How Do You Know When You’re All Grown Up?

While listening to my 6-year-old’s latest Frozen karaoke on the drive to school this week, I was reminded of playing cards at my grandmother’s house years ago. “I’ll have all the answers when I’m older … ,” sings the famous Olaf. 

I’ve often wondered when I’ll have all the answers — but lately  I’d settle for just feeling like an adult … some of the time.

It does happen … occasionally. 

On that summer evening, during a round of 3-Card Rummy, I mentioned how rarely I felt like an adult, even though I was a mother. My aunt surprised me when she confessed, “I’m 62 and still don’t feel like a grown-up most days.” 

Even more shocking was my grandmother’s similar admission. Since then, I’ve had similar conversations with countless people. 

So there I was Wednesday morning, Cora in the backseat belting out, “When I’m more mature, I’ll feel totally secure …” and wondering why, when it comes to adulthood, so many of us feel a sense of imposter syndrome?

My friend Jenn, newly 40, speculates that it’s a feeling of not meeting the expectations of others. “It’s not filling the adult role like the role models or adults in our lives,” she says. “We’re choosing different paths that some might say are immature or frivolous.”

Grace thinks that hitting self-imposed milestones has given her a sense of adulthood — getting a degree, getting a job, getting married, and buying a house. But similarly to Jenn, straying from what was expected sometime causes her doubt. “I’m not a mother and that is one of of those factors for me that makes me feel not like a grown up yet,” Grace says. 

Dr. Ashley Wellman, a victimologist specializing in grief and trauma, says these big life events can help shape our feelings. For instance a divorce, becoming a parent, or suffering a miscarriage, death, job loss, etc. can age us significantly, both physically and mentally. 

Becoming a mom to both of my girls gave me a fleeting sense of adulting, but I remember the death of my two grandmothers — only six days apart — forced me to feel a new level of grown, and not in a way I appreciated.

Dr. Wellman also notes that little things like social media can knock us right back down. “Comparison makes you feel like maybe you aren’t mature or ‘good enough.’ You might feel as though you haven’t achieved or performed to a high standard like those around you.” she said. “Seeing the perfect Pinterest mom, for example, can make you think, ‘Wow, I’m not doing this whole mom thing right … maybe I’m not ‘grown up’ enough … one day I’ll have it together.”

Although Vicki has felt adult at a number of stages throughout her life, it was when she was truly autonomous — retired, with grown children, and financial independence — that she felt true liberation and like “a full-fledged adult.” 

Cheryl said the biggest change came when she started to seek out the advice of her parents. Nicole said it was when she stopped seeking advice from hers.

I think the biggest transition for me happened in just the past year, when I realized that so many of my brattiest teenage moments occurred when my mother was (gasp!) my age now. I had naively assumed my mom had all the answers because she was ‘the adult,’ but realizing how few answers I have now has forced me to reexamine — and feel deep regret for — the way I treated her.

The 30-year-old in me that still holds out hope for future 4-day music festivals connected deeply with Krystin’s idea of adulthood. “I think what does it for me is surrounding yourself with people, activities, music and things in general to keep you feeling young,” she says. “Not like a little kid, but the age where you found yourself … that age that you don’t want to let go of.”

My quickly-approaching 40’s look appealing, if I believe the many people who’ve shared how wonderful it is. “My 40’s are when I hit the stage of fully accepting who I am, faults and all” Kristie said. “And that, to me, is growing up.”

So now here I am; weighing the experiences that make me feel like an adult against all the many that make me feel anything but. Then I remember that Olaf also sings, “Growing up means adapting, puzzling at your world and your place …” 

If that’s the case, then maybe I am all grown up. 

* A version of this column first appeared in The Walton Tribune on January 9, 2021 *

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