Reporter's Notebook

When Did You Become an Adult?
Show Description +

Spurred by Julie Beck’s essay, readers describe the circumstances that led them to realize the moment they crossed into adulthood.

Show 1 Newer Notes

Becoming an Adult in New York City

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.

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 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.

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.

A reader recalls a frightening memory:

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.

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.