The Mythical Adult

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
What is "adulthood?" When do we become "adults?"

Prompted by a comment from a friend, I've been giving this some thought. There are times when I look at my life, my accomplishments, and I think, "I've arrived!" Other times, I make some bonehead mistake or act like a goober and I feel like I'm an awkward teenager again. Since I'm in my mid-forties now and I still don't feel like an adult all the time, I have to say that adulthood is a continuing process, with milestones that push you from one phase to the next.

For me, my first milestone came when I joined the Navy and realized that this was a career where I could excel, do meaningful work, and contribute the well-being of others, without having to worry about being one of the popular girls. I'd always had a good work ethic, but finding my niche in a community that valued my skills and natural abilities (who would also pay me for the privilege of belonging) was my first step into adulthood.

Next came the birth of my children. I'm sure 99% of the parents out there have had this experience, but when they were admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (9 weeks premature, so low birth weight), the incredible responsibility of what I had done - brought lives into this world for which I was 100% responsible - was simply crushing. I had done this - I was the one who made this decision, and was now responsible for the outcome. First came the thought, what the fuck was I thinking?, followed by the realization that it really didn't matter what the fuck I was thinking, THIS was my new reality. Thankfully it all seems to have worked out okay, at least so far.

When my kids were two years old, my father died at a relatively young age. It's almost impossible to describe what this feels like to people who have not yet lost a parent who raised them. The safety net is gone - losing a person who has raised you makes you feel very alone, and rocks your world. It's a tough realization, that it really is up to you, to make your own decisions and find your own way. Scary - and liberating, to a certain degree. The death of my father, whose pride in my military service knew no bounds, freed me to make different decisions about my life from that point forward.

When I was in my very early thirties, my life fell apart. Not in an irrecoverable way (obviously), and the details aren't important, but the lesson was. The realization - the deep-down, no holds-barred, rock-my-world realization - that I was responsible for every aspect of my life, and had the power to change the parts I didn't like. What followed was some damn hard work, and a new, fully adult life. Or so I thought.

Then my kids graduated from high school and started making their own adult decisions, and I realized I wasn't as adult as I had thought. Watching them struggle, make mistakes, fail, without my being there to pick them up and steer them in the right direction was an aspect of adulthood I wasn't really ready for. I had to remind myself, again and again, that allowing them to make what I perceived as bad decisions was an aspect of respecting them as young adults. We've managed, and while they're not completely off the payroll just yet (the Smart Boy ships out for the U.S. Navy in September and the Smart Girl is a college sophomore this fall), they're making their own way, and making good decisions. And I'm on my own again, living a life unhindered by daily obligations to my children.

I'm not naive enough to think that I don't have many more phases to go through on my journey to adulthood. My Hot Mom is self-sufficient and living independently, and while she really hopes she just drops dead one day, there's no guarantees she won't need help at some point. My children may eventually choose to have children of their own,* making me (shudder) a grandmother. Eventually, I'll retire and face the challenges inherent in having an older body and a fixed income.

I'm sure all of these experiences will bring me one step closer to this mythical "adulthood." I don't know that I'll ever feel entirely like an adult, though. Maybe when I'm dead.

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*MANY, MANY YEARS FROM NOW.

4 comments:

Stacey said...

It's interesting how similar our life experiences are. The 'Holy Shit' of parenting, losing a parent early, a thirties revelation, and thinking about what adulthood means I have no idea what it really means, however, I think if we strive to make choices that build us up, bring positive changes to the lives around us and take responsibility for all of that, we're in some stage of adulthood.
I often wonder, tho, is it a pinnacle or plateau? If, after we 'reach' adulthood, is it all downhill from there? Since I believe you are either moving forward or backward, does that mean it's always uphill? Things I think about at 3am.

Kaizan said...

Mythical Indeed. I'm in my 40's, a parent, a homeowner and I own my own business. You'd think I'd feel like and adult by now, but every day I look in the mirror and I still feel 14. A little bewildered by the world, hoping I can conquer it, and praying I don't get crushed in the process

Janiece said...

Welcome, Kaizen.

I think everyone feels that way, at least occasionally.

mom in northern said...

I am still not sure...all I know is that growing up is optional..growing older isn't. So just keep on growing...