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How To Become An Adult

Suddenly realize that you are now older than your parents when they got married, older than your parents when they had a kid, maybe older than your parents when they had you, even. Notice the ages come and go at which you had always told yourself you would have various little boxes checked, see them fading behind you like road signs, and feel a mix of disappointment and empowerment: “No, I am not the person I promised myself. Yes, I actually like this person better.” Wonder if you said a certain deadline out loud to too many people, if you had promised a family member or a friend that you would absolutely, definitely be a homeowner or a spouse or a parent by the time you were twenty-whatever. Wonder if they still have that number in the back of their mind, too, and watched it fade away behind you with a little twinge of judgment. Realize that you’ve had those little twinges of judgment before, too, if only about yourself.

Start to feel exhausted with Facebook, with the constant, unceasing parade of domestic and family-friendly bliss. At least Instagram is vapid, at least Twitter is cynical. Facebook is where everyone goes to be their most inspirational selves, twisting every status update and photo op into a digital Livestrong bracelet. Occasionally wonder if you should delete Facebook altogether, then remember that it’s the only place you really see most of these people, even if it’s to watch your aunt share her fortieth recipe video of the week. (Remind yourself that you actually find those recipe videos incredibly addictive, too, so you’re really in no place to be judging.) Feel a bit attacked, though, every time you log on and remember that you are nowhere near posting a 30-photo album of a baby shower at a tasteful waterfront restaurant. Wonder if you would even want a baby shower at a tasteful waterfront restaurant. Wonder if you would even want a baby. Feel completely uncertain about any of this, and once again close Facebook.

Start to see certain friends much less, and a few select friends much, much more. Realize that the bubbly intoxication of having a broad friend group no longer has the same appeal to you, that maintaining even a few truly important relationships takes up nearly all of the bandwidth you have, and leaves you feeling much more satisfied, anyway. Come to treasure long nights sharing a bottle of wine and a board of cheese, the people you feel free to change into pajamas with, the feeling of being truly seen and understood. Start to use the word “love” more platonically, with meaning and depth, not the fun-but-fleeting “I love you guys” that used to tumble out of your mouth at bars. End long phone calls to friends with “I love you.” Start having long phone calls with friends, period, and treasure every bit of them like a warm, comforting meal.

Think very, very seriously about getting a pet. Do extensive research, including much late-night Googling and heart-wrenching animal rescue video-watching, and bring up the subject frequently with friends over lunches. Be really serious about it, but constantly teetering on the edge of “Am I responsible enough?” or “What about when I go away?”. Give yourself a million reasons why it shouldn’t work, but eventually cave to the little voice that is constantly saying you should, in fact, get that pet, because what you are really saying to yourself is “I deserve to give and receive unconditional love.”

Have a breakup that feels like it’s the last time you will ever be happy, ever feel love, ever have the strength and emotional energy to start from zero. Spend weeks crying with friends on your couch, sending regrettable text messages, thinking of desperate ways to change yourself in order to reclaim this person. Swear off dating, but only because you imagine on some level that you are undateable, and want to quit love before it fires you again. Feel exhausted with the notion that you will have to meet a new person, tell them charming details about yourself, and then slowly perform the “really getting to know each other” dance. Think briefly of relationships like an investment account you put your money into, and feel that you have put every dollar you have in this last one, and that you’ll never be able to invest again.

Then meet that person who makes you feel flush with everything: go on that breathless first date that erases everything before it, and realize you have more than enough to start again.

Keep wondering when “being an adult” will happen, when you will reach that level of humble assuredness that your parents must have had when they had you, that uniquely-adult optimism that allows us to put roots in this world and know that we are good enough to grow from them. Feel like you are missing some fundamental gene as the months and years tick by, and you often feel like no less of a kid. Walk into office meetings and dates and important events and feel like you’re in a bar with a fake i.d., a kid who’s going to be discovered and unceremoniously kicked out. Wonder if anyone ever really feels grown up, if they believe that they deserve the things they have and the life they live. Wonder what that sensation would even be like, and imagine it’s something like when you get into an ocean and it’s just the temperature of your body: surrounded by something much bigger than yourself, but perfectly comfortable with your place in it.

Accept that you do not feel comfortable — at least, not right now. Know that you are not quite there yet, that for whatever reasons, your generation has come with a lot more asterisks on it than your parents had planned for. For you, becoming an adult has been expensive, and finding your place in the professional world has been harder than any smiling college brochure would have led you to believe. You cannot find the assuredness to put down roots in many ways because you cannot afford them, and the idea of building something bigger than yourself is something you just can’t visualize. Come to terms with the fact that the game you are playing is not the one you thought you would be, that things will not look the way you wanted them to, and that part of happiness will be redefining what the white picket fence and the family Christmas photo mean to you. Maybe they look nothing like that, but whatever those elusive symbols of stability and fulfillment are, you will have to find them on your own.

Then, once you have done all of that, have an utterly boring, average day where you realize something very, very big: This is all you. Realize that it is you who pays the bills, who gets the groceries, who remembers to call the friend and the dentist and the boss when you are sick with the flu. Realize that it is you who remembered to get the Vick’s and the NyQuil for when this might happen, and you who pays for the monthly Netflix subscription so that you have something comforting to watch while you lay in bed all day. Realize that you have taken tiny bits of a life here and there and put them together into a little machine that runs on its own, a story where you are the narrator and the protagonist, where you get to choose what you build.

Sit there in the home you have made for yourself, as humble and imperfect as it may be, and realize that you have done something wonderful in the simplicity of your life. Realize that there is no capital-A Adult that you must become or likely ever will be, that growing up means taking care of yourself so that you can build, so that you can put in more than you take out, so that you can leave this world a tiny bit better than you entered it. Remember that creating your warm, safe nest from which to work is the hardest part, and that life is not lived in giant leaps: every day is a tiny little battle to be better, and most of the time, you are winning.

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  • Violaine

    I love this!

  • Lauren K

    It’s a miracle that it’s all me paying the bills considering how many there are and how many freaking passwords you have to remember. Thank god for email reminders.

  • Lauren

    ” … that uniquely-adult optimism that allows us to put roots in this world and know that we are good enough to grow from them.” goddamn.

  • jdub

    My heart! This is beautiful (and way, way too real).

  • Sara

    Love this Thought Catalog throwback.

  • I love this!

  • Savanna Swain

    Reading this felt like going to a concert and hearing your favorite artist play all their first album songs.
    It makes me so happy to see how much success you’ve had from TFD since the Thought Catalog days! And I think for many of us (who’ve been reading your work since TC), this was such a wonderful, nostalgic read.

    • Olivia Tompkins

      Totally agree! Made me miss my college dorm a little bit from the days I would hole up and feel like a disaster and read Chelsea’s articles to make me feel better.

      • chelseafagan

        You guys are gonna kill me!!!! <33333

      • Sarah Elizabeth

        100% to both!

  • I love this so much! So wonderfully worded. I love the part- “finding your place in the professional world has been harder than any smiling college brochure would have led you to believe…” Truth.

  • V Williams

    Love this! Really enjoyed reading it. Life is all about enjoying the journey, not necessarily the destination.

  • Lela Dixon

    this was heart warming 🙂

  • nancxpants

    This is beautifully written and exactly what I needed. Thank you, Chelsea!

  • “Wonder if anyone ever really feels grown up, if they believe that they deserve the things they have and the life they live.”

    Awesome post Chelsea, so many good thoughts in here!

  • bextannya

    Awesome post, Chelsea!!! That’s some real stuff right there!

  • Mia

    Yeeeeah, I mean, at least your educational and career situation is plannable in some sense. Relationships, on the other hand, aren’t. One might of course go out, meet people and see if you click, but you cannot plan your relationship. Which is why I really resent the whole talk that religious authorities in my country give to students:” Yes, of course, you study and you are busy, but you need to start planning your family life! No one is supposed to be single, this is just a waste of time!”. And, also, having a long lasting relationship also means that the other person is an adult, and a very solid one, because relationships are demanding( but also rewarding of course).

  • I feel all of this!

  • George @ 20 something lawyer

    Your beautiful words have captured my journey to 28. Thank you for this wonderful read!

  • lazuliz

    Thank you for this <3

  • Realize that even on the days that you’re questioning everything and everyone around you, that you can still find people who understand how you feel, and more articulately put those feelings into words than you ever could. Realize that you are not alone, that even though making “adult” choices is hard, there are countless others on this journey with you. Thanks, Chels. This is good stuff.

  • Kara

    This is amazing and the epitome of why I love Chelsea 🙂

  • Jen

    This throwback to your “Thought Catalog” heyday was beautiful. Thank you for being such an incredible voice for those of us who are also struggling with adulthood.

  • Piggy

    (sees headline)
    (prepares to take notes)
    I have been looking for this article for the last 15 years.

  • Betsy

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It sums up my experiences in the last decade, and reaffirms that it’s okay I don’t have what I thought I’d have as I turn 30 this year. (I actually DO like my life better as it is, anyway.)

  • lateralchip

    “Keep wondering when “being an adult” will happen, when you will reach that level of humble assuredness that your parents must have had when they had you, that uniquely-adult optimism that allows us to put roots in this world and know that we are good enough to grow from them.”

    Honestly, the older I get the more I realize that my parents had no clue what they were doing – at least to start. Like, my brother was a terror, I was slightly better and my sister was very well behaved – it’s nothing inherent in our personalities, pretty sure they just got better at parenting.

  • Shevonn Johnson

    Felt like you were writing from the heart. I can relate to so much of this: wondering if I even want a baby, talking myself in an out of having a pet, wondering when I’ll feel like an adult. Perfect timing.

  • shellvy natalia

    aah so true. This article is precious! ❤️