This past summer, I closed on a beautiful 100-year-old house, making me a 28-year-old homeowner. I celebrated the life milestone with two close girlfriends, smoking the place out with sage. I went to sleep that night on an air mattress in an otherwise empty room—but it was my empty room.
About a week later, I had a first date. Brad (not his real name), a foxy poet, was five years older than me and obviously trying to woo me. It was working, till the subject of the house came up. “You’re such a grown-up,” he said, and then, worse: “I am so far from that.”
Of all the fears that rouse me from sleep each night, one of the most terrifying is the idea that I might say something to someone that affects them forever. So I feel a bit guilty adding such gravitas to what was likely meant as a glib comment. But still: Please, for the love of god, do not tell a woman that she’s “such a grown-up,” while you are decidedly not.
For one thing, technically, we’re both grown-ups. That’s why we’re on a date, and why we might have sex later. Also, if I’m good at adulting, it’s because I taught myself, which is something you could do as well. But most importantly, “you’re such a grown-up,” said a certain way, translates to: “Please take care of me.” And while a healthy romantic relationship should center on an exchange of care, there needs to be some balance. I cannot forget when my friend Angela tweeted: “Being a girlfriend is just being a man's sex mom.” Don’t make the woman you’re dating feel like a sex mom just because she knows how to set up a 401k.
I used to love showing dudes how I feigned adulthood. My first week of college, my roommate showed me how to measure laundry detergent. By 19, I was slowly acquiring cooking skills to counteract a childhood sustained by Hamburger Helper and microwaved frozen broccoli. In messy college group houses, I’d demonstrate how vacuum attachments worked. One boyfriend called me from Publix, asking what went into a salad. I delighted in his reliance and took great joy in guiding him to make good, “mature” decisions.
In a way, I was playing “dress-up” to see how life would look once I effortlessly matured; not having to do the work of learning the garbage intricacies of HSAs or how to mow a lawn, instead coming to this knowledge by magic. He was kind of just playing along.
After college, I spent years fucking with the undercooked man-boys of Brooklyn, New York, feeling as if I were nurturing something pure each time I let another dirtbag artist crash with me while breaking up with a former live-in girlfriend. But my male companions weren’t developing life skills through osmosis; mostly, they were mooching. I called it quits and moved to Atlanta, a warmer metropolis both literally and figuratively. A place where I got my finances in order, quit a few choice vices, started running, found footing, and eventually saved money to buy a house—a lifelong dream of mine. The dozen of moves since college graduation wiped me out. I ached to paint walls, plant things, corkscrew roots, and sit still on a porch that’s all mine. I wanted to invest in something I wouldn’t have to worry about not texting me back.
Early into my Atlanta tenure, I linked with a hot single dad. Despite the fact that he was responsible for raising a small human (or 50 percent of that small human, anyway), dude could not fathom the necessity of hand soap at both the kitchen and bathroom sink. I guided him, even going so far as spearheading a massive apartment deep-clean right after we became exclusive.
But still dirty dishes filled his sink and junk mail piled up. Six months in, Hot Dad and I split. He wasn’t interested in growing up to the level at which I was desperate to exist, and he couldn’t be the partner I wanted to join me there.
I’m hardly the first single woman to buy a home—Bloomberg actually declared 2016 the year of the single female homebuyer—but it’s a milestone that’s less and less common to millennials: Only 35.8 percent of us are homeowners. Add in the fact that members of my generation tend to get married and have kids later, and you wind up with a wide swath of the population who has trouble defining adulthood, or believing we’ve achieved it even when we get there. Hence the dreaded “prolonged adolescence” diagnosed in so many articles.
But that “What if I’m not really an adult?” fear might not just be a generational thing. When my sister and I were kids protesting our microwave broccoli, my parents would set out a timer. We had 90 seconds to chow down—or else. What else? I asked one day recently over wine. “Oh, we had no idea,” mom told me. “We were so happy it seemed to work.” My parents, like every other adult person on earth including myself, were guessing. Maybe adulthood is a never-ending game of house, and we’re all just performing how we think adults behave.
This might explain the gender gap I keep encountering, because women, groomed to perform femininity in-line with glossies et al early on, build up stronger performance muscles. We compulsively cross our legs and apologize for existing. We keep good-smelling candles on hand to prep for houseguests. We’re also well-versed in compensating for simply being women; men don’t share tips on how to send a work email not stuffed with “sorry”s. Adulthood is just another mask women learn to wear convincingly.
Regardless of my mortgage, professional life, and inability to stay up past 10pm, I know how much of my competence is a front. Inside my polished ankle boots, my socks rarely match. One time, I accidentally brought broccoli sauteed in pot butter (intended for “healthy” hangover princess day nachos) to work for lunch. By tethering myself to overgrown Peter Pans, I might be trying to assert my adultness by comparison. It’s easy to inflate the accomplishment of explaining the acronym “PTO” to a 35-year-old man.
But it’s a fool’s game because being a “grown up” has less to do with material signifiers and more with swagger. If “fake it till you make it” makes sense in only one arena, it’s acting the role of an adult. You might feel like a fraud when you put on your reading glasses and pay some bills, but in the end, the bills don’t care as long as they get paid. It bothers me when I’m the only one in the relationship making this effort, since the effort is, honestly, not that hard.
We all feel inadequate or afraid sometimes. I’m allowed to indulge in the occasional hangover princess day; guys like Brad are allowed to make off-the-cuff comments. But if you're a dude who habitually fawns over an adult woman for being “grown-up” simply because she pays her bills on time or can keep a potted plant alive, don't be surprised if she isn't leaping into your bed with reckless abandon. She doesn’t want to babysit you or be your teacher or sex mom. She just wants someone to fake it along with her.