What’s My Age Again?

I have always looked young for my age. It will probably be years before I stop getting carded at bars and liquor stores. People do that annoying thing where they tell me, “When you’re older though, it will be so nice to look younger than you are.” (To which I would like to reply, “If you’re suggesting that being seen as a MILF one day will be less awkward, I think you’re wrong.”) Lately it seems like it happens more and more often. I tell people I just moved to Minnesota and they say, “Oh, are you here for school?” I can’t exactly blame them—I know I look like I could still be in college, but I can’t help the ways my eyes narrow and my fists clench in response.

But what’s more frustrating than looking younger than I am is feeling younger than I am. A few weeks ago, I walked into my younger sister’s college dorm room (she’s a freshman), and when her roommate commented on how alike my sister and I look and asked how old I was, I was so flustered that I told her I was twenty-three, and then immediately corrected myself and said, “No—twenty-four, I’m twenty-four, I’m twenty-four! TWENTY-FOUR!” in a way that definitely made it sound like I was lying.

How old am I? Never too old for birthday cake, that's for sure.

How old am I? Never too old for birthday cake, that’s for sure.

Sometimes I forget how old I am because it’s difficult to reconcile the idea of what I think being an adult should feel like with the way I feel every day—which is, largely, overwhelmed, confused, and generally incapable of making any important decisions. I went straight to an MFA program after completing my undergraduate degree, which means this is my first year in the “real world,” despite having lived on my own the last two years. I’ve moved to a new state and found a fantastic full-time job. It even has health insurance. But sometimes I look around and think, I’m not a real person—who the fuck hired me? Two weeks ago I had to fill out budget projection documents at work, but I just learned what “insurance premium” actually means last month. We don’t have a business casual dress code at work, but if we did, every morning would be a weirdly hilarious experience of playing dress-up. Look at me wearing a blazer. A blazer! (For a few weeks, I told myself that maybe if I wore lipstick I would look like an adult, but I couldn’t even take myself seriously in it, so I changed my mind.)

Last winter, I chopped off eleven inches of my hair and donated it. I have never been a fan of haircuts and I hadn’t had my hair above my shoulders since fifth grade. The one thing I kept repeating to the hairdresser was, “Just don’t make me look like a little kid.” It’s hard to take myself seriously when other people seem not to. (Although, for the record, most people said my new bob made me look “very mature.” Unfortunately, bobs are really in, so even those damn college freshmen are running around with them.)

Maybe it’s one of those gag-inducing things like You have to love yourself first before others can love you. But, when will I feel like an adult? (And anyway, how will embracing my inner grown-up convince others to do the same?) Will it be when I buy a house, get married, have kids? (Ideally, those things are years away.) When I finally understand the stock market? When I have a book published?

I wonder if this is a problem unique to twenty-somethings, who often seem to be a kind of perpetual “lost generation,” or if this extends even into middle age. Will there be a moment or event that causes me to realize, “Hey, I’m an adult!” or will it happen quietly in the background, like falling in love or becoming a hoarder, so I won’t notice until it’s too late?

I’m new to this real world thing. So tell me, dear readers: do you feel like an adult? And what in the world does that even mean?

10 Comments

  • Kmac says:

    Here are a list of things that make me feel like an adult:

    Driving. Cooking steak. Eating at my table with four chairs that I didn’t buy from Ikea. Reading a book on my couch that I didn’t buy from Ikea. Paying my monthly furniture installments because I didn’t buy from Ikea and I’m broke. Scheduling my own dentist appointments. Going to an Open Mic and hearing a bunch of kids giggle while another kid reads something about sex.

  • Jason Sommer jason says:

    i think one of the best indicators of being an “adult” is getting to a place where you feel comfortable in your own skin. i started to get a grasp on that feeling in my 20s, and that feeling eludes me less & less the older i get (though there are *definitely* still some days – at age 36, even – when i think “jesus christ, i’m such a child”). if it makes any sense, though, my experience of moving into adulthood had not just “a-ha” moments or a slow progression – but kinda a little bit of both.

    as to whether it’s particular to contemporary 20-somethings (vs. something perpetual), there may actually be something to that. i saw a fascinating TED video the other day on that very subject. and i wish i’d seen it when i was in my 20s.

    • Melissa says:

      I know what you’re saying but I also disagree slightly. There have been certain periods I can point to as having felt completely comfortable in my own skin, but they were followed by periods of time in which I emphatically didn’t– and those don’t correlate with the periods of time in which I felt secure in my adulthood or not. Plus, wouldn’t you agree that degrees of self-awareness play into this? For example, if you’d asked me at 16 if I was an adult, I would’ve said hell yeah: I was working 20-30 hours a week, had bought myself a car, paid for my own clothes, most of my meals, anything I needed for school, etc. In reality, I wasn’t really an adult- I didn’t have to pay rent or health insurance, I couldn’t drink legally, I couldn’t even vote. But I would’ve said, and kinda maybe still believe, that I was more of an adult than some of the people I worked with then who were 29 or 36.

      Of course, by that logic, maybe I’ve now regressed in terms of adulthood. Which also seems to check out. Hmm.

    • Jason Sommer jason says:

      mostly i just meant that a true/secure sense of adulthood is going to come from within. the 16-year-old who gets their license, the 21-year-old who drinks legally the first time, the whatever-age that gets their first apartment—those are all external markers imposed on a person. and i’d argue the sense of adulthood they confer can be fleeting and superficial. really owning your own adulthood is going to come from within. so, sure, self-awareness plays a role. and i think there is a fluidity to it, too. feeling like you’ve reached adulthood for the first time isn’t like planting a flag on the moon & saying i made it! & there’s no regression. not sure it’s a watershed “moment” like that. (for most people, anyway—instances of trauma aside.)

      • Melissa says:

        Agreed, I was just using those external markers as examples. Obviously more complicated than that and different for each person.

  • Melissa says:

    Fitz, I love how falling in love and becoming a hoarder are equated in that sentence. So great.

    There’s something particularly frustrating about being female and constantly being treated as younger than you are. Sometimes I just want to shout I AM A GROWN-ASS WOMAN at people when they treat me as if I were an adolescent. (We’ll ignore how that level of rage is probably a sign that I don’t deserve to be treated like an adult.) I know this piece isn’t directly confronting that, but that’s what it evokes for me.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    Absolutely 100% everything here, especially how all these thoughts get triggered by the new (first) (real) job. Since it’s community college, I am very much THE same age, if not younger, than most of my students. Every time they start to guess my age I inwardly panic, because I don’t want them to guess correctly.

  • MelinaCR says:

    I totally feel this, Casey. And I agree with what Jason said– you come to a time when you know who you are and what you want (and can take responsibility for your mistakes, etc). But I think once you get there it makes it easier to have fun. I also think the ‘how a grown person is supposed to act and live’ conceits of our culture are totally bullshit and I roll my eyes at them every day and continue wearing what I wear and doing what I do. People also think I am a teenager but whatever. They will take you seriously if they realize you know what you are doing.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Literally just had this conversation in the car the other day. I asked my car-mate what age they felt like vs. what they were. I said I felt 23. I also feel like I look a lot younger than my age, which makes me feel treated younger, which somehow makes me feel younger.
    And I love that you discuss health care in here…nothing has made me feel more like an adult than when I could feel myself getting psychically excited while signing my health insurance papers at this new job. (also you’re only 24…how is that even possible)

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