MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
(WHAT EXACTLY IS IT?)
my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
empty pages for the no longer young
—Indigo Girls, “Virginia Woolf”
As you read this I’m past the halfway point of my life, and my young adulthood waves at me in the rearview mirror. The wrinkles I thought I’d somehow avoid stand out in every photo. The gray hairs I started plucking when they first arrived are overtaking the brown. My college sweatshirt feels even softer than it did back in the day, but it has a lot of holes. My dying days are nearer, I know. Is that weird to say? Maybe. But, it’s true. Yet even so, I am still becoming me. And you are becoming you. This I also know.
What a cool thing.
You may think that adulting is all about paying your taxes and trying to make sense of the benefits package at work (assuming you’re lucky enough to have a benefits package, or steady work for that matter). But you would be wrong to think it’s all about that stuff. It is about that stuff. But that’s like saying high school is about registering for classes and finding your locker.
Think bigger. Adulting can’t be boiled down to ten tips or even a thousand. Being an adult is a state of mind that ignites the “doing” that ends up forging your adult self. It’s part wanting to, part having to, and part learning how. The hardest part is that because it’s happening in your own mind you pretty much do it by yourself. Yet you have all the adult humans around you going through it, too. They get it.
I wish I could tell you why adulting seems so complicated or unattractive these days. Maybe your parents’ generation gave off a lot of stress and anxiety and you looked at them and thought, Blech! Who would want to do that? Or maybe all the basic life skills just aren’t learned at home or taught in school anymore, and you feel like an idiot for not knowing how to do what older people think you should already know how to do by now. Maybe your parents were like superheroes who stepped in to help with everything right in the nick of time, so you didn’t get a lot of practice handling messy situations or tough feelings. Maybe it’s your friends who seem like superheroes, out there on the right “track” in Adult Land, and you’re judging yourself for not being as far along as they are. Maybe it all just feels like a lot.
Just gonna pause here to say that the “right track” concept is bullshit. I swear to you there is no track, no path, no lockstep plan that equals adulting that you’re somehow failing to adhere to. Life is too grand and mysterious for any track to keep up with. It’s a wide-open landscape like the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains, the high plateaus of Montana, the sweeping fields of Iowa or Louisiana, the intricate grid of a major city like Chicago, Atlanta, or New York. You get to decide where to be out there, what you’re doing, and how to navigate toward it. You’ll have others with you—the people you choose to spend your life with. But you’ll chart your particular path on your own. And if you want to feel really alive you’ll examine your choices continually and make adjustments every now and then.
Adulting is a relatively new verb (thank you, Millennials) but the concept is as natural as breathing. In the twentieth century, psychologists came up with five markers of adulthood, which were, in this order: finish your education, get a job, leave home, marry, and have children. This old idea is the definition your generation has been held to. Yet so much has changed about life and living since that definition was formulated:
Finish your education. Why finish your education at eighteen or twenty-two when you’re probably going to live to a hundred? Today we know that going back to school throughout the later decades of your life is a great thing, whether it’s to gain a new skill set or to soak up the enrichment that comes from lifelong learning.
Get a job. You need to pay your bills somehow. Yes, that’s true. But you will have multiple jobs in your lifetime, unlike your great-grandfather who may have had precisely one job all his life, or your great-grandmother whose job was likely to stay home. Work looks so different today—the possibilities are almost endless. Conceptually, it belongs in the adulting definition, but it would be better phrased as “Support yourself somehow.”
Leave home. Even if you want to, you may not be able to leave home anytime soon, because macroeconomic forces have made it impossible for you to afford to live independently in the town in which you grew up. Multigenerational living works perfectly well in many cultures as long as everyone is doing their fair share. And that’s the key. It may not be realistic to expect you’ll leave home; being an adult is about behaving responsibly and accountably and having freedom and independence in whatever dwelling you call your home.
Marry and have children. Okay, sure, if you feel like it. Or you may remain both single and childless. Or maybe you’ll have a lifelong partner without a religion or state sanctifying your union. And maybe you and your partner will have children, or maybe you won’t. Or you may have children without having a partner. Neither marrying nor having children is any longer a requirement of adulthood.
All of these are choices, and they’re all valid and up to you, and your choices along these lines do not make you any more or less an adult. Except you must have a way to support yourself. That’s not negotiable. But it’s hardly all there is to adulting.
For a more up-to-date take on the topic of adulting, I turned to my kids and their friends—then eighteen- and twenty-year-olds—for their definition. Sitting on the front patio of our house after feeding them brunch, here’s what I got out of them about #adulting:
It’s up to you.It’s realizing you can do whatever you want, and then dealing with the consequences.It’s independence more than anything.It’s walking down a street and getting that feeling that you’re in charge of where you go.Making your own decisions.Cooking.The shopping is a big part of it. Actually going to the store, picking out food, choosing what you want to eat. Just having to actually worry about your nutrition instead of having someone worrying about that for you. You can eat caramel for the rest of your life. But it would be a very short and miserable life. You can eat “whatever the fuck,” but you will suffer from whatever the fuck.It’s knowing you don’t have to. The first day I was at college, I knew we had the school orientation the next day, which was BS, and I was like, I don’t WANT to do that. So, I went to the radio station with a bunch of punk rock dudes, and said, “I don’t want to wake up at eight a.m. and make a dumb poster,” and they were all, “Then don’t.” And I was all, “Cool, yeah, I don’t have to.”It’s a certain level of if not actual competency, if not faking competency, then a certain level of projecting competency.My house used to be filled with these kids and their hilarious laughter, and it became way too quiet after they’d all gone their separate ways toward what’s next. Even though I’m so happy for them to be headed wherever they’re going, I miss them. A lot. I offer to cook for them whenever they pay us a visit, even though they can eat “whatever the fuck.” Maybe because.
There are other markers—the somewhat incongruous, age-based adulting stuff we’ve enacted into law and policy in this country. A brief snapshot:
18: Fight and die for your country
Create an Airbnb account
Marry without your parents’ consent
Be accountable for yourself in the eyes of the law
21: Drink alcohol and smoke tobacco and cannabis
25: Rent a car (This is when your brain has fully developed. Coincidence?)
Run for Congress
30: Run for Senate
35: Run for President
In spite of these markers, William Kamkwamba built a wind turbine to generate power to save his Malawian village from famine at age fourteen. Malala Yousafzai dared to attend school in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan and actively promoted the right of girls to do so, and when she was fifteen, a member of the Taliban shot her in the head for it, but she survived and continued her activism. Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean at age sixteen to force indifferent elders to pay attention to the climate crisis. Are these not examples of #adulting? A sixteen-year-old high school student at the Groton School in Massachusetts cited Greta’s example and said he felt like he was wasting his life by being away at school in the woods. I told him not to compare himself to Greta or to anybody else. “Thoreau went off to the woods to learn,” I reminded him. “At some point you will come out of the woods and figure out what you want to make of your life.”
This book isn’t about the absurdity of some of the above legal distinctions or about the few examples of humans who defy the odds at a young age. It’s a compassionate beckoning into the freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood whatever your task at hand may be. The definition of adulting should be one that applies to everyone, throughout time, and that withstands changing societal norms and macroeconomic forces. The best I can come up with is this: You begin as an infant, completely cared for by others, and at the end of life you’re completely cared for by others before you die. It’s those sweet, sweet years in between that are the adult years. A vast set of years (if we’re lucky) in which, barring having a significant disability, we are capable of caring for ourselves. That’s pretty much it.
I know you want to succeed at it. But you may have been misled about what that means. A successful life is not about getting into a certain school, or having a certain job or career, or about how much money you have. It’s not about perfection, making a singular noteworthy achievement, or having the most followers. People will hold these things out as the finish line for you to cross. But forget that. There is no finish line. Your work will feel most fulfilling if you’ve spent some time figuring out your unique interests and talents and you go out there and get better and better at doing that stuff. And much more important than the work you do is how you behave with humans. Research proves you’ll feel happiest—during life and at its end—if you find some small set of humans who know the real you and who love and support you no matter what, and whom you love and support in return.
In terms of actually doing the adult thing, it’s less a checklist and more a process that you’ll get progressively better at over time. It requires balancing a lot of competing things. By the time this book is done we’ll have covered a lot. But there will still be a lot you don’t know. Part of the adulting mindset is about getting much more comfortable with not knowing, with figuring things out, and with keeping going. Being an adult will become the most complicated and yet the most natural thing you’ve ever done.
Sometimes you might long to be a kid again. (Not to be the actual diapered or play-dating child, but at least to feel taken care of.) Is it scary out there in the wide-open landscape of life where you fend for yourself and where anything is possible? Yeah.
But you have to. And you must want to. And you need to learn how.
It’s your turn.
I’m the latest person to try to tell this story. You’re the latest to listen. The reason we keep telling these stories is that all of us have to learn it to survive. Nobody before you knew how to do this, either. We’re all winging it, full of shit and fear. Sometimes I am still terrified, too. Cue the baby animal video.
But you (and I) can conquer that fear. And when you feel the fear again, you’ll conquer it again.
You’ll be okay.
And while we’re speaking fundamental truths, let me also say that adulting is at times delicious. Believe it or not, this adulting thing? You’ll want to.
TAG, YOU’RE IT
(THE TERROR AND JOY OF FENDING FOR YOURSELF)
You just watch a season of Girls and do the opposite of what they do.
—David, Schitt’s Creek
In the waning summer of 1994 I got one of those phone calls you don’t ever forget.
I’d graduated from law school at Harvard in early June. Studied for the hardest test of my life, the California Bar Exam, for the next seven weeks straight. And in August, with the exam behind me, my husband, Dan, and I packed the contents of our Cambridge apartment into dozens of boxes to be shipped to California, where I’d be starting up at a law firm in October. Packing was tedious. I mean, who enjoys packing? Even so, we felt giddy as we did it. The Boston area had never felt welcoming to us and we couldn’t wait to return to California. We’d met there, and as we were falling in love with each other, we were falling in love with California, too.
The Cambridge apartment was the first place we’d lived in as a “married couple,” a concept that didn’t hold a lot of meaning for us because we’d lived together for a few years before the wedding. But it was something the older generation said in those days—“You’re married now!”—as if the marriage ceremony had changed things between us. In our eyes, all that had changed was that people were forced to treat us as a unit, as inseparable, which, as a Black and white pair in the early 1990s, was something we did not take for granted. It meant I could say, “Excuse me, he’s my fucking husband.” And Dan could say, in his more mild-mannered way, “Yes, please, it’ll be the two of us. This is my wife.” It also meant my mom would finally have to allow us to sleep in the same bedroom when we visited my parents’ house. (This really cheesed me—she’d had sex before marriage, and I had the sibling to prove it.)
Then that August in 1994, Dan and I waved goodbye to the driver of the enormous Bekins moving van, spent one last night living out of suitcases in the bare apartment, and boarded a tiny plane from Boston to the island off Cape Cod called Martha’s Vineyard where my parents had just decided to retire. They’d been living busy lives in New York when, in 1990, my then seventy-two-year-old dad got a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer (which meant it was terminal). He was well for another couple of years, but by 1994 his commute to and from the big city every day was starting to wear him out. Not knowing how much time he had left, he and my mom decided to leave the important jobs and hectic schedule behind. They sold their place in New York and bought a modest house in the woods on the northern end of Martha’s Vineyard near Lake Tashmoo. Tucked into a grove of trees off a dirt road, they planted flowers and vegetables, fed the birds, and spent their evenings in their recliners, with Daddy watching whatever team was playing, and Mom doing the crossword. (I’m paying attention to this lesson of theirs: when your partner is terminally ill, drop everything and be together—though I hope to God I never “need” to do it.)
This grotto of sorts was where Dan and I hid out while our huge moving truck made its slow roll across the country. In the daytime we’d go out on errands with my folks and mooch around Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, and the island’s other quaint towns. Each day ended with one of my mom’s wonderful home-cooked meals and some television together. Then we’d turn in. Those days weren’t just quality time with my parents; they forced me to confront the reality that Daddy was dying.
Holed up in my parents’ guest room, Dan and I folded our bodies into each other as quietly as possible, and then sleep inevitably came. One night, we dreamed out loud about living a slower-paced life on this island. Dan could easily be a handyman. He understands how things work, likes to be helpful, and loves to make things. Being more of a people-person, maybe I would work selling fried clams near the beach, or T-shirts. Then we started really fantasizing. Maybe we could open a little inn to serve the tourists who make this their summertime mecca, and relax into a much slower-paced life during the other eight months of the year. But we’d always end these conversations with a wistful sigh. We were twenty-five (Dan) and twenty-six (me), and I’d just graduated from a powerhouse law school. Slower-paced didn’t seem the right speed for our age and stage of life.
Looking back, I will say that to be moving away from the Boston area just as my folks had landed there was rather unfortunate timing. We were the proverbial ships passing in the night. But law school back east had been just a detour. The life Dan and I envisioned for ourselves had started in California and was destined to continue in California, we were certain. We were twentysomethings heading out into the wide-open landscape of the rest of our lives. What was going on with Daddy’s health didn’t have to change the course of our lives, right?
Copyright © 2021 by Julie Lythcott-Haims