Getting married and having kids used to signal the transition into adulthood, but what are the signs of adulthood today?
Last fall I visited Vienna, Austria, for the first time. While other tourists might consider the opera and the palace must-sees, I opted for Prater amusement park. Riding the tallest swings ride I’ve ever been on at night in the rain was by far the most fun I had in that city. Does that make me less of an adult?
By the time I was 16, I had been to numerous funerals. Most of these were for older relatives, though one was for a young friend of the family who had been struck by lightning. All were open caskets, and I walked close by to view them alongside my mom. Yet I remember when my father died, one of my 60-something relatives peered around the corner of the doorway at the wake like a child who fears a monster under her bed. Was I the more mature one?
I laugh til I cry at “South Park,” basically any fart noise in my vicinity will crack me up, and my propensity to call total strangers—who bump into me because they’re too busy texting—nasty names at the risk of being stabbed in New York City, certainly does not help my score on the “adult” meter…or does it?
It seems the more we try to pin down the best way to define maturity, the more elusive it becomes. It used to be that going away to college signaled our entry into adulthood, which was then cemented by marriage and propagating of the species. Society tends to unfairly label those who choose to delay or avoid settling down, as having a perpetual case of “Peter Pan Syndrome.” Yet that hasn’t stopped the growing trend of people putting off or avoiding marriage and kids.
So, how then can we truly know when we become adults, particularly as women? I mean, when was the last time you heard someone tell a female, “C’mon, be a woman!” or “Woman up!” Besides, I feel I do plenty of “womaning up” whenever I buy a huge box of Super Plus tampons and diaper-strength pads.
My short answer on adulthood? An “adult” is someone who behaves in the opposite manner of Carrie Bradshaw and all the girls of HBO’s Girls. Or, an adult is someone who doesn’t send her own poop in a Tiffany box to people who cross her, a la Sharon Osbourne.
Yeah, I didn’t think that would be sufficient. So I will quote a movie line that has always stuck with me: When Jack Nicholson’s iconic character in As Good As It Gets is asked how he writes women so well, he replies: “I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.” I certainly don’t think one gender is more accountable than the other; I’m rather more interested in “accountability” itself, as so many things that I associate with adulthood fall under that word:
1. TCB – Taking care of (our own) business. The first inkling that I was encroaching on full-fledged adulthood came when I was able to pay all my bills without any parental “loans.” Once I could support myself, I started saving and investing. And by investing, I don’t mean buying Manolos and Birkins and expecting the rest (like rent and food) to take care of itself. Women’s self-help is far too loaded with dating and appearance advice, while sensible guidance on money management is a barren desert. Having your own stash is important regardless of whether you ever “settle down,” but especially if you know that’s not your thing. When you walk around spending money you don’t have, you might as well have a binky hanging out of your mouth. Whenever I’m in a shoe store, I like to imagine a screaming brat in the grocery store trying to toss every sugary snack he sees into his mom’s cart. I find it helps immensely.
2. Avoiding life tantrums – This is a mindset of, “I want situation X the way I want it and nothing is going to stop that!” or as I like to call it, living in raisin land. Since I already brought up Carrie Bradshaw, I may as well use an anecdote. Remember the episode when Mikhail Baryshnikov’s character mentioned a friend of his who died of breast cancer after Carrie told him about Samantha’s diagnosis? And each time he brought it up, she freaked and called him an “asshole” for refusing to coddle her and tell her what she wanted to hear. She actually put her hands over her ears at one point. “Samantha will be OK because she HAS to be!” Failure to plan for contingencies, an inability to deal with any reality that we don’t like, and refusal see situations from a point of view other than our own are huge red flags that we might mentally still be on the monkey bars. If you find yourself literally putting your hands over your ears and vigorously shaking your head, professional help is warranted.
3. More action, less complaining – This feels so good, doesn’t it? Like a cozy blanket when we have a cold, we just want to wrap up and stay there for about a year. Problem is, it’s addictive. Venting can bring comfort in sharing experiences with others, but too often that little demon just sits on our shoulder refusing to let us budge. I’m not talking about situations where one might genuinely be stuck, like say, a subpoena, but when there’s something we can do about it (“I hate my apartment,” “I want so badly to break up with him,” or “There’s nothing I can eat on this menuuuu!”— notice how I dragged out the “u” sound for full whine effect?), I think a potty training reference is appropriate: Shit or get off the pot.
4. Remaining true to yourself – We’ve all seen them. Women who are capable, independent, and accomplished, nonetheless allowing the man they’re seeing to make most of the decisions. “I don’t know, wherever you want to go is fine.” Or worse, melding into something they’re not because they think it’s what he wants. It’s so refreshing to hear more mature women like Whoopi Goldberg and Lauren Hutton espousing the, “This is me, and if you don’t like it, move on” philosophy. This kind of self-assurance seems to grow with maturity, so it’s actually one of the few aspects of growing older that I’m looking forward to.
5. There is no number five. Having a number five would be neat and tidy and would meet expectations, but now that they haven’t been met, how should an adult react? When life fails to deliver us our number five, especially after we’ve busted our asses on numbers 1 through 4, the most adult among us either find a way to be satisfied at four, or start figuring out the best detour to six.
I am in no way suggesting that I have never indulged in playing in the kiddie pool psychologically. It can be fun and cathartic, but it can also cost us (literally, in some cases) dearly. Being a kid was awesome and if I could still fit on a Big Wheel, I’d probably be riding it right now. I’d just make sure to have the appropriate health insurance, and I wouldn’t go slower to avoid threatening the boys.
Michelle Rabil is a freelance writer, public relations consultant, traveler off the beaten path and avid amateur photographer living in Manhattan. When she isn’t writing for Fortune 500 clients and some of the largest public relations firms in the country, she prefers to be in, on or under the Caribbean Sea. She has also written for Reuters, Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Salon.