Growing Up Too Slowly?

If the younger generation seems to be maturing later, there are good reasons.

Writing for The Atlantic, Harvard professors Nancy E. Hill and Alexis Redding argue that “The Real Reason Young Adults Seem Slow to ‘Grow Up’” is changing economic conditions. While noting that adults have been bemoaning “these kids today” since the time of Socrates, they note a growing consensus that things really have changed.

Many have pointed to Millennials and Gen Zers as being uniquely resistant to “growing up.” Some theorists have even suggested that a new developmental stage is needed to account for the fact that youth today are taking longer to reach adulthood and are more reliant on their parents than generations past.

Yet nothing about delaying adulthood and extending adolescence is uniquely modern. Taking more time to come of age is not due to lack of stamina or motivation on the part of today’s youth, as the common narrative proclaims. Delayed adulthood is an expected response to the economic conditions shaping the period when young adults enter the workforce.

Five indicators are commonly understood as the markers of adulthood: finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children. Although many young adults reach the legal age of adulthood before they achieve these five markers, and others do not choose to reach them all, many still consider some combination of these benchmarks to define what it means to be an adult. Compared with the mid-20th century, young adults in the United States appear to be taking longer to reach these markers today.

So, far, so good. We’ve steadily been prolonging the first of these, initially insisting that people complete twelve years of primary and secondary education as a minimum standard for gainful employment and, for a couple of generations now, slowly expanding the pressure to complete at least four years of college. Most will delay the other steps accordingly.

Fewer young-adult men ages 16 to 24 are settled into permanent jobs, and fewer men and women are married with children today than in the 1950s. Further, the median age at first marriage for men rose from 23 in 1950 to 30 by 2018. For women, the median age at first marriage rose from 20 to 28 over the same period. These mid-20th-century patterns are often used as the measuring stick against which young adults today are judged. Based on these data, young people today do seem unique in delaying adulthood.

Indeed, while I’m no spring chicken at 55, the notion of including 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds in the discussion of who should be “settled into permanent jobs” strikes me as absurd. We’re not an agrarian society anymore and haven’t been in a long, long time.

Beyond that, the authors remind us, the expectation that children move out in their late teens was really a reflection of a very recent period:

Looking at a broader arc of history, across more than a century, a different pattern emerges. In the late 19th century, youth achieved the markers of adulthood at ages similar to youth today. Despite the fact that life expectancy was less than 50 years, in 1890 the median age at first marriage was 26 for men, though women still married relatively young, at a median age of 22. The number of young adults living with their parents over the years forms a U-shaped curve: In 1900, 41 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 lived with their parents, rising to 48 percent in the aftermath of the Great Depression. That number dipped to 29 percent in 1960 and then rose steadily again, reaching 47 percent in early 2020, just prior to the pandemic shutdowns. The evolution of the average age of childbearing shows similar parallels, taking a dip in the mid-20th century. Considering this longer time frame, it becomes clear that young adults in the 1950s were the outliers. Today’s youth reach the markers of adulthood on remarkably similar timelines to the youth of a century ago.

Hill and Redding engage in a longish discussion about some long-forgotten research others at Harvard “conducted from the 1950s to the 1970s” that demonstrated a lot of anxiety about pressures to grow up, figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, and the like. So, they conclude, kids always want to delay the transition to adulthood. The key factor is the means to achieve independence.

The time it takes to transition to adulthood has more to do with being able to transition to the workforce than the perceived apathy of youth. Young people reach adult milestones later when jobs that lead to financial independence are scarce or require additional training. The well-paying manufacturing jobs that were abundant in the 1950s did not exist in the 1890s. In the early 1900s, the U.S. transitioned from a largely agrarian economy to an industrialized one, and many young adults moved from rural to urban areas in search of modern industrial jobs.

As already noted, society dealt with these earlier transitions by more investment in public education, all of which slowed the transition to adulthood. Not shockingly, Hill and Redding thinks we’ll need to do that again to cope with modern economic realities.

Trends in delaying adulthood play out across the decades and lead people to stereotype entire generations. However, within generations, there is also variation in who has the privilege to delay adulthood and who does not. All young adults are affected to some degree by the state of the economy they inherit. However, those who attend college get the luxury of more time to “figure things out” and to gain the knowledge and social capital that help them invent themselves in ways that align with the economy. Many of those who do not attend college take on the responsibilities of adulthood at an earlier age, regardless of their generation. Data show that they have a median age of first marriage that is two to three years younger than their peers who earn a college degree. Even those who graduated from college in the 1950s, the heyday of “early adulthood,” delayed marriage until a median age of 24 for women and 26 for men.

I am nonetheless skeptical of their conclusion:

Young adults are not less mature today than in the past. Neither are they necessarily more self-centered. A new developmental stage is not necessary to account for the extended time that many youth need to make the transition to adulthood. We are not the first researchers to challenge the idea of “emerging adulthood” as a distinct life stage, but we have new historical data that help us understand when and why youth feel they need more time to become adults. Our findings tell us something important: When young adults take longer to achieve the markers of adulthood, it is not that something has changed about them; it is that the world has changed.

I graduated high school close to 40 years ago now. Even though my parents were working class and didn’t have college educations, the expectation that I and others in my generation go to college was pretty strong. Even my rural Alabama high school had a college prep track (although I was a year away from it starting an AP program). The cost of college has gone way up since then, almost certainly creating anxieties. But I’m not sure that can explain what seems obviously a delay in social maturity.

The early-20s and late-teen kids that I know are both more socially conscious and less independent than my cohort was at that age. I don’t think that’s a function of the economy so much as changing parenting styles and the conditions in which they’re raised.

Obviously, the radically changed technological environment is different now. Hell, we only got cable television when I was in high school. The Internet as we know it didn’t come into existence until I was finishing graduate school and broadband later, still.

Combined with a media-driven social climate where parents are afraid to let their young kids out of their sight—and, indeed, are often legally constrained from doing so—kids simply don’t have the freedom younger generations had growing up. In turn, that means they don’t get to make mistakes and figure out how to navigate life until much later. And that’s on us, not on them.

FILED UNDER: Education, Media, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    I’ve been doing a bit of genealogy these last few months. Some of that is looking at census records from the 1800s and early 1900s. There were quite a few of my family’s households with 20+ year olds still living at home whether it was on the farm or in the city.

    My own parents married later in their 20s primarily due to delays cause by WWII. But even then college would have delayed marriage and career.

    One factor I am curious about is the fact that physically people are maturing earlier while sociologically they are maturing later. I wonder if the tension there has been studied.

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  2. Jax says:

    @Scott: I’ve been noticing the same thing in my geneology searches. I’m surprised at how long the men lived. I guess I always thought living to age 60 in those times was a pretty big deal, but I’m seeing a lot of them who lived into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, particularly if they stayed close to where they were born and married “Susie from down the road”. Those who moved tended to die younger, depending on how far and often they moved.

    The women, of course, did not generally survive to those ripe old ages. The more children on the list, the more likely it was they died younger. Same with the children. If they made it to adulthood, they did all right, but some families easily lost 3 or 4 children out of 10 or more, total, and the children that died, died before age 10.

    Also, I have two grandfather’s named Hercules, which is freakin hilarious!! 😉

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  3. There are different sorts of maturity. There is evidence that obesity has been increasing among children and adolescents in the U. S. over the last 50 or so years and there is also evidence that excess fat may advance the onset of puberty in girls and delay it in boys.

    There are multiple possible explanations for that but it seems clear it’s happening. Just look at old photos.

    Social and economic conditions have changed, too. 60 years ago it was possible for a young person to get a part time job or a summer job that paid fairly decently while in high school or college. That’s much rarer nowadays.

    Additionally, the amount of education and credentialing required to get a job continues to increase. My grandparents didn’t even have high school educations; my grandfathers started working at age 12. My parents were the first people in each of their families to graduate from high school. That has all sorts of implications including when you marry, have children, or buy a house.

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  4. JKB says:

    The transition to modernity, which has historically happened in pockets for short times, but in the 1920s started spreading and sticking across the world, is a transition to a demography controlled not by mortality (infant mortality, disease, injury) to one governed by fertility control (abortion, birth control, late marriage). It is also demonstrated in families having fewer children but investing more in them via education. We see this in the late marriage and move toward more credentials.

    Children have also moved from an family economy asset by becoming a contributor to the family farm, etc. at an early age, to a total cost, and in some respects, a luxury good with status coming from higher investment. More education gives parents bragging rights but that comes at delayed entry into the working world.

    Alan Macfarlane’s ‘The Invention of the Modern World’ gives good perspective on this shift. It happened earlier in England, but since WWII has been spreading around the world. Sadly, so many forces seem to be trying to overturn modernity, which is centered on the individual, and rebuild the tribal/group dynamics of the acien regime, to the point of feudalism.

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  5. Blue Galangal says:

    @Jax: I have a something cousin x-removed from the early part of the 20th C. (in other words, pre-Disney) named “Sindarilla,” spelling and all.

    I’ve read that our conception of lifespan is flawed in that we assume now that earlier generations died younger. In reality apparently if you survived infancy and childhood, you lived just as long as present day people; it’s the high infant/child mortality rate that skews the numbers.

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  6. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Jax: @Blue Galangal:

    In Charles Mann’s book 1491 (possibly my favorite nonfiction book), Mann explains the difference between the terms “live expectancy” and “life span.”

    “Life Expectancy” is the average life span (ugh) of a given population including infant and childhood mortality, and deaths by war.
    “Life Span” is the average life one could expect (double ugh) to have provided one lived past said infant/childhood mortality.

    Throughout all of human history, those who weren’t killed in an early age or in battle could expect to live 60, 70, or 80 years.

    There’s increasing evidence that Neolithic era and earlier humans had, on average, a longer life span than those who lived in the age of agriculture, until about 1900.

    It took from 10,000 BC until 1900 AD (or thereabouts) to get back to the life span humans enjoyed prior to 10,000 BC.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Life has changed, as it does from time to time. This is not the 80’s when I could get by waiting tables. Health insurance and housing costs are what’s changed. In the two years since we bought our current house in LA, the Zillow guesstimate suggests the value of the house has gone up by almost twice what we’ve paid in mortgage and taxes. That is not how the world worked when I was the age my two grown kids are now. There is a vast gap between what it costs to live and what entry level or blue collar jobs pay.

    So, IMO, all we’re seeing is people responding rationally to economic circumstances. I moved out on my own at 16 and after that never got a dime from my parents. But that was the 70’s and the 80’s. That’s just far harder now. Extending dependency when your parents are Boomers with all the advantages that generation had, makes perfect sense to Millennials and Gen Z. We had a much easier ride to independence than they’re having.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    Five indicators are commonly understood as the markers of adulthood: finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children. Although many young adults reach the legal age of adulthood before they achieve these five markers,

    I’m willing to say that anyone who has reached all five markers by the time they are 18 has made a few life mistakes.

    I’m thinking a 17 year old high school drop out, working at McDonalds, who knocked up his girlfriend. Possibly living in his car.

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  9. Monala says:

    Anecdote, not data, of course: my 16-year-old daughter is much more mature than I was at her age. She is much more politically aware, much more focused on her future, and much more cognizant of the challenges she will face in the world. I attribute this in part to social media, which provides access to so much information, and partly to the era in which she is growing up. In a generation that has lived through the 9/11 aftermath, the Great Recession, proto-fascism, MeToo and BLM, and now the pandemic, young people are keenly aware of how all of this affects them.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Yeah, I don’t get this five point program, either.

    First of all, no one’s education should ever be considered complete. Education is ongoing unless you want your education to be obsolete in five years. But setting that aside, I hit 3 of the 5 by age 16. I hit #3 at age 24 and didn’t according to these markers, become an adult til I was in my early 40’s.

    There’s ‘legal adult,’ which can be defined by law, and there’s a more general ‘adult’ which is a pretty useless term. Who’s more adult, Greta Thunberg or Matt Gaetz?

  11. Mu Yixiao says:

    I don’t think the 5 milestones are and accurate way to judge “grown up”. According to them, I’m not grown up–and I’m in my mid 50s (I’ve never been married, and I have no kids (that I know of).)

    What I’ve noticed about kids growing up more slowly is the fact that they’re less capable of critical thinking. I put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of helicopter parenting and the insane fears that “any boo-boo is life threatening”.

    So many kids have never had the chance to test their limits–which means they’ve never had a chance to grow up. They have concept of risk-assessment. They can’t think ahead (because Mommy has always been there to do it for them). They don’t know how to handle failure (because they’ve always gotten a gold star for participation).

    And they’ve never learned that a stainless steel slide on sunny July day will burn your ass!

  12. Andy says:

    The economics are definitely different, but social norms are also different now and kids don’t have as much opportunity to develop independence. Plus, there is a lot of pressure to avoid hurting kid’s self-esteem, which I think has gone too far. Parents today, including me, also seem to micromanage kids’ lives a lot more than was the case for my generation – I was Gen-X latchkey kid. And in some cases, we have to given the increase in nanny-state laws where letting your kids go do something on their own can very well land the police and social services on your doorstep. I’ve talked about this will my contemporaries with kids and our greatest fear about letting kids run off and play on their own is not getting snatched up by a child rapist, but having some Karen down the block call the cops because the kids were “unsupervised.”

    My generation was less socially protected as well. We didn’t have this notion that “self-esteem” should be a prime consideration for child wellbeing, which spawned all kinds of well-intentioned but counterproductive efforts to protect kids from the inevitability of failure.

    And then there is this weird trend to turn every milestone into some kind of epic event. Gender reveal parties for new parents are perhaps the quintessential example, but the same kind of idiocy is growing everywhere.

    For example, my youngest kid is going to middle school (6th grade here) next year. There is a bunch of mock “graduation” crap this spring including a requirement that parents record a video to be played at the ceremony about how proud we are of them “graduating” from elementary school. I find the whole thing exceedingly stupid, but then I don’t want to be the one asshole parent who doesn’t do this for their kid.

    I think this kind of over-praising when a kid meets basic expectations, as if they’ve really accomplished something extraordinary, combined with shielding kids from any effects of their own mistakes or failure to meet expectations, is not good for their independence and development.

    The result, IMO, is that young people today seem less able to cope with actual challenges and life’s roadblocks on their own. It very well may be that I’m repeating the “kids these days” cycle, but I do think that kids today are objectively less resilient – not only economically (which is a product of our economic conditions and other factors), but also socially and psychologically. Things that were trivial to most in my generation are suddenly moral crises for younger generations who then expect various authorities to intervene on their behalf. Haidt’s “Coddling of the American Mind” seems to be a pretty accurate take IMO.

    So I dunno. I’ve been trying to thread the needle and not coddle my kids while also trying to meet the minimum social expectations. I guess time will tell.

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  13. Scott says:

    @Andy:

    I think this kind of over-praising when a kid meets basic expectations, as if they’ve really accomplished something extraordinary, combined with shielding kids from any effects of their own mistakes or failure to meet expectations

    On the other hand, our expectations, as parents, are far exceeding than those laid upon us when we were kids. Whether it is academically (why can’t my kid be in the honors or AP program?) or sports ( What? she’s not first team, I better hire a private coach!) or band (Private lessons!). It goes on. And, Lord knows, don’t allow that kid to fail a class, he’ll never get into that college you are aiming for because you can’t make GPA up once lost.

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  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    Anecdote on the lack of critical thinking:

    When I was working at the grocery store, the floor manager brought one of the kids back to the meat dept and asked if I had anything for him to do. Yep. Fill the brat display.

    I showed the kid where the brat display was, and how how high I wanted them stacked. I took him to the freezer in back and showed him where the brats are stored. And I brought him a cart to haul the brats on.

    A little bit later, I looked out to see how he was doing. He was pulling the cart with one case of brats on it. He put those in the display, went back to the freezer and got another one case of brats. He did this for a dozen cases.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    It wasn’t Gen Z or Gen Y invading the Capitol. It’s not them choking Black men to death. It’s not them screaming at store clerks because of mask requirements. It’s not the yutes who are incapable of grasping the need for social safety net and the need to pay for it.

    On the whole Millennials and Gens Z and Y are kinder, more idealistic but also more realistic people than we Boomers. We had it easy, despite all the talk of hard work, and as a generation we turned largely into a bunch of self-centered, money-grubbing, self-pitying, hypocritical NIMBY assholes. Now, maybe these younger generations will become as bad as we are, but right now I prefer them to my generation.

    We had better music. That’s pretty much the only point of superiority for Boomers, and half the music we loved came from Silent Generation. John Lennon born 1940. Hendrix born 1942.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:

    It very well may be that I’m repeating the “kids these days” cycle, but I do think that kids today are objectively less resilient – not only economically (which is a product of our economic conditions and other factors), but also socially and psychologically.

    Kids today have a social life that is literally inescapable. You and I didn’t have Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. We could say whatever the hell we wanted without any chance of it coming back to bite us in the ass. Kids today have to watch every word, every single thing they say or do really does go on their permanent record. They live lives under constant observation, from intrusive parents, to peers, to corporations forever trying to suss them out and exploit them. And you think they’re less socially and psychologically resilient?

    I have video of myself as a baby in diapers, running around with a screwdriver in my mouth, point first. If that’s the good old days of child-rearing, I’m glad we’ve made progress. And in terms of core decency I’ll take a Gen Z over a Boomer any day of the week.

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  17. Monala says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I agree. I also think, that despite my kid and her peers not having as much freedom as we had, they’re actually better critical thinkers than we were. They discuss deeper topics, and attempt to problem solve issues like bullying that we just put up with as inescapable, not to mention greater social issues.

    3
  18. just nutha says:

    @Mu Yixiao: You call it a lack of critical thinking skills. I note that his process kept him off management’s radar for about an additional half hour or so at no cost to anyone. He’s learning how to look busy, a valuable skill.

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  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Five indicators are commonly understood as the markers of adulthood: finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children.

    Finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work? Yes, those are markers of adulthood. Finding a life partner, and having children? Absolutely not. As far as

    the notion of including 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds in the discussion of who should be “settled into permanent jobs” strikes me as absurd.

    In today’s world I find the idea of “settling into permanent jobs” absurd. I know precious few people who spent their entire careers in one job and they were all teachers.

    As for the rest, both my sons moved out within days of graduating HS, so I really can’t speak to any of it.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andy: I find the whole thing exceedingly stupid, but then I don’t want to be the one asshole parent who doesn’t do this for their kid.

    I embraced being the asshole parent. My sons learned to just shrug and say, “He’s an asshole.”

    3
  21. just nutha says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I worked one job (3 positions but one company) for the first 15 years of my life. Since then, I’ve worked for 7 temp agencies, held 3 short term/seasonal employment positions, been self-employed twice and worked for roughly 13 or 14 school districts/colleges/private schools (mostly as adjunct/substitute, one-year contracts, or visiting professorships). Permanent jobs? Nice if they are available, but even lots of teachers I’ve known don’t have them.

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  22. Grewgills says:

    Mu Yixiao, honestly I think that is part rose colored glasses and part ‘kids nowa days’. Critical thinking was NEVER a forte of kids or adults in general, outside of a pretty narrow band. Kids now think differently about many things and have different priorities, but are not less exposed to or less capable of critical thought.
    When I was in high school over 30 years ago most kids didn’t display much in the way of critical thought. Neither did many of their parents for that matter. What critical thinking skills they did pick up were largely self taught, because they were interested in something that required flexing those mental muscles. The same is largely true today, but much more emphasis is being put on teaching critical thinking skills now than was put on it 20+ years ago (outside of some elite institutions). Look up P4C and similar programs.

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  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @just nutha: Yep. I was a gypsy carpenter for my entire career. Being union, I was not alone in that. I knew a few guys who got on with one company and stayed there for years but most of us did not. In my family and among my friends, I know only 4 people who managed to spend their entire careers with one employer in basically the same job. 3 were teachers and 1 was a speech therapist for a school district, but I know a number of other teachers who did not manage that feat.

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  24. dazedandconfused says:

    My anecdotal 2 cents is the kids we’ve hired strike me as quite mature for their age. We’ve had a few pretty good kids brought into the warehouse who’ve I’ve discovered were living out of their cars. Rents are soooo much higher now. Takes many paychecks to get that first last deposit. This was not an issue for us at that age. One rarely encountered a sober person living without a roof. Happens all the time now, not all kids can move back in with mom and/or dad. There is some old-soul in these kids I and most of my peers lacked at that age, and even the kids of a decade ago had. We used to regularly encounter know-it-alls with an incredible sense of entitlement, kids who loudly demanded the why of everything be explained. Now, not so much.

    The authors reframed the long visited picture of young people now hanging around at their parents house well into adulthood. Right off the bat they mention the phenomena of kids moving out all but the day they turn 18 is a historical fluke of mid-twentieth century America. The reason: Economics.

    And yes, Chris Rock, I do want a cookie.

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  25. Mimai says:

    Jean Twenge’s book iGen covers a lot of this ground. It’s not the final authority on such matters, but I suspect it will resonate with a lot of commenters and give broader meaning to their more local experiences and concerns.

  26. Mister Bluster says:

    Born in 1948.
    finishing one’s education…
    After two years of Jr. College and five years of allegedly attending classes off and on at Sleepytown U.
    I never did get a degree.
    leaving home…
    Moved out when I was 20 years old. Still too young to vote.
    finding work…
    Had a paper route when I was in 6th grade. Rochester Times-Union. Finally got into the landline telephone industry as a contractor when I was 25. Traveled a lot. Saw the country and enjoyed working outside all the time. Telephone Trash for 36 years. Now that I’m retired I have a part time job. A paper route.
    finding a life partner…
    Not sure who that would be. Certainly not my ex wife. We were only together for a few years.
    If we are talking long term relationships it would have to be my disabled buddy Joe who I met in ’73.
    Working as an attendant for a polio victim who could not walk or put his own pants on got to be intimate in a way that I never expected. I only worked for him in that capacity full time for about a year but I was on call and did help him out many times when I could till he died in 2008.
    I did live with a woman for 16 years. We never did get married. I thought we would make it for the long run. Ha!
    …and having children…
    The closest I ever came to being a dad was my ex wife’s adopted daughter Lilly. She was a product of that god damned war. Her mother was a hooker and her daddy was a GI Joe. Before she was evacuated to Guam in ’75 Lilly lived her early years in a whorehouse in Saigon. My ex was a probation officer in Guam at the time and that’s how the two of them met. Lilly was her client. Eventually my ex left Guam and returned to the States where I met her. By the time I married my ex Lilly was an adult with children of her own so I got to be dad and grandpa all at once. Saw them one time. Lilly and her husband, her three kids and two of the kid’s cousins flew from Guam to Hawaii to LA to Houston and on to Florida to Disney World. My ex and I drove down to meet them. A good time was had by all!

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  27. mister bluster says:

    test

  28. Mimai says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    My comment isn’t relevant to the OP or to the general thrust of your comment. But I did want to double-click on one part of your story. The part about Joe. I say this with all sincerity (and acknowledged sappiness)… deep respect for you and what you did. Deep respect.

    Not to make this about me, but (self-awareness highlight) I’ve worked with a lot of people suffering from post polio syndrome. The physical load can be massive for such folks. Massive but manageable. It’s the psychosocial load that often breaks the spirit. And it’s this load that is too often neglected by others.

    But not you. Not for Joe. So I tip my hat and would happily buy you a round of the finest [insert beverage of choice] to honor your friendship.

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  29. mattbernius says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    I mean this in the best way, that read like Vonnegut and I am here for that, at any time.

  30. rachel says:

    @just nutha: Ah, I see you’ve already pointed this out.