What does it mean to be an adult?
A discussion I had after my most recent blog post (the latest in my series of “Jeff has an existential crisis every so often but he’s OK after getting it all out” posts) spurred me to think on the topic of adulthood. This is something I’ve often thought about, and as a 37-year-old guy who’s never been married, owned his own property, or had a large amount of disposable income, and spends his free time with hobbies that came from his childhood (such as video games), I might be labeled by some as a manchild who still needs to grow up. On the other hand, I am 37 years old and self-reliant (current pandemic-related work situations notwithstanding), so what more would one need? Let’s look at this a bit more in-depth.
The knee-jerk “therapy” definition of adulthood would be something like, “Adulthood is whatever you do as an adult! You don’t have to comply with someone else’s rules, man! Be authentic and your true self!” and all that. While that’s probably true, I don’t think it’s the full truth; otherwise the term “manchild” wouldn’t exist, as being a man or woman would be the only qualification for not being a child. There are certainly people in their 30’s and 40’s (and probably beyond) that are “less adult” than their peers, and we can all think of examples, but what really defines that? Where’s the line?
The default societal view is that a person with a spouse, kids, a house, a car or two, a well-paying job, and adult hobbies (I mean things like sports or the stock market or, uh, carpentry? Lawn care? Power tools? Whatever.) is a better adult than a person lacking some or all of those things. Or at least that was the message I was bombarded with when I was younger, both through media portrayals and through other people’s expectations. Do you, by instinct, look at a father or mother as more adult than a childless couple or a single person, even if you have to mentally correct that? Or do you even bother to challenge that personal viewpoint, if you hold it?
I think the answer here must start by unraveling external vs. internal adulthood, i.e. if society perceives someone as a responsible and trustworthy adult vs. if a person views themselves as a trustworthy and responsible adult. And, as a case study, let’s take two cartoon dads created in wildly different shows for completely different audiences and time periods, who nonetheless share a surprising amount of traits: Kirk van Houten from The Simpsons, and Greg Universe from Steven Universe.
(Disclaimer: I have currently only watched through about three-fourths of season 1 of Steven Universe, as part of a deal I made with my nieces to get them to watch more Star Trek, so it’s possible that Greg’s character may change in the future and negate some of this discussion. If this is so, don’t tell me; I’m avoiding spoilers!)
(Disclaimer 2: I also haven’t seen the most recent few seasons of The Simpsons but who cares)
Both of these characters are single dads with only one son who doesn’t live with them. Both are balding, overweight, middle-aged men with mundane jobs (Kirk was a cracker factory middle manager until he got fired and has held a bunch of low-paying entry-level jobs, and Greg runs a car wash). Both have been portrayed and described in-universe as irresponsible losers, whose incapability to make more out of their own lives has placed them on the lower rungs of society, and both lack any real ambition. At a cursory glance, these two occupy the same space in society. In fact, if one were going by looks alone, Kirk would probably be recognized as the more “adult” of the two, seeing as he at least used to own a house, and he’s got a respectable, if stuffy, outfit on, while Greg’s cutoffs, tank top, and thigh-length mullet don’t exactly scream “investment firm and avid golfer” to me (also he lives in either his van or a car wash; I’m not 100% sure which). Externally, Kirk is the winner.
But things change if you explore their internal views. Kirk van Houten has kept up appearances (relatively), but is a giant mess. His marriage ended because he was more concerned that his marriage looked perfect rather than working to make it strong, needling his wife about not living up to his expectations (expectations that he fell far short of himself). He’s never happy with any of the jobs he holds (for the brief time he’s held them), he holds himself in a never-ending cycle of self-pity and false self-assurance, and nobody respects him because he doesn’t respect himself. He’s more concerned with what he’s lost (his marriage) than he is with what he has left (his son Milhouse, who ends up being treated by Kirk more as a bargaining chip between him and his ex-wife than as an actual son). He’s proud of his single-guy race car bed, until Homer deflates him by stating that he sleeps in a bed with his wife.
Greg Universe, on the other hand, is content where he is. His job is no better than Kirk’s random jobs, but his ambitions are satisfied. He engages with his son Steven on a personal level, raising him and playing with him, and treating him with respect even when he’s being silly. He doesn’t care what it looks like to outsiders like the judgmental mayor or the pizza guy and his family down the street. He’s certainly not perfect (he’s a bit of a mooch sometimes) but he’s certainly more likeable, and he’s happy with his own life situation, even if it’s not the typical version of success.
In other words, Kirk tries to fulfill society’s expectations and fails, while Greg pursues his own goals (that are contrary to society’s expectations) and succeeds.
So which is more adult? Greg seems like he’d be the choice internally, even if Kirk looks more put-together on first glance.
But I picked Greg Universe for another reason. There is another type of character that often appears in stories: the fun-loving single dad who loves his kids but is a mess otherwise (think Mrs. Doubtfire, or P. L. Travers’ dad in Saving Mr. Banks, or Caracatus Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or probably dozens more). Most of these characters are great dads (to their kids) but terrible providers: too irresponsible to provide their kids with the basics. They don’t want to be deadbeat dads, but financial difficulties or substance abuse issues or whatnot force them to lose custody, either to an ex-wife or the state or whatever, even if they’re happy with their lifestyle and secure in their lack of ambition, and they love spending time with their kids (however limited that may be). But certainly they aren’t acting like adults, are they?
What makes Greg Universe more of an adult than Mrs. Doubtfire (or whatever the guy’s actual name is that Robin Williams plays)? Internal things, like self-confidence and contentment? External things, like financial stability and social standing? Where’s the line?
I don’t have kids or a spouse, so I can’t speak to that part of it, but for my part I tend to ping-pong between Kirk van Houten and Greg Universe depending on the circumstance. I was raised in the LDS church, and was taught growing up some very specific things about how to be the ideal man, and until my early 30’s I internalized those specifics even though I wasn’t either capable of or happy with pursuing all of them. Even now, after I left the church, I still carry those teachings within me, and some days it’s difficult to reconcile my current lifestyle with who I was told I should be by now. Other days I look at what I’m doing with my life and I’m more optimistic: I have a decent job (let’s, uh, ignore the special pandemic circumstances and assume I’m talking about my life pre-March here) doing something I like; even though the hours are bad and the pay isn’t much, it’s something I enjoy and get value out of. I live in my own (rented) place and am able to cover all my living costs, even though I mostly live paycheck-to-paycheck. I spend my off-hours doing things I enjoy, and I spend time with friends and family when I can, even though I don’t have a family of my own.
So am I a successful adult? Is that an internal thing, where some days I feel like one and others I don’t? Would I be less of an adult if I actually had kids but kept up my current lifestyle? Is this some weird paradox where having kids normally makes you more of an adult, as long as you were already a good enough provider before taking on that responsibility; otherwise your non-adult tendencies have far more dire consequences and makes you less of an adult than a childless person in similar circumstances?
Here’s the final wrinkle: if I wanted to get married (and I still would like to get married if I find the right person), I was told growing up that I needed to be the best person/provider I could be so that I could support kids. So I go out with you, hypothetical date. Which would you rather date/marry/raise a family with: the person with no ambition but who is warm, loving, and kind; content with his lot in life, even though it consists of running a car wash and living out of a van? Or the person who’s trying his best to be a great middle manager at the cracker factory; even though he’s bad at it, he’s at least trying to move upward? Or me, someone who is both of these, depending on the day? Or is the only acceptable adult the one who’s already got everything together, who’s both financially well-off and completely well-adjusted, and everything and everyone else isn’t worth your attention and effort (which is often the answer I’ve gotten from people I’ve dated)?
You don’t have to actually answer that, but think about it for a while, and be honest with yourself. I realize that, in the end, it’s really semantics, and that “therapy” answer I gave earlier is the correct one in most situations. But in order to meet external expectations (such as with dating, or with self-promotion so as to advance in your career), you have to show external characteristics of adulthood. Put on that sweater over your tank top, and wear those Dockers instead of the cutoffs.
I’m not gunning for a particular answer here, but again, I wish to ask and start a discussion: what does it mean to be an adult?