You are a thirty year old single woman. You have a career, a car, a condo and a cat. You are in my office, crying on my couch about how you are going nowhere and you are fearful of never having a life.
I have compassion for this state. There is real pain there, but I wonder why there is an unspoken assumption that the thing you have right now does not qualify as “a life”.
The place of a woman in the world has shifted tremendously in the last 100 years or so. We have gone from being a chattel (like a cow or a piece of furniture), to being a person with rights, responsibilities and self-determination. And yet, there is a script that lingers, rattling around in our sub-conscious minds. The script says that if you are not partnered, with children, you have somehow failed to live up to this thing called “having a life”.
The desire to partner and have children is often attributed to a mysterious entity called the “biological clock”. What exactly does that mean? A biological clock in human beings actually refers to our Circadian rhythms, our sleep patterns and how sunlight affects these patterns. The concept of biological clock regarding child bearing actually refers only to fertility levels and not the “desire” to have children. It is true that the viability of eggs in the ovaries starts to decline after thirty. The physical probabilities of child bearing are reduced. However, only when you add an imperative to bear children, does this become some kind of raging impulse to find a man and have a baby.
In much of the popular writing on the idea of a “woman’s biological clock”, the desire is presented as a fact and as something natural. The unsubstantiated implication is that natural things are biological things and biological impulses must be obeyed. There’s the imperative.
But we are also social creatures who live in a culture of our own creation. That culture has rules and expectations and sometimes, the imperative that seems natural is really cultural.
Whenever I see a cultural imperative that is sold as natural I have to question it. I can’t help it. It’s my nature.
Go ahead and call me a radical but I’m going to suggest the notion that being in a partnered relationship and procreating is not the only way to have a life. This is not to say that relationships are not important. Humans are biologically wired to seek those out. Neither am I saying that physical intimacy is not important. Humans are definitely wired to seek that out. I am saying that there are a myriad of ways to be in the world that have all these elements but do not require the cookie cutter approach to “having a life”.
But I need to back up a bit because there is a real person on my couch crying. That real person thinks the reason she doesn’t have what she thinks she should have is because she is doing something wrong, is unlovable, unworthy, ugly, cursed etc. These feelings of inadequacy are reinforced by the cultural expectation that she should be “ahead” of where she is by now, measured in partners and babies.
Why is that the only measure for her? What if there were other options?
What if the measure could also include career and academic accomplishments, contributions to community, a supportive social network and creativity? You know, the kind of thing that men often get accolades for because they have awesome supportive women running their lives in the background. Why is it that women can’t claim the value of this for themselves? With or without supportive partners running around in the background?
I want to convey to the individual on my couch that, rather than “no life” she has the most tremendous opportunity. Go out and live the life you have. Connect. Contribute. Create. Understand that those things have value and that you are valuable in your own right. Your mom may not agree. Your girlfriends may be getting married. You are sick of baby showers. Do not make the automatic jump to despair.
There are other women, crying on my couch. They are married with three kids and “no life”. They gave up their career and now they watch their partners achieving and doing while they are unable to engage. They have to deal with the costs of those choices too.*
You are a beautiful, autonomous, accomplished human being with a world in front of you. There may be love, friendship, art, compassion, fun and community just waiting for you to look up and jump in. It may look totally different than what your mother imagined but it’s yours. Live it.
*I’ll be writing a post on this topic next