Illustration by yours truly, inspired by The Merits of Scouting.
Being a grown-up, when we were not yet grown, meant the ability to complete crossword puzzles and maneuver sharp objects, like adult-sized scissors. It meant haughty jokes ending in ‘don’t worry about it’ and keys dangling from nervous palms— “Sorry I’m late! There was so much traffic!”— and obsessing over dry, seemingly inane matters like personal safety or the stock market.
Being an adult did not imply much, actually, beyond the ability to unfasten jars and successfully interact with appliances that potentially cause fires— presumably stovetops that did not “heat up” in a spiral with the crank of a lever and ovens that did not “bake” from the warmth of a light bulb. (An aside: I sometimes think I could have been a crazy Martha Stewart-like baker had I ever owned an Easy Bake Oven and still wonder what could have been.)
It certainly didn’t involve 401(k)’s or cover letters or leases on first apartments or any of the accoutrements integral to organized adult life but otherwise so exceptionally boring to think about: Planners, filing cabinets, grocery lists, save the date cards and so on. Being an adult was a responsibility I accepted as a child, but not one I could conceptualize beyond lipstick-stained wine glasses and waking up before dark to start the coffee pot.
Perhaps John Mulaney, one of my favorite comedians, put it best: “[As a kid] I used to sit around and think about what to do about quicksand. I never thought about how to handle REAL problems. I was never like, ‘Oh, what’s it going to be like when relatives ask to borrow money?’”
If you had asked me ten years ago what images I associate with young adulthood, I guarantee you I wouldn’t have said ‘bad IKEA furniture.’ Nor could I have imagined that losing interest in the Disney Channel would in no way be a major benchmark of adulthood. (To me, it always seemed like that was the case. In reality, I have no idea when it happened, but as a reference point, Hannah Montana was not yet on the air.)
Instead, shades of maturity slowly blend in, and I’ve found that it, much like life itself, comes in a series of small triumphs and epiphanies. Sometimes you don’t notice them and other times you’re mildly amazed by events ranging from, ‘Wow, I’m paying my own electric bill!’ all the way up to ‘I can’t believe I actually own this home!’
It doesn’t normally feel all that weird. You and your friends have graduated, gotten jobs, go to happy hours after work in the same bad charcoal dress pants. You find acquaintances you knew in high school have gotten married, or engaged, or had children. You adjust just as you would the first day of school. Except there isn’t a syllabus and no one’s handing out prizes for scheduling your own dental appointments.
Even having been an adult in the legal sense for five years now, sometimes the concept of adulthood is as elusive to me now as when I was a teenager. Most of the time, however, I know exactly what I’m doing, even if I don’t always do it as “adult-ly” as I could.