Adulthood, as it’s taught to us, is a construct, and we can tear it down and reconstruct it ourselves, to make not one other version, but one million others.
Earlier today, I was doing some aggressive scheming about how to get to see Taylor Swift in concert. It went something like, “I can’t do that. I’m in my mid-30s! But my mental health has never been better since I started obsessively listening to ‘1989’!”
And then, “I am an adult. I can do whatever I want.”
This thing, the adultness, is an arguable phenomenon. When do you get there? Is it even a place? I’ve been arguing for a long time that institutions like marriage and parenting do not make you an adult, but consistently, there have been these lists popping up all over the Internet that tell us (let’s be honest, these are entirely directed at women) that there are certain things we should have by a certain age.
Apartment Therapy’s list, “7 Grown-Up Things You Should Have in Your Home by Age 30,” includes a good bed, some “forever” furniture or art, and something to take care of besides yourself. At Elle Decor, it’s two bedside tables, and bathroom accessories that aren’t plastic. Brit + Co has a list of “30 Things You Should Be Able to Make By The Time You Turn 30”—a layer cake, a DIY statement necklace, a family recipe you can pass on to your kids, a signature.
I’m 36 years old. Up until a few weeks ago, when I had to buy a new computer that turned out to be more light weight, I carried a backpack. Not a cute backpack, but one that you would take on a hike, because I have a lot of stuff to carry. I sleep in a twin bed, because my room, which is in a house I gratefully share with five other people, is small and affordable. I own nothing that needs to be dry cleaned, and that includes a suit. (I am thrilled, every single day of my life, about that fact.)
All of my bathroom accessories are plastic.
Capitalism is at the heart of these lists, of course—if you buy these things, you will feel better, you will be better. If you have an expensive couch, you are good at money, or you can pretend to be, and that’s the fuel for the system, the equating of morality with financial stability.
Look, I read all of these lists, and I’m predictably curious about what’s on them every time they appear, because I like lists, and I do like the idea that a thing might help me do things better. But this idea that owning a particular thing at a particular age (or at all) is so toxic and predatory, because people want to feel like they’re adults, even if we’re not sure exactly what that means.
Aside from the fact that we do actually age, I’m going to go out on this limb that adulthood, as it’s taught to us, is a construct, and that we can tear it down and reconstruct it ourselves, to make not one other version, but one million others.
What if it didn’t mean you owned anything, or that you were waiting for a specific relationship? There is a difference between being old enough to do something, being technically able to do something, and deciding whether or not you should do it, whether it’s right for you. And those lists of things that mean we’re grown ups if we get them, of things we should want—they’re just recreating those same (expensive) boxes over and over again.
This idea of being an adult is also deeply entwined to the concept of getting better, which at some level, we’re all aspiring to. “Better” in the world we’re living in means that you are some place, but you will get to another place that is higher, or just more. You’ll make more money, and your financial situation will be better. You’re sick, but someday you won’t be.
But what if you don’t get better? What if you don’t want to get better? What if you like where you are, or what if you just can’t get better? What does that mean for who you are in the world?
This is the idea: Adults are people who are trying to get better, and when you’re 25, or 30, or 40, you theoretically have the tools to do that (erasing, of course, the realities of racism, sexism, classism, etc). But these lists tell us, directly or subtly, that there are acceptable ways to do that. Making the decision to NOT own a suit or a house or to get married or learn how to make a fancy cake, or not aspiring to do any of those things can mean you know what’s right for you, and what isn’t, and also that what feels good and real and true right now is maybe temporary, and something being temporary, or wrong, or even worse, doesn’t mean a moral failing.
It means that things are more complicated than the world would like you to believe, and figuring out what to do with that is the actual work of being an adult.
Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Role Reboot, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.