Remember your first apartment? I remember mine clearly. My first taste of independence. I felt totally grown up. I was in university and I shared a dark basement apartment with two friends from childhood. All of my furniture had been given to me. My bed and chest of drawers came from home. Our living room furniture came from the former apartments of my older sisters. My step-father and my brother moved all my things. I went home every Sunday for a decent meal, usually taking my laundry, and came back on Sunday night with grocery donations from the farm. Really, when I think about it, I’m not sure what exactly was so grown up about that experience. I did pay the rent myself, and my tuition, and my other expenses. That is until the spring, when I ran out of money, and moved back home again. So… not so totally grown up after all.

My University graduation photo. Only partly grown up.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about growing up and how one knows if, and when, one is finally an adult. One reason is this article: “When Are You Really An Adult?” by Julie Beck, from The Atlantic. The subtitle for the article reads: “In an age when the line between childhood and adulthood is blurrier than ever, what is it that makes people grown up?”

In her article Beck asks, what is it “that makes you finally, really an adult?” Is it chronological age? University graduation? Financial independence? She asks if society should still use the old markers by which our parents and grandparents were judged: “Getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, having kids.”

Beck says that when young people take too long achieving these markers, society judges them harshly, and perhaps unfairly. After all, the law may say you’re an adult at 18 or 21, depending on where you live, but brain research tells us that your brain is not fully developed until age 22 or 23. In fact, psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls this fully grown, but not quite grown up, stage “emerging adulthood,” and says that this stage can last to age 25 or even 29.  I like the term “emerging adulthood.” It seems a fair description of that time when we’re making those first, often short-lived, forays into adult independence.

Me, my roommate, and an old friend from school. First apartment in Ottawa, 1981.

In the article, Beck tells a story of a professor she had in college who liked to “drop truth bombs,” and says this one “cratered” her. He said, “Between the ages of 22 and 25, you will be miserable. Sorry. But if you’re like most people, you will flail.”

Well, that line “cratered” me as well. Not because I didn’t flail… I was a wonderful flailer; I excelled at flailing. No, it cratered me because I had always thought that it was only me who flailed, who screwed up, made so many bad decisions, took so long to “form my identity,” as psychologists put it. At least when compared to the rest of my family. I mean, think about this. My mum was married at 18, and widowed at 23, with small children to care for. My step-father, from everything I know about him, was practically born an adult, looking after his grandmother at an early age because his mother was busy with his three younger brothers who all suffered (and died) from muscular dystrophy. Then he went to war. My older brother went to work at 16 and married at 22. My older sisters went to school, worked hard, and were responsible, and when my mum was a single parent, they helped look after me, the classic, spoiled, youngest child. Yep, I was a trail blazer, people… the first flailer in my family. Or so it always seemed to me.

I didn’t actually start flailing until after high school graduation. When I couldn’t seem to settle on a path in life. Take, for instance, my decision to apply for ROTP in the Canadian Armed Forces. Once I was accepted, “Regular Officer University Training Program” would pay for my education in a civilian university and give me a job when I graduated. In May of 1976, I set off for Chilliwack, British Columbia, for my Basic Training. Long story short… it did not pan out.

In her article, Julie Beck says that psychologist Jeffrey Jansen Arnett likes to talk about the “Big Three” markers of adulthood: “taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.” So when I moved to Ottawa at age 23, I guess I met those three criteria. Except on occasion when I needed to ask my older sister, who also lived here, for help. But really I was still flailing. And I think that’s because I wasn’t who I wanted to be yet. I worked for a couple of years, then returned to school for a year, then worked in another job that I hated. And while I was taking responsibility for myself financially, I wasn’t behaving responsibly, if you can see the difference. I wasn’t working hard. I wasn’t engaged in my own life. I felt buffeted along. I whined a great deal, I think. It was as if I didn’t know who I was anymore. Or what I wanted.

It wasn’t until I was 27, desperately unhappy in a job I hated, having just broken up with my boyfriend, that I gathered enough energy, and maybe courage, to give myself a big, big shake. What the heck was I doing with my life? One evening, feeling like a total failure at life, I blurted all this out to my sister and her new husband; they helped me make the decision to sublet my apartment, put my furniture in storage, and go home for a year. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of the emotional phone call to New Brunswick that night, and my step-dad saying, “Snooze, just come home.” So I did. I went home to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to be. For years I laughingly referred to my year back home as my “sabbatical.”

A year later. With some money in the bank. Some teaching experience under my belt. And a new life plan, I came back to Ottawa. As my step-dad would say, “to take another run at ‘er.” I took another run at being an adult, and this time I was ready. Finally, at last, at 28, a grown-up.

My Twentieth High School Reunion. 1994. Tenth anniversary of becoming a grown-up.

Julie Beck’s article really hit home with me. Not just because I saw myself in the descriptions of kids who struggle with “emerging adulthood.” But also because I can see that it applies to former students, and young, much loved, family members who are still struggling.

And you know, when I think about it, my mum and my step-father didn’t have much choice about when they grew up. They had to act like adults; people depended on them. And in hindsight maybe my brother and sisters did a bit more flailing than I noticed. Because from the perspective of the admiring little sister, everything they did looked grown up to me. But lest you think I’m letting myself totally off the hook here… I fully admit… I did a whole lot of flailing.

Beck’s article is one reason I started thinking about this whole growing up thing. If you have the time, you should read it for yourself.

The other reason is that I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately of passions that I had when I was young and which I abandoned or lost along the path of adult life. Like writing… hence this blog. Or art. I used to be very passionate about art. Drawing, sketching and so forth. And so I’m thinking about taking some courses. Or something. We’ll see.

You know, retirement is a bit like that “emerging adult” stage of life. You have to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life, who you want to be, and what passions you will pursue.

Actually, I should have said… if you’re lucky, you get to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. I realize that not everyone has that luxury. And having it, I feel very lucky indeed.

My very first lunch with the “To Hell With the Bell” gang of retired teacher-buddies. June 2013.

How about you? Can you pinpoint when or how you knew you were finally a grown-up?


Would you like to have new posts automatically delivered to you? Sign up below, and when new content appears on the website, we’ll send the story to you via email. 

* indicates required


Would you like to have new posts automatically delivered to you? Sign up below, and when new content appears on the website, we’ll send the story to you via email. 

* indicates required

From the archives


Tea with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel died this past week. I'm sad for all the wonderful books she'll never write. And sad we'll never be able to take tea together.

Escape to the Country

We escaped to the country last weekend. Saw small historic towns, drove country roads, had a picnic. And it was just what we needed.

I Need a Good Book

I really, really need a good book. A big bitey, delicious, seriously interesting, juicy book I can curl up with and get lost in.

17 thoughts on “When We Were Grown-Ups”

  1. Oh, this is fascinating. Long story short, I was also in my late 20's before I lost that "buffeted" feeling (though I'd been financially independent since age 21) and really began charting my own course. Thanks for sharing this; it's very thought-provoking.

    1. It's an interesting topic isn't it? I think that financial independence is an important marker of adulthood, but like you, it didn't necessarily make me feel that I was in control of other aspects of my life.

  2. I was in my early 20's when I knew I was grown up. I remember my first apartment vividly and the scary pride I felt being there on my own. This has me wandering down memory lane. Love it!

  3. Not to answer your question, but what I remember was being in my late 20s, driving to the train station to go home after visiting my parents (I was the driver of their car) and my mother announcing: "I don't feel like you're my daughter any more." No, I didn't crash the car, or totally lose my composure and burst into tears, I managed to insist that of course!!!! I was still her daughter, and just what was she telling me? Turned out, she felt as if she no longer had to take care of me, to worry about me, that on some level she said,she thought of us as friends. That brief conversation has never left me, even now, over 20 years after she died. I took it as a huge compliment and told her that I also insisted on retaining daughter status. Having just finished your thoughtful post, I now understand it as a mother's perspective on recognizing adult status in grown-up children. Thanks for that. Now, I'm off to the Atlantic article. And btw, I always appreciate your book and magazine recommendations.

    1. Thant's a lovely story, Suz. After I gave up the job I hated and moved home for a year, I went to the Ministry of Education and picked up my teacher's licence, my mum, who was with me, cried. She said she was so proud. But I think she was also relieved that her youngest had finally grown up….at 27.

  4. I really enjoyed this Sue. Thanks for sharing the great pictures. I'm not sure I can pick a specific time or moment when I felt I was grown up. Maybe it hasn't happened!! What I do remember vividly as the baby of the family … the only girl with three older brothers, was that somehow for years I still felt as though I was "the young one" I remember joking at one family gathering that the little sister is in her forties now!! Maybe that's when it happened!
    Your posts are always a joy to read, regardless of the topic. So well written and often humorous …. you've a great style. I
    Glad to see in a previous post it looks like you've had some snow . Do you have a river to skate on yet? 🙂
    One more thing … you really do rock those jeans!! I love my jeans and always feel younger in jeans and trousers than I do in dresses or skirts!
    Have a good weekend.

    1. Thanks, Rosie. We have had snow, and while there's been no skating, we've been skiing regularly. Well, until today…rain and warm temps are eating our snow. Rain, rain go away!!

  5. I'm 65 and always say."I don't know what I want to be when I grow up". We were dairy farmers for 40 years, now run black cattle. Raised 3 children, am involved with grandchildren. Life just "takes us along" It's been a happy, good life, but grown up? Some days not so much. We are lucky that we can have choices, get out there and paint, and keep writing. You make me smile and think. Now when I'm "grown up" I'll know which is more important!

    1. We are lucky to have choices. I think this often. My mum married so young that her choices were severely limited by children, and financial hurdles, until after we all left home. So happy to hear that my posts make you smile and think… there's no greater compliment!

  6. Thank you for sharing. These are important questions, and the answers change over the decades. Having inherited some money when I turned 21, financial markers per se gave little guidance or motivation. I can't say that I ever found the absolute career path for myself, despite some success in the one I eventually took. So I suppose adulthood came when my daughter was born. That little bald thing surely wasn't a grownup, guess it had to be me;).

    1. I agree that the answers change over the decades. When I explained what my post was about, my husband said that he thinks that we're grown up when we understand ourselves and the world…and he feels that that often doesn't happen until our thirties or forties. Especially now when the world is so much more complex. Such a cool, topic, though. Wish I was still teaching…great discussion topic around a novel that involves growing up.

  7. I do remember that the roof needed repair on a house we'd bought when we were 24 (me) and 26 (him), and then seemed pretty conclusive. . . by then, our daughter was one, and she'd been planned, so I'm assuming we were pretty sure we were grown-up enough already, but there was a sense, with the leaking roof, that one wanted the real adults to appear. . .
    And then we moved to a town 1000 miles from family with two little ones, bought a different house, added two more kids, and I finished my ARCT and built a first career as a piano teacher. And began dreaming of what I really wanted to do "when I grew up." Not until one more big move, and one more house bought and sold, another smaller move, another home. . . and the courses I'd been taking part-time led to a degree, led to grad school, two more degrees, and finally. Finally, I was doing what made me feel as if I was doing the work I was meant to grow into. And honestly, I could look back and see that I'd been grown up already, for a very long time, and that everything I'd done contributed. There might have been wandering, flailing even, as you term it, but nothing was wasted and there's no point in regrets (not that I don't have those occasionally anyway). Like you, I'm doing some revisiting of the past in retirement — after the push to be grown-up, maybe there's more room for some child's play! I'll look forward to you perhaps sharing some of your art eventually.
    And what a great post! Thank you!

    1. You need to write a novel based on your own life, Mater. A sweeping, multi-setting, Mary Lawson-ish, Canadian novel about growing up. And you're right about regrets. Stu and I have been talking about the ideas in the articles I read and in my own post…and I said that I was so glad that many of my attempts at adulthood did not pan out. I'm glad for the false starts in uni (Science and Bio abandoned for Education and English), the abandoned careers, the broken engagement… they all lead me to where I finally landed. Phew. Thank goodness. And flailing (not really my term but quoted from the article) I think made me more sympathetic with the stress of some of my students. And able to advise them that their whole lives did NOT depend on choosing the ONE correct path when they were 18. Can't promise that any art will ever be "postable"…maybe more like "compost-able" Ha! Fun to try, though.

Comments are closed.