How do you know when you are an adult?
I only became a woman at 35.
I realised this the other day – that there was no line to cross, no specific moment that marked the transition but that something within me had changed.
For some it is when they leave home or own their own home, when they have their first child or own their own car, when they experience the loss of someone they love, get a promotion, are travelling somewhere alone. Or when they’re just lying in the bath, which is where I was when I realised.
I was staying at a friend’s apartment, lying in the bath and looking up the high, adult ceiling.
A friend’s ceiling, a friend who is an adult, a friend who is the same age as me.
Call me slow on the uptake…
It dawned on me like the misty fog rising up the shower wall.
It wasn’t my body that had changed so much, I thought looking down. There was a little belly, but there’s always been that, a sun spot on my hand and a scar running down my finger from my first real accident as an adult.
As an adult.
As an adult, I went to my first ever financial consultant recently, who told me “it’s not too late” and who reminded me that a partner or a father did not constitute a financial back-up plan.
According to Professor Jensen Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University in Massachusetts, “the Big Three” criteria for becoming an adult are: taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.
I still have no savings, but I paid my car registration on time and I am about to head away on my first solo trip overseas – a different sort of holiday to the ‘adult’ ones I’ve been on before with partners, where I generally just felt like an imposter. By the by.
Kelly Williams Brown, author of the book Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, gets it.
“All of a sudden you’re out in the world, and you have this insane array of options, but you don’t know which you should take,” she writes. “There’s all these things your mum and dad told you, presumably, and yet you’re living like a feral wolf, who doesn’t have toilet paper, who’s using napkins instead.”
I mostly manage to have toilet paper these days, and, there are other practical signs I am an adult like no longer needing to ask anyone for permission to do anything: If I want to get gelato two nights in a row, or eat dinner for breakfast, then I can do that, if I want to walk around barefoot outside or take a bath on a Monday night, then I can do that too. I can be as careful or careless with this body of mine as I choose, yet I am no longer recklessly, defiantly careless just because I can be.
Again, why this has taken 35 years for me to realise, when I moved out of home at 17, is beyond my capactities as an adult.
But none of the practicalities of life pushed me over the nebulous line into adulthood, although perhaps they nudged me towards it.
Rather, it was a change in my belly – a compassion I felt in there that could only be the result of years of softening from the churnings of joy and sorrow. The same churnings that changed my lens on life from flat and monochrome to a more colourful one that took in the depth and spectrum.
And although I may have few capacities, I have noticed a few things as an adult through this new lens:
That life is, in many ways, more peaceful and more fun; it’s also full of contradictions – it’s more relaxed as the armour drops but far more stressful as you carry a bigger load; the worst times are often also the best because for all that they break, they can open.
There are truths that cannot be quantified or measured and for every truth there is an untruth – which is what makes humans beautiful and unique and exisuitely difficult to reduce.
Which is why I’m OK to call myself an adult, even though I’m not where I thought I should be at this age (or where an ‘adult’ – those ‘others’ over there – should be anyway), even though I’m not really fully formed yet and am still learning to use myself as a financial back-up plan. Because, what it is to be an adult is not some defined point (actually in the dictionary, it says an adult means ‘being mature, fully grown’). It is a space that we are feeling out, defining and refining as we go – it is, in many ways – an act of emergence and growth that doesn’t end.
But, for the first time in my life as I lay in the bath, I became aware that I was responsible for myself and actually equipped or ‘adult’ enough to take on the task: I realised that I actually trust myself enough at 35 not to make a mess of caring for this giant child who likes bare feet and gelato. I had an inkling, for the very first time, that maybe I could even do a good job.
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