Life, from start to finish, is a collaborative endeavor.
At the university in Boston where I teach, we’ve entered the period of the academic year that I call The Panic. As April dovetails into May, nary an hour passes without an email from a student in need. They need extensions. They need extra credit. They need letters of recommendation on university letterhead (by tomorrow, please). They need counseling services and a new adviser. They need a summer internship.
Our graduating seniors need things, too, but outside of regalia and honors distinctions and that 1-credit independent study, what they need is generally more abstract. They need guidance. They need reassurance. They need to know where they’ll be living at the end of the summer, when their parents evict them from the proverbial basement. They need to know how to get a job, and what jobs are worth making significant changes to take (a cross-country move, an expensive application to graduate school). A small cluster of these seniors are on the verge of completing my creative nonfiction workshop this semester, and I’ve read their fears and questions for months, sometimes implicit in the prose, and sometimes explicitly shouting from the page: Am I an adult now?
Simultaneously, I spent Sundays this spring watching the fifth season of HBO’s Girls. I’m 33, about a decade older than Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, but I’ve devoured the show since its inception, when Hannah was an unpaid intern at a publishing house, living in Brooklyn on her parents’ professorial dime. My loyalty to the show is not about hate-watching; unlike many of its critics, I genuinely like the girls (yes, even Marnie) because they embody, for me, the messy, non-linear, often obnoxious process of growing up. The show asks questions about doing what’s responsible vs. doing what’s meaningful, and whether or not this is, or should be, a true dichotomy. And it shows characters in their mid-20s who may legally be adults, but are still learning what that means both financially and emotionally.
For example, this season, we watch Hannah extract herself from her unhealthy relationship with Fran by locking herself in a rest stop bathroom and texting him instructions to leave her in the wilderness of upstate New York. We see Shoshanna choose to stay in Japan after losing her job by simply not showing up at the airport where her American boyfriend, Scott, is waiting for her. We cheer Marnie on as she leaves her narcissistic husband, Desi, but only after she cheats on him with her even-more-troubled ex-boyfriend, Charlie. Each of these relationships needed to end for the good of the girls, but the ways in which they end are cringe-worthy, escapist, and often immature.
All the while, almost nobody on the show has a steady job.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure it gets much better in our 30s. Just look at the “adults” on the (now sadly cancelled) show Togetherness. Underemployment, personal dissatisfaction, restlessness, and infidelity drive these characters’ lives, as well, and not just for perpetual disaster Tina (played lovingly by Amanda Peet). Michelle and Brett, the married couple with two adorable kids and a house in a cozy L.A. neighborhood, nearly implode their family because of money troubles and their own reckless decisions.
Me? Some days, I’m not doing much better than Hannah or Tina. My husband Jason and I have a 2-year-old daughter and no savings. My youth is probably best preserved by the amount of student loan debt I carry, making me feel eternally 22. We live in a rented apartment filled with an amalgamation of secondhand furniture that makes our home look more “opium den chic” than “Better Homes sophisticated.” Because my career opportunities had to take precedence for things like health insurance, Jason remains underemployed in Boston, while I keep up the appearance of success as a college professor by working seven days a week, always on too little sleep, and occasionally tempered by too many beers on a Friday night. Our closest relatives are a five-hour drive away, and if we need childcare, we have to pay $20/hour for it.
According to author Neal Gabler, we are hardly alone in this portrait of “independence”: 47% of respondents to a Federal Reserve Board survey say they would have significant trouble, or be entirely unable to pay for an unanticipated $400 emergency.
Such financial stress, we know, can easily segue into depression, anxiety, and all manner of shitty life choices. Gabler references an iconic New Yorker cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan, captioned, “We thought it was a rough patch, but it turned out to be our life.” The Panic becomes just plain old existence, an elevated blood pressure state of being. Surviving that existence—with distractions, with addictions, with affairs and foreclosures and bankruptcies—is often anything but pretty.
In the world of Donald Trump’s “winners and losers,” my students are in danger of buying into an old and dangerous myth: that a good person builds her worth, both personally and professionally, entirely on her own. Trump, of course, is a ludicrous example of such independence, having inherited his wealth and squandering its (fortunately for him, inexhaustible) resources on failed business ventures. But his rhetoric appeals to a fundamentally American idea, a bedrock of libertarianism that borders on the very self-obsession Millennials like Hannah Horvath and her friends are so often accused of.
Where the characters of Togetherness may indeed be more grown up than the Girls is in their recognition that adults need each other. When Michelle and Brett’s marriage faces potential collapse, and Brett runs away to Alex’s apartment across town, it’s Tina who steps in to help Michelle with the childcare. Her help is laughably imperfect—there’s a hilarious scene where Tina peels the baby’s poopy diaper off upside-down—but she keeps the kids alive. Simultaneously, Alex gives his cuckolded best friend a temporary roof over his head. The whole crew later steps in to help Michelle save the dream of her charter school.
This isn’t just on TV. I recently confessed to my moms’ group that Jason’s contract work has waned, forcing us to forgo putting our daughter into the prestigious preschool where she was accepted, and to put my student loans into indefinite forbearance. Though the other mothers in the group all have their own struggles—many of them also financial—they pooled together and delivered $250 in Amazon gift cards to help us purchase some necessary items for our kid.
I felt immediate shame opening that gift. As Gabler notes, “Financial impotence casts a pall of misery…It forces you to recede from the world.” For weeks, I’d been withdrawing from the group as my family’s financial situation came into relief, even feeling resentful as I read posts about choices I didn’t have. At my worst moment, I even considered leaving the group. But depression eventually overwhelmed me, and I knew I had to confess our situation to keep it from consuming me, and from ruining friendships that deserved better from me.
Still, I wanted so badly to give back my friends’ generosity, to reject it, to go on pretending that all was well, and help wasn’t necessary. I wanted desperately to believe that myself. But the older I get, the higher the stakes of pride become. Having a child has forced my hand in maturing, has made me realize that accepting help—in other words, being dependent on the kindness of others—is both the responsible and meaningful thing to do.
My own college professors remained sources of support for years after I graduated, supplying me with career advice, professional connections, and countless letters of recommendation. At no time since I turned 18, or 21, or 30 have I been 100% autonomous, and no “successful” person has, either. What I want to tell my students is that independence, like bootstrapping and the old dream of a single-family home, a car for each adult, and a vacation every year, is just another myth in need of chucking.
Maybe the “new adult” is the one who knows that a lease with her name on it and a working microwave constitutes a great deal of success so many will struggle to achieve. That failure is nearly always a prerequisite for even the smallest gains. That life, from start to finish, is a collaborative endeavor. Maybe you’re an adult when you accept that none of us are meant to grow up perfectly, or alone.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.