when do we grow up?

lots of polaroids of a man and woman

I used to think that once I got a degree, I’d feel more like an adult. I didn’t. Instead, I reminisce about being a kid more than ever.

As a kid, I saw the world as a paint-by-numbers challenge and I’d be armed with crayons, ready to take it on. Despite that, ten-year-old me would complain about things like waking up at 7 am (because who the heck wakes up at 7 am?). I also had nightmares about division, stressed over whether I had enough points to feed my always-starving Neopet, hated the thought of performing in school assemblies, and absolutely dreaded track and field season (or anything sports-related, for that matter).

Those were the kinds of worries I used to scribble in my diary under the covers on a school night, as if venting them out on paper would somehow make things less scary. Putting stickers on the pages definitely helped.

And of course, as all kids do, I dreamed. I imagined the future. 25-year-old me would be successful, I assured myself. I’d be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or like that nice lady who gave me extra sprinkles on my ice cream at Purdys. I’d be somebody. I just had to follow the path and graduate from school. After that, the world would be my oyster.

Things don’t always pan out as expected, though. Because while life felt more structured during school, my days were a constant push-pull: I’d be pushed towards the idea that I was getting closer to my career goals, but I’d be instantly pulled back to the reality that I still wasn’t sure where I was going.

And as the years went by, my worries only morphed into bigger concerns. I felt like I was still the same kid who’s afraid of the world, too scared to dip my toes into anything in fear of being swept away by the tide. As everyone sprung forward, becoming the kind of people I only ever dreamed I could be— the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers—I lingered around, lost.

Most of the pressure of growing up probably results from the hidden timeline we’re taught to follow, like a checklist of things we’re supposed to accomplish. Maybe that’s why it feels strange when we deviate from it. After school generally comes more school, and after that comes either even more school or a stable, well-paying job. (Then comes marriage, family, retirement, young people start offering you their seats on transit, yada yada. The works).

But the transition from our youth to adulthood is a blurred line, filled with endless hurdles and split into a thousand different paths. It’s unrealistic to say we need to do x by x age, or y by y age. That’s too linear—and constraining—of a way to look at life. And isn’t it unfair that in our twenties or thirties, we’re already considered “adults” and expected to have our lives figured out? How are we supposed to brave the world with the limited knowledge and experience we’ve gained after only a handful of years?

From a kid’s perspective, tackling the world seemed easy. We didn’t need to picture how to achieve our dreams—we just thought of the dreams themselves. We also fantasized about growing up, because be- ing an adult meant driving a car and buying a house and affording three gallons of ice cream at Safeway (with no regrets!), and it just seemed cool to be older. But once we were teens, we became aware of the challenges that came with our goals and what it took to reach our dreams. And then, after having grown up some more, we realize being an adult is kind of lame.

Naïve as I am, I still frame the world in a simple way so it’s easier for me to make sense of. I’m also guilty of clinging to the assumption that my future will somehow fall into place one day. It’s a mindset I probably owe to my university years, where, regardless of the path I chose, I would find myself standing at a finish line somewhere along the way. I wouldn’t remember how I got there, only that I did in the end.

What does it mean to be “grown up,” anyway?

And what happens if we’re not quite there yet? A large part of me still feels like a kid, even now. There are still so many things I’ve yet to learn, experience, and achieve. So many more things I’ll probably never get to do or understand. Maybe I’m not where people expect me to be at my age. Maybe I don’t consider myself an adult yet. I’m just treading along, trying to find my way through life and stay afloat. As you’re reading this, maybe you are, too.

That’s okay. We’ll figure it out eventually.