When I turned 18 I didn’t wake up an adult—I woke up a legally adult child. As always, my mom, like an alarm I couldn’t snooze, woke from the other side of my door with a voice I was sure our entire cul-de-sac could hear. Through the angled shutters I saw a sun, like a yolk half-hidden behind cloud-whites, identical to the sun I’d seen the morning before.
Of course, little (if anything) about my life felt different in that instant. The only thing that changed was that I was aware that I could do certain things (or do them legally, at least) that I couldn’t have done before. But none of them piqued my interest. Sure, I could vote, but politics didn’t matter to me at the time. And yes, I could buy cigarettes, but would I ever take a drag? And thank Venus that porn was finally legal—how life-changing!
Now that I’m in my fourth year of college, about to leap off the lip of academia only to plunge into the unknown of the “real” world, I’ve been reflecting on my growth. Specifically, my growth since the first night I lied wide awake in my first bunk bed, feeling independent but alone and so overwhelmingly unsure of anything.
Recently, I’ve been asking myself if I consider myself an adult. And then what being an adult means to me.
This blog post is a meditation on that.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word “adult” comes from the Latin adultus, which means “grown up, mature, adult, ripe.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives a polyhedron of definitions for “adult,” most of which include the word mature. While useful to think about, these etymologies and definitions don’t illuminate or specify what exactly makes a person an adult. And as subjective as its meaning may be, I believe that adulthood has some irrevocable defining qualities.
First, an adult wants to grow up—he doesn’t wish to be a child again. When you’re a child, you can get away with pushing a classmate off the swing-set or throwing a tantrum when you open your presents on your birthday because you don’t have to experience all of the repercussions of your actions. You’re more readily forgiven and the stakes are ankle-low; life is, for the most part—and for the privileged—inconsequential. An adult, however, assumes responsibility for his actions. He’s accountable to others.
Second, an adult is financially independent. During the past two summers, when I supported myself here in Westwood without any assistance from my parents, I learned how to manage my money. More importantly—and unexpectedly—I experienced an addictive empowerment. For the first time, I felt like I had no obligation to anyone other than myself. I could do anything I wanted. I think overall independence is an earmark of adulthood, but financial independence is the most important kind because of how pernicious money can be when it comes to people truly having autonomy.
Finally, an adult doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. There are those who count their years as a sign of maturity and then condescend to those younger than they, but this, of course, makes no sense. A lot of empty years don’t yield more than a few full ones. Adults are mature and recognize their humanity. They don’t magnify themselves in ways that are disproportionate to the truth.
These are just a few of my thoughts on what makes someone an adult. With that said, I don’t consider myself an adult because I’m still not financially independent. I’m aware of certain things in my life—certain conversations I want to have with my parents, for example—that I don’t feel comfortable doing because I’m not secure when it comes to money. And while I don’t do some of the telltale things that people associate with adults—happy hour, a nine-to-five—I do, apart from my financial situation, consider myself to be very much an adult.
What does being an adult mean to you?