Does Anyone Feel Like an Actual Adult?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

When I was a kid, my father would sometimes talk disparagingly about “the straight world.” This might sound quaint today, like a vintage-hippie affectation, but he was dead serious. He had dedicated his life to activist causes, and I suppose coming of age in the 1960s had earned him the worldview that there were two kinds of people: conformists (losers) and freaks (cool). The straight world was where arbitrary authoritarian control and anxious attention to status came from. As a child, I was taught that we didn’t participate in that.

It’s impressive how much parents’ beliefs can seep in, especially the weird ones. As an adult, I’ve found myself often feeling out of place around my fellow parents, because parenthood, as it turns out, is a social environment where people usually want to model conventional behavior. While feeling like an interloper among the grown-ups might have felt hip and righteous in my dad’s day, it makes me feel like a tool. It does not make me feel like a “cool mom.” In the privacy of my own home, I’ve got plenty of competence, but once I’m around other parents — in particular, ones who have a take-charge attitude — I often feel as inept as a wayward teen.

The places I most reliably feel this way include: my kids’ sporting events (the other parents all seem to know each other, and they have such good sideline setups, whereas I am always sitting cross-legged on the ground absentmindedly offering my children water out of an old Sodastream bottle and toting their gear in a filthy, too-small canvas tote), parent-teacher meetings, and picking up my kids from their friends’ suburban houses with finished basements.

I’ve always assumed this was a problem unique to people who came from unconventional families, who never learned the finer points of blending in. But I’m beginning to wonder if everyone feels this way and that “the straight world,” or adulthood, as we call it nowadays, is in fact a total mirage. If we’re all cosplaying adulthood, who and where are the real adults?

I recently sent out a survey asking parents to describe the situations that make them feel the most competent and the most like wayward teens. The responses were moving! It could be therapeutic for new parents to receive this kind of anonymous data set as part of a postnatal care package.

According to my not-scientific-but-still-fun research, we all feel like champs when the first cold day arrives and we’re prepared with coats, boots, and (matching) mitts that fit our kids. “Or even better, bought on sale at the end of the previous season,” wrote one parent. (I’ve had that experience only a few times, and it’s like being touched by God.)

Many responses echoed the parent who wrote, “When my 4.5 year old is having a meltdown — calming him is my special skill and I always feel competent if not ANGELIC when I get him through it.” Being emotionally reliable for our kids is huge, especially for parents who didn’t get that kind of attention from their parents. “I give calming and validating energy,” one parent wrote with pride.

A third source of widespread adult-feeling is planning and executing dinner: Meal planning, even though several parents admitted they hate doing it, is rewarding. Making meals that kids are happy to eat ranks high, as does packing a child-approved school lunch; one parent feels great “when I pack wicked snacks that my daughter gasps at.”

What I notice about all three of these trends, which don’t represent everyone’s responses but do encompass an easy majority, is that they all take place in the privacy of our own homes. On our home turf, we are invincible. But it tends to fall apart once we’re out in the world being perceived.

Turns out the park is hell. “Socializing with other parents — I’m right back to high school with the cliques and not understanding any of the social norms,” wrote one parent.

“Any interactions with other parents, especially ones who want to drink and party,” wrote another.

And then there are the authority figures in our children’s lives — people who certainly consider themselves our peers, whose jobs are to help us and our kids thrive. Our allies! Unfortunately, they make many of us feel like idiots.

“Any scenario involving a child-related authority figure like a teacher or pediatrician … even when they’re younger than me I feel like I’m in a grownup costume,” one parent wrote.

Since children’s sports are one of my zones of self-abnegation, it warmed my heart to hear from a parent who is both very much at home but still feels like a teen on the field. “I have no chill, which is embarrassing because I have a sports medicine degree and spend A LOT of time around youth sports.”

A whole category of responses could be labeled “self-loathing goblin mode”: Parents who still act like teens, despite themselves, when they’re at home. Lying in bed with a hangover while the kids watch TV (which I’m pretty sure was a cornerstone of parenting through the mid-20th century at least and gave rise to an entire genre of television, Saturday-morning cartoons), letting the house get real messy, and serving “subnutritious meals,” as one parent put it. I want to give a special mention to a response that impressed me with its candor: “When I receive too many emails from their school and I just delete them without reading them.”

While some of us feel like teens in private, most people who responded to my survey experience that feeling only when we’re exposed to other people’s expectations. And yet, if most of us are experiencing versions of the same insecurities, who is left to do the judging? I’m not trying to argue that no parents are assholes — we all know that’s not true. But most parents? Probably, basically okay, at least for the duration of a park hang or a sports practice.

My sons’ winter flag football season began while I was working on this column. Habit dictated that I would proceed as a sideline parent the way I always have: Nurturing my feelings of undefined ambivalence while sitting on the ground with my stained tote bag, occasionally getting up and shuffling around as one leg, and then the other would fall asleep.

I considered why I never felt able to participate in the comfort aspect of sideline parenting, and I think it’s because I felt it was a “straight world” thing — something parents with garages and Yeti coolers do. These are the parents who make me feel like a clown, but it occurs to me that they probably feel like clowns too. Somehow, and I can’t exactly shoot a causal arrow explaining this, I found myself at the sporting-goods store. I bought a nice sports bag, the kind that suburban kids carry in and out of their parents’ SUVs, and a properly sporty water bottle: A respectable amount of colorful plastic to signal “mom who has the money and presence of mind to buy new things on a seasonal basis.” You can criticize these purchases from a sustainability perspective, and believe me, I already have, but also: It turns out purpose-built things are nice!

My sons were thrilled when I presented them with these humble offerings. I appreciate that they had never thought to ask for nicer sports things, maybe because they think of me, just as I thought of my own dad, as someone who doesn’t “do things like that.” But I can! And it’s really no big deal. I am relieved to report that it does not represent a crossover into a realm of narc-adulthood or suburban malaise. Maybe next week I’ll go all the way and buy a folding chair. Watch out, straight world, here I come.

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Does Anyone Feel Like an Actual Adult?