Are you an adult?
How to use the answer to tend to your own emotional needs.
A note for you, if you’re having a bad day
Our housemates moved out this week. They lived with us for three full years, through two human pregnancies and seven chicken deaths and a global pandemic. When they moved in, there were four of us; when they left, there were six. When Luke and I bought this house – a creaky 1903 Victorian that was built to be a boarding house and has like a thousand weird closets – we assumed we would probably always have roommates. But when our current housemates moved out, we reconsidered. After all, wasn’t this squirrely baby a roommate? And wouldn’t it be great to have such a thing as a guest room? With a guest room, people could come stay with us and we wouldn’t have to ask them to share the Costco bill every two months. We could be the kind of generous adults we’d grown up knowing: people with a spare set of towels and a calendar full of visitors.
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With our housemates’ exit, we turned the final page in the “adulting” playbook. Now we have silverware, linens, perennial azaleas, cats, chickens, a bed frame, a guy who does our taxes, a child, a house, and a guest room. Those are all the things. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Suddenly, as I was pushing my daughter T around in a stroller (we also have a STROLLER!) I remembered that seven years ago, I wrote an essay for The Guardian about adulting, and I thought I’d revisit it. What does seven-years-later Sophie think about the Sophie who had just moved into her first apartment-with-a-boyfriend? What does she think about the conclusions that that Sophie had drawn?
Prior to re-reading the essay, I remembered two things about it: (1) I’d wanted to know if I would feel like an adult after I had a child of my own; and (2) I’d wanted to know if I would feel like an adult after I had a silverware draw with a divider thingy in it. These were things to consider now that I have acquired both. (I did away with the silverware divider quickly. We keep our silverware in gold plastic cups.)
Now that I’ve gone back through it, I find Younger Sophie’s conclusions about adulting to be close to spot-on, although I have some things to add, and I thought I’d write to you about them. I’m curious about your adulting, too. In 2015, I wrote:
Maybe what my mother meant when she told me that she has felt like she was an adult since the day she had a child was that something in her changed, and she decided that from then on, she would be an adult. It was not the baby; it was the decision.
That’s the real difference: adults are merely children who commit to pretending.
This essay has hundreds of comments on it, and they mostly made me feel bad about myself. I think this piece marks the moment when I stopped reading comments on non-newsletter articles (for the most part). But I do remember some people commenting that the snot-nosed writer of this article (me) was an idiot because she had never had a child, and once she had one, she’d see. Well, now I have one. I think it would be in poor taste to go back and respond to these people now that all this time has passed – although holding on to this kind of writerly grudge did give me the following cartoon:
Anyway, yes. Having a baby changed a lot of things. It changed my relationship with my husband and my relationship with my cats. (Curiously, it did not change my relationship with my chickens, which might say something about animals who live outside.) It made me emotionally incapable of continuing to watch “Grey’s Anatomy.” It made me understand fear in a different, deeper, more horrible way. It dramatically changed my feelings for and about my body, in ways that I’m still desperately trying to parse. It did not, however, change how I felt about being an adult.
The thing that changed how I felt about being an adult was being a teacher during the pandemic. This is related to parenting in a lot of ways, and I imagine that many people have felt similar things regarding having children (and probably many people have felt similar things regarding raising children during the pandemic). I imagine that the longer you are alive, the sooner you are likely to be faced with the reality that you have to be the adult in the room.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, before the shutdowns and massive American death tolls, I have a strong memory of a student saying in class, “I’m scared about the pandemic. What’s going to happen?” And I just stood there and lied to this kid’s face (although I thought I was telling the truth). I said, “This is scary, and it makes sense that you’re scared. But everything is going to be OK. We will arm ourselves with information, and that will protect us.” Really I was saying: “I will protect you. You are safe.” Like I said, this wasn’t really true. But often, being the adult in the room is making sure that the children who are present feel safe, whether or not that’s the whole truth. (A note, that I’m hoping is obvious: give children as much information as necessary for them to stay safe themselves! Don’t look into a room that’s full of fire and say, “You can go in that room and you’ll be fine.” Say instead, “There’s fire in the next room. We’re going to calmly figure out how to get out of here.” I just want to be clear that I’m not advocating for lying irresponsibly to children, ever.)
After things shut down, I recorded a video to the students apologizing for getting it wrong; I told them that this was unprecedented; that I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I would keep recording videos for them every week, and make sure that this one part of their life could be reliable and would stay normal. And that is something I did. I also felt scared; I also felt unsure; I even recorded one video where I used finger puppets to explain that you could send mail, but you shouldn’t touch it for 24 hours after receiving it, because we didn’t know how this virus spread. I kept trying to translate the science, which I didn’t really understand, because that was what it meant to me to be the adult.
In teaching, being the adult almost always means one major thing: you don’t take anything personally. You enter the room every day, and you can listen, and you can talk, and you can share your true feelings; but ultimately, you are not in a reciprocal relationship. You are an adult interacting with a child, and your whole job is to do everything in your power to keep this person safe, which means you don’t get caught up in whatever stuff the kids bring to class. Once I mentored a teacher who told me that she didn’t know how to deal with her students’ college rejections, because she was in the boat with them, invested in their outcomes. My advice was simple, and I repeat it often: she needed to get out of the boat. She needed to be the lighthouse.
We can’t be adults all the time. Sometimes you get scared, or you feel lonely, or you don’t know what to do. Sometimes you try to show up to the day as it unfolds, and you find that you just can’t. It isn’t in the cards. You’re hurt, you’re tired, you’re emptied. I’ve been feeling this a lot lately.
But then, it’s helpful to know what being an adult feels like, because you can harness that feeling in order to be an adult for yourself, while you’re also being a child. Yeah, yeah, I know, this is getting a little off-the-rails, but stick with me. Child You is suffering. Child You wants to look somewhere and see that they are safe. Child You needs to be taken care of. And Child You knows a person who has the ability to show up: it’s Adult You! Adult You can decide not to be an adult for anyone else right now and tend to Child You instead. Adult You can say out loud, “You’re going to be OK. I’m here for you.” Adult You can make oatmeal or facilitate a nap. Maybe Child You will be mean: “You’re so stupid and useless and lazy and selfish,” Child You might say, beating Yourself up. Adult You can say, “Oh, Child Self; this is not about me. You’re saying that because you’re suffering.” Adult You can decide not to take it personally.
If you’re partnered or have close friends, it’s possible to also use this definition of adulting across intimate relationships. If you and your person have a mutual understanding that “an adult is the person who is keeping us safe; an adult is the person who is not taking things personally,” you can ask for someone to be an adult for you. The adult’s job is to hear you, to assure you that you’re safe, and to not get their feelings hurt right now. There’s a subreddit called “Mom For A Minute” where you can act like a child at an army of self-proclaimed adult moms, and the Internet moms will show up for you in the way you need them to. All you have to do is ask.
In the meantime, I have a lot of space in my adult home to decorate and fill with furniture, rugs, and framed artworks that we can’t afford. But also, my new bedroom has a tree out the window. Whenever I think to myself, “I’ll never have enough money to have a real grown-up living room with acceptable furniture,” Adult Me says, “But you have this tree! What else do you really need?” And Child Me agrees.
For a full week, I have been taking care of T while also trying to do my job. She and I are still testing positive for COVID, so she’s not allowed back at daycare. In contrast, I am expected to go back to work. Apparently, you now only isolate for five days, and then you wear a mask for five more days. Today I teach two classes back-to-back, which I am doing online (I’m grateful that teaching at SAIC facilitates this option), so Luke had to take the day off work. This is his first day doing that, and as I write this paragraph, it is 10:28 a.m., a full hour after T’s usual Nap #1, and I can hear her SCREAMING upstairs. This particular sound is like an ultrastrong tether at all the chemicals in my body, and it takes physical restraint not to go up there and tend to her. I’m not sure why she isn’t going to sleep. This is not a problem I had with T for the past seven days. Maybe Luke is very interesting, and she can’t stand the idea of sleeping when she would rather be playing with his fascinating beard. Having partners and friends and family interact with T is a big part of the experience for me, and it is hard, humbling, confusing, and amazing. Amazing that I can work from home and trust that she is being cared for, even if it’s not the way that I would care for her. Amazing that she gets to learn all these different ways that adults can be, and adjust and adapt and accordingly. Amazing that she has opportunity after opportunity to love and be loved. All of this is amazing. Amazing. BUT ALSO OMG MY BABY IS JUST SCREAMING UPSTAIRS AND I AM SUPPOSED TO JUST SIT HERE AT THE COMPUTER WAITING TO TEACH COLLEGE STUDENTS WHO ARE NOT SCREAMING? HOW!?!?
This Week In Sophie
I haven’t been able to go to my printer to pick up the new prints I have ordered, and I’d hoped to release all these pieces at once, but I can’t sit on these T-shirts anymore. Take them off my hands! (Paid subscribers to this newsletter will get a code for 10 percent off these on Friday, so may I encourage you to join the paid tier?)