How a Grown-Up Feels

younger01_444_297“I was at a bit of a crossroads with my career,” says Sutton Foster, a Broadway stalwart and star of Darren Star’s charming TV Land show Younger. The 40-year-old actress plays Liza, a 40-year-old mom who rejoins the workforce by pretending to be 26 — a dissonance she identifies with. “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old. I was having trouble in casting, and then this came across my plate and I thought, Ooh, I can do this! I know how to do this!”

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about Younger and my doubts about its premise. I’ve since watched an episode and a half of the show and, while it’s not perfect (does anyone on the show actually know anything about the publishing industry? Do twenty-somethings actually interact with each other the way these characters do?), it is, as the writer above put it, fairly charming. The premise still irks me, but Dollhouse managed to rise above its kinda-icky premise to become a show that had something to say about female empowerment.

The paragraph above is from an article about the actresses of Younger, up on Vulture today. The article goes on to describe the show and the evolving relationships between the female characters as Sutton Foster’s Liza relives her twenties incognito. It’s a pretty typical visit-to-the-set piece.

As I read it, though, my eyes kept wandering back to that first paragraph—specifically, to this snippet: “I was going in for age-appropriate roles, but was reading young. But then I couldn’t play the younger characters because I was too old.”

I’m not an actress, but those lines encapsulate exactly how my mid-thirties feel. I don’t go on auditions or have to read for roles, so no one is sizing me up based solely upon my appearance and my ability to come across old or young. But I do exist as a person in the world—someone who has to get up every morning and decide what to wear, then go to work and interact with other adult humans.

At thirty-six, I’m pretty solidly an adult. Yet the moments during which I feel adult are relatively few and far between. What do I even mean when I say feeling like an adult? What does an adult even feel like? The fact that, chronologically, I am an actual adult should imply that, however I feel, that is how an adult (or, at least, this adult) feels.

But I look at the other adults with whom I work and I find it hard to fathom that they feel like I do. They all seem put-together, confident, capable of negotiating deals, of running companies. My desk is located just down the hall from the office of the president of this company, so I catch plenty of glimpses of her throughout the day. She’s always dressed in a crisp suit, with perfect makeup and carefully coiffed hair. She’s personable and professional. She’s so grownup.

On the other hand, I pick out my clothes for the day and smear some makeup on my face and dry and flatiron my hair, at least part of my brain assuming that if I try to look the part, maybe I’ll feel more adult. But the effort never results in me looking more adult. (Usually, I just look more awake.) I still look like an overgrown kid playing dress-up.

I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into implying I look young for my age. It’s more about this feeling I get when I look into the mirror before I head to work: I feel like I did when, as a five-year-old, I slipped my feet into my mother’s shoes and donned what I thought of as a “lady dress.” Like I’m playing pretend.

Sometimes I think that if I put a little more money into my wardrobe, bought nicer clothes, got something tailored, I’d manage to look more put-together. Is that the secret to feeling more like an adult?

Other times, I understand it doesn’t matter how I look. No amount of money spent on clothes or at Sephora will change how I feel on the inside. Or how I choose to present myself. I hear myself speak during the Monday morning meeting, and I sound exactly like me. Then I listen to my coworker speak, and though I can’t pinpoint the difference—and though she’s younger than I am—she sounds adult. Should I sound more like her? How would I do that? Does anyone else detect the difference between the two of us? Does she feel like an adult? Do men think about these things? Does it matter?

Do other people see me the way I see myself? I wonder. Or is it all just in my head? I’m not unprofessional, although I would characterize my general demeanor as casual and pretty laid-back. Though I don’t own a suit, I dress in the appropriate, business casual style of my office. I’ve put effort into appearing adultlike, but no matter what I wear or how I present myself, I still feel like a sixteen year old who snuck into the building and started impersonating someone who actually belongs here.

Every once in a while, I try to imagine what the other women at work—the businesswomen—are like when they’re not in their business garb. I can hear the president chatting down the hall sometimes, and she talks about the same kind of silly stuff I talk about: T.V. shows and Stitch Fix, what she had for dinner last night, her recent discovery that she’s allergic to eggs. If we’re similar enough after work hours, why are we so different at work?

And does she feel this same dichotomy between being an adult and feeling like one? If I could crawl inside her head, see her from her own point of view, would I discover that when she looks in the mirror, she still feels like a kid dressed up in her mother’s clothes? Does she understand the dissonance Sutton Foster was talking about—that feeling that you’re too old for certain things, but too young for others?

Or maybe she’s just past all this. She’s older than me, so maybe she finally made it beyond the marker that indicates the transition into actual adulthood. Maybe it wasn’t thirty, like I thought it was in my twenties. Maybe it’s forty, that moment when you finally know and feel that you are an adult person. Or fifty.

Or maybe it’s never. There’s a scene in Richard Linklater’s trippy movie Waking Life during which two women are talking in a restaurant, and this exchange takes place:

Woman 1: It's such a strange paradox. I mean, while, technically, I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world. When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.

Woman 2: I know what you mean, because I can remember thinking, “Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything's going to just somehow gel and settle, just end.” It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop.

I find myself thinking about this scene a lot. Reminding myself that there’s no plateau. No indication that I have reached any sort of end of growth or change (other than death, of course). There’s just a hill I keep climbing.

My mom is 58. She looks younger. I was probably in my early thirties when I asked her once if she felt like an adult. I think she just laughed. My grandma is 96. She looks like a grandma, and at this age, she’s grown frailer and less energetic. But well into her eighties, she was spry. She worked in her garden and sewed and was always ready to go on an adventure. To all outward appearances, she looked like an old lady. But I wonder if she felt that way. Maybe, when I am 58, or 96, I will look at myself and finally see an adult. Maybe there will be some kid in my life who will ask me then, “Do you feel like an adult?”

Then again, maybe there is no difference between feeling like a kid and feeling like an adult. There’s no plateau. There’s no looking into other people’s heads to gauge whether I’m on track for adulthood. There’s growth, but not change. Maybe the way I feel is just who I am. I’ll never feel like an adult. I’ll only ever feel like myself.