted to do, something which had been done to him countless times: He hit his son.
Within seconds, my mother, who had somehow missed the shouting match, the table flip, and two labored thuds, flew down the stairs screaming. She called the police. I stuck around while arrogant local cops asked me condescending questions and took my brother away.
When it was finally just my parents and me, I put on my shoes, grabbed my school bag, and without any words I walked a mile down the road to my best friend’s house. She and her parents gave me big hugs and put me to bed without asking any questions.
The next morning, I knew it was over. I may not have felt like an adult yet, but I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore.
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.
The trial was to take place during spring break. Needless to say, I could not have been looking forward to my break less. I spent the train ride to Philadelphia silently cursing my friends who were headed off to warmer and more pleasurable pastures, wondering why my mom was burdening me with testifying on my father’s behalf for a stupid tragedy from which we had since recovered.
On the first day of the trial, I had spent the better part of the morning in the back of the room listening to the testimony of a series of witnesses and forensic experts. By the time we broke for lunch, I had concluded that we didn’t exactly have a lock on the win, in no small part due to the tenacity of the defense attorney. But I had seen enough episodes of LA Law to know this was just business.
At 2:00, I was called to the witness stand. Our lawyer asked the first question and I dutifully launched into a rehearsed soliloquy about how loving and supportive my father was: how he built me a tree house from scraps when I was seven, how he taught me to drive a stick at 12, how we shared a daily breakfast ritual during the school week.
It was while I was talking about our mutual love of fried eggs that I realized I was sobbing. The frozen recollections that I had impassively recounted myriad times in our lawyer’s office had somehow defrosted into clear and profound memories, and suddenly the emotions that I had been stifling for three years were streaming onto my face. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to flee from the courtroom.
The judge had us pause, handing me a tissue. As I wiped my eyes I noticed that the defendant’s attorney was crouched beside his client talking at him more animatedly than I had seen him all day. He kept looking over his shoulder at the jury, who were regarding me through collectively concerned eyes. When he put his hand up to indicate to the judge that he needed a few minutes, it suddenly hit me that the defense was going to settle.
Everything came into focus. I finally comprehended that the point of my testimony was not simply to tell stories about my father, but to humanize him in the eyes of the jury. What’s more, my participation was so much bigger than simply helping us win the case; it was helping my mom secure a future for what was left of our family. In other words, it was business for us, too.
And the mere fact that I had had this insight made me realize right then that I was an adult.
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.
Born and raised poor overseas, he worked his way through medical school in his homeland before telling his wife and newborn son to wait while he came to the United States in search of a better world for both his old and new families. There is a litany of aspects of my father’s life I find great poetry in, but one of my favorite is the fact that when he first moved to the U.S., when he couldn’t find a residency, he found a job in and moved to a city named Man, West Virginia.
I was born four years later in the Midwest. I was your average kid, with the exception that all popular culture and social integration I learned was self-taught. My parents were learning about it the same time I was, so I had to provide my own context. I learned about things like music, sports, girls, social interaction, even language to a degree, on my own.
One thing that was inherited from my dad, however, was a deep love of knowledge, specifically of news and world events. My very earliest memories of my father involve him coming home from work and sitting down on the couch to watch the national news broadcast, followed immediately by the Newshour on PBS. This didn’t change for many years, and along with some of my other social impediments, it helped me turn into the oldest 14 year old you’ve ever met. I was far more comfortable in a room full of adults discussing politics and news (and occasionally trying to chime in) than I was playing with kids in my own peer group. Even as I got a littler older, I held a deeply held view that education, getting a job, and getting married were paramount to a happy life.
So to answer the question honestly, I first felt like an adult around the age of 16.
Somewhere in the decade that followed, however, I had a pretty big reversion to the mean. My child-like wonder and idealism grew as the “responsible” decision making discarded risk aversion and embraced ideas like regular Kerouac-esque road tripping around the country just for the kicks and not worrying about words like “career path.” I gave the adult in me away and felt very much like a child, with all its benefits and denotations.
Three years ago, my father, my hero and role model in life, was diagnosed with very late stage pancreatic cancer. I was seated next to him in the hospital room when the oncologist came in and delivered the news and presented possible treatment options. Knowing the risk/reward proposition very well, my father stoically nodded and said he’d prefer to just go home and be with his family.
In the five or so weeks between that and when he passed away, I witnessed both beautiful and horrible things. I saw a man knowing his life was ending, and taking it with a grace I don’t think I’ll ever have the strength for. I moved in with my parents and, despite not being a doctor, served as his health provider, carrying out his medical orders. When he died, it was with all of his family by his side.
Reading “watching my father die” sounds horrific, but it wasn’t. Like everything else in his life, he approached it with an optimist and gravitas that brought comfort to everyone around him. It was certainly painful, but it was also poetic and reassuring to think of how beautiful a life he lived.
Being a child or an adult is not a binary function. Rather, it’s an ebb and flow, a scale that is re-calibrated on a regular basis. Losing my father was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced and certainly made me an adult in so many ways. However, it also reminded me of the brevity in humanity, and to maintain childish behaviors. The fact that time passes and I should both enjoy it and make it count is perhaps the most adult lesson there is.
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.
My dad went through an in-patient alcohol treatment program for 30 days shortly thereafter. I met my first boyfriend that school year, too, after the treatment and the divorce were underway. My mom, rather than talk to me about how I was feeling herself, sent me to a counselor. I quickly learned to tell this professional what she wanted to hear.
As far as the boyfriend, I had never even kissed anyone, and we quickly started spending a lot of time driving around in his little sports car and making out. We had sex for the first time just four months after we started dating, and we used a condom … but I was scared out of my mind about being pregnant. I decided to talk to my mom about it. I asked her, “You think I’m grown up enough to make my own decisions, right?” She looked sidelong at me. I proceeded to tell her that I had had sex with my boyfriend and we used a condom. She tried to awkwardly make a joke by asking, “Was it (the condom) blue?” I was mortified and immediately regretted telling her anything.
But I was smart enough to know that the possibility of pregnancy was a real one, and shortly thereafter I asked her again to take me to the doctor to talk about birth control options. She said, “I think that putting teenagers on birth control just makes them think they have permission to have sex.” Again, mortified.
Throughout the rest of my relationship with this boyfriend (a few more months), my mother would ask me angrily, “So what do you two do when you go out driving in his car?” and say things to me like, “If you get pregnant, I’m not going to help you take care of that baby.”
I was smart and assertive enough, though, to use a condom every time and never had an unplanned pregnancy. However, it was that year that I realized I was on my own. It wasn’t safe to confide in my mother and my father—he was, well, barely past the emotional level of a teenager at that point. That’s when I became an adult: When I realized no one was going to protect me but myself.
This reader’s parents were even more absent:
I became an adult when I was 16 and my parents split up. They are both drank excessively for the next several years and I had to take care of myself. I moved in with my older sister and I got a fast food job, which I worked 30 hours a week in order to pay for my necessities. I got health care at Planned Parenthood. I put off all dental work until I graduated college, because I had no dental insurance, but brushed my teeth carefully to try to avoid needing it. I realized I was having trouble seeing by senior year, so I saved up for some glasses out of my own paycheck. I was exhausted all of the time, because I had to keep doing well in school and keep up with my extracurriculars (which I also paid for) so that I could get scholarships to a good school where I could live on campus.
Being an adult at 16 and 17 was difficult, because colleges I was interested in attending took a lot of convincing that I should be considered an adult for their purposes, but legally, I was advised that I was too old for pursuing emancipation. Through the hard work of a really great guidance counselor, I did get to apply to college independently and got into a prestigious liberal arts college.
What made being an adult so young easier was the support of friends and teachers, and the fact that in my Midwestern high school I was not the only person taking on the responsibilities of adulthood early. There were young men and women with children in my class, another honors student spent her senior year pregnant, and a large number of people got married and/or had children within two years of graduating. One close friend was in prison by the time he was 20. And most of us had jobs throughout high school. Overall, we were a group of people genuinely on the cusp of adulthood, with both its joys and its sorrows.
Being an adult from 18-22 at a prestigious liberal arts college was harder. Most of the students around me did not act like adults, and plenty told me they did not feel like adults. Everything about the college was set up to serve students who had a supportive family ready and able to fly them home for every break. I still remember making myself sick eating macaroni and cheese and ramen for seven days of Thanksgiving break because the dining halls were closed and I had no kitchen in which to cook. Even with scholarships, I couldn’t live on my work study job (which could only give me eight hours/week), so I had a second job for the last two years of college. And I felt isolated by my experience on a campus where students who couldn’t figure out how to buy stamps on their own would make fun of my friends back home for getting married at 19. (Those friends are still happily married, 14 years later.)
Now in my early thirties, I have some of the trappings of middle-class adult life: I’m married, I have an advanced degree, a career, a bank account. Home-ownership is only frustratingly out of reach right now, instead of ludicrously implausible. To many eyes, I look like an adult now. But I was an adult then.
If you are wondering, I don’t feel as though I missed out on anything. I still had fun and friends. And, as much as I sometimes felt sad or resentful that there wasn’t a safety net beneath me if I flunked out of college, I mostly felt sorry for my friends who confessed that they did not feel like adults. They seemed unsure of themselves. Some asked their parents permission before getting a haircut, or deciding on a major. I really think I would have chafed at the lack of freedom.
I wish the circumstance had been happier, but I did not feel personally unready for adulthood at 16. As my husband and I prepare to have children of our own, a question on our mind is, “How do we instill the sense of self-reliance and resilience we felt as young adults in our own children, without the literal abandonment we both experienced?”
Update from a reader with a somewhat similar story:
I became an adult when I was 16. My parents separated when I was 14, and over the course of the next 18 months my mother moved across the country to live with her parents, my older brother went to college, and my father got a job in a city two hours away, so he lived there from Monday through Friday.
I don’t have a great recollection of how long this lasted or the exact details of the arrangement, but I remember there was always food in the house and some cash in a bag in the freezer. My father came home on the weekends and sometimes on one weeknight, but that was mostly to go to his match at the local tennis league. I recall feeling distinctly like I could no longer rely on anyone but myself from that point on. I bought most of my clothes at charity thrift stores and limited the number my college tests and applications because I couldn’t afford to pay for more.
The strange thing is that I don’t think I realized how wrong the situation was until about ten years later. When I was in my late 20s my best friend’s mother told me she was appalled by what happened and that she considered stepping in but held off because I seemed to be keeping things together and I spent enough time at her house that she could keep an eye on me there. After I went to college, the house I had lived in was sold and I haven’t felt like I’ve had a “childhood home” since then, except maybe at my best friend’s mom’s house.
I’m 35 now and married with two kids. I own my own home, have a professional degree and career, and I think the things that kept me from flying off the rails were my friends’ parents looking out for me, the sports teams I was on, and determination I found after realizing that I had nobody but myself to catch me if I fell.
I had not yet menstruated, not yet become a woman, but I was an adult. And there was no question in my mind that it should be reported. The responding police officer accused me of making it up. He made jokes. He implied that me wearing a pair of shorts inside my own house had seduced the rapist. When I forgot that I’d met the man once, briefly, then remembered, the officer used that to imply that I was lying. The officer had to be kicked out of the examination room during the rape kit because he made jokes about my lack of pubic hair. When I picked the rapist out of a photo lineup, he sabotaged the photo lineup. When I found out that this man had raped two other girls my age from the neighborhood, I understood why they did not report to the police.
In those days, it was standard for any rape victim to be blamed for the crime, no matter what the circumstances. The prank calls and slurs I would endure from neighbors and other kids and their parents were a defense mechanism, a way for them to convince themselves that their children won’t be raped as long as they aren’t slutty (which I must have been) or had the right parents (which I must not have had) or attended church regularly (which I did not). Victim-blaming is easier for most people than thinking that it could happen to them.
I was an adult when I realized that the only sense of justice I could trust in this world was my own. I vowed that I would use my voice to make up for those other two girls whose families told them to keep quiet.
In my high school, girls were date-raped often, but they could convince themselves it wasn’t really rape because they were wearing the wrong clothes or drank a beer or didn’t get their own ride. I remember three of the popular girls discussing how they didn’t want to go to a party that weekend because they were still healing from their last unwilling encounter, but they were resigned to the inevitably that sex was not their choice to make. Surely they’d learned as much from their parents’ reactions to my “scandal.” These girls could (and did) spit on me during the day, and then lean on my shoulder after school because I was the only one who was publicly identifiable as a survivor. I was different in a bad way as far as they were concerned, but having to rely on my own sense of fairness and compassion because I found almost none in my town made me stronger than those who fit in. By listening to and empathizing with my bullies in those secret sessions, I hoped to lend some of that strength to them.
In college I took academic work related to sexual assault, particularly the prosecution of rape as a war crime. Not that I was ever a leader in that fight, but it takes a lot of people to form a movement. I spoke at Take Back The Night. I’ve done a lot of other things professionally; sexual assault hasn’t taken over my life. I do struggle with PTSD (mostly from something else, not from the rape). So mine is not a neat linear tale of recovery, but a story of how strength comes from a lot of different places. I am unapologetically and publicly a survivor of a rape, and since the moment I felt his hands grab me, I knew I would neither capitulate nor retreat. Not inside, and not to a rapist, not to a badge, and not to a slew of cowardly victim-blaming phone calls.
I was raped on July 20th, 1987.
I was married on July 20th, 2002.
We could have chosen any date, any year. I’ve planted a flag on that date and redefined it. I took July 20th from my rapist and gave it to someone far more deserving. I have a fantastic husband who loves me for all my faults, just as I love him for his. We had happily been living in sin since high school. He had to grow up too fast as well, and maybe we wouldn’t have found each other if not for that.
I’m not fully an adult, and I’ll be damned if I ever consent to becoming one. But standing on my own two legs during a time when everyone seemed to judge what once happened between them was the major formative event in my life. For all its ups and downs, I like my life. I am secure in it. If I want to look like a fool crawling on my belly chasing after a bug with my camera, I will. If I want to be overjoyed at simple pleasures, I will. If I want to follow my bliss professionally, I’m blissful. Call me childish, because I’ve been called worse in the course of that one adult moment. The ways in which I am an adult enable all the ways in which I refuse to fully become one.
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.
Previously, I had been through college, graduate school, and my first year of full-time employment and lived on my own. I had always paid my own bills and been generally self-supporting, but I relied on my parents a lot for emotional support and help with daily things, like knowing when to take my car to the mechanic or how to deal with difficult landlords. I suffer with a lot of anxiety, so I’ve been pretty emotionally needy at times.
I moved back in with my parents for a few months while I looked for an apartment. During this time, my dad—who had generally been in denial about his diabetes despite desperate pleas for him to seek medical care—took a turn for the worse. He burned his foot on a space heater, and the sore (which he kept hidden from us) slowly worsened from sore to infection to gangrene. The smell of his foot became unbearable and we realized how truly ill he was. We soon realized what was going on despite his secrecy and begged him to go to the doctor, but he violently refused.
Then one night I came downstairs and he was shivering so badly he couldn’t speak in complete phrases. I’ve never seen someone so ill in my life. It was so raw and horrific that I felt like he was slipping away as I watched. The instinct of “I need a real adult to handle this situation” kicked in, so I went to find my mother, but I soon realized that she needed me as much as I needed her. She too was paralyzed by his anger and our own fear for his life. We joined forces, begging, threatening, and bargaining with him to go to the hospital.
After an hour of screaming (between shivers and gasps), he caved in and agreed to go to the hospital. When he finally arrived, he had a temperature of 105. He was diagnosed with sepsis from the gangrene and part of his foot was amputated.
In the months that followed, he still resisted many lifestyle changes that doctors asked him to make. My mother and I had to present a united front and often had to fight with both my father and his doctors. For the first time, I realized that my parents were not in a position to handle my trivial emotional, physical, and lifestyle baggage, and so I wanted to protect them from it. I finally felt like whatever happened in my life was my own problem to solve, and also that I was capable of handling it.
Luckily my father has since recovered and my parents are doing okay again, but something in me changed that night. I handle my own issues to a much greater extent. I’ve since moved out and purchased my own home. I don’t feel like an “emerging adult” anymore; I’ve become a full adult.
A 53-year-old reader shares the “one moment that stands out in my mind” about becoming a true adult:
It was around 2009, when my mother had to move from one assisted living facility to another. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, so in a nutshell, I had to lie to her to get her in the car. The new facility had a lock-down unit, which was then the only practical option for her. It was not the first time I had told her a “white lie” in order to get her to do something, the way you might tell a child. But it was the only time I can recall when she realized I had lied to her, tricking her into leaving her apartment. She gave me a look of realization that I will never forget.
I was once married but never had children. I suppose if I had ever had children, I would have “become an adult” at some point during the parenting experience. Maybe there are certain “micro-betrayals” that go along with being responsible for someone. I don’t know. I prefer to remain ignorant about that.
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.
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.
Frank went out running. He collapsed in front of the main buildings on our campus. Someone who happened to be teaching CPR at the health center came out and kept his heart beating.
He was put on life support in the hospital. I was not welcome to see him because his parents were upset that he was dating a Jewish woman. (My friends described seeing his toes sticking out from the bottom of the sheet on the hospital bed.) I was wildly pained by their rejection and stayed in my room crying.
Two days later, his life support was shut off. His sister came to pack up his room and I helped her, holding each one of his shirts up to my face and inhaling his smell. She let me keep two of his favorites—one a worn grey cotton with a red fist that he had slept in just a few night earlier, with me snuggled up by his side.
She and I cried together, and she told me that the pain for her parents was terrible. She said, “No parent should ever have to bury a child.” I was so angry that her words didn’t penetrate.
I didn’t go to the wake, but I did go to the church service and then to the funeral, which was held beneath a tent on a cold and rainy afternoon. His parents welcomed his friends and ignored me. I stayed back a few rows, not wanting to make things anymore horrible than they already were.
At the end of the prayers, his sister walked back through the crowd to find me and handed me a white rose to put on the coffin. When I pressed that flower to the polished wood and said my goodbyes, I thought about what K. had said about her parents grief. They were holding one another up, still standing at the edge of the tent, reluctant to leave their baby.
I understood and I forgave them. And in doing so, I left my childhood behind.
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.
I moved away from home to attend college, graduated college, and moved to the big city to get on with my life. I got a job that turned into a career. I went to graduate school. I bought a little bachelorette pad, got a dog, and my career took off.
I met someone, and married him. We bought a bigger house. But every single day, I woke up feeling like a child in an adult body. “Who let me make million dollar decisions? Who are these fools who pay me to advise them? Don’t they know I still eat potato chip sandwiches and would rather be in sweatpants?” I felt like an imposter despite my credentials and evidence that I was as adult as anyone else.
Then my marriage crumbled under the weight of his addiction and we separated. When I told my friends, I learned that I had been a better imposter than I realized: No one had any idea that my he was an addict, that our marriage was troubled, that I was unhappy. I put so much effort into faking it that there was no energy left to make it.
When the divorce was finalized, I looked at what I had left: friends who supported me no matter what, a career that was taking off despite personal setbacks, the house I kept, my dog, my ever-supportive family. And I realized that I didn’t have the interest or energy or time to fake anything anymore.
I had to be brought to my knees to realize that I could just be me. When I finally stopped building an image of myself for public consumption, I learned authenticity—and with it, true adulthood, inside and out.
This reader seems on the verge of divorce:
I’m an obgyn and I watch women struggle through many life changes. I see my late teen and early 20s patients acting more grown up and thinking they “know it all.” I see my patients learning to be new moms and wishing they had a guide book, feeling lost. I see women through divorce and trying to find themselves afterwards. I see them trying to hold onto youth during menopause and after. I see them embarrassed to be incontinent in their later years or embarrassed they have to use a walker. As a result, I have been reflecting for a while on this very topic of “becoming an adult.”
I am a mom, have three kids in elementary, married (unhappily unfortunately), and I still feel like I’m growing up. My spouse cheated on me—that was a wake up call. I started asking myself “what do YOU want?” and “what makes YOU happy?” I think I had gone through life not questioning many things along the way.
As a 40-year-old woman, I feel like this is the time I’m becoming an adult—it’s now, but it hasn’t completely happened yet. During my marital conflicts I started therapy (I wish I had done this in my 20s). It’s now that I'm learning, really learning, who I am. I don’t know if I will stay married. I don’t know how that will look for my kids or for me down the line. I suspect that if I leave, then I will feel like an adult, because then I did something for ME.
I think the answer to “When do you become an adult?” has to do with when you finally accept yourself. My patients who are trying to stop time through menopause don’t seem like adults even though they are in their mid-40s and mid-50s. My patients who seem secure through any of life struggles—those are the women who seem like adults. They still have a young soul but roll with all the changes, accepting the undesirable changes in their bodies, accepting the lack of sleep with their children, accepting the things they cannot change.
My men and I had spent the last two days driving from Kuwait to just north of Baghdad and had arrived at Taji the previous night. It was too dark to move into our CHUs—the metal trailers we would live in for the next year—so we’d spent the previous night on our vehicles.
On the morning of the seventh, me and everybody else in the unit were unpacking our gear and moving it into our rooms. I was in a fellow lieutenant’s trailer, complaining about something insignificant that I can’t remember, when it happened: a whump that shook the ground and made all the metal walls flex. We poked our head out the trailer—just like everyone else in the unit—as if we couldn’t believe what we’d just heard. In retrospect, of course it was a rocket or a mortar, but even though we’d been relentlessly trained how to respond, the first time it happened, everyone just stared at each other in disbelief.
For about three seconds.
When the next one landed—even closer this time—the ear splitting boom was accompanied by the zip-ping of shrapnel as it lanced through our metal trailers. We all flinched, and then there was the sound of feet scurrying on gravel and shouts of “Incoming! Incoming!”
I found myself—I don’t even remember running—in the middle of the low, U-shaped concrete bunker on the north side of our trailers, along with at least 20 other soldiers, pressed together in the sweat and heat and fear, staring at the whites of each other’s bulging eyes. At the east end, farthest from me, two medics were already crouched down whispering and cursing to each other, working on a soldier who was laying on his back in the gravel just inside the bunker entrance.
A sergeant and a soldier dragged another soldier in to the west entrance, closest to me, and shouted “Medic! Medic, goddamn it, we need a medic!”
“I’m already down here, working on him!” came one of the medic’s shouted replies from the eastern end. There were so many people in the bunker and it was so low, the medic had no idea the soldiers nearest me were calling for help for a different soldier.
“No, I need another one!”
The whole bunker went quiet while everybody processed what that meant. The second soldier they’d dragged in was a color of pale green I’d only seen described in books. I stood in the bunker, pressed among my men, with a dying man on my left and a dead one to my right.
I was 23 and had never seen a man die.
It was there, that day in Iraq, that I became a man. It wasn’t the four years I’d spent at West Point, not being commissioned as a lieutenant, not my time in training, not even when I’d married my wife right before deployment. No, it was there when I really realized that life was a short, fragile thing, and that its end can come like lighting out of clear blue sky, whether in the US or in Iraq.
I understood that my charmed American life up to that point had been a blissful extended childhood compared to what was coming next. It was then that I was an adult, because in a flash I understood that what I had thought normal before was instead an aberration, and that violence and hate and blood was what the rest of the world lived on a daily basis. I entered the bunker a wide-eyed child and came out aged a 100 years.
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.
Diagnosis has really improved my life. An autism diagnosis means accepting the things I cannot change. (I’ve written a little about it here.) It’s OK that I can’t do some things my peers do, or that those things come easily to them but not to me. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it just means I have a disability.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to have trouble doing a lot of “adult” things. I’ve just come to accept that I’m a different kind of adult instead of berating myself about it. I’m happier, healthier, and much better at dealing with problems.
Sometimes I get disappointed in myself that I’m 26 and just starting my career. My friends from college are doctors, lawyers, managers, founders of nonprofits, and distinguished researchers. I’m an assistant. My friends are getting engaged or married. I’m living with a partner for the first time.
When Michaeleen Doucleff met parents from around the world, she encountered millennia-old methods of raising good kids that made American parenting seem bizarre and ineffective.
At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.
Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.
As wild and empty as the continent might seem, human ambition is changing it permanently.
In almost every sense of the word, the Palmer Archipelago in Antarctica is wild. Humpback whales, elephant seals, and the wandering albatross, a seabird with a wingspan as long as a male great white shark, all call this area home. Towering glaciers and blue-tinged icebergs dot the landscape, and sunsets last for hours.
This empty, untamed place also has a gift shop. Port Lockroy, a small wooden building, was constructed in 1944 as Britain’s first permanent Antarctic base, then abandoned in 1962. Twenty years later, two members of the British Antarctic Survey team visited the deserted station. Penguins were nesting right against the front door—it was “almost like a Narnia moment,” Alan Hemmings, now a professor at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, told us. Today, gentoo penguins still roost in the building’s outdoor rafters and peek curiously into the glass windows as tourists browse.
When you most need to get happier, try giving happiness away.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Norman Rockwell painted some of the most iconic images of 20th-century America. His paintings, such as Rosie the Riveter and the Four Freedoms series from World War II, and The Problem We All Live With and Murder in Mississippi from the civil-rights movement, were intended to evoke the best in people who saw them: hope, solidarity, courage, justice—but most of all, happiness. The bulk of his work captured scenes of lighthearted joy. Consider Shiner, which depicts a young girl with a black eye, sitting outside the principal’s office with a grin that tells you she has just been the victor in combat.
Adored guru and reviled provocateur, he dropped out of sight. Now the irresistible ordeal of modern cultural celebrity has brought him back.
This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
One day in early 2020, Jordan B. Peterson rose from the dead. The Canadian academic, then 57, had been placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic, after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, a class of drug that includes Xanax and Valium. The coma kept him unconscious as his body went through the terrible effects of withdrawal; he awoke strapped to the bed, having tried to rip out the catheters in his arms and leave the intensive-care unit.
When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.
It expands by 10,000 times in a fraction of a second, it’s 100,000 times softer than Jell-O, and it fends off sharks and Priuses alike.
At first glance, the hagfish—a sinuous, tubular animal with pink-grey skin and a paddle-shaped tail—looks very much like an eel. Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”
Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously. They slime when attacked or simply when stressed. On July 14, 2017, a truck full of hagfishoverturned on an Oregon highway. The animals were destined for South Korea, where they are eaten as a delicacy, but instead, they were strewn across a stretch of Highway 101, covering the road (and at least one unfortunate car) in slime.
Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.
In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
A new study of the city’s program that sent cash to struggling individuals finds dramatic changes.
Two years ago, the city of Stockton, California, did something remarkable: It brought back welfare.
Using donated funds, the industrial city on the edge of the Bay Area tech economy launched a small demonstration program, sending payments of $500 a month to 125 randomly selected individuals living in neighborhoods with average incomes lower than the city median of $46,000 a year. The recipients were allowed to spend the money however they saw fit, and they were not obligated to complete any drug tests, interviews, means or asset tests, or work requirements. They just got the money, no strings attached.
These kinds of cash transfers are a common, highly effective method of poverty alleviation used all over the world, in low-income and high-income countries, in rural areas and cities, and particularly for households with children. But not in the United States. The U.S. spends less of its GDP on what are known as “family benefits” than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, save Turkey. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program spends less than one-fifth of its budget on direct cash aid, and its funding has been stuck at the same dollar amount since 1996—when the Clinton administration teamed up with congressional Republicans to turn it into a compulsory-work program. Those changes sliced into the safety net, allowing millions of people to fall through.
New observations have prompted astronomers to rethink their theories about some of the universe’s invisible objects.
There’s a spot in space, thousands of light-years from here, that might best be described as a cosmic amusement park. A supergiant star, so hot that it glows electric blue, and a black hole spin around each other at extraordinary speeds, orbiting so closely that some of the star’s material is pulled toward the black hole. The stellar particles swirl around the invisible object in a tilt-a-whirl of luminous reds and oranges. What the black hole doesn’t swallow, it hurls into space, producing intense jets of radiation."There is a lot going on,” James Miller-Jones, an astrophysicist at Curtin University in Australia, told me.
Astronomers have studied this distant environment, and particularly the black hole, for decades. In fact, the black hole is the first ever discovered, after some years of research led to the breathtaking realization that this weird object couldn’t be anything but an invisible pit of inscrutable depths.
An ambitious pilot program could finally pave the way to in-person learning—at least for those who can afford it.
The bright-blue tents appeared shortly after the close of winter break. Each Tuesday, Thalia Ruark and her classmates at the Bromfield School in Massachusetts, line up single file, spaced a neat six feet apart, for their weekly coronavirus test. The 11-year-old sixth grader still spends most of her classroom time on a computer at home, in accordance with Bromfield’s hybrid-learning model.But the school’s new testing measures are meant to keep her and her peers safer while they’re at the school, which is in the rural town of Harvard, some 30 miles west of Boston. They enter the tents one by one after sanitizing their hands and blowing their noses; a gowned, gloved, and masked nurse swivels a soft-tipped swab into each of their nostrils. “It kind of makes your eyes water,” Thalia told me. “But it doesn’t really hurt. And it makes my nose feel really clean after we’re done.”
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.