‘Adulting’ Is Hard–I Know Because I’ve Been Doing It Since Grade School

The way we talk about ‘adulting’ is classist.

I am 7, and I’m aware that my existence is a financial burden on my mother. She would never say it, of course, but I recognize the lines that spread across her forehead when I need to buy gifts for parties, when I need money for school bake sales, when I need food for lunches.

As I grow up, I see the bigger picture: Having children isn’t only expensive when it comes to the cash you hand them. I can sense my mother’s breath quickening when she swipes her card to buy my school uniform. I watch her try to figure out how to cover our medical expenses. When my teachers hand out letters about school fees, mine invariably has the word “OVERDUE” stamped on the front.

In many ways, I had a good childhood. Our income bracket and lack of assets meant that we were considered a low-income household, but we were never homeless. My family is a group of genuinely wonderful people, and I felt safe and supported in my own home. And of course, I benefited greatly from white privilege, which means a lot in post-Apartheid South Africa.

But we didn’t have class privilege, and our financial situation was always dire. I cried myself to sleep on many occasions because of our financial burdens; I had nightmares about bills covering every floor in our house. I was stressed about our financial situation, and even more stressed because I had no way to make it better.

I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot recently, especially since the concept of “adulting” is so prevalent on social media nowadays. According to Merriam-Webster (because yes, the word is that widespread):

“to adult is to behave like an adult, to do the things that adults regularly have to do. This includes things like having a job and living independently, sure, but also such mundanities as taking clothes to the dry cleaners (and remembering to pick them up), making and keeping dental appointments, getting your car registered, doing yardwork.”

The word permeates our everyday conversations, and the concept is often touched on in popular memes. “My favorite childhood memory is not paying bills,” states an often-shared meme. #AdultingInFiveWords, a hashtag that trended a while ago, was often used to point out the financial responsibilities of adulting. For many people, adulting is associated with stressful financial burdens because their childhood, by contrast, didn’t involve shouldering those burdens.

For me — and for many people who grew up in working-class and poor environments — the opposite is true. My worst childhood memory is not paying bills. Because I couldn’t work, I felt that I was unable to contribute to the family that worked so hard to raise and protect me.

For many of my peers, financial strain is a part of adulting. For those of us who weren’t as privileged, it’s been a fact of life since birth.

In Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood, anthropologists Allison James and Alan Prout wrote, “the immaturity of children is biological fact, but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture.” Anthropologists before and after them have argued that childhood is socially constructed and influenced largely by culture.

There is no universal experience of childhood. And yet, many international groups — such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization — have attempted to treat childhood as a universal experience. Because those groups were — and arguably still are — very Westernized, a lot of their policies erase the experiences of children in non-Western, marginalized situations. As scholar Sharon Stephens argued in her intro to Children and the Politics of Culture, “affluent groups in Western society confronted a chasm between their idealized concepts of childhood and the realities of many children’s lives, both in the Third World and in the heart of First World urban centers.”

Stephens and many other anthropologists point out that policies like the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child are problematic, because they fail to take into account that we all experience childhood differently. For example, the Declaration implies that the biological parents of children are usually the best caregivers, and that biological relationships between children and parents are more natural and important than other familial relationships. This is a heteronormative assumption that sidelines queer people, multi-generational households, and non-traditional families.

The ideas we have about what children should and shouldn’t do are often based on the childhood experiences of the most privileged people in our society. Children should be protected. Children should be sheltered. Children shouldn’t have to work. As well-intended as these notions are, these expectations don’t match up to the realities of poor and otherwise marginalized children.

These laws and policies prevent children from working because, supposedly, we want to protect them from exploitation. But who protects children from poverty? Poor children find themselves at a painful crossroads, simultaneously experiencing the difficulties of poverty, and unable to do anything about it. It’s an immeasurably taxing situation to be in, and one that can’t be easily fixed.

Who protects children from poverty?

Adults are privileged over children. We have more political, financial, and social power than our child counterparts. Of course, when we become adults, we’re expected to have certain responsibilities — responsibilities that can be burdensome, especially for poor and disabled people. These responsibilities are often what we discuss when we speak about “adulting.”

Many of our discussions around adulting center on dealing with bureaucracy, dealing with the medical-industrial complex, navigating governmental structures, taking care of ourselves, sorting out our finances, and doing domestic work. A lot of these activities aren’t easy for everyone. We know that banks, medical institutions, colleges, and government departments are seldom friendly and accessible spaces for trans, queer, disabled, poor, and otherwise marginalized people.

Sometimes, our discussions around adulting involve addressing that inaccessibility. In that sense, these conversations can be insightful. Our anxiety and frustration at broken and unfair systems must be discussed. But we also have to remember that adults aren’t the only people hurt by these systems.

If a system is hard for an adult to navigate, imagine how difficult it would be for a lone child to navigate, especially if they didn’t have any adults supporting them. This isn’t only limited to poor children, but children facing emotional trauma too. I often complain about adulting when I have to make an appointment to see a doctor, but truthfully, I first took myself to a clinic when I was 12. I had just been sexually assaulted and I found out I was pregnant. I was afraid to tell anyone, so there I was, “adulting” alone. My situation was horrific, but far from unique. We often don’t want to admit that children are put in these positions because it’s painful to imagine — but we need to acknowledge that this is a reality, or we erase marginalized children altogether.

In some ways, these discussions remind us that adulthood and childhood are social constructs. There is no magic age where you stop feeling anxious whenever you make a doctor’s appointment, and there’s no expiration date on impostor syndrome. Many of us feel like confused children in adult bodies with adult responsibilities, and this is because we don’t automatically stop feeling like children as soon as we’re legally considered adults.

But on the other hand, our discussions about adulting shouldn’t presume that we’ve all had the same experience of childhood: one where we seldom deal with bureaucracy, where we weren’t faced with the financial burden of bills, where we’re protected.

Becoming an adult has brought me a great deal of joy and frustration. I find myself having to grow up, work, make major life decisions, take on responsibilities. But when I look at the struggles I face, I realize many aren’t exclusive to adults. When I complain about adulting, I’m not wishing for my childhood, but for one that was sheltered, stable, and peaceful.

In sharing our frustrations with the world, we should remember that many of our younger counterparts are facing the same challenges with less privilege. Adulting is difficult, but for the marginalized, childing is, too.

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