How To Be A Grownup

19 Oct

It’s late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday. I’m lying on a chaise longue on my mother’s back deck, a ratty old knitted blanket across my lap and a book that I am not reading in my hands. I am pretending to be a 19th-century invalid, recuperating from a non-specific ailment at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. I am breathing deeply, imagining that I am taking something called the fresh air cure. The sun is warm, its light buttery and yellow. I can hear my son laughing in the distance as my husband chases him around my mother’s small garden, and I pretend that he is a small Swiss child who lives in a nearby thatched cottage. I tell myself that he is amused by the antics of the goats he is herding. This is, I assume, what small, 19th-century Swiss mountain children do: live in picturesque cottages and laugh heartily as they herd their goats.

I am thirty one years old and I am still playing pretend.

Is this what grownups are supposed to do?

Ten years or so into my purported adulthood and I’m still not really sure how to be a grownup, or what that even means. As a kid, I thought that being an adult meant that you did whatever you wanted, although for some reason all of my grownup fantasies were oddly baking-specific. For instance, I imagined myself making cookies whenever I pleased, and thought about how I would be allowed to use the electric mixer without any help. I would, I told myself, be able to wear party dresses every day of my life. And while all of these facts are empirically true and have been true for over a decade, the ability to do these things is neither as satisfying as I thought they would be, nor do they make me feel especially like a grownup.

What does adulthood mean? What is it supposed to look like? As a kid, there seemed to be recognizable difference between adults and not-adults, but now that demarcation is becoming less and less clear. There also seem to be more stages on the way to adulthood than I’d first realized – I used to think that you were either a child or an adult, but now it turns out that, rather than being a binary, it’s more like an evolutionary process, from infant to toddler to preschooler to that nebulous age between when grade school starts and puberty begins to teenager to university student to young adult to – what? Just plain adult, I guess.

Except that I’m not really sure if I feel like an adult.

Mostly I just still feel like myself.

It probably doesn’t help that I don’t look so very different from my teenage self; sure, there are a few lines here and wrinkles there, but the basic structure is exactly the same. I dress the same way that I did as a teenager, too, or rather I dress the way that my teenage self would have had the funds been available. I don’t wear what I think of as grownup clothing: crisp white shirts, tailored suits, prim polyester dresses in black or grey or navy. I like the same things as I did when I was a teenager, more or less – reading, writing, watching painfully earnest indie movies, dressing up, acting out, telling bad jokes, sitting on people’s living room floors while drinking and playing board games. I still read Little Women when I’m feeling down and want literature that’s akin to comfort food. I still get that same funny ache at the end of Empire Records when everyone is dancing on the roof, just like I did when I was sixteen. I still put waaaay too much sugar in my coffee. When we drive past a cemetery or over a bridge, I still hold my breath.

I’m still me, and I can’t help having this weird sense of disappointment over not being the prettier, smarter, more capable creature that I thought growing up would turn me into.

Maybe  part of the problem is that I’m no longer certain of what being an adult looks like. I used to think that there was a sort of set formula: you finished high school, went to university, started a career, fell in love, got married, bought a house, had kids, then watched your own kids repeat the same steps. But then I watched as this blueprint, which seemed to be the  How-To guide accepted and promoted by family, teachers, guidance counsellors, and just about every movie or book that I’d ever seen or read, failed my parents and many of their peers. They hated their jobs. They hated each other. My father stopped being a lawyer, left my mother, and moved to the city where he lived in a bachelor apartment and worked as a bike courier. My mother was exhausted and miserable, trying to raise three kids by herself on a secretary’s salary – by the end of the day, once everyone was fed and bathed, once the homework was done and the dishes were clean and half a dozen petty arguments had been mediated, it was all she could do to sit in front of the television and fall asleep to the sound of the laugh track of some corny late-90s sitcom.

That wasn’t what I wanted for my life.

I didn’t know how else to move ahead, though, so I tried my hardest to follow that old How-To guide. As the end of high school approached, the adults in my life encouraged me to apply to universities. Or rather, there wasn’t even much encouragement – it was just assumed that this was what I would do, and any divergence from that plan seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives that my parents or guidance counsellors felt were acceptable. College, it was intimated, was for the not-so-bright, and with my critical thinking skills I belonged in an undergrad program somewhere. Getting a job was out of the question, unless I wanted to be stuck working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. Even taking a year off to figure my shit out was frowned upon – I was too flighty, they said, and would almost certainly never go back to school if I left. So my mother scraped together the hundred or so dollars needed for the application process, and I filled out the forms, and it felt like we were doing the right thing.

And I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t want to go to university – I did, I swear I did. I just want to make it clear that it also felt like that was the only way that I had of moving forward with my life. And I was desperate for some way, any way, of moving forward.

The problem with university was that while everyone agreed that I belonged there, no one seemed certain how I was supposed to pay for it. The provincial loan system was Byzantine, the forms and online application difficult to navigate, and the resulting funding amount impossible to understand. For example, the government could refuse to give you a loan if your parents earned a certain amount per year, even if said parents were not helping you pay for your education. Lines of credit from the bank weren’t much better – I mean, they were fine, I guess, if you had someone to co-sign. I didn’t.

When I asked the grownups around me how I could possibly afford this education that was supposed to be so critical to my life, they gave these strange sort of blank stares and suggested that I get a summer job.

Because when they’d gone to post-secondary school, a summer job had been enough to pay a year’s tuition and then some. That was obviously no longer the case.

The good old How-To guide hadn’t anticipated changes like this.

I managed to finish two years of university on a combination of government student loans, kind student affairs workers and a healthy state of denial. By the end of that second year, though, my finances were so badly fucked up that there was no question of finishing my degree. Two steps in to my path to adulthood, and I was already failing the model. Or rather, the model was failing me.

I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out if and how I can make the old blueprints work for me. It’s true that I can check off a few things on the list – I did manage to fall in love once or twice, I am married, I do have a kid. On the flip side, I haven’t finished school, I’m not sure that I would call my hodge-podge of jobs a “career,” and I can’t imagine a time when I will ever be able to own a house. Even the things that I’ve managed to check off seem, upon closer examination, to grow a bit murkier. My marriage doesn’t necessarily always look like what I thought a marriage should be. I don’t spend as much time with my son as I could. I often worry that I’m a bad partner or a bad mother. I am slowly learning that marriage and motherhood aren’t so much accomplishments as they are a lifelong work in progress. I’m also learning that being a wife and mother aren’t necessarily fool-proof indicators of adulthood; it’s not as if some magic switch is flipped when you say “I do,” or in the moment that your child is first placed in your arms.

So where does that leave me?

It’s both freeing and terrifying to realize that the old formula for adulthood doesn’t apply to my life is both dizzyingly freeing and incredibly terrifying. On the one hand, in theory, my life gets to be whatever I want it to be. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, and the potential for failure seems high. It’s like wandering in the forest without a map, or even a guide to the flora and fauna – this glade seems like a nice place to build my home, but what if it floods every year during the spring thaw? These berries look tasty, but what if they’re poisonous? Of course there’s always the possibility of a happy ending, but it seems to be equally probable that I will die alone, frozen to death, maybe, or else eaten by wolves.

Lately I’ve been looking hard at my friends’ lives, trying to pick and choose the things that I want to emulate. What’s funny is that it’s not the friends who have the most material successes, the ones with the best jobs or the nicest houses that I’m drawn to, but rather the ones who have certain traits and behaviours that I covet. I admire, for instance, my friend who makes difficult choices, who goes ahead and does things even when he’s afraid or thinks that something is impossible. I admire another friend who’s an expert at saying no. I want to be more like the friend who seems to have that extra split second to figure out if their emotional reaction to any given situation is warranted and appropriate. I want to be like the friend who seems effortlessly organized, who holds family meetings every week to figure out who will be where doing what when during the next seven days. I want to be the person who fights for their beliefs without being disrespectful or unnecessarily cruel to the people who don’t agree with me. I want to be measured, calm, and collected.

And I want to do all of this and still be able to get a little weepy over Empire Records.

What I’m realizing is that, while creating a guide to my own personal grownup life, the best place to start is with myself. I need to work harder to build the type of person that I’m happy with before extending my energy outward. I need put a dot in the middle of the map marked you are here and then radiate all other lines outward from that spot. When I write this all out, it sounds unbelievably selfish, but I also can’t think of any other way to make a guide that suits the kind of life I want to live; because before I make that guide, I have to figure out my own shit, which means answering all of the big questions like what the fuck do I want, and why am I even here, and where do I go next?

Maybe that’s the best way to be a grownup.


41 Responses to “How To Be A Grownup”

  1. deonnakellisayed October 19, 2013 at 2:11 am #

    Thank you for writing this. I read it and thought, “This. Is. Me.”

    • bellejarblog October 19, 2013 at 2:16 am #

      Oh, thank you! That is basically the best feedback to get 🙂

    • Elitza October 19, 2013 at 2:42 am #

      Yep. Bingo. Exactly.

  2. turapolis October 19, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    Damn. When I read the title I thought, “Finally someone has laid out a method for me!”. Oh well, keep carrying on…

    • Frances October 19, 2013 at 10:17 pm #


  3. Kuri October 19, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    There is so much I could relate to in this post, even though I did have the privilege of money for post-secondary education. I used to think that at some particular age I’d have it “all figured out” and that all searching I did my teens and twenties would come to some resolution. Instead, I’m still trying out different jobs, new activities and settling into a semi-new relationship at 33. It’s taking awhile, but I’m slowly accepting that I’ll likely always be searching, trying things out and trying things on. And knowing that allows me to enjoy it a little more.

    • Gwen Baxter October 19, 2013 at 3:37 am #

      And keep trying till it feels right to YOU

  4. gettlost October 19, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    I love it!!

    And you are not selfish. You are honest. And I find it beautiful.

    Keep discovering, the rest of us have no fucking clue what to do either. Lol

  5. Shelly Smee October 19, 2013 at 3:42 am #

    Firstly, thanks for another awesome post!!!. Secondly, at 45, I have these same conversations with friends both younger and older and it seems to me my GenX PeterPan angst is fall-out from actually surviving the cold war, becoming a tech slave and now saying “really-this is it?, thanks I’ll just keep doing my thing over here”. In 1985 when I graduated high school, I was convinced we were going to all get blown off the face of the earth and going to university and getting a career track job was just a waste of time…then the world changed. I married to a much older guy, got a career path job, divorced the older guy, and voila 28 years went by in a flash. I finally feel like I have the maturity to be completely comfortable with my immaturity, which is just another example of how life is ironic and the best revenge is to hold onto the wonder and joy of youth forever, to refuse becoming jaded and not wallow in day to day responsibilities. Reading posts like yours remind me of the things I still want to do and the things I used to like to to that I should do more of. Thanks.

  6. Muddy River Muse October 19, 2013 at 4:22 am #

    I love this! So much truth here. At 52 I am still deciding what to be when I grow up. It’s all a wonderfully messy work-in-progress.

  7. jackofalltrips October 19, 2013 at 4:47 am #

    I feel like this so much. I did go through the whole federal and provincial government loan business and ended up being unemployable and did it all over again (because, hey, you don’t have to make loan payments when you are in school). Now I have two degrees and I can’t imagine I time when I would be able to settle down and buy a house. Now that I am building a “career” I find myself day dreaming of all of the other things that I could have done instead (still can do instead).

  8. Laura Lynn October 19, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    I always had it figured out from the start. I was going to not go to college or university. Not a chance in hell since I had to start supporting myself at 17. I was going to get a job doing something. I wasn’t sure what, but I figured I’d know what my career would be when I stumbled upon it. I was going to date a lot of guys and ‘fix’ them. I would never ever give up my motorcycle. Ever. I was going to live my whole life reading, wearing beautiful shoes, perfecting a good curry and making sure I had a good dog and spoiled cats.
    No. Seriously, none of that came true, except I have a good dog and spoiled cats…now that I’m older, sometimes I ask myself when I decided THIS was my path. This one I’m on. It’s been crazy sometimes and I’ve had to be braver than I wanted to be. I’ve found that everything I did in the past is an unbroken thread that led me to all the good things, good deeds and good people in my life. Rich? No. Happy? Yes. Adult? Sometimes. The kid still wants Cap’t Crunch. The adult wants a good homemade curry.

  9. Raj October 19, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Dont work hard, may be dont work at all. As you said , Iam Iam Iam , stay where you are and you will be cool, but dont compromise yourself on thing s you wont do and there is not a thing that you can’t do.

    Great post.

  10. monsteryarns October 19, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    You know, the best thing is, you’re actually thinking about it and have a plan rather than pretending everything is OK and continuing to bumble on. Good luck.

  11. shecando October 19, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    This is a wonderful piece. I can completely relate.

  12. evolution October 19, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    I really appreciate how self aware you come across in this blog. I also struggle with this idea, and just recently I read “maturity” by Osho, who defines in his mind the difference between growing old and growing up, and that most of us never really grow up. It’s an interesting read.

  13. Foghorn The IKonoclast October 19, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Yeah the mindfulness is something you can draw on and gain perspective.

  14. wrumbold October 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    I honestly think that our parents felt/feel the same, they were also bluffing being grown ups, the way I bluff being a grown up to my toddler. Our kids have to feel we have the answers, so we behave as if we do. There are no answers or easy narratives for life.

  15. StacyMichelle October 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    this resonated so strongly with me this dreary morning … thank you. helps to know, I am not alone

  16. Matt October 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    This is so ridiculously good, it makes me want to hug myself because there’s no one else to hug.

    I think you’ve actually got it figured out. The human experience.

    We pull back the curtain, excited to meet the wizard. But there’s no wizard. Just another flawed human who has no idea what they’re doing either.

    I’m sorry I can’t “like” this 50,000 times.

  17. Cindy Tate October 19, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    Thank you thank you thank you – you captured in your post I think what everyone our generation is going through.

    So many similarities, but what struck me, with a teenage daughter myself, is that our parents generation had their cookie-cutter lives laid out for them, and if they were deemed worthy by society they filled their roles without complaint, and were left wondering when they hit retirement the age old question “WHY?!!” to everything.

    Our generation started questioning that “WHY” earlier – usually when we were suddenly told to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives after high school when the world had erupted into more choices then we could ever conceive of – with no guidance except from our parents who couldn’t understand why weren’t grateful for that abundance. And now we in turn raise our children not knowing our own answers but realizing we have to somehow provide guidance to the next generation. That’s the struggle of being an adult.

    But I confess it has allowed me to have more authentic conversations with my daughter at an earlier age than I ever did with my parents- because there is no shame in not knowing everything, and I hope that it gives her strength to know that she has someone to bounce her own ideas of her own “WHY” off of.

  18. maybethisiswhyimsingle October 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    I loved this post. I especially loved your Empire Records reference. That movie is the perfect description of the space inbetween being a child and being the stereotypical adult we all seem to believe exists…

  19. DeCaf October 19, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    This was me in my mid-late 20s. Then I came out to my parents, basically got disowned, and decided that I am the master of my own fate. Complete independence is what helped me acknowledge my adulthood. I love my parents and deep down they love me, but they were holding me back, in addition to being a very unhealthy part of my life.

  20. vrm24 October 19, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    This was such a beautifully written post, and I loved reading it!

  21. briarrose44 October 19, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    This. Is. Me. Thank you.

  22. Rachel October 20, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Reblogged this on "Explore. Dream. Discover." and commented:
    I love this post.

  23. abdulmozidk October 20, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    Reblogged this on ammasf.

  24. livingproof October 20, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    I can agree with most of these thoughts; I have had many of them myself on a reoccurring basis. What I have realized, however, is that when I think these thoughts it is when I have had quite a while to sit alone and contemplate thoughts. I love being along, and I also love being with a small group of friends, but more alone because I feel like I can “work on myself”, go back to that easy introverted way of thinking which is easy and comforting for me but truly is detrimental I feel. The reason is because we are creatures of never-ending curiosity, we feel we have to self-evaluate every detail of our lives. I have realized that when I focus on myself, I am truly alone, and not alone in the good way where I can enjoy sitting and reading for hours without even seeing the light of day. You are most in tune and happiest with yourself when you engage with others. So instead of focusing on me, me, me and what’s wrong with me, I focus on others with their worries and cares and eventually realize that nothing in my life is hard and nothing in this life is given to us that we can’t handle. Our generation is so individual-minded in that we feel the need to define ourselves before we can do anything. Who cares that much about labels? I think if we really radiate from an outside point from our own, then we can eventually find our point in this vast universe, but that realization probably will not come until our last day.

  25. cogitoergomum October 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    For ages I assumes the people running our countries knew. But they don’t do they. In fact, the more childish you are (self centered, unwilling to compromise, unable to share, happy to poke fun, hang out in little gangs) the more promotions, power and cash you seem to get. Perhaps we are best off hanging-with-the-kids* for a little while yet.

    * inappropriate street language = surely I’m a grown up!

  26. Britt October 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    I love your descriptions of your friends. I’d like to quilt little squares of mine into a better me, too. This whole thing has inspired me to get off the computer and straighten the house. I’m going to be a grownup today.

  27. Amanda Martin (writermummy) October 21, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    Brilliant, love it, especially “I am slowly learning that marriage and motherhood aren’t so much accomplishments as they are a lifelong work in progress.”
    It was such a disapointment to me, when I started my first ‘real’ job after university, aged 21, to discover that all those sharp-suited managers and directors running this shiny FTSE 100 company hadn’t got a clue and the whole company was held together with sticky tape and string. It was all a front. I realised then that no one ever grows up, they just learn to fake it.

  28. mattskymountain October 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    Fantastic blog post! This is the stuff that I grapple with everyday, especially when I am dealing with the inescapable fact that everything can change without warning yet all of a sudden I am expected to be an adult. I reckon each one of us is constantly redefining what it means to be an adult and our challenge is to remain true to ourselves while having a sense of responsibility for our actions and choices. Definitely reblogging this one! Well done!

  29. mattskymountain October 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on From the Sky Above the Mountains and commented:
    Wow! Anyone got any thoughts on how to be an adult? What a great issue and one that each one of us is constantly redefining and grappling with everyday of our lives. As I commented on the Belle Jar blog the thing is how to remain true to ourselves while taking responsibility for our choices and actions. Look forward to the response to this one!

  30. broadsideblog October 22, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Love this.

    I was talking to someone about defining myself and decided the publishing term TK might fit…it’s a standard placeholder for a fact that will be filled in later, before publication. I’m 56 and have a bucket full of identities: writer, wife, daughter, friend. But my path (and I did attend and graduate from U of T, whew) has not been very conventional — no kids. Married the MD who turned out to be a faithless shit. The three recessions that shredded my career ambitions and kept taking the “ladder” and throwing thousands of us off it mid-climb.

    The standard milestones seemed more achievable and more desirable, perhaps, to other generations. With economic upheaval the new normal for many people, it’s not a great idea to stick to prior notions of what is “adult.” We have to make it up as we go along.

  31. Cathy Olliffe-Webster October 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    The way you write – it’s amazing, it really is. So much soul and intelligence and insight. I read your post about being sick (yes, take your own advice!) and enjoyed it so much I moved down to this one and felt myself sigh with recognition. I’m 53 and I still feel I’m not the grown-up person I want to be. Maybe it never happens. If it does, lemme know how it works out.

    In the meantime, that fresh air cure? I do that sometimes to. Cracks me up.

  32. Nell Heshram October 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    What a gorgeously written post! Personally, I think everyone should embrace their inner child rather than hankering to be a grown-up. I know that I, personally, was at my clearest of eye, most visionary, when I was wee. I’m just starting to catch up with that person now, after years of trying hard to be sensible and overly adult!

  33. Rebecca Meyer October 25, 2013 at 4:54 am #

    This is so relatable for me. I wonder if lots of us go about our daily lives, wondering if we are “grown up.” I have to wonder if maybe it’s a part of the way society markets what “grown ups” are supposed to be like. When we were kids, grown ups seemed vastly different than kids. As we progress through life, we do change, but we still have similarities to our childhood selves. Maybe we expect that we should one day morph into something vastly different than who we used to be? All I know is that as long as I know who I am, that’s all that matters.


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