The Five Stages of Adulting

People who have studied literature maybe familiar with a genre called the “bildungsroman,” which is German for “novel of formation.” Even if you never took a lit class or studied German, if you’ve read any fiction you know what a bildungsroman is: it is that finding-your-way-in-the-world novel that you can apply to classics like Great Expectations and The Catcher in the Rye. At the end, the hero has worked through their youthful immaturity and is ready to settle down, seek their fortune, get married, or possibly even die.

Some of these novels paint pretty pictures, but I don’t think this is how adulthood works exactly. I feel this way a lot in general (I’m one of those much-maligned “millennials” you have probably read about), but especially this month. Family Thanksgiving looms: the day every year when my parents’ suburban home is crammed with food, drink, and sometimes as many as thirty opinionated relatives. I’ve barely seen any extended family since last holiday season, and I never feel like a Real Person around people who knew me when I was in diapers or braces or my Extended Goth Stage.

Also: one week ago, I had to have an outpatient, non-emergency eye surgery. This wasn’t my first choice of how to spend my time and it unleashed a lot of conflicting emotions: I am newly in my first professional job which means handling the costs will be more feasible than ever; I feel the icy grip of mortality reminding me my body is degenerating; and, I live alone so I needed my mommy to drive me around. I thought I would be back at my place directly after my next-day follow-up and recuperate while attending to neglected chores. Instead, I spent a week sitting in my childhood bedroom in the dark feeling nauseated and dizzy because my vision hadn’t stabilized. A real adult would tough it out, I thought, but also the mattress at my place gives me real, adult back pain.

As much as I love those old classic coming-of-age stories, their linear narratives have left me a little cold. I thought about what narratives bring me comfort when I feel something intensely about adulthood. I realized that even though I don’t progress through them in order, the stories I return to line up pretty well with the categories comprising psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. And without further navelgazing: here are things to get anyone through the Five Stages of Adulting.

Ghost World (comic by Daniel Clowes). This is one I truly grew up with: the first graphic novel I ever read in the seventh grade. Ghost World is the tale of best friends Enid and Becky, who have spent adolescence bonded by their alienation from their peers. After they graduate high school, they find that bond is more fragile than they realized. When I was younger, I fiercely identified with Enid’s anti-establishment attitude. But as I get older, I find myself pulled towards Becky’s softer approach to life.

Frances Ha. This treatment of friends growing apart is slightly sunnier but no less poignant. Frances is an aspiring dancer sauntering through her later-twenties alongside her best friend, Sophie—or so she thinks. As Sophie’s trajectory takes her to career success and a serious relationship, Frances flounders and has to find her own way.

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. This novel tosses you in the middle of the fast-paced world of upscale restaurant service through Marie, a professional waitress. Marie busts her butt all day and parties hard all night to try to stave off thoughts of the young daughter she’s left behind. This novel is bleak, but Tierce’s gorgeous prose makes reading it ache so beautifully.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris. Hot off the presses, Harris’s analysis lays out the economic conditions that shaped the debt-and-stress-laden world of the typical Millennial. Or if you really want to set off That One Relative who complains about The Entitled Youths, Bruce Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths is a more button-pushing examination of the social conditions that let our Boomer forebears shape our society. Or maybe you can all join forces for an intergenerational book club filled with rational discussion...

We are the Best! I’m fudging the age thing a bit with this pick: the three main characters in this Swedish film are all around thirteen and live in Stockholm before most Millennials were twinkles in their parents’ eyes. Still, though, it’s endlessly rewarding to watch three self-possessed teens take charge of their lives, start a punk band, and sing about hating sports. This film is based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I am a longtime fan of Lindy West, unabashed feminist. What I didn’t know was that before she wrote this book, West was an….abashed feminist? Bashful feminist? The point is, Lindy’s story of evolution from shy child to loud woman made me sit up and take note. Her words have inspired me to examine obstacles to my happiness and wellbeing and try to dismantle them when I can.

Insecure. Issa gave up on youthful dreams of entering the music world and is now twenty-eight and underpaid at a nonprofit that errs on the side of soul-sucking. Molly is a hotshot young lawyer trying to get the respect she deserves in the office and in the dating world. Few TV shows so artfully capture compromising your vision for personal success with your reality. For another standout TV show that traverses adulthood’s rocky terrain, try Master of None.

I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone by Chastity Belt. Generation X doesn’t have the monopoly on the Seattle scene anymore. The teenage angst embedded in the guitar of your grunge faves is not de rigueur once you get to your twenties. Chastity Belt, on the other hand, has a deceptively soft sound that camouflages soul-searching lyrics.

The Royal Tenenbaums. Going home to my parents’ house reminded me of another case of adults returning to the nest. Once hailed as a “family of geniuses,” the Tenenbaum children have become a group of dysfunctional adults that return to rally around their charlatan patriarch. Before Wes Anderson’s quirk had a budget as big as his dreams, he made this poignant piece about making peace with yourself.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Though written over fifty years ago, Esther Greenwood’s search for identity and struggle with social norms and her own mental health still feel deeply relevant.

Tiny Furniture. Before she was a TV star, magazine fodder, or Twitter fixture, Lena Dunham made a feature film about post-college drifting. More subtle and self-deprecating than her previous work, there are times where I squeamishly sympathize with her self-sabotaging protagonist.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. This book occupies a special place in my heart because like main character Madeleine I wanted desperately to understand the secrets of Semiotics when I was in undergrad. But even for the non-English Majors, this is a book for book-lovers.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Sometimes growing up means letting go of your dreams, but sometimes it means finding a new dream you didn’t know you had. Working at a crematory not only put Doughty on the path to becoming a professional mortician, but she developed a web series, has written two books, and is working to re-frame the way American society perceives death.

No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney. After remaining quiet for a decade, one of my favorite bands released their blistering take on post-Recession America. These are the songs that power me through times when I need a reminder that the world is tough right now, but I am tougher.

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams-Brown. If there are skills you don’t have but you’re ashamed to ask, this guide to professional, personal, and practical realms will help you take charge and stop suffering in silence. Erin Bried also has a series of practical skills books like How to Sew a Button that can supplement the ways previous experience has fallen short.

So there you have it: things for proto-adults of all seasons. Share your own favorites in the comments!

Written by Lauren on November 20, 2017


BethD on November 28, 2017


Fun blog post and I am loving the recommendations! I feel your pain and I am 42; adulting is tough at any age.


Thank you, Beth! I guess we're ALL in it for the long haul...