Growing a Beard, Getting a Mortgage: When Do Men Become Grown-Ups?

The trickiness of defining manhood in a culture without defined rituals

The trickiness of defining manhood in a culture without defined rituals

Walt Disney

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about the modern male's transition to adulthood. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.

I just got back a couple days ago from a reporting trip to the Western Cape of South Africa, which included some time with farmworkers mourning the death of Michael Daniels, a young father shot dead by police during a wage protest. There was a visitation of the body, a politically charged funeral, a graveside sermon and afterwards, a traditional meal—the after tears, it's called—back at the deceased's house. For the adults, it was grilled chicken and rice, and for the children, it was an African version of Irish stew, which means a runny plate of boiled potatoes, carrots and peas.

"Only the adults get meat," one of Daniels's friends told me. "Children won't get chicken until they're 11 or 12."

In the poor farmlands of the Western Cape, then, this is at least one definition of adulthood: you get chicken.

Back in the States, there are few such bright lines. Children eat chicken, adults eat popsicles and drink fizzy drinks, and as Christopher Noxon pointed out in his highly entertaining book Rejuvenile, Disney World is the world's top vacation spot for adults (that means, without kids in tow).

All this self-infantilizing, of course, has everything to do with the main difference between us Rejuveniles and, say, African farmworkers: We are wealthy and idle enough to delay adulthood, or even, god forbid, write posts on the Internet about the onset of adulthood.

Further contributors to the confusion: We have this wealth but lack any unifying customs. We don't have something like a toga virilis, the chalk-white robe Romans wore to mark manhood after it was time to offer their childhood amulets up to household gods. A suit and tie is a close approximation, I suppose, whether you're the managing director of Bain Capital or a shift manager at Applebee's. But still, for those of us who eschew Jewish or Wiccan or Catholic rites of passage, and who don't have to get dressed to work, it's up to us to define what manhood is and when it happens.

And on that score, I have no answers. I wake, I eat, I try not to lose my temper at my lovely children, and then I travel for work to places where I'm absolutely sandblasted by the miseries and occasional joys of others. Life is full and enervating and confusing enough without trying to wedge a definition of manhood into it. Case in point: on the nearly 16-hour flight back to New York from South Africa, I spent some time going through my notes, and even more time playing a boxing game on my iPhone. Does that make me a child? A man-child? A rejuvenile? I don't know. But when the dinner cart finally made it to the back of the plane where I sat, I ordered the chicken, whether or not I deserved it.


One recent Monday morning, I was telling a co-worker about my weekend: There had been a playdate with my daughter, Sasha, and one of her friends, and I'd been having some trouble with my apartment's hot-water heater, and I'd gone shopping at the farmers' market for vegetables for the week. All in all, nothing special. Just a typical Brooklyn weekend.

But for my co-worker, this was amazing. "You're a real grown-up!" she said.

I wasn't quite sure what to say. I'm still relatively new to the working world. After freelancing for the last eight years, I've only just taken a full-time job—and it's one where I'm at least a decade older than almost everyone on my team. At the age of 38, married, with kids, a mortgage, a beard, and a receding hairline, I suppose I must really seem like an adult to them.

If only I seemed like that to myself! Though I never wanted to be one of those much-derided man-children loafing around Brooklyn coffee shops—"grups," New York magazine dubbed them—I was never all that eager to embrace the traditional outward markers of adulthood: suit and tie, office job, lightless dead eyes. And in truth, I'd always felt like a child. The sense of smallness and powerlessness that are a child's everyday experience had never fully left me. When I'd look at my own father, a tenured history professor, I could never imagine becoming like him. And when I looked at kids, I felt nothing but sympathy—I know what you're going through—and imagined they were looking at me and thinking, Dude, you look older, but I see through you; you're just like me.

Still, degree by degree, things shifted. Six years ago, I grew a beard, mostly because, clean-shaven, I looked like I was still 17 years old. I invested in some good shirts and stylish blazers—not office-drone garb, but clothes I felt comfortable in. And, of course, I got married and had kids and bought an apartment. Inside, I felt no different from before—small, nervous, new to everything—but apparently I was. Or, quite possibly, the world was different, not in its essence but in how it viewed me. My own children, for example, will never see me as anything but a grown-up, and as they age, the kids of her generation will see me that way, too. One day, my daughters may look at me as I looked at my own father, and think: How am I ever going to become that?

The secret (which is only a secret to those still too young to have experienced it) is that adulthood is not something we consciously embrace, a set of rules we one day agree to follow. It's a set of perceptions and assumptions that everyone has about us, though we may still feel like children inside. How the hell did I become an adult? It's because the young people at my office decided I was. And one day, 10 or 15 years from now, it'll happen to them, too. We all grow up, whether we want to or not.


Life with my second wife began not with a cinematic meet-cute but a brisk phone call, during which I explained that ours would be a part-time dalliance. I was divorced, or nearly so, at any rate, and had a child who lived with me half of every week. (Joint physical and legal custody—a phrase only a divorced father could love! My son was young enough to fall under the so-called Tender Years Doctrine, which presumes that fit mothers are entitled to full custody of children under five, a judicial bias that supposedly no longer exists, but that my attorney assured me most certainly does, and which my ex, to her credit, never attempted to exploit.) Because I didn't introduce casual dates to my son, Tomoko would have to be comfortable with an amorous schedule governed by the my night/her night dichotomy under which I lived.

These terms, I added, were non-negotiable, and it was up to her to accept them or not. Question her sanity, if you must, but she consented, and so we strolled in the park when I had time, explored the city when I was free, caught movies on the nights I wasn't needed as a father.

Eventually, Tomoko invited me to meet her friends, a group of childless, 30-something singletons with whom she shared a summer home on Fire Island. They came each Sunday for an early dinner, and Tomoko warmly and maternally fed them, sat for their tales of dating woe, and provided a focal point for their lives.

It was a tricky occasion. I would be offering myself up for inspection by a clique of protective and well-meaning independents, all of whom, I imagined, would expect copies of a recent resume and credit report, a list of references, my genetic particulars, plus a non-refundable application fee, before deeming me a suitable match. I decided that I wouldn't have it. A grown man, with a child, ex-wife, mortgage, dog, car, and an attorney vacationing lavishly on his $50,000 in legal fees, need ask for no one's approval.

The night went well. The friends proved fine people, funny and harried and acerbic in the way of New Yorkers, and not nearly as scrutinizing as I had feared. And it was true: I didn't need their approval—they needed mine. Tomoko and I shared that sense of mutual possession that comes with falling in love. She was with me, we were alone together among people, and I was entitled to resolve their value rather than the other way round.

What does any of this have to be with being an adult? Well, that night after dinner I entered into a lengthy discussion with one of Tomoko's friends about his efforts to purchase a couch. He was a finance guy of some sort, successful enough, with money to waste on a couple of sports cars and an apartment in Manhattan. It turned out that he'd been at this for months. He just couldn't decide—what style, what fabric, which size, never mind color—the whole thing, he said, was bedeviling him no end. This commitment, this furniture, represented a stark and binary choice (sectional or no?) that would irrevocably alter the course of his life. He could not, in good conscience, take it lightly.

The conversation spun me from the room. I nodded with sympathy, but my mind was with my son who was spending yet another night without me. As Tomoko's friend wrestled with the vexatious dilemma of a two-pillow or three-pillow existence, I obsessed over babysitters and pediatricians and the punitive costs of daycare. I wanted to grab him by throat and shout, Grow up! It's just a couch!

Which it was, and I didn't. Wouldn't be the adult thing to do. Instead, I sipped my wine, slipped an arm around Tomoko, and with self-congratulatory condescension, surveyed him from the remove of what I will allow myself to call the real world.

It wasn't long after that I introduced Tomoko to my son. Soon, we moved in together, commingling our lives in ways that made irrelevant whether it was "my night."