A few days ago, The Telegraph posted this apparently innocuous little article entitled “The 50 Signs You’re A Grown-Up“.
Normally, I don’t take things like this particularly seriously. But this one kind of hit a nerve. Mostly because it sort of calcifies a rather horrible message I’ve been getting my whole life.
Namely, that to be an adult, a grown-up, you have to conform to a VERY specific kind of life. A life that is furthermore almost wholly defined by hetero/cisnormative expectations. Appearing on the list? Get married. Have kids.
What of those of us who can’t?
The “signs” here, in addition to being completely dominated by cisgender, heterosexual, white, middle-class English values, carry numerous more subtle exercises in privilege. One that ended up leaping out at a friend of mine was the insistence that being a “grown-up” requires calling your parents every week. The truth, however, is that many people (queer people particularly) are often quite alienated from their parents, if not disowned. Some people have abusive parents. Some people were abused by their parents in childhood and prefer not to revisit the trauma. Some people’s parents left. And some people’s parents just plain aren’t alive anymore.
I’m sure some people might look at what this list comprises and see something that, for them, seems like the kind of life they want. But for many of us, it seems dismal and horrible. The absolute antithesis of what we want for ourselves. Some of the items directly suggest servitude to the social order, such as “have a mortgage”. Have a home I might be able to view as just another potential positive that some people strive for and others don’t consider all that important, but a mortgage isn’t a home. A mortgage is a debt.
Some of us don’t have much control over the degree to which we meet these criteria our culture holds as a “proper” adult life. But I’ve also often thought that one of the defining features of being an adult was autonomy, making one’s own choices. Defining who you are for yourself rather than in relation to how well you live up to a very narrow set of imposed expectations and values.
That and being over the age of 19 or whatever.
I’m never going to be able to have my “own” kids. Ever. I made that decision for myself. I also have no intention of ever adopting. The legality of my being able to marry (a partner of any sex) is complex and varies from place to place, and these days I really prefer to eschew defining my relationships in specific terms anyway. I rent. I have a roommate. I eat a lot of junk food. I’m not financially independent, and make my pitiful living off of writing ramby rants on the internet. I can’t cook. I sometimes fall asleep in my clothes. I’m trans and queer and I totally, completely fail to dress my age. I read a lot of comic books and listen to a lot of punk rock. And I’m an activist, too. I still put more of my energy into imagining the way the world could be than simply trying to live with the way it is. I still think the world, both as it could be and as it is, are worth fighting for, as are the people in it. And most of the time, I still believe life is worth living.
And I don’t garden or go antiqueing or host dinner parties or listen to Radio fucking 2. Radio 6 sometimes, though. Usually only when Jarvis Cocker is on.
I have a huge crush on Jarvis Cocker.
But NONE of that takes away from the fact that I’m a grown woman who’s made her own choices about her own life.
It occurred to me, after a little more stewing over this: are the terms “grown-up” and “adulthood”, the concepts and images that go with them, the way we implore one another to be such… is it ever much more than a codeword for “fit into my normative expectations”? Is it ever about self-determination, the actual independence of living your own life, and not instead about someone denying the validity of the choices you’ve made? Implying that you’re living the “wrong” sort of life?
I’m not sure it is. And from now, these are going in my black book of Words To Watch-Out For. Right alongside “politically correct”, “reverse discrimination”, “biologically (fe)male”, “offense”, “States’ rights”, “special rights”, “rap music”, “thuggish”, “female privilege”, “victim card” and “oversensitive”.
If being a “grown-up” means having to conform to these kinds of boxed-in, outdated values, defined by the privileged and powerful, then I’ll stake my claim right here in Neverland.
I’ll close with a poignant thought from xkcd.