“Thank you, ma’am,” the middle-aged, suit-clad lobbyist said, nodding his head in my general direction as he exited. I held back a laugh until the office door had safely shut behind him. I’d never been called “ma’am” before. Silly man, I thought, if he’d bothered to make eye contact on his way out the door, he would have noticed the “ma’am” he was addressing was a 22-year-old child.
And yet, as I shifted from one leg to the other in my kitten heels at my standing desk, sipping coffee while trying not to smudge my lipstick, researching child marriage stats to build an argument for the anti-child marriage legislation I’m carrying, I was struck by a horrible thought. Perhaps I’d accidentally become an adult without realizing it.
The anti-child marriage bill I’m trying to get turned into law operates based on the idea that a person becomes an adult when they reach the age of majority, 18, and are granted a slew of questionably awesome legal rights (like the ability to sue or be sued, the ability to enter into legally binding, life-altering contracts, and the ability to be tried as an adult for any crimes they commit). I’m four years past this hurdle, and my mother is still saved as “Mommy” in my contacts. How on earth could someone mistake me for a grown-up?
Up until I graduated from college, I was pretty certain I wasn’t an adult. My family paid for almost everything. In my free time, I played on sports teams and binge watched TV with my friends. None of the assignments I completed for school required much initiative on my part or had any real-world impact. I could always count on someone older and wiser to tell me what to do. In stressful or upsetting situations, I called Mommy.
In the immediate aftermath of graduation, I was pretty sure I was still a kid. Not much had changed other than the fact that I now had a part-time job keeping kids alive at rock climbing birthday parties and I was living at home, which meant Mommy was only a short trip down the hall.
These days, I’m less certain of whether or not I still qualify as a child. I have a job as a legislative aide to an Alaska state representative and, for the first time in my life, am almost entirely self-supporting (aside from the cellphone bill my parents still pay). I no longer live at home. I use a steamer to make sure my business attire is wrinkle-free each morning. The work I do is not just reviewed by my professor, assigned a grade, and completely forgotten; the stuff I write takes the form of press releases, letters to constituents, and presentations I give to lawmakers about legislation that has the potential to affect nearly 750,000 lives. My boss, rather than my mother, gives me feedback. Despite all these stunningly mature developments, I still make time for binge watching movies and television. Last Monday, I baked an apple crumble and ate half by myself while watching “Fifty Shades of Grey” (a movie I would not technically be allowed to watch if I were not a grown-up). When I’m stressed or upset, I still call Mommy.
The other day, as I was blowdrying my hair before for work, an adult ritual I now practice at least a few times a month, I noticed a new grey hair. Since the age of 14, I’ve known about a community of approximately six grey hairs that reside on the back of my head, near my left ear. Over the years, they’ve never seemed to increase in number. I wrote them off as an irregularity in pigmentation rather than a sign that I was going grey at 14. This new grey hair, however, was located just above my right ear, near the temple, which is where the Internet has informed me people start to grey first. Does showing signs of physical aging make you an adult? Probably not, but you might start getting called ma’am a lot more frequently.
There’s the saying that “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” That’s certainly how I thought adulting worked when I was little. At a certain, very specific age that I never bothered to specify, I would become a grown-up and all the attributes of a mature person would effortlessly manifest themselves in me. I would have to give up things like my Mickey Mouse t-shirt and halloween candy, but in exchange, I would get awesome powers like wisdom, perfect balance in heels, the ability to delegate chores, and the coordination necessary to spit out toothpaste without getting it in my hair. If there is such an age, I have not yet reached it.
Perhaps a more applicable saying is the one that goes “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” I can wear a wrinkle-free blazer and slacks and makeup to work, but I certainly don’t feel like a grown-up. I still expect those around me to know more, be more prepared, and ultimately take care of me; and am continually surprised and mildly irked when the reverse is true.