“Sudden Adulthood”: How Growing Up Too Fast Is a Normal Part of Life

DaveOnFlickr
DaveOnFlickr

By Lisbeth Leftwich, Intern 2015

The Millennial generation is a harbinger of doom … or so the media would have us believe. Since this generation started to enter its teenage years, multitudes of articles have condemned the ways a zombielike obsession with technology coupled with over-nurturing since birth created millions of people set up to disappoint the rest of society. And yet, this assessment is so surface-level it’s become cliché. Not only that, it makes us miss the rest of what it means to be a Millennial — and how this isn’t as different from previous generations as we might think.

It’s true that the world has changed drastically over the last 20 years, and that we have entered a new age of technology. But it’s also true that Millennials are nuanced people growing up under the tutelage of those who came before them. The challenges they face look different than those of previous generations, but this doesn’t mean Millennials aren’t meeting them, and building lives out of the world they were given.

These things are more challenging to talk about, though, so we choose not to. Instead, we talk about the ways newer generations are surely a sign of the impending apocalypse. How everyone from Millennials down is self-serving and unaware of basic manners. They were ruined by participation trophies, and they have never experienced a real day’s work in their lives. We hear this echo from the media over and over, and the stereotype is becoming difficult to escape.

While it is true that older generations rarely greet the habits of younger generations with welcome and admiration, this problem is exacerbated by the way growing up has visibly changed. For a large part of American history, growing up has been defined by clear life stages. There has always been some variation, but for the most part, leaving home, starting your first real job, getting married, and having children all happened much earlier in life than they do now. From the outside, Millennials seem to be in a state of suspended youth that they can’t possibly escape without leaving their parents’ homes first.

But, of course, it’s difficult to get out of your parents’ house these days. This is the generation that grew up under the pressure of slumped economic conditions, inflated college tuition, and the disappearance of the middle class. Often, the choices are either live with at least three roommates in a tiny apartment, or live at home and endure the shame of not having “made it” after school. Either way, you know you’re not going to climb out of the debt you’ve accumulated trying to get the necessary qualifications to be a “real adult” anytime soon. Growing up starts to feel like taking a hike up a mountain of sand.

In the middle of these new issues and coping mechanisms, many of the same life challenges remain. A moment of “sudden adulthood” has always seemed to show up, regardless of generation. For many people, this moment happens in their early 20s, when they are handed responsibility they feel unprepared to meet and have to either sink or swim. For me, it came a little earlier.

I entered my teenage years and thought growing up into adulthood would be much the same as growing up into teen-land had been. I would gradually become more and more mature, and then one day I would turn around and realize that I had acquired the skills necessary to be a functioning adult. I would be comfortable living alone, know how to pay my taxes, and, most importantly, be able to assume responsibility over a group of people at a moment’s notice. The adults in my life seemed to do this so easily, making decisions that impacted the overall happiness of our small community without breaking a sweat. I was confident that I would learn this skill over time and have a smooth introduction to communication and conflict management.

As you might imagine, growing up didn’t happen this way for me. I don’t know if it does for anybody. I can mark the second that I went from being a teenager to being an adult, although I didn’t feel like an adult at the time.

I was standing by my front door, ready to leave for my first day of my junior year of high school. My mom was on the phone in the other room, which was odd — people didn’t usually call that early. She walked back towards the door and handed the phone to my father, who took it and turned to take the call in the kitchen. My mother, the beacon of tough energy, suddenly looked tired and scared.

“That was the doctor,” she said. “They found something.” And then my dad got off the phone and took me to school.

It took me a long time to tell anyone that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I continued walking around as though everything was exactly the same as it had been, but I was nauseated by the knowledge I now held. It made my daily life seem trivial and dreamlike. When I finally told my group of friends, I rushed to assure them that it was OK, and that they shouldn’t feel sorry for me. After all, we were lucky, and it was stage zero cancer. Everything would be fine.

But everything didn’t seem fine. Like many mother-daughter relationships, my mother and I had had a few strained moments, filled with angst and misunderstanding, but I had leaned on her much more than I realized. Suddenly, our roles were reversed. She needed to lean on me, and I had no idea what to do.

What I thought were innocuous comments about our situation made her panic, and I became tentative about the things I could say. It got to the point where I felt frozen in place; I needed to be an adult, but I had to figure out how through costly trial and error. To me, responsibility became doing what needed to be done while standing by and observing without emotion: My mother’s long-phased-out Texas drawl came back when she was truly upset; I should feel guilty that she was still making my dress for my 16th birthday; people only wanted to hear my thoughts about the situation to an extent.

After undergoing a traumatic double mastectomy, my mother was declared cancer-free and left to recover in the privacy of her home. Her emotional recovery took much longer than her physical one; I had also been permanently changed. On top of her cancer, I was in the middle of the worst of my years-long battle with panic disorder, and the stress of it all became too much. I dropped out of high school that semester and wandered around until I found myself in an alternative high school program. I left figure skating, the sport in which I had been involved for over a decade, and I stopped going to my church, an organization that had been central to my life.

After a year and a half, I got my high school diploma and went off to college. I got to continue on, extraordinarily lucky that my mother was alive and healthy, but I never got to feel like teenage Lisbeth again.

I don’t tell this story because I think my situation is particularly special; on the contrary, I think it’s very, very common. All my closest friends have had experiences similar to mine: Their parents were suddenly incapacitated by injury or illness, and they were forced to grow up quickly to be people their families could lean on. They demonstrated a level of emotional resilience and physical toughness that is rarely shown in teenagers and young adults on-screen.

Even those who don’t have the experience of caring for an incapacitated parent have a moment when they realize the world is more terrifying and difficult than they knew when they were children. This could be anything from a change in their family’s financial situation to a sudden shift in global political dynamics. No matter what, the results are consistent. The young adult is forced to react, and becomes someone new in the process. This is the part of the growing-up process we should be talking about.

Just because it has become more difficult to move through the life stages we think of as “adulthood,” it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in other ways. Despite the challenges that young people face, they still prove tough and resilient and able to take responsibility and authority, even if they are still living in their parents’ houses.

This “sudden adulthood” is what helps connect generations, even when they grew up in radically different times and under different circumstances. Growing up today looks drastically different than it did 50 years ago, but part of what it means to get older has remained the same. Everyone has a moment when they realize they have been saddled with more responsibility than they anticipated having. Sometimes, this moment comes much sooner than they would like.

This transition is a natural phase of life. It stretches us and grows us and makes us the adults we need to be. It can be challenging and painful, but, ultimately, it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be human.