How old were we when people started asking us what we’d like to be when we grew up? I recall expressing ambitions to be a mountain climber when I could barely walk (I assume this was because I’d been on a hiking trip where a parent had carried me most of the way).
A little later, aged eight or so, I drew a picture expressing my dream to be the first woman president – my father kept that drawing in his files forever. In the picture, I’m in the Oval Office, wearing a sensibly tailored suit in whatever shade of navy blue Crayola had provided in that year’s pack of 64. I was born in the early 80s – I like to say that I’m a geriatric millennial – and our concept of adulthood seemed distinct and defined, influenced more by rigid forms of the past, rather than any vision of the future.
We’d become like the adults we knew when we were small – our parents and caregivers and teachers, the adults we see on the street and on television. We’d get married, we’d own homes, we’d become parents, we’d carry briefcases. But the truth is that adulthood, once it’s attained – if it’s attained – feels like an ineffable state. How do we define being grown up, when the old markers – of marriage and children, homeownership and career – come later than ever, or not at all?
As a child and teenager, I was often praised for my apparent beyond-my-years maturity, enough that I came to believe in it, too. Teachers would draft me in to help discipline my less-ruly classmates; parents of friends would tell their children to copy my good behaviour (this was not, it turned out, a way to deepen those friendships). On at least one occasion, when I was 17, I was mistaken by a younger student for a substitute teacher; her assumption both insulted and thrilled me.
But my belief that adulthood was inexorable and just over the horizon waned as I aged; with each year, it seemed to slip further and further away. I was in my mid-twenties when it began to dawn on me – in my slow, childish way – that I wouldn’t turn 25 or 30, or maybe any age, and feel at last that I’d attained a sense of self that was profoundly different from the one I had when I was young. When I started university, I’d assumed that I’d end up marrying whichever boyfriend I acquired there. I also believed that I would acquire a job soon after I graduated, that I would feel valued in the job and that it would be the beginning of a career that would progress in a linear fashion. While I no longer aspired to the Oval Office, for my first round of post-education job interviews I purchased (OK, my mum purchased, as a gift for my 23rd birthday) a black-and-white pinstripe trouser suit from Zara, with a single-button placket and unnecessarily wide legs. I wore it with heels that added at least three inches to my height and hobbled my walk. I intended for my suit to denote my arrival in the world of adults.
As I moved into the latter half of my twenties, I devoured media coverage of people around my age doing impressive things – writing books, running for election, starting companies or just buying homes
It’s a mercy that no photographs of me in that suit exist, but I can feel safe in the assumption that, in fact, it only served to enhance my childishness. And, though I was wearing it when I interviewed for my first full-time job, it didn’t stop me from getting constructively dismissed two years later. Getting sacked had not been part of my vision of being a grown-up. Moreover, by the time I was 25, I had attended several weddings of my contemporaries who had included gravy boats on their wedding lists, which seemed like an indication that they considered themselves to be fully matured. But, just as I had no real need for a pinstriped suit, there was also no space for sauce-dedicated items of crockery in my own life – the relationship with the university boyfriend had ended and so had a subsequent, serious one, and nothing of substance had followed. “Will I ever love someone enough that I’ll ask someone else to give me a gravy boat?” I wondered, but it was a rhetorical question. I did not know how to make gravy.
As I moved into the latter half of my twenties, I devoured media coverage of people around my age doing impressive things – writing books, running for election, starting companies or just buying homes – with a mixture of fascination and self-revulsion. I’d check their ages and check again. How was it that they’d accomplished so much with their adult lives already, when I’d done so little? My occasional steps forward seemed just to lead to backwards ones: foundered relationships, new jobs that seemed promising but ended in dead-ends, a lot of Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings spent at east London house parties. It was possible that the people my age doing impressive things were not at the house parties. It was also possible, I realised, that I was going to have to seek self-belief in my own maturity through means beyond the signposts I’d been led to believe in since I was a small child. Now, perhaps, I was just a large one.
I was 31 when my sister got married and that felt like a sign of something, because she was my younger sister, by five years. Because a relationship that I’d had high hopes for had recently fallen apart in a way that felt quite dramatic, but also not unfamiliar – the kind of break-up that I thought I was too old for. Had my sister really attained adulthood before I had? I pondered it in the days leading up to her wedding, sleeping alone in the narrow IKEA camp bed that had been allotted to me, the sole single person staying in an Airbnb that my parents had hired to accommodate us (that one of the founders of Airbnb was once a high-school classmate of mine also felt like a mild insult). But when I got home to my (rented) London flat, I reconsidered. My sister and I, and some of my friends and I, and actually everyone else in the world and I, were leading different lives that went down different paths. The only thing I’d gained from trying to adhere to something prescribed was an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. I was free to make my own decisions, and that was a huge privilege in itself.
My father died. I dealt with grief and I dealt with the discovery that I’d inherited a genetic syndrome from my dad that may have caused the cancer he died from
I started to make some changes. I’d lived in London for nine years by then. The last few had felt a bit static, but I’d also felt like I should hold on; that I shouldn’t give up the tenuous purchase that I had attained on things that felt adult – my professional network, my group of friends, my second-hand Le Creuset. But none of the people I cared about were putting their lives on hold for me. Why should I try to do it for them? When I was offered a job in Berlin, my first thought was that I was kind of a loser to have nothing stopping me from moving there in a month’s time; my second thought was that it was a huge opportunity that nothing was stopping me from moving there in a month’s time. This was my version of adulthood: I couldn’t mould it into something else, so I decided to take advantage of it. At my new job, at a tech start-up, everyone wore vintage-style sneakers all the time. “Childish,” I thought, initially. In my mid-twenties, I’d begun to amass a selection of high-heeled shoes that I not only wore in the office but determinedly wore on the commute there and back, convinced that withstanding this kind of discomfort was a sign of maturity. In Berlin, after a few weeks, I started wearing the trainers, too – because they were comfortable, because the only person who cared at all was my erstwhile childhood self.
My move to Berlin was the beginning of several years of flux, and of things that could be considered “adulting”. I moved on to New York. My father died. I dealt with grief and I dealt with the discovery that I’d inherited a genetic syndrome from my dad that may have caused the cancer he died from. I did things that I’d thought I was too old to do: I made new friends; I dated inappropriate men; I allowed dirty laundry to amass in anti-social amounts at the bottom of my closet. My life bore no resemblance to the life that I’d imagined, 30 years earlier, that I was bound to have. “Am I regressing?” I’d wonder, dancing in a Brooklyn club at 2 o’clock in the morning or regarding the dishes that I’d failed to unload from the dishwasher. But I knew in my heart that I was just being myself. At long last, that was something that I no longer expected to outgrow. In other words? I’d become an adult.
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein is published by Picador