In Praise of Non-traditional Adulthood

photo by fayebatka


Lately, a lot of my favorite online haunts have been rife with talk of quarter-life crises and the reality of adulthood versus the rose-tinted nostalgia of our childhoods. Heavy stuff, surely! But it got my little brain a’workin on the topic of adulthood and how we all choose to use ours.I think we can all acknowledge that the American formula for a adulthood goes something like this:
1) attend four-year university
2) meet your special someone while attending said university
3) graduate and move in with special someone
4) get your starter job
5) marry special someone
6) advance in your job
7) baby #1
8) buy a house
9) baby #2
10) move the the suburbs, eat out exclusively at Olive Garden, spend your weekends engaging in lawn care and taking kids to soccer practice, slowly die inside.

I kid, I kid.

Kind of.

But what happens to those of us who don’t find the special someone? Or discover that we can’t get a job with that Anthropology degree? Or feel claustrophobic at the thought of being tied down by a career/spouse/child?You know what? I think it’s the pretty rare individual what actually follows this formula … though that doesn’t keep a lot of us from measuring ourselves against it. How silly! In my entire extended group of friends, I know exactly one person who has followed this formula (at least thus far, she’s on step six at this point … there’s no telling where she’ll go from there!) the rest of us have switched universities, ended long term relationships, had babies before we finished school or bought the house before the wedding. We have taken the scenic route, or a road less traveled or even a series of (interesting) dead ends.

None of this is to say that following the formula is bad. Babies are lovely! Weddings are grand! And lord but I would love to live in something bigger than a breadbox! But I think there’s a lot to be said for this non-traditional approach to adulthood and living life on our own terms, really thinking about the life and future we want for ourselves rather than swallowing this college+wedding+baby notion.

We need to stop punishing ourselves for deviating from what society has taught us is The Correct Way to navigate our 20s and 30s. I will not be ashamed of the holes in my resume resulting from world travel. I won’t be embarrassed to admit that I’m not a home-owner. I won’t blush and stammer when my nosy aunt asks me when I’m going to start making babies.

How closely have you followed the formula?



1. went to college, had a lot of out-of-class experiences, earned a degree of sorts
2. starter job, from which i took five weeks of unpaid vacation every year for five years.
3. dated the entirety of minneapolis metro area.
4. met intergenerational love, sold everything, moved to west coast
5. bought him a vasectomy
6. married his ass
7. still live in a breadbox
8. back to college
9. will eventually move to guatemala, possibly around the time my husband retires.

So, no. Also, not at all guilty anymore but I do recall a lingering sense of “what’s wrong with me??”.

Sarah Von Bargen

Mine went something along the lines of:
1) graduate from college with long term boyfriend that I met in college
2) get starter job
3) hate starter job, quit
4) move to tiny town, take shitty job, have quarter life crisis, break up with long term boyfriend
5) move to Taiwan and travel like a willbury for two years
6) meet new boyfriend on the internets
7) move to New Zealand to get another, slightly more useful degree

Oh, but there have been some interesting and fun wrong turns in there!


well, if it's gonna be this kind of party:

1) start dating the first of two love-at-first sights at the beginning of my junior year of HIGH SCHOOL.

2) move out of parents house, attend veritable boarding school for two years. date long-distance.

3) shove off very nice scholarship to dream school, move to a gay neighborhood to live in tiny box, get a job at a restaurant where you wear a costume to work and go to community college.

4) quit community college to move to another state with boyfriend, to a state college!

5) quit state college & move far away from boyfriend to attend university in MN that i should have gone to in the first damn place. decide maybe to get married.

6) quit university to move back to another state, work shitty jobs for two years.

7) decide shitty jobs and far away state is a bad future plan. move back to Minnesota, take what is to be a "temporary job" until going back to school…still 'dating,' not married, not planning a wedding.

8) keep 'temporary job' because you keep getting raises and can't justify quitting.

9) buy house.

10) buy first car.

11) get married so you can have a party, plus it's been five years since the thought first occurred to you and now you're locked into a 30 year mortgage anyway.

12) twelve years from the start of it all, go back to school.


Too right, you. Formulas are great if you’re baking bread or calculating statistics, but life? Life don’t follow no formula. I feel like a lot of the pressure to conform to these steps either comes from our parents, or comes from our IDEAS of our parents. I know I fear that mine judge me as a supertalented girl who just can’t figure her sh*t out … but they’ve certainly never said anything of the kind to me.

As for the ennumeration:

1. Move from upstate NY to SF with college BF

2. Hate it there, break up with him, move back to the midwest

3. Bounce around jobs for several years.

4. Meet man of my dreams

5. Buy house

6. Get married

7. More job bouncing

8. Decide not to have kids at all

9. Try my hand at a scientific degree

10. Return to my first love, writing, with no real idea of how to make a living at it.

11. Feel right.

Thanks for a brave, thought-provoking post.

Sarah Von Bargen

I’m so glad you stopped by, Sal! I had my 10 year high school reunion this summer and actually had a former classmate say “You know, I’m really surprised you’re a teacher.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it certainly brings to the surface all sorts of life-choice insecurities!


OH, god. There’s nothing like the 10 year reunion, with all the drunken-comments-from-people-you-remember-as-pimply-fat-adolescents to throw one headlong into self doubt.


I went to college and graduated in four years, met and married my trophy husband there, and had a baby/bought a house almost simultaneously. All while pursuing my chosen career path with a decent amount of success. But somehow the formula doesn’t always add up to perfect bliss, ironically.


I love this idea. Lately I’ve been fighting off those feelings of inferiority due to my non-traditional route. But why?? I’m having so much fun and learning so much along the way! I take chances and sometimes I fail, but at least I failed on my own terms, right?

Anyway, thanks. And thanks for the link, too!

House of Jules

WOW, love this so much! I just turned 35 on 10/8 and was telling one of my good friends that the age doesn’t freak me out, but if I think about the days when I thought I’d be married with kids by the time I was 25… THAT’LL DO IT! I’m not even close… but life is really good.
House of Jules


I came here from “Intrepid Tuesday,” and I love this post! I have no idea how to number my own set of steps involving things like “Almost got a degree, but not quite,” “bought a racecar,” and “planned wedding, got funeral.” I’ve curled around in circles a few times and I’ve seen several dead ends — but all of my dead end explorations have certainly been fascinating!


i’m so glad you commented on my blog, because it meant i got to discover yours and this post especially. sometimes it takes longer than you think it should to figure out what you want in life. sometimes you don’t ever figure it out. and it’s ok, honestly, as long as you get some good adventures out of it. at least, that’s what i’ve found.


though i am MONTHS behind the trend, i love this post and feel compelled to add my own circuitous route through life. reading these makes happy and a great deal less bizarre!

1) attend four-year university; write a wacky thesis with which i become obsessed
2) meet a special someone right before i graduate
3) graduate, move in with special someone
4) get a good internship in chosen field, move to new town to take it
5) special someone goes to foreign country, continue dating long-distance
6) undergo complete nervous breakdown
7) break up with special someone
8) move in with parents for a couple months, go on medication
9) go off medication, move back to college town, get crappy jobs
10) have second try with special someone, break up again
11) move across the country to attend excellent Ph.D. program and continue work begun with wacky thesis.


Wow, I’m way behind on this one… but I just discovered your blog saw the link from today’s post. I can relate in following your own formula and I feel like people are missing out when they follow the set formula.

1) go to a 1 year tech school
2) get starter job, hate every minute of it
3) 4 years later, run away from stability in DC to live near the beach in Florida
4) enroll in art school while working as a waitress with no health insurance or 401k – love it
5) date a gaggle of boys in Tampa, never long term; become really good with break ups
6) move back to DC after graduation because my parents say they miss me terribly
7) 3 months later move to Raleigh for a summer job
8) stay in Raleigh because I met a boy and shacked up with him 6 weeks later
9) advance in my career, then take a salary cut because of the economy
10) currently feel stuck and daydream about running away again – to the peace corps or a foreign land to teach English.


I too am behind the times here, but was too inspired by this post not to share my formula, er, not-formula I guess. My fear of the formula started right after high school, and I haven't gotten over it – thankfully!

1) Go to fancy school out of state.
2) After one semester, freak out that this damn life formula sh*t doesn't work for me, quit school, backpack abroard for four months.
3) Return to full ride scholarship at sensible school in home state. (Free is cool, because it leaves more money for travel.)
4) Scared again by the formula and impassioned for travel, quite school again to backpack abroad for another four months.
5) Return to free sensible school for a third attempt since I am certain I want a college degree.
6) Met my best-friend-accidentally-turned-into-special-someone.
7) Graduate, work and plan to move abroad to live a life of adventure!
8) Picked up a job overseas, a marriage certificate, made a solid decision not to have kids, and sold ALL our possessions!
9) Moved abroad, now traveling and wildly in love with life.
10) Thinking about Masters.


I am soooo behind on this but how did I fit the protocol? Not at all.

1. Meet boyfriend. Boyfriend moves to the US.
2. Start university to study economics (according to parents "a reliable career choice). hate it.
3. Grandmother dies. Get small inheritance, travel the world between semesters.
4. Move to Japan.
5. Come back. Sister is married, trusted career choice, baby #1 on way, house purchased.
6. New major at university. Move into student housing the size of a pantry.
7. Graduate with MA in anthropology and Japanese.
8. Have no idea what to do with said degree.
9. Get a job, get stuck with it because I have no idea what else to do. Get a place to live with room mate from hell
10. Get sick. Quit work. Get new place to live in small co-op.
11. Go back go school, studying horticulture. Feeling pretty good.
11. Re-connect with boyfriend from past. Soon to be living together. God bless the internet.
Not exactly how I had planned it, but so far, can't actually complain. Has taught me an awful lot. Like how someone can turn absolutely psycho over rice crispies.


okay, got here from mighty girl's blog and now i have to add you to my feed reader, which is already drowning me…but you're worth it (speaking as a stranger who has barely skimmed your writing).

my "adulthood" went thusly: moved from BFE Idaho to Kansas City under the guise of going to college, dropped out of said college, met someone 10 yrs older than me at the bagel shop where I worked, moved in together a few months later, decided to move west and landed in missoula MT, got married and he got a vasectomy, worked PT and went to school PT for a liberal studies degree knowing i would never have a "career," went camping down the coast of mexico with husband and our pit bull for 6 weeks, came back broke, moved in with parents, crisis/breakdown on both of our parts (SERIOUS), decided to move to portland OR, started slipping toward the deep end of depression again, found a shrink and got better, decided to "drop out" with my husband, moved back to ID, squatted on my parents' land and built a tiny house (12'x20'), found a job at my hometown newspaper, mom lost her 20-year job at the lumber mill and decided our family should go into the restaurant business so there we are. we just opened Sunday and it's going to be a crazy ride for a bit. I don't feel like an adult most of the time and I'm okay with that.


Oh my gosh. Coming across this post couldn't have happened at a better time. I just turned 21 and have been sliding into a deep depression, and recently decided I need a drastic change in my life. So after transferring to this school in a small city from a fancy school in Chicago, I'm dropping out after 2.5 years and plan to save money and move to Europe (Ireland? Italy? France?) to learn how to farm. I like to pretend that I have plans beyond that, but honestly, I know that life will run it's own course, things will happen, everything is transient! And I have let go of the idea that I need to finish school in 4 years, move back to DC, and get a soul-sucking office job. No matter what my preppy peers from home think, and no matter how many times they talk trash about other people who "need to get their life, like, on track, because they took five years to finish school".

THANK YOU, inspiring women!


We didn't buy our first house until I was 33 and she 35 so considering your age, you are still pretty young , historically speaking to feel bad about not owning a house or what have you.


I followed this formula to its exactness (except I fused #7 and #9 and unexpectedly had twins). All my girlfriends have not and proclaim that the grass, the grass where I tread, is greener. Funny, I think their grass is most definitely greener. Now, in my late 20's, I'm reclaiming my youth, saying "yes" to all things new and frightening, and going for what I always wanted instead of sticking to that damn plan I thought would be best. And, you're right…formulas=slow death. Life is meant for living.

Amber at painfullyhip

When attempting to catch up on my blog reading, I have to remember not to start with Yes and Yes, because I'll inevitably get gratefully stuck here reading back on year old posts. Everything you write sounds so refreshing and familiar at the same time.

Here is my non-formulaic lifeline I kinda did things backward:

1) Drop out loser high school boyfriend and badass out-of-high school design firm job to marry a boy in Vancouver, Canada. Forget about world travel dreams for 7 years.

2) Stay unemployed for the next 4 years while I attempt to pay vast immigration/work visa fees without a job. Work awful under-the-table-please-shit-on-me job for 3 more years.

3) Get a legit job, then promptly leave husband and Canada and move back to California. Become self-employed by inventing my dream job on the interwebs (not sure why I didn't attempt that in the first place).

4) Move to Chicago and then back to California for a dead-end relationship with a multi-million dollar heir 7 years my junior.

5) Leave dead-end relationship in CA and move to Tucson, Arizona of all places and become truly single my first time since High School.

6) Remember world travel dreams. Embarking in October.

Can we team up somehow since we're both traveling at the same time?? Please tell me there's a way…?

Roo Paprika

Goodness I love this post, I turned 32 (on 29th August!) and in the last 12 months I left my loveless marriage. moved in with my best friend (and now special someone) and am about to go back to Uni. I do wonder about 'doing it wrong' but life is too short to live it in a way which isn't true to yourself


I have that formula life.

I went to a good private school, met my best friend and fell in love, and we now live together.

I hate my entry-level job but I have it only because we're in a holding pattern until he's done with law school, at which point we'll both be able to relocate to our chosen city and do what we want career-wise. I took the first job that came my way and have been toughing it out for the past two years. Only one to go!

I'm sure that we will continue on this path. We plan on getting married after he's done with law school after we're more "established" in our lives and careers. We plan on buying a home with some land in the country that will eventually become suburbs as time goes on. We plan on having two kids (house buying first though) and a number of dogs and a wonderful big garden. I plan on staying at home with my children when they are young and his being a lawyer will make that a financial reality. It sounds amazing, right?

But I feel self-conscious for having this "formula" life. I feel bad about myself when people look at me and see "MRS DEGREE" stamped on my forehead and see me as a trophy wife of sorts. I feel judgement from my peers from college a lot, who have glorified they non-traditional life pattern, even if they are jealous of me.

If you had asked me in college if my life would be like this, I would have laughed. I wanted to be a single gal living in Boston or NYC working my way up in publishing. But things change, you know?

So while many of you think that the non-traditional life pattern hasn't been "readily accepted," following the pattern doesn't mean that we don't feel insecure about our life choices just as much.


fall madly in love with a drug dealer age 15
move in with said drug dealer
be expelled from school
have baby
leave drug dealer
go to college
get to university
have big dreams about travel


Love this! My life has taken a few twists:
1. Go to a fancy private college where I fall in love with my field and with my best friend (who happens to be female–whoops!).
2. After graduation, freak out about the stability implied by my love for my career and my gf. Put career on hold and move abroad for a year to work at a hotel and travel. Continue to date my gf long distance.
3. Move back to the U.S., move in with her, and get a good office job (not in my field!) that I excel at but that bores me to tears. Try to accept that this is how life is supposed to be and that I should be content.
4. Decide that I can't handle even my alternative formulaic life and start making major changes. Over the course of one year I: apply to grad school in my original field, get accepted, quit my job, move to Hawaii, start grad school, break up with the girlfriend, and fall madly in love with my field and my new life.

I can't say that I would have predicted that my life would turn out like this, even as recently as two years ago, but I'm also happier than I could have imagined! I try to remind myself of this when I stress about things that aren't perfect yet.


Here's what I've done the past seven years
1. Go to college during high school.
2. Graduate high school with my two year degree.
3. Freak out and decide to stay at community college for two more years to figure out what the hell i want to do with my life
4. Attend four year university, graduate
5. Do internship at a book publisher
6. Internship doesn't lead to any job prospects
7. Write freelance articles for magazines on the side while working at a library
8. Plan on moving to South Korea to teach English because I can't stand working at a library anymore
9. Get sick with Hyperthyroid disease and have a nervous depressive breakdown and can't function emotionally.
10. Start getting better with support of my friends and family and keeping busy with two more than part-time jobs.
11. Saving money to travel to somewhere, anywhere.


1. Drop out of college
2. Drop out of another college
3. Get Job
4. Meet man in travels
5. Have long distance relationship
6. We both move across the country to start a life together
7. Buy House
8. Get married
9. Have baby
10. Have baby
11. Go back to college with an actual goal this time…


Actually, all of my friends have followed "the formula" – most of the time I'm trying to remind myself that I'm not completely defective for not doing so, myself. I was on that track for a while, but then things took a turn:

1. Start: Just out of high school, working in retail, still living at home, start dating a guy who I will be with for the next 6 years, all friends are single.
1. Complete a one-year college program.
2. Complete a four-year university degree.
3. Internship that goes nowhere.
5. My mom passes away, spend the next year living at home (still) and taking care of my dad, and working at the university.
5. End 6-year relationship (which I later regretted, and still regret).
6. Complete a one-year postgraduate certificate program and finish it off with an internship at a film festival (which was pretty cool).
7. Finish: Currently working in retail again even after all that education, still living at home (and taking care of my father), all friends are married, own houses, are having babies.

Merrilee McCoy

I am currently fighting off the shadows of 'not doing it right' with a billion baby/ buying a house photos on my social feeds…

I've done it like this:
1. Finish undergrad degree in theatre
2. Run a small business that fails because I have no experience
3. Fall for an American and move to NZ
4. Get a day job in public sector and do arts stuff on the side
5. Leave stable job for dream contract in the arts
6. Spend all money to move back to Australia after contract ends
7. Start over living in a tiny apartment, no car, working in the arts
8. Dream of a 3bdrm house with backyard chickens and vege garden.

Lynsey @ Eternally Wanderlyn

I really love this post! My friends and I are always talking about how we don't want to follow that pattern. We still have so much we want to do before "settling down" and I actually don't want to have children. So mine has been more along the lines of:

1. Attend 4 year university; Meet long term boyfriend (wounded warrior) on the interwebs
2. Move in with boyfriend, take time off school to shuttle boy to and from doctors/ERs
3. Back to school, study abroad in London, break up with boy, graduate
4. Find new boy while hunting for a job in Austin
5. Move in with boy, find shitty job, take more classes
6. Move to San Antonio so the boyfriend can finish school; start working from home as ESL phone teacher
7. Attempting to start freelance writing; about to move into a rental house with the boy


Did everything backwards! And ended up having wild-party-crazy-sexy times in my early 30's after my divorce, while I was making phenomenal money in career #2. I recommend this approach to everyone. Then at 36, I found the love of my life (who's 9 years younger) — we are debt free, not buying property anytime soon and he got a vasectomy. Life's pretty damned grand. 🙂


1. Start community college 3 days after graduating high school.
2. Spend time there taking classes, trying to fall out of love with my best friend, and deal with sudden and crazy urges to self-harm.
3. Self harm like crazy which culminates in an absolute nervous breakdown, complete with psychiatric hospital stay.
4. Get out of hospital, get into university.
5. Attend university, discover feminism, join pseudo-cult. (No, I'm not making this up.)
6. Realize that, while the core of the group is great, there's too much craycray. Leave said kinda-cult.
7. Finally get around to marrying the guy I've been dating for five years.
8. Go through a REALLY rough patch during the beginning of our marriage, contemplate being everything from a writer to a porn star, finally discover a love of IT.
9. Work towards IT goals. Support husband who owns his own business.
10. Decide to make traveling our priority; work our way up and down the East Coast while we save up for bigger trips.
11. Plan to eventually move to West Coast, continue to travel.


Thank you so, so much for this post. It came at the perfect time for me in life, and appropriately enough was sandwiched between two pictures of uteri in my Facebook feed. Yes, sometimes it feels like almost everyone I know from college has followed the expected adult trajectory and the baby announcements are springing up like college students at seminars with free food. Not that I have a problem with people having babies, finding "careers", etc. but I tear up a bit when I allow myself to feel pressure to fit in with that set.

My life has looked much more like
1. Go to college in a program I love – piano performance
2. Take 6 months senior year to life in the Philippines and do an internship with an anti-trafficking org.
3. Marry long-term boyfriend "way too young" but don't care about age and are still so happy together
4. Start own business as freelance musician, music coach, etc. so that I can set my own calendar and travel with every extra cent
5. Leave it all to move to Congo together
6. Leave Congo to move to London so I can go to grad school and travel during my breaks
7. Minor crises along the way as I wonder where I'm going to get money/maybe I should take the more conventional route
8. Take all manor of music, photography, and writing gigs to fund all this traveling and studying
9. And now, halfway through the MA, seriously considering a PhD, a vasectomy for the dude, and of course more travel plans than I can fit into a lifetime.

Obviously, quite a few people think we're crazy, but does it really matter? There's this amazing community of people out there doing similar things – exploring, adventuring, learning, challenging themselves – and I love that and the immediate feeling of camaraderie I get when I meet those people in my travels. I get to meet amazing people doing amazing things, and when I think about what else I could be doing (working 9-5, 2 weeks vacation each year, under a 30-year mortgage) I realise that I am exactly where I need to be.


Sooooooo late but here goes!

1. Started uni
2. Met first boyfriend, move in together
3. Realise degree isn’t what I want to pursue but finished anyway
4. Break up with boyfriend, move back to the country
5. Work & plan to move overseas
6. Meet boy 2 months before leaving
7. Go overseas but miss boy terribly so come home
8. Move in with boy,  take short trips overseas solo and work full-time
9. Come back from trip and discover boy has been cheating
10. Break up with boy,  go back to uni & go on a date with most of the men in the inner suburbs
11. Graduate and get good job
12. Meet new, amazing boy & fall deeply in love. Decide he’s the one. Plan more overseas adventures but not solo this time 🙂

I’m 27 now and am not even close to where my 15 (or even 21) year old self thought I’d be at this age, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!


One hundred years (sort of) behind, but here goes:

1: get good grades at school, want to work ‘in the media’ and go to uni
2: meet boy on same course as me
3: move in with boy, break up with him 2 years later, but we continue to live together.
4: graduate and take average admin job not ‘in the media’ and meet another boy
5: this boy goes crazy. Try and break up with him. He stalks me. I get an eating disorder and then decide I want to go back with boy 1. So I do. We get a cat.
6: break up with boy 1. Move into wild flat share, meet boy 3. Boy 3 helps me get over eating disorder.
7: move out of wild flat share. Panic about life. Break up with boy 3. Get a job in London (still not ‘in the media’
8: buy a flat and get cat back off the ex
9: meet another boy. Quit London and work as a teacher in an FE college. Stay with him for three years until he turns weird. Break up with him.
10: meet another boy. Fall madly in love. He moves into my flat.
11: we sell flat and buy a house in a much better area
12: I quit teaching and started a job in an ad agency. Finally somewhere creative
13: we struggle with money (he runs his own business), but we are happy, settled and healthy. Oh and the cat’s still going strong too.

I’m 34 and if your asked me at 18/21/25 I’d have probably said I’d be married with kids now. My life hasn’t worked out how I thought it would and there’s been some tough times. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how people can change, for the good and bad. I count myself to be lucky and I’m proud of the path I’ve taken.


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