When do we really become an adult? The question has come up in various ways this week –in a conversation I was having with someone whose mother recently died – leaving her an adult orphan, in an incident with my daughters when I suddenly felt I had become their child, in acknowledging my own (deceased) mother’s birthday and the tangled child-adult relationship I had with her both throughout our relationship, and more pointedly, as I became her last years’ carer, and in the novel, Sight by Jessie Greengrass which I happen to be reading this week – snatched from the library shelf as I was waiting for someone.
These brushes with different facets of adultness are making me think that adultness is a rather shifting concept. It’s not completely defined by age, or legal status, or knowledge and experience, or social attributes of responsibility like property or dependents. It’s also defined by a state of mind and emotion that comes into play in interactions with others. I have the legal and social status of an adult, yet sometimes I feel authoritative, decisive, adult and ‘in-charge’ and other times I feel a child-like dependence on others – with emotions much as I remember feeling when I was in primary school.
A New Scientist article, by Moya Sarner, What age do you really become an adult? Discussed the question from various angles and quoted a US-based research study by Jeffrey Arnett who offered three core elements that constitute adulthood – the capability to take care of oneself, being able to make one’s own decisions and having financial independence. He repeated the study in China and found the same three elements but with a slightly different focus.
There, the “big three” criteria of adulthood were orientated more around taking responsibility for others, rather than for oneself. They included learning to care for parents, settling into a long-term career and feeling capable of caring for children. Sarner, a psychodynamic psychotherapist in the NHS., suggests that this is not enough, ‘the big three criteria from these studies paint only a partial picture. You could argue that being an adult is also about how we tolerate and make sense of our emotions.’
This aspect came into play in the letters to the New Scientist that followed publication of Sarner’s article. One person offering: ‘adulthood is a matter of attaining several traits: being less selfish to people around you (though this often atrophies later), good risk evaluation skills and abandoning childhood fancies.’ Another, ‘when you find yourself owning your first lawnmower, your youth is a thing of the past.’ And a third, ‘The four criteria required to meet adulthood for an animal are listed as: “staying safe, navigating social hierarchies, sexual communication and leaving the nest to care for itself”. I would suggest that engineers (I am one) often fail that definition on at least two of those criteria!’
Arnett’s research offers the term ‘emerging adulthood’, finding that regardless of country people felt they were adult (i.e. had emerged into adulthood), around the age of 29. The idea of ‘emerging adulthood’, offers hints of ‘fading adulthood’. And it is this aspect that comes across in the Greengrass novel, Sight. The protagonist talks about her mother’s path towards death – ‘She started to need help moving about the house, climbing steps and manoeuvring herself in and out of chairs and, when her left arm began to weaken, with cutting up her food and washing her face; and so our lives began to fold in around one another, tangling, contracting, her need for me forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation which was the work of adolescence.’
As my mother aged, I gradually took on a caring role for her. She slowly lost aspects of all three of Arnett’s criteria of adulthood – the capability to take care of herself, being able to make her own decisions and having financial independence. (I think it’s interesting that ‘being able to make own decisions is a criterion of adulthood. I see almost continuous evidence that my 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren are able to make their own decisions – though often adults disagree with these!)
Yet, on the day of her birthday – she would have been 106 – I found myself remembering her as my childhood mother, encouraging me to learn to cook, reading bedtime stories, fostering my ability to be independent, teaching me to ride my bicycle. … She found being a (single) mother hard, difficult work, yet here we are – financially independent, able to take care of ourselves (at the moment) and making our own decisions.
Now my own role is changing. Watching my daughter encouraging my grandchildren to clean their teeth and helping them put their shoes on, this morning, I wondered how soon we may find she is doing similarly for me. Already there are signs that my children are becoming my parents. For example, when they quiz me about my diet. But maybe that’s not parental, although I feel it as such, maybe that’s a concern that anyone could have for someone else? (Equally they resist me doing similarly to them – in my Mum role).
It seems that almost throughout our lives we’re in shifting adult/child patterns with ourselves and others. This is illustrated in the term ‘adult orphan’. In one respect I think it is an oxymoron. Only children are orphaned. Adults expect their parents to die at some point. But then the article I read on being an adult orphan outlines the 40-year-old writer, Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s experience, ‘I feel like a piece of space trash since my mother died, errant and signalless. I’m an only child — in an adult’s body — and having no living parents causes severe vertigo sometimes.’ Her experience was mirrored in what my friend was telling me about the recent death of her mother.
But it is not only people who have children who feel the shifting patterns of childness and adultness. Those without children have had parents and been children and experience a similarly shifting patterns. As Jezer-Morton goes on to say, ‘The death of a parent makes you a child again, but also an elder, and you keep going back and forth between those two states, possibly until you yourself die.’
Incidentally, I was amused to note that last year, aged 70+, I became the owner of my first lawnmower. On that criterion I am now, finally, an adult!
Illustration: Jackie Parsons for the Guardian