How Do You Know When You’re Finally An Adult?

A year after graduation, I’m walking into the woods with my college roommate while he visits from Jersey. He has an oversized birthday card made from a poster board and glitter that has a deflated balloon tapped to it. It was a birthday present I had forgotten to throw away.

We are using this as a sad prop to make a snapchat to send to one person. The layers of inside joke involved run deep and old. And it is in this moment that I realize that I am 23 years old.

We are ostensibly adults now, the both of us. We can vote and drink and get arrested. We can stay up till 4 in the morning and drive to Camden to buy weed from a terrifying neighborhood; or, more likely, just get drunk on craft beers while playing overly complicated boardgames. Both of these last statements are, I think, evidence to my apparent lack of understanding of adulthood. They’re both a kid’s version, where adults are princesses or action heroes who can eat ice cream for dinner. That last part is true, at least.

I’ve been thinking about what defines adulthood. Anyone more than four years older than me still thinks I’m a kid, which has been and apparently will be true until we’re all over 50 and have kids that resent us. But I just can’t accept the idea that age defines adulthood. My granddad raised three kids after coming home from WW2, and at his birthday party last week he laughed at his own fart. I watched a 40-year-old woman throw a hissy fit because her favorite fro-yo place cycled cookies ‘n cream out of their summer options. Have you ever watched a woman who owns a car and has a guest room in her apartment tell a room of minimum wage teenagers that watermelon is bullshit?

But that woman also (probably) works 50 hours a week in an office. That feels like an adult thing to do. Maybe responsibility is what makes us adults? Because I am an incredibly irresponsible person. I will let my dishes fester like a sore before I can bring myself to do them. I am actively avoiding my dentist like an ex who won’t stop stalking me. (To be fair, our relationship is sort of abusive.) But the thing is, I also pay my bills. I am beautifully underpaid and constantly thrown under the bus by freelance contracts, but I’m always paid up. My diet is the same as a fat kid at a friend’s pizza party birthday, but I take care of myself. I can run a 7-minute mile, and that’s only like 65% motivated by potential zombie apocalypse scenarios.

Of course, you could point out that I’m only responsible to myself. You could say that responsibility to someone else makes a man out of you. But then, who am I supposed to be responsible to? Listen — have you ever tried to date a 20-something? Because fuck that. We have two primary models for relationships. Half of our parents are divorcees or should be; half of us model our relationships on pop culture, which portrays romance as having amazing sex with superhero butlers who make a lot of money but still kind of don’t believe in themselves. In either case, we’re sold on the notion that there are probably better people out there, and we aren’t beholden to the people we date. We play spotty phone tag to ensure the other party knows that they aren’t special or particularly wanted. Somehow intimacy is toxic. But if he won’t coax and coddle you, won’t watch Netflix and eat pizza and clean and tell you all of your million human insecurities are moot, well, ditch him. She doesn’t run and crash-diet, doesn’t thread her eyebrows? Won’t tell you you’re handsome and funny, some great miracle worth waiting for? Swipe no. Block them. Conceal, don’t feel, hide behind a meme. Next.

But is a mature relationship a hallmark of adulthood? One where we permit vulnerability and develop light co-dependence while maintaining ours individual identities, where we bolster each other by sharing our lives? Nah. It’s a step in the right direction, but I can’t buy that adulthood is dependent on something beyond our control. Much less dating; as a gay dude living in semi-rural Pennsylvania, how can I peg my flowering on haphazard hook ups with closeted dads, who seem to make up the majority of the gay population out here in farm country? (Sorry, AAG fans, but the all-American grass fed beef we all wish I could sleep with is fantasy akin to unicorns and calorie-free burritos.)

I wouldn’t even buy responsibility as a prerequisite on its own. Drop the whole relationship thing and I can still think of counterexamples. Of my many friends who are teachers, for instance, one told me that he likes to sit kids next to each other if he thinks they’d make a cute couple. That’s not cute. I’m pretty sure I’ve read a Japanese horror manga that starts off like that.

Maybe adulthood is exactly the opposite of stable relationships; maybe it’s independence. Maybe we all need to be a strong black women who don’t need no internet-perpetuated cultural appropriation. I think this is where I see myself as least adult. The truth is that I am not financially independent. If you’re wondering how bad the job market is, I have two bachelor’s degrees (one in STEM), graduated summa cum laude, and I made less than $5,000 this year. The closest I came to regular employment was a month-long temp gig scanning invoices at a bakery two hours away. I am a suburban mom’s worst nightmare: a straight-laced do-gooder with great grades who ends up a gay freeloader democrat.

But my college roommate does have a job. A good one. And listen: if he had a superpower, that superpower would be sleeping through important events. His daily workout was sprinting to class 20 minutes late, straight out of bed. He’s on his second salaried position with benefits. He bought a car a month ago.

But maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up, because I neglected to mention about our visit to the woods: he came to see me as a detour to playing a Magic the Gathering tournament in Philadelphia.

Perhaps the easiest time anyone has in renouncing my generation’s adulthood comes in our forms of entertainment. We’re all Tumblrers or Redditors or Instagram-whores or twitterers, at least Facebook fanatics. We take selfies and play the same games we did as kids. We read YA and still cry about Dobby. But I’ll say this immediately: if you think self-love is a roadblock to growing up, you’re a moron and you’re contradicting yourself. I know 30-year-olds who still play Pokemon. You could judge that, but the truth is that these indulgences are our cigarettes. They are our Soma. They are our happy addiction, and I don’t care if they’re childish. I would rather admit that I’ve breed for a shiny Torchic than pretend that I give a shit about golf.

Here’s the truth: I think adulthood is a moment of self-actualization. I think adulthood is realizing that you’re past childhood’s end. It is a willingness to do hard things because they are right or necessary. It is not an external circumstance; it is not a sacrifice of the things you love. And that is why I realized mid-snap, deep in the woods, that I am an adult; and as an adult, I had to hit send. Because I do think I there is no shame in being ridiculous and weird in demonstrating the love I have for my friends. Honesty and love are hallmarks of adulthood, and rare ones.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my adult badge and go yell at some teenagers for skateboarding and listening to dubstep. Everyone younger than me really does have the worst taste in music. Stupid kids. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Nicki Varkevisser

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