Becoming an Adult When You're Abandoned, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.