What the heck does it mean to be an adult?

Are you in your twenties or nearing them? If yes, does the concept of adulthood scare you? Have you ever broken out into a cold sweat when someone asks: so what do you want to do in life? Do you feel nervous and a little jittery when other people your age start talking about getting jobs and ‘participating in society’? Have you ever experienced nausea when they mention they’re thinking about getting married, having children, buying a house and getting a mortgage? Then you’re not alone! I have experienced those things myself numerous times.

I feel like your twenties are a really awkward age. This is the decade when most people move out of their parents’ house, graduate and get a job. However, I also feel like people do this later and later. For example, my mom moved out of her parents’ house when she was sixteen. I only moved out last year at twenty-two. If it weren’t for being able to move in with my boyfriend, I probably would have moved out much later because of a shortage of affordable housing. Since living with my boyfriend, I have had quite some time to think about adulthood. I have always dreaded the idea of growing up and becoming an ‘adult,’ but the other day I slowly realised that I might have become one without realising it. This realisation came to me when I had to start coordinating my life together with my boyfriend. He doesn’t eat cereal in the morning so he often kept forgetting to buy milk if it was his turn to go to the grocery store. Something that I had taken for granted before was something that I had to do for myself now: get the sufficient ingredients for a quick breakfast. It may seem silly, but this small hiccup made me realise that I really wasn’t living at home anymore with my mother and brother. It wasn’t a negative realisation, however, I started planning my breakfast and have now moved on from eating only cereal. Granted, this is something that I could have done at home but moving out and having to figure it out for myself pushed me to change. It made me realise that being independent from your parent comes with certain liberties I hadn’t considered before. On the other hand, the idea of graduating and finding a job still kind of scares me. I started to wonder why that is. Why is the idea of growing up and becoming an adult scary? This is what I would like to investigate in this article. 

I also wondered if my peers who are roughly my age felt the same way I did. I have heard my friends repeatedly say that they would like to delay growing up. This is a sentiment that I recognize because when I was seventeen, the worst thing I could imagine was becoming a stuffy adult. I asked three of my friends from various ages how they feel about adulthood. From their early to their late twenties, they told me what they thought.

Ben (22)

Megan: What kind of things occur to you when I ask you what it means to be an adult? 

Ben: Well, I have been feeling sixteen since the moment I turned sixteen. The only moment I do not feel sixteen is when I’m hanging out with sixteen year olds, then I feel very 22. I have had these conversations with older people were they would say: “Yeah, I still feel young.” I think that’s because when someone says ‘adult’ you don’t necessarily identify yourself as one. You’ll always feel that there is someone above you who is responsible, which I also feel is related to being an adult. The only moment you start feeling old is during moments where you are confronted with it, and after you are, you quickly face away because people rarely identify with their age. No one will say: “Oh I’m a teen,” or “I’m a 20 something,” because your internal age is never going to line up with your external age.

Megan: When are you confronted with the fact that you’re an adult? 

Ben: When your child turns 21. 

Megan (laughing): When you’re a parent and your child turns 21?

Ben: Yeah, that’s the moment that you realise it, because then you have to say: my adult son. Because when you’re a parent and you talk about your child everybody assumes that they’re like six, or whatever, and then you’re like: no my son who has a job and a wife, or my daughter who runs an enterprise. Then you’re like: “Oh fuck I’m an adult.” 

Megan: Only then? 

Ben: Yes I think so because I feel like people like to idealise the idea of being a kid at heart so I don’t think anyone wants to feel like an adult. I feel like you only feel like one when you bend over and your knees make like a popping noise. 

Megan: Ah, I do have that, kind of, sometimes. 

Ben: And? Do you feel like an adult sometimes?

Megan (laughing): Yeah I do actually!

Charlotte (26) 

Megan: What does adulthood mean to you?

Charlotte: I think I started to feel like an adult when I had to make a decision about my last relationship and what I wanted to do with my life. I always wanted to become a doctor but then I realised that it wasn’t for me, after many years of thinking it was my dream. 

Megan: How many years? 

Charlotte: I think I decided to become a doctor, right before I graduated from my biology degree at 21. I finally saw myself and realised I wasn’t passionate about it. So I decided to take a gap year against a lot of people’s opinions. I started to read books and then I decided to pay a lot of money to study English, against a lot of people’s opinions. I had to stand up for myself and needed to go my own way. Then I decided to move to Amsterdam, which again, was against a lot of people’s opinions.

Megan: What would be your advice for people who want to make a controversial change like you?

Charlotte: Make your own decisions and don’t feel like you have to explain yourself to others. Do what makes you happy. I think also the realisation that I have to take care of myself financially and that it’s going to be hard but that I can do it. I really started to believe in myself and when other people might have doubted me or had their own thoughts about it, I said no, I want to do this. I told myself: even if it doesn’t work out at least I decided for myself what I wanted to do against other people’s idea of what I should do. I think that’s what adulthood is all about. 

William (28)

Megan: If I ask you what adult is about what would you say what it means to you?

William: I would say it is all about responsibility. Taking responsibility. To quote US general Anne Dunne Woody: ‘If you see a mistake, never walk by it. If you see something wrong, never hesitate to set it right’. I think that’s what responsibility is all about, in your own life as well as in the lives of others. I think it’s also about humility. It sounds weird phrasing it like that, but it’s not all about yourself, there’s more to the world than just you. Start with yourself, put yourself in order, and then you can help others. That’s what I would say.

Megan: What would be a mistake that you could have walked past but that you did not?

William: Just small stuff as well as big stuff. The other day one of my cats threw up on the floor and I could have easily said, I didn’t see that, I’ll let someone else take care of that. But that’s not the way it works. If you see a mistake, clean it up. It’s mostly stuff like that. Just because a mistake is not your responsibility doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. A problem can be someone else’s fault but it can still become your problem. So I would say in the words of Jaco Willing, take ownership of that and try to solve the problems in your life. 

Megan: So, in other words, being an adult is cleaning up the cat vom?

William (dryly): I’d say so yeah. 

I absolutely loved talking to my friends about this topic because it really brought up one word: responsibility. That is what I think makes adulthood scary, especially if you have had the luxury of avoiding it for a while, like me. The prospect of being responsible for yourself, without having a parent  to lean back on, can feel very daunting. However, I feel like this is also the positive side to being an adult. Another one of my friends who I asked what adulthood meant to her said: “well, adulthood is also when you find out what you like and don’t like and become more secure as a person. You learn how to stay true to yourself.” This profound piece of wisdom made me realise that I would never want to go back to my teenage self, when I was still very insecure about who I was. Maybe that’s why I sometimes feel like an adult; the prospect of being responsible for myself doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. If anything, I feel excited for what the future will bring me. 

If I were to define what being an adult means to me, it would be something along these lines: being an adult means being secure in your own selfhood. A mature person knows what they like and do not like and feel confident in the choices that they make. An adult also stands up for themselves and knows their own worth. Being an adult also means that you take responsibility for your own actions, instead of blaming the people around you. Being an adult means believing in yourself and your abilities. All of these qualities ensure independence, which I feel is also a big part of being an adult. For a long time I wasn’t able to finish writing this article, because I believed that I didn’t have enough authority about the subject. How could I, someone who often feels overwhelmed and immature, write an article about being an adult? After talking to my friends and family, I realised that almost everybody has these feelings in varying degrees. This is very logical of course, no one can feel assured of themselves one hundred percent of the time. Perhaps that is also a part of growing up; realising that it’s okay to feel a little lost at times and to not have a clear goal. For my fellow people in their twenties: it’s okay to take your time to figure things out and to give yourself the time to grow.

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