Then and Now

In just the past couple of decades there has been a change in the sequence of events that are generally understood to lead up to adulthood. These events included getting employed, meeting and marrying someone, and having children. Nowadays these milestones are no longer requirements for growing up, and even if some may consider them to be, they do not all necessarily have to happen in that order. For example, we can have children without marrying; we can find security in a job and never marry or raise kids.

My mother spent almost thirty years of her life in Korea, where she graduated from high school and, health issues keeping her from attending university, took time to recover until she went into the work force. At the time, the lack of a college degree was not as much of a setback as it is today, and my mother’s way with words and confidence got her a job at a relatively successful company. A few years later, she met my father, who had just finished college after serving in the military, and was also working. They got married a while later and a year later, I was brought into the world.

With that, my mother recalled, she became an adult.

From a young age, my mother believed that adulthood depended on marrying and bearing children by a certain age. That was the way people lived, and she, too, held those same expectations for herself. When she achieved these goals, she finally felt like an adult. This was mainly due to a newfound sense of responsibility, not only for herself but now for her husband and her child. Family was her purpose, and family taught her to care for others. She defines adulthood now as the ability to sacrifice for others, and without the institution of marriage and her becoming a parent, she believes she would have continued to feel like a child.

Since my high school years, I have heard friends say that they have no intention of settling down, and most definitely no desire to bring children into the world. They would like to meet people, have meaningful relationships, and possibly even cohabitate, but do not see a need for a family. Some others I know, myself included, feel that becoming a parent and managing a household are unquestionable and practical long-term goals. Regardless of the personal desires of those around me, there is an understanding that there is no right answer. There is a newly-paved road, and people are more than welcome to venture down that path: the path of singleness, or childlessness. If there was something wrong or strange about that path before, there certainly is not anymore.

The reason marriage and childrearing are such natural next steps to me and many of my friends is because it adds a dimension to our lives that we might not be able to obtain if not for having a family of our own. There is something about being responsible for others’ well-being, for contributing to a unit larger than oneself, that teaches us how to be adults. I think that we can learn to be mature in many ways, but there is no better test of maturity than shifting priorities and having to, sometimes against personal wants and needs, put someone else first, not just for a day but for a lifetime. The fear of relinquishing our seat on the throne to other people is what may keep some of us from pursuing these now apparently outdated goals.

It makes sense in some ways. Where better to invest our blood, sweat, and tears than in ourselves? After all, we have done the work, and we deserve the rest. I am certainly not in a place to be providing for someone else—not today, not in a month, not in a year. But when I am able to, I want to give what I have. I want to do for my own family what my mother is doing for ours. I have a feeling that there is a reward in that that cannot be found anywhere else.

Whatever we derive that sense of self-transcending fulfillment from is what we ought to pursue. In this moment, what is the adulthood we imagine? What is the adulthood we are in search of? How do we get there? Whether or not we are ready to take the next steps, we should give it some thought.