How I was failing at being an adult and so decided to rewrite the rules
As a child, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. These people could spend their whole pay checks on sweets, and they didn’t have to be told when to go to bed, not play with their food or stop being annoying. They could literally be annoying whenever they wanted! Their feelings weren’t reduced to ‘you’re just tired’ and they probably got to meet the real Santa. Not the crappy mall impersonator. I mean talk about a life goal. Of course, I now realise that this was just the sales pitch, and the reality of adulthood involves boring stuff like dealing with condescending mortgage advisers and trying to clean your mirrors without leavings streaks. There is a price to pay for ultimate freedom. Which at the time for me was defined as not having to eat Brussels sprouts. Bring on being a grown up right?
Actually, I wouldn’t know. I am suddenly not quite sure I am one. A meeting with my tax accountant recently left me feeling like an unprepared teenager facing a math pop quiz. Anything to declare? Revenues from investments? Pension plan? Savings? Anything at all? Subtle eye roll. And there I was thinking actually having a tax accountant was the height of maturity.
I always thought of adults as people who had nice houses, nice cars, were married, had children and hosted dinner parties. But if you consider that benchmark, I have spectacularly failed at life. At 38, I live in a rented one-bedroom flat with my snotty cat and own a car so small it changes lanes when it’s too windy. I have indeed traveled to over 50 countries and lived on three continents, but apparently ‘experiences’ are not an accepted form of currency with most credit card providers. Who knew.
Altogether, it’s hard to see myself as a successful person considering this set of pre-established societal criteria. Which got me thinking: if Inuit people have over fifty words to describe snow, why should we stick to the one single version of adulthood? What I needed to do was redefine my metrics and write down my own definition of what it means to be a grown up. To that end, I conducted some qualitative research among friends. The most useful contribution I received was something along the lines of ‘Remembering to buy kitchen roll’. Clearly, I was on my own there.
So I went back to basics and based my view on metrics that I both value today, and that will make me strive to be the best person I can be when I actually grow up. This, instead of being a long list of criteria, turned out to be surprisingly succinct:
Rejection of control
For me, the main difference between childhood and adulthood is the element of choice. Of being able to change your path and reject certain situations you are not comfortable with. Sure, we all deal with difficult things and often have no say in what befalls us. But in choosing our reaction to those situations, we reclaim our right to decide. We have a choice. A choice to change job when our boss isn’t the inspiring leader our career deserves. Or to go part-time because a child requires special care. A choice to leave unsuitable relationships and cut out toxic people from our lives. A choice not to be ‘nice’ anymore and to tell people to fuck off more. A choice to stand up for the environment, the animals, the planet and change things. Or to focus on our herb garden. As adults, nobody can impose their view on the life we should lead. There can be strong opinions expressed, but ultimately, the choice is ours. As children, others were made responsible for our well-being. The passage to adulthood is marked by a shift towards taking our well-being into our own hands.
But rejecting control over our lives, our bodies and ourselves as a whole doesn’t just happen. It requires courage in the face of fear. Scary stuff doesn’t just go away anymore once someone checked under the bed. True fear remains well anchored once it has planted its seeds. Fear of rejection, fear of not being able to pay the bills, fear of disappointing others. And mostly, fear of not being enough. Of ending up alone.
Taking control and facing your fear doesn’t just happen. It takes practice and requires doing scary stuff little and often. For me, the true measure of success here is as admitting you are scared and taken steps to reclaim control. It doesn’t have to start with solo backpacking around Africa with only a ukulele and a toothbrush. It could be as simple as telling someone you don’t like the way they talk to you when you hate confrontation. Or bravely stepping into a pottery class with a bunch of strangers. Or booking a therapist appointment and admitting you need help. Start small, but start practicing. And being alone isn’t so bad. You can dance in your pants with a glass of Amaretto Sour without being judged. That example is completely arbitrary by the way.
So exactly two decades after I was legally allowed to buy my first six-pack of cheap beer, I have only just started to understand what it means to journey towards grown upism. I’m sort of of hoping I’ll get there in this lifetime and look at myself as the kind of person I have always dreamed of being. But in the meantime, I’m just enjoying the Amaretto-filled ride.