There Are No Adults


“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I used to think there was such a thing as an adult.

At first, the adults were my parents and my teachers. They gave me answers in absolutes; this is the right thing and that is the wrong thing. That made me feel safe, and also freed me from my own opinions. If mine didn’t match theirs, it must be wrong. They were older and smarter and more experienced.

Then I got older and met more adults, and some of them seemed even more expert than my parents and teachers had been. Some were as sure of themselves as my former “adults” had been. It was terribly confusing to learn that the things I’d taken for gospel were, in fact, debatable. Some of these adults were gentle in sharing their wisdom, offering it alongside the wisdom I’d held before, calling it not the choice but a choice. That made me feel unsteady; how could I choose the adultiest adults, the rightest choices, the smartest smart people? If they all disagreed, did that make my original parents and teachers right? wrong? neither? WHO WERE THE REAL ADULTS?

It wasn’t until my youngest daughter got sick that I realized that there is no such thing as an adult.

My parents, who had raised two children, shrugged and trusted the doctors, who shrugged and told us to wait.

My mother-in-law, who had raised two children, shrugged and trusted the doctors, who shrugged and told us to wait.

When the waiting did nothing to help the baby I clutched to my chest, the doctors — one after the other — confidently asserted their widely differing opinions on both her and me. None of them could conclude a thing. I searched the eyes of nurses for a sign of their adulthood, gained from watching patiently, but no one said a word, even as I sobbed in an empty examining room before the nurse came to give my baby another shot. It doesn’t take an adult to hand a woman a tissue. Where were the adults?

As I struggled with the lack of authority, of clear answers, of parents too distant in too many ways, an aunt in my husband’s family came forward.

She didn’t know anything more than I did about my predicament. She didn’t have an answer for me, for my daughter, for this journey of sickness and identity and closed doors and broken hearts or pieces of hearts. What she did have was the ability to walk alongside me. She was older than me, but not there to out-adult me. She had broken parts too, in fact, hidden and visible sadnesses, a lifetime of her own journeys, as much that needed smoothing and holding as I had. At first, this made me a little hopeless. How, I wondered, can she feel these things I feel, but decades later? Is this sadness who I will be, forever, too?

Then a friend of mine told me about her mother’s deep heartache over decades-old wounds.

Then an acquaintance confided that she worried about telling her sad story too often.

Then I took a class on spiritual autobiography and heard a grandmother weep over her father’s cruelty.

Then I read Anne Lamott, again, and she wrote:

“You will go through your life thinking there was a day in second grade that you must have missed, when the grown-ups came in and explained everything important to other kids. they said, ‘Look, you’re human, you’re going to feel isolated and afraid a lot of the time, and have bad self-esteem, and feel uniquely ruined, but here is the magic phrase that will take this feeling away. It will be like a feather that will lift you out of that fear and self-consciousness every single time, all through your life.’ And then they told the cildren who were there that day the magic phrase that everyone else in the world knows about and uses when feeling blue, which only you don’t know, because you were home sick the day the grown-ups told the children the way the whole world works.

But there was not such a day in school. No one got the instructions. That is the secret of life. Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map. This lack of instruction manual is how most people develop compassion, and how they figure out to show up, care, help and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free. Otherwise you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others so no one will know that you weren’t there the day the instructions were passed out.”

And then I went out to lunch again and again and again with that aunt, and she’s older than me but not adultier, or at least not in a way that makes her feel like an authority or more complete than I am. There are no adults, it turns out. Everyone is waiting to be rescued. This is a wonderful thing to realize; it means that we’re all here dealing with the same stuff. I could just as easily learn how to deal with this stuff from my daughter — supremely healthy, now — as I could from my aunt. Instead of putting all that pressure on the older non-adults in my life, I can accept that none of us know what we’re doing, or all of us know whatever there is to know about what we’re doing.

The answers could be anywhere.

The answers could be inside me.

So, I don’t believe in adults anymore. They’re a myth. They’re nowhere. There’s just us.


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi of, with the prompt “I used to think (and no longer do). 

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4 thoughts on “There Are No Adults

  1. I agree, there are no ‘adults’.
    Unfortunately there is no shortage of people who would claim the mantle. They often succeed and parade around in the clothes of those who know, only by virtue of willingness of most to surrender the power to accept the responsibility that comes with accepting, as you say, ‘The answer could be inside me.’
    Surely it is a most awesome responsibility.
    But those who depend on us deserve nothing less.

  2. It’s true, isn’t it, that it’s too easy to think that doctors or parents or more adulty-adults have the answers. You’re so right – the answers are in us, in a combined caring of solving issues and returning again and again to the doctors’ offices, and saying “no, let’s do something else,” and all the things you did for your girl. I love the Anne Lamott quote – broken down so perfectly at how we each feel insecure and flailing. Glad you linked up with this – I needed this reminder myself today.

  3. This was wonderfully written; such an enjoyable read. The Anne Lamott story says it all. Funny how we all go through periods of trying to find the answer when after time passes, we realize the answer may have been more obvious than we first thought. It’s a lesson is belief of the self – our own voice and heart tugs – but also the knowledge that we all struggle in ways unseen.
    Thanks for this lovely post.

  4. She was “not there to out-adult me.” I can’t think of a greater compliment.
    What a powerful story and remarkable insight. All the best, xoxox

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