The law says we become adults at the age of eighteen. Yet no one turns into a grownup at that particular midnight hour. No magical hour or legally defined day determines when we truly cross over from child to adult.
There are simply a handful of tiny defining moments.
We all experience single instances which cause us to pause and think, Damn. I guess I'm an adult now.
Many of us feel initiated into adulthood the first time we flash a legal driver's license to buy beer. (Years later, when a store clerk glances at our face and doesn't bother asking for an ID, we experience yet another defining moment.)
We know we're adults when we first feel the freedom of making our own decisions and choices: the first time we buy a painting and decide where to hang it, in our very own home. Or bring home a stray animal--without needing anyone's permission to keep it.
The epiphany of adulthood often surfaces when that new-found freedom is accompanied by responsibility: paying our own rent or buying groceries from our own paycheck. Applying for our first credit card, mortgage or life insurance policy. (Only adults even consider the long-term need for life insurance.) Or glancing around our trashed apartment and realizing our mother won't simply get fed up and clean it for us. Yes, we grow up quickly the first time we have to unplug a clogged toilet.
We seem to transform into adults the very moment we first mark the "married" box on a doctor's office form. Many of us experience a similar but more sobering feeling the first time we're forced to check the box "divorced."
And some of us feel we're forced to grow up overnight when one of our parents is suddenly gone forever.
Not all the defining moments of adulthood are easy ones. We know we're adults in the instant we accept that life changes and that the most well-adjusted adults are those who learn they must keep moving on.
Perhaps nothing initiates us more into the world of adulthood than becoming a parent. We realize we've crossed the threshold that very first time we carefully lay our newborn baby in his crib and think, I brought this child into the world, and my life has changed forever because of it. Every tiny step that child takes throughout his own life is another defining moment: his first day of school, first soccer game, first driving lesson.
And when that child begins experiencing his own defining moments? There is no question then. The parent of an adult clearly must be an adult herself.
Strange how we sometimes feel sixteen still in our heart.
But as I knock cautiously at the door of age fifty, I know a lifetime compilation of such moments signals--undeniably--that I am an adult. Each of those moments defined not only what I am but who I've become: a grownup with my own set of strengths and faults, successes and failures, disappointments and dreams.
And I wonder: Does being grown-up mean we've fully finished growing? Or is growing up simply an endless stairway we climb for all of our lives?
Perhaps it's a journey, and not a final destination.
Maybe the defining moments never end.
When did you first feel like an adult? What were your defining moments? How do you still hope to grow?
(And a note to my regular readers: Writers are fickle. I am now blogging on Thursdays. Look for me then--barring, as my bio reads, any emergencies or extreme laziness.)