Failures at adulting

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

I can relate to the feeling of not having real adult stuff, though my parents and family were never a reference point for me. Rather, I went the other way: my parents moved out of New York, to live in the suburbs, I moved out of the suburbs to move to New York. I have never struggled “to find relevance in a slew of anachronistic cultural detritus” but rather was happy to invest new cultural expressions. But I didn’t exceed at that to nearly the radical extent that I hoped for, so in that way, I can relate to the sense of defeat that are in these words:

To say I feel like a failure at adulting doesn’t mean I am a failure. I’m a middle-aged novelist who lives in an apartment he owns, has a car, is married, and so on. If I make a checklist of things grown up humans do (as I suggested in the first paragraph above) I actually come out pretty well insofar as the things I don’t do are mostly optional. But I still feel like I’m missing stuff. So … why?

…And because I don’t wear a suit and tie and smoke a pipe while surrounded by my nuclear family in our suburban house I feel kind of slightly like a giant overgrown kid who never managed to grow up and attain the complete grown-up checklist.

This is of course complete bullshit. It’s imposter syndrome for grown-ups, and about as valid as imposter syndrome ever is. The reality of being an adult was never like that for everyone, except perhaps the rich and famous role models; it’s just that the image of middle class success in the prevailing cultural narrative supplied a template, and insecure, frightened people who are trying to convince themselves that they’re adults try to conform to what they perceive as the expectations of everyone around them. The generation that lived in 50’s suburbia in turn had inherited their mental map of adult behaviour from their parents. They probably felt like adulting failures too—as witness the sky-high rate of tranquiliser use and alcohol and tobacco addiction in real-world mid-20th century suburbia. And you can trace it back further. The conformist parents of the 1920s were probably trying and failing and feeling like utter failures at being a Victorian paterfamilias or home-maker, or faintly inadequate because they couldn’t afford to employ a cook, a maid, and a butler (the Victorian equivalent of a microwave oven, a vacuum cleaner, and a broken metaphor).

…We base our vision of an aspirational lifestyle on our parents, who in turn got it by looking at the culture they grew up in (and their parents in turn). The rich are okay; they can afford to buy whatever trappings they think they’re supposed to have—butlers for the mansion, finishing school for the kids, whatever. “Downton Abbey” was popular for the worked example of the classical lifestyle of the rich that it supplied: a place for everyone and everyone in their place, including the viewers sitting in front of the TV and wondering if that was why mum was always so fussy about positioning the cutlery just so when laying the table for family dinner. (It’s not like the silver spoon novel doesn’t have a history.) But the rest of us are struggling to find relevance in a slew of anachronistic cultural detritus that we’d be a lot happier if we simply learned to let go of.

Post external references

  1. 1