What Is An Adult?
Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about this question:
What does it mean to be an adult?
My senior year of college, and for awhile after I graduated, I was depressed, largely because I felt like I wasn’t living up to the expectations I had of what being an adult meant. I was working a part-time retail job, living with my parents, and making minimum wage. I’d just moved to a new city where I had no friends. I spent my nights in bed, talking to people on dating apps.
I felt like such a loser. And I was constantly comparing myself to my other recently-graduated friends who were getting “real” jobs, pursuing higher education, and in “adult” relationships. I was 22 and already felt like a failure.
Adulthood is a construct, like everything else. When you turn 18 in the U.S., legally you are an adult. But does that mean you magically know how to navigate taxes and credit card debt and taking care of yourself? Hell no. There is no “How to Be an Adult” software that gets uploaded to our brains and gives us infinite wisdom and know-how.
Many of us define adulthood based on what society teaches us, and what the adults in our lives model for us. And even then, I can think of a handful of people, myself included, who have had to be “the adult” in certain interactions with parents, bosses, etc.
So what the fuck does it mean, then, to be an adult?
I don’t know. But I’ve spent the past three years unlearning what I thought it meant: waking up early every day, listening to NPR in the mornings with coffee, not being scared of weird noises at night, not being too silly or weird, never making mistakes and always making responsible decisions. No wonder I was miserable—because that is a fucking bleak and boring existence. And I hate waking up early.
I realize now that for me, being an adult means taking responsibility for myself—which demands more than simply making responsible choices. For example, there are a lot of people who can pay their rent on time but may have trouble apologizing when they cause harm.
Taking responsibility for myself means owning my actions, my influence, my words, the kind of energy I’m bringing into a space. It also means showing up with accountability for the things that aren’t my fault, like trauma.
I didn’t choose to be born into a lineage of women with eating disorders & body image issues, but here I am. And instead of being mad or sad that this is what I inherited, I take responsibility for it: doing what I can to end that generational cycle so that if I decide to have a child, they don’t have to bear that burden.
We’ve all experienced trauma, because that’s just being human, and likely most if not all of that trauma wasn’t our fault. We didn’t choose to experience it. But it happened, and it lives in us every day, silently influencing decisions we make, sending out waves of physical cues letting us know it’s still there.
The most “adult” thing I can possibly do in this life, in my opinion, is to take responsibility for the things that are not my fault, but still my job to fix, to make space for, to heal—within myself and in the world. I am certainly not the reason that racism or sexism exist, but it is still my responsibility to do what I can every day to dismantle these oppressive systems.
It’s not fair that we have to fix what others broke. But in that process is where we find healing, individually and collectively. And that is the kind of adult I want to be—one who owns every part of herself and cares for collective healing and liberation just as much as her own.