Justine Larbalestier asks here if her readers feel like adults, or imposters. She links to a book about adult themes which I know I do not have time to pursue; if my timer goes off before I throw some thoughts down here, I'll just delete this like I do the other unfinished riff. It's not as if the blog world is not already filled with plenty of rambling.
I came to the conclusion some time ago that I don't like the word "adult" because it seems to encapsulate a concept that I've never fit--and I realized after I turned fifty, probably never would. I'm not talking about the acquisition of adult things. I am well aware of western middle class privilege: owning a home, an automobile, choosing a career late in life, yadda yadda. In many parts of the world the responsibilities that define adulthood for so many are forced on human beings tragically soon--it happens here, too, though not in pandemic proportions. Legal adulthood is simple to define: you reach a specific age and you are permitted to purchase cigarettes, liquor, to vote, to drive. Extra-legal but strong cultural signposts are things like high school and college graduation, getting what you define as a real job (that used to be the job you would keep for life, but that security--tottery as it was even at its best--is no longer regarded as a given), marriage, buying a dwelling. Having children. Some of these we acknowledge, some we don't.
But if we look around us at individuals, whom would we point to as examples of adulthood? Old folks? My aunt Harriette prided herself until her death on being the youngest of her age-cohorts. She lied about her age until the very end, even to her physicians, because she so badly wanted to be perceived as younger than all the other women around her--until she died at 94, she was insisting she was younger than my grandmother, who got stuck with her care, as she never had kids.
Contrast to another of my relatives who ended up living with us because her first semester in college (her first-ever college party) she was given a drug-loaded coke, and when she passed out on the couch, was raped. She got pregnant from that, and in 1965 you didn't just trot off and rid yourself of the baby--especially when she didn't even know she was pregnant until she felt this hard thing in her gut, which turned out to be a baby almost six months along. So she ended up dropping out of college, taking dental hygenics training (there were few career options for women in those days, especially for single moms) while she and the baby lived with us, because her own family wouldn't have her. She hated that job from the gitgo, and got married as soon as she could find a man who didn't run at the first mention of a baby. Well, the fellow turned out to be from the deep south, who had been out here on a brief job, but expected any wife of his to move back home. So she did--and then had to scrounge work to support him, as he said he had a bad back and could no longer work, all by age 21. How do both women fit the definition of adulthood?
I have been wary of the word "adult" since I was a child. I've mentioned before that I cried desolately on my eighth birthday when I realized that in just two years I'd have double digits, and from there on it was all downhill. SO that's when I started keeping a diary so that I would remember being a kid--and also started writing my stories down so I wouldn't lose them. My definition of adulthood was of course narrow, defined by what I saw: grownups who all smoked, drank stuff that stank and made their voices too loud. A woman had to clean all the time when she wasn't having bridge parties or being a wife, whatever that meant. I did not like the tone of voice those words were spoken in--but of course questions netted you a smack, and warnings that "little ladies" did not ask such questions. By the time I was nine, I had a portion of that housework (future training, right?) assigned, which was hauling out the family wash, hanging it up, bringing it down when dry, and then spending a good portion of every Saturday ironing it. Soon the family dishes were added to that. Nobody ever said thank you, my brother could run free as a bird, all I got was criticism if it wasn't done right. I could see that that was just a portion of my future, and I resented this adult life with stomach-clenching hatred--especially since marriage also seemed to include being yelled at in the middle of the night, and horrible crying jags that were unexplained.
As I got older, the definition of adulthood widened, and the late sixties opened up women's possibilities, so I came to terms, or thought I did, with society's view of adulthood, especially as I hit the marks that gave me more personal freedom: got a car, could have my own bank account and not keep my earnings at home hidden in my room where family members who searched diligently could find and take it. I was living on my own by 23, and though I never actually had "the career" because what I wanted was to support myself by my writing, I had a series of jobs, some nightmares, some exceedingly fun, others a combination thereof. I got married, I had a kid and adopted a kid . . . but to tell the truth, I never actually felt like an adult. I still don't--I am sometimes a child inside, and most of the time I am ageless in my dreams.
My definition of adulthood, I realized, had gradually changed to someone who was totally in control of their life, unlike kids, who were controlled. When I lost my job, my relationship, my home, and my car was stolen all within a month when I was 25, it hit me quite hard that 'control' is at best ephemeral. I have never felt that any home would last, or that I was financially secure--whatever I have could all be taken away in an eyeblink: a catastrophic illness, a vicious quake, someone could drive a car through the front window and kill us all, and of course "they" could attack. When I was young, "they" were the commies, and now it's the terrorists.
There are two parts to my present definition of adulthood. One is intellectual curiosity. That is, one keeps learning. That does not mean one keeps going to school forever. One has to keep questioning assumptions, compromising with others as well as the world in its present state, and above all, keep fresh one's curiosity about the world, experiencing new things. Learning leads to comprehension on an ever-expanding scale. One engages with individuals across all the artificial dividers: economic status, gender, ethnicity or cultural difference, age, experience. To try to understand their POV is to better understand one's own, even if one doesn't agree, would never make the same choices. But one has to at least try to comprehend their choices, and the motivations behind them--understanding, outside of obvious decisions to destroy others, leads to compassion, to mercy, to compromise. But the intellectual quest doesn't end, or one freezes mentally into well-worn grooves. Those are seductive, because routine is comfortable.
Second thing. This is emotional adulthood. Far tougher to define. The worst retarder of emotional maturity, in my view, happens in childhood when the home is not safe. This means the kid grows up with "survival" mentality, better defined as "us against them." You can see where this is going--"us against them" is a big issue today, in economics, politics, culture, everything. I think it stems back to the sense that home is not safe. I don't just mean the horror of places where economic and geographic and political disaster force people to scrabble on stone-age level for food and shelter every day. Right now I'm talking about the survival that's defined by people who can read this--who have homes, and jobs, and computers, and enough time away from scrabbling for food and shelter to read my words.
I perceive emotional adulthood as the acceptance of the world, of one's place, and the responsibility one has in that place to try to do one's bit in fashioning the semblance of civilization. It is so easily torn, smashing people right back into survival mode. Civilization means we trust one another, and each does his or her part to make life accessible to all. And as all the outside elements change, we learn to understand, and then compromise, so that we can redefine civilization to be inclusive. No Them, just Us.
Okay, that went on twenty minutes past the timer, and I had better get my aged tuckus in gear. Wow, and there is actual physical rain outside--I need to shift my car out in hopes the rain doesn't vanish before I can get it washed for free.