Everyone changes social identities. Over the course of our lives, we pass through roles such as infant, child, student, adult, professional, retiree, bachelor, spouse, parent, and widow. At each transition, we experience what anthropologists call a rite of passage. Each rite of passage has three stages: separation, the liminal state, and incorporation.
We separate from our old identity and incorporate our new identity into our psyche and society. In between those two, we experience the liminal state. Liminal (Latin for “threshold”) describes the transition when something or someone is poised between two contradictory descriptors, neither fully one nor fully the other.
This liminal state is most familiar to those in a serious romantic relationship. Perhaps you have talked about getting married but aren’t yet engaged. Instead, you are hanging in limbo, waiting for something to push you back toward singlehood or onward toward engagement.
In most societies, it is a ritual or event which helps you along through the threshold into your new identity. The gift of the diploma shifts a student to a graduate. An engagement ring changes a girlfriend to a fiancée. A lab coat makes a medical student a health-care professional. A gavel takes a board member and renders her a board chair. A birth changes a fetus to a baby. A baby changes a woman to a mother.
You can think of the rite of passage like moving floors in an apartment building. First, you say goodbye to your roommates and enter into the hallway (separation). Then, you are in the threshold of change, walking up the stairs to transition to your new identity (liminal state). Knocking on the new front door, your new roommates welcome you and help you move in (incorporation).
Unfortunately, sometimes we may begin a rite of passage, entering the hallway, but never arrive at our new identity. If this is the case, you can get stuck in the limbo of a liminal state. Many of my generation are stuck in such a state thanks to infertility, job insecurity, and more.
Miscarriage and child loss are particularly hard for women as, even despite the feminist’s best efforts, childbirth is still a substantial cultural rite of passage on the road to being “a real woman.” But what is an expectant mother who never gave birth to a child?
My mother likes to tell the story that I cried on my fifth birthday. My father had told me that four was the best age. At three, you are still picking up the vocabulary. At five, you have to start compulsory schooling. But at four, he told me, you are capable without having to be responsible. It is the prime of your childhood.
I didn’t really cry on my fifth birthday, but, as my mother would say, it makes a better story that way. In one retelling, my father added the detail, “In reality, only Mom cried when Megan turned five.” My mom protested, but I would understand if she had had those tears.
Right now, my own daughter is poised at the sweet age of four and a half, and I can see the early stages of adulthood forming around her. It is a bittersweet graduation. She is in her own liminal state as a part of her own rite of passage.
Unfortunately for her and my peers, adulthood has become a goal post that can be always out of reach.
With the average age of marriage, parenthood, home ownership, and more getting older, psychology has coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe modern day twenty somethings. To my ears, “emerging adulthood” sounds like yet another limbo of a liminal state. The fact that a term like this feels necessary to psychology shows how flawed our system of creating adults is.
I remember when a Jewish friend of mine was having her bat mitzvah. She explained to me that because of her age and her completion of the required studies, she was becoming an adult. In her culture, this ceremony signified the transition of responsibility for her actions from her parents to herself.
While at the time I remember thinking, “Yeah, but she’s not really an adult is she?,” there is something particularly beautiful about this celebration and definition of adulthood. Why is she an adult? Because of her age and the completion of certain required studies. What does being an adult mean? It means she is personally responsible for her own actions and life. Who is responsible for feeding her? She is.
Compare that to the narrative of “emerging adulthood.” Who has responsibility for feeding a twenty-something “emerging adult” living at his parent’s house? Unfortunately, most of us assume his mother does.
While there is something special that happens when you live on your own, you do not need to wait until any social or societal milestone to become an adult.
You are an adult now. Full stop.
Home ownership, marriage, a college degree, a full-time job, and children are all great, but they are not necessary milestones for true adulthood.
You do not need to wait for a particular age or status. There are humans half your age who have taken on more responsibility than you just as there are those twice your age who have yet to accept any responsibility.
Don’t wait for marriage or a serious relationship. Don’t wait to graduate college, to move out of your parent’s house, to be financially independent, or to get your first job.
Instead, graduate yourself from a childish mindset to that of an adult.
Children are passive, letting life happen to them. Adults are proactive, making the life they want.
Children complain when life doesn’t go their way. Adults accept obstacles and continue to strive to improve their own life.
Children are tossed about and led astray by their emotions. Adults regulate their emotions with the application of reason and rational thought.
Children are guided by self-centered whims. Adults are guided by principles and values.
Children wander through life without priorities. Adults formulate goals and intentionally strive to achieve them.
Children are what they happen to be. Adults make themselves the person they want to be.
Being an adult is taking personal responsibility for your own actions and life. Who is responsible for feeding you? Who should clean up your messes? Who is responsible for ensuring that you have a good life? Make the answer yourself.
You are an adult now.