Sunday, February 12, 2006

How Do You Know You're an Adult?

One of the topics a group of us got going on during the Fulbright conference was the question "How do you know you're an adult?" Alex has a supply of such questions, and apparently she had given this one to Megan to think over, so the rest of the people in the room (Jen and Derrick, Nathan, Kelly, and I) became intrigued as well.
We started off with Megan's joking remark that you're an adult if you carry a pocket knife. I suppose that this means I have ceased being an adult, because I've lost too many pocket knives over the years to carry them on a routine basis anymore.
But more seriously... what do people consider markers of adulthood? And what does being an adult mean to different people? Is it good or is it bad, or is it a mix?
(Legal markers of adulthood were rejected for our purposes.) We batted around the idea that you know you're an adult when you buy a house. We had, I think, a certain resistance to the idea of defining adulthood by real estate transactions, yet had to admit that buying a house is something we all associate with grownups. Children and youth simply do not buy houses. Of course, many adults don't either. But you have to be grown up to do it, or have an adult do it for you.
Concepts of responsibility came heavily into the discussion--our feelings about all those people who marry and/or have children when they are still terribly immature. Are you adult when you consider the possible consequences of your actions? Yes, but we all start considering consequences in childhood, and the process simply becomes more intricate as we grow up and realize how many possible consequences there are in life.
Becoming more responsible is an admirable aspect to becoming adult, but what about the fun things? I think it was Kelly who remarked that older members of his family once pointed out that YOU CAN EAT DESSERT FOR LUNCH IF YOU'RE AN ADULT. No one's going to tell you that you can't. (Well, usually. I told an anecdote about a complete stranger who once told me I mustn't eat cake for lunch because it was bad for me. This busybody could have guessed from looking at me that I rarely eat cake in the first place.)
Is it good or bad to be an adult? Several of us, especially the elder among us, are skeptical of the idea of being adult. We reject all those concepts of adulthood (still current with many people) in which being adult means giving up playfulness and a sense of wonder. If that's what being an adult is, we want no part of it. Still, as grownups we don't play in quite the same ways as we once did. On the trip to Lednice, we all had the chance to make snow angels. After all, Bram, who is eight years old, was out there making them with great enthusiasm. Both Nathan and I considered the idea and decided not to indulge that day. Both of us cited a desire not to tour the castle in icy clothes as a reason. But Nathan, who is younger than I am, also didn't want to embarrass himself in front of his colleagues. I had no worries about this. Had I been wearing my ski clothes, I would have flung myself into the snow instantly. The older I get, the more dumb inhibitions I throw out. (Even if I become less willing to walk around feeling cold and wet.)

Recently, a well-loved member of one of my e-mail discussion groups mentioned that he was turning seventy and everyone on the list was invited to the party if only we could get there on a day's notice. (I don't think too many list members actually live on his continent, otherwise I imagine there would have been quite a few additions to the guest list.) This announcement has prompted a charming spate of e-mails pondering the difference between chronological age and the age one usually feels. I suspect most people on the list are between the ages of forty and eighty, and in general people have referred to the sensation of usually feeling somewhere between eighteen and forty while wondering why their doctors and President Bush look so juvenile. I love it! (And this reminds me that I always say I want to be like my friend Jane when I'm "old;" the only thing at all elderly about her is her appearance.)
I know that I feel adult in pleasant, satisfying ways that are completely different from anything I felt in earlier stages of my adulthood. I think it has something to do with feeling more secure and sure of myself; that life has just as many adventures but fewer of them seem to involve any kind of meltdown. So we then wondered what sort of things are deeply satisfying to us and how these are the same or different at different ages.
I said that in fact I do really get the same kind of satisfaction now as when I was sixteen, if I write or draw or perform something that turns out well.
Megan, being an anthropology and politics major, became huffy and wanted to know about satisfying actions in the social sphere. As in, doing good for humanity.
Well, I doubt that I was doing any particular good for humanity when I was sixteen, or had any idea how someone of that age could do any such thing. I'm sure I occasionally made someone feel good about themselves, but the only thing that comes to mind is my much-later realization that I had made some immigrant girls feel welcome when I asked them to sign my yearbook and told them they could write in Spanish.
These days I do get satisfaction from knowing that I was able to help someone in a significant way, which happens fairly regularly when I teach. Each semester, I end up advising a few people about their academic choices, and listening to a few others talk through their personal crises. This isn't something I was in a position to do when I was sixteen.
I'm not sure any of us came up with new milestones for reaching adulthood, but we had a fine time talking it over. And here's a stimulating blog post I just found on a closely related topic: perpetually liminal: are we refusing to grow up? what does this mean?

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Blogger Kristen said...

I've often thought about this issue. I've never had a specific understanding of what my adultness means, more like little markers I've passed through every now and then--like the year I asked for an iron for Christmas and was truly happy to receive it. Then there's the fact that I am often scandalized by 19-year-old girls' clothing. Though the last time Pittsburgh had a good snow storm I was out in my front yard making all kinds of snow structures. I think one can be an adult without losing one's youthfulness.

February 12, 2006 4:42 PM  
Blogger Kristen said...

I suddenly thought that I should note that the iron gets use only if I'm sewing and need to press seams or I'm going somewhere really fancy. This may say something else about my level of adulthood in spite of my lust for appliances.

February 12, 2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

I think I too asked for and received my iron as a Christmas present. Or was that my toaster? I can't say I use either one very often (the iron considerably more; in fact a former roommate used to refer to me as The Ironing Maiden) but they are good things to have. (John does use my toaster because he can't survive without toasted bagels.)

But I'm not sure I think of either item as a sign of adulthood, merely of living on my own. Which is its own mark of minimal adulthood.

February 12, 2006 6:44 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

And, Kristen, it occurs to me that I wear more clothes that need ironing than you do. (Although not in the Czech Republic, despite having full ironing capacity here.)

February 12, 2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

Great Post Karla! I also really enjoyed the link. I don't know what defines us as adults as in my line of work I see folks in their 30's 40's and 50's who are still struggling with the emotional developmental challenges of teens. I think accepting responsibility and establishing goals are part of adulthood. Other than that, it is hard for me to define. I am now 50, still very playful, yet able to handle a lot of responsibilities. And no I don't own a house! I like those thought provoking posts.

February 12, 2006 11:00 PM  

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