Your Possessions Are Not a Hallmark of Adulthood


This post over at Simple Mom about wedding gifts was written for me.

My lovely wedding china that I can’t bear to part with is in a box at a relative’s house. Not getting used.

Sure, the knives and the baking pans traveled with us overseas but the idea of the wedding registry, of collecting a lot of items that would signify the beginning of married life, a lot of things that I thought would mark my entry into adulthood, that idea and aspiration has long since faded.

When I read that Simple Mom post I wished I had known then what I know now:

Owning stuff doesn’t make you an adult.

In my 20’s I watched as my friends got married and bought houses. While I was following my own path, trying to make it to the 2004 Olympics, they were building homes and careers.

I loved what I was doing but I was jealous of what my friends had. The mortgage payments, the home renovations and the retirement plans – it all seemed so adult. I felt like my gypsy existence was a sign of immaturity.

When I explained my lifestyle to non-athletes, the twice yearly cross country moves, the constant search for new apartments and always living with the uncertainty of making or not making a team, I felt like a kid. Who else would sign up for such an unstable and mostly possession-less life?

My dollar store kitchen, the Aerobed I slept on and my mostly spandex wardrobe were signs that I wasn’t an adult.

A mortgage isn’t a sign of maturity.

Eventually I got all the things on the list. The home, the renovations and the employee dental plan. I got married and had the china, the sofa and the Kitchen Aid mixer. I became a parent. I had an interesting job.

I had all the trappings of adulthood and yet, I didn’t feel that adult. I had silly fights with my spouse and went to bed angry. I bought things on credit. I pined for more and better stuff.

Adulthood = Emotional Maturity

As I simplified my possessions I started to feel like an adult. Not necessarily because I had less but because I knew what I needed.

Without the distraction of stuff and the drain of wanting more, I’ve been able to work on really being a grown-up.

Hallmarks of Adulthood:

  1. Delayed gratification: I’ve learned how to save for something, how to wait for something, instead of putting it on a credit card.
  2. Knowing what brings happiness: it’s so easy to confuse the temporary high of a brownie or a new pair of jeans with real happiness. It’s a work in progress (like all of this list) but I’m getting better at finding the root of what gives back to me, more sleep, more time with good friends, more walks in the sunshine, more writing projects that scare me and challenge me.
  3. Less pouting: I’m slowly becoming a better partner to my husband. If we have an argument I’m trying to be more like him: forgiving and ready to apologize and move on.
  4. Giving freely: I don’t keep a scorecard anymore. You know those mental lists of who has done what for each other. Sometimes my husband gets more time on his own than I do on the weekend. Sometimes I get more of that child free time. Still working on this one as I am fiercely aware of who gets to sleep in more. 

You can’t buy any of the above in a store or apply for it from a bank.

You have to work on it, you have to accept that you’ll be less than perfect or even fail sometimes. You have to accept that there is uncertainty in being an adult. That you can’t control others actions or reactions. That it’s a hopefully long and slow road of learning with no real end in sight.

It certainly isn’t as simple as having a checklist of furnishings you want to buy for your den or leasing a new car.

Being an adult isn’t as easy as buying something but it’s infinitely more rewarding.

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    • Hi Rhonda – thanks for commenting here and leading me to your blog. We have a lot in common. Except my son has given up napping so I have to write just after he goes to bed. :) – Rachel

      • Hi Rachel! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I just love it! I think your story is inspiring. I’m also from the Pacific NW (though the other side of the border) – another reason for MinimalistMom affection. :) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  • I love this post and need to keep it handy. This is not the way I was raised. I was raised to believe that adulthood and success were based on the size of house you can afford and the kind of car you drive (which I know is not true now as a 36 year old!). While I am a very responsible person – and have always been – I am lacking in emotional intelligence/maturity (including tracking the giving as you mentioned and many other silly things!). It’s something I’m working on constantly because I don’t want to repeat these mistakes with my children.

  • These days, I have become so much more patient. Three small children probably had something to do with it. I’ve also become less inclined to yell in anger. Thank goodness for that–my life used to be much more impulsive (fun) but also much more stressful (not fun)!

  • Thanks for this post. I will also bookmark it and keep it handy. I also am living overseas and my ‘good china’ is in buckets at my parents house. Thank you for your thoughtful insight on what being an adult really is. I will try and remember it when other non-important things seem to be bothering me or my check book.

  • Love this post, and agree heartily!! The whole “giving without reciprocation” is something my toddler has taught me, and I recently wrote about keeping score in relationships. Trying to be the best parent I can be has also helped me be a better partner.

  • Loved this post! When we got married 15 years ago we never had a “registry”. I thought that they were dated, greedy & embarrassing. We only had 12 people physically in the church when we got married, then 4 of our close friends came to our “reception” which was a dinner cruise. My mom made my dress, cake was $60, church $200, Dinner $500, handmade the invites. We told people that we didnt need any gifts, but to try and make it to the wedding instead. I know exactly what I got when we got married. $400 cash, cuisinart icecream maker, kitchen aid mixer & a picnic basket.

    Both my brothers had lavish weddings though! hmmmm…..

  • This is a so true in every sense. And I can resonate with you on the hallmarks of adulthood that you have listed. I am quite proud about the fact that I have never used a credit card and nor do I intend to. My husband has used it sparingly when he was a broke student trying to make ends meet, but has stopped now. We are trying everyday to simplify our lives and not fall into the trappings of “adulthood”.

    Thanks for posting this and voicing what we so strongly feel!

  • You are right again, Rachel. Posessions are not the hallmark of adulthood. I also wish I hadn’t got a mortgage, the wedding china, the wedding dress. However, at least, we learn form all these experiences.

    Maybe the hallmark of adulthood is when one finds the life they are meant to live, a life they are contented with. If that includes lots of wedding china or only 100 things, so be it.

  • In my day people had wedding registry’s for the necessaries of starting a new home — because people didn’t live long single lives and acquire their own household items. It IS tough to buy a wedding gift these days since so few people actually need things. As for the china, I have it and my grandmother’s silver. My taste has changed from the silver pattern I chose lo those many years ago, but I do remember what my grandmother said — if my family isn’t good enough for my “best china,” who the heck is? She used her silver every day of her life. I’ve been reading (I forget where) that there are natural rhythms in life – an acquiring phase in the 20s and 30s and a purging phase in the 50s and 60s — that even those who bought into the acquiring phase will naturally relieve themselves of possessions. I find that interesting. Also, Apple’s last two sentences seem very wise to me — finding the life we are meant to live.

  • Rachel, I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months now and find your writing very inspiring. Thank you for this article – very timely for me as I’m going to visit my best friends’ newly-purchased homes next week and celebrate one of them getting engaged.

    I’m in my early thirties and am not married, have no kids, and don’t own a home or even a car. Maybe I’ll have these things in the future – who knows? What I do have now is a great career working for myself, a wonderful relationship and a loving family. The way some people react, though, you’d think I was some kind of deviant. Wait til they find out I’m now a minimalist too and have already got rid of 70% of my stuff 😀

  • Amen! We just celebrated our one year anniversary yesterday and boy have I come a LONG way. When we got married I thought that marriage = big wedding = impressive stuff = happy life. So twisted!

    We do have the mortgage, the dog, the baby on the way, and fancy stuff from the wedding registry. But what we don’t have are all of the unused registry items I returned (gasp), and the desire for more. No anniversary gifts, no wants, no needs…just time together! It’s so nice realizing nice gifts and stuff don’t equal maturity or grown up love. I gave him his favorite candy bar, he gave me pretty flowers, we talked a lot about our marriage and love for each other. It was awesome and all I could ask for!

    By the way – it’s hilarious to see the look on people’s faces when I tell them we don’t give each other gifts. Almost everyone gives me a look of horror! So funny!

  • I probably should read the Simple Mom blog post before commenting – but I’m not going too…. as my comments tend to be long enough! I’ll pop back later 😉
    My thoughts when reading this post were that your athletic career and your lifestyle at that time, may be how you were genetically designed to live? Maybe? – what do I know!
    I do know, that I am never happier than when I am a) skiing (aka in the mountains) b) in a tiny home (caravan) in France living the outdoor life. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to live in suburbia. But in suburbia, I do live, and that’s okay for now. It’s a strange path we take into adulthood. Mine consisted of academia and career progression until I had Kids, now it’s about investing emotionally/mentally/physically toward their future. Which in lots of ways I hope differs from the path I took, but ultimately is their choice, I can but show them the options. I thought a company car, pension and budget responsibility made me an adult, I was wrong – knowing who I truly am and accepting that makes me an adult.

  • Hi Rachel, I still struggle with keeping score and my kids are 5 and 9! I did have an “aha!” moment though listening to a K’naan song (oddly enough). I was driving in the car when I suddenly understood what he meant when he said: “it’s not every day you get to give…” Now, when I feel that the balance of parenting has shifted so far in my direction that the ships about to sink, I remind myself that it’s actually a gift to be the one with the energy, endurance, health and wherewithal to be able to give to our kids. And, if that doesn’t work, I have another glass of wine.

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