“Somewhere along the line, our society decided to impose rigid ideals for the milestones of life. The problem is that if you don’t meet these elusive benchmarks, you’re often seen as failing the game of life.”
By Zoe Vaughan, 2017 Youth Member for Warrego
From the moment we are born, our entire world is governed by ages and milestones: talking by 1, walking by 2, school at 5 and puberty around 13. Whilst developmental milestones can help parents monitor the growth of their young children, you would think that expectations based on age would cease to exist around the time we start to make our own life decisions…but we all know that’s not the case!
Somewhere along the line, our society decided to impose rigid ideals for the milestones of life. No longer do we only have to concern ourselves with trying to survive the adolescent years as mentally unscarred as possible; we also have to worry about reaching adulthood with a well formed plan for our future.
I think it’s safe to say everyone will recall being told at least once, “you can do or be anything you want in life.” What we aren’t told, however, is the unspoken but ever-present caveat to that statement; “you can do or be anything you want in life…if you continue to meet society’s expectations of you.” Finish high school by 18 (with a respectable OP of course); be in full time work or tertiary education by 20; and graduate and find a meaningful career by 25.
Oh, and somewhere in there you should also make time to find the love of your life; settle down, get married; have 2.5 kids; and mortgage a house with a white picket fence by 35. While these ideals would be fine if they were simply there as a well-intended guide for our future, the problem is that if you don’t meet these elusive benchmarks, you’re often seen as failing the game of life.
The pressures of these expectations are felt almost universally for those between the ages of 18 and 50 – giving the elderly a hard time about their life choices seems to be a line not even our society is willing to cross! However, it is clear that for females the scrutiny of these “societal norms” is far greater. Even in an era where the war on sexism and gendered-expectations is at its strongest, women are far more likely to be judged on their personal choices regarding relationships, careers and children than their male counterparts.
Recently I have been asked a number of times when I plan to “settle down and have kids”, and more often than not, this mildly invasive and demeaning question comes from near strangers or acquaintances, which really does just make the whole experience far more confronting. But what makes this questioning even more bizarre is that I haven’t been in a serious relationship for over two years; which means that the inquisition is not occurring because my personal situation might suggest it’s likely, but rather because these well-meaning interrogators have decided that a female of my age should at least be considering the possibility of marriage and children in the near future – and just for the record – if you hadn’t already worked it out: I’m not!
Our society looks down upon single, childless women as if they have somehow failed to accomplish their “one true role.” We pity them and use phrases such as, “I feel so sorry for her”, “maybe there is a medical reason”, and “I wonder what is wrong with her?” We never seem to consider the possibility that the women under scrutiny may be very content with their life, and that it is not our right to judge them for that.
Ironically, I did get married once; I was 19 and of all the dumb decisions I’ve ever made it certainly comes close to topping the list. I definitely don’t count it as a success in life. What I do consider a success was my ability to find the strength to realise I was in a loveless, toxic relationship that was robbing me of my happiness. Finding the courage to walk away from someone who had such a negative effect on my life; now that was a success.
As a high-schooler, I had vivid ideas of what my life at 23 would look like, and let me promise you, never in my wildest dreams did it include living on a property in south west Queensland, teaching a 7 year old. Nor did my plan include getting married, divorced, going through 2 career changes and spending 12 months in far north QLD and yet, here we are. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the path my life has taken, I love my job and am truly happy with my life, it’s simply not what 17 year old Zoe had imagined.
It is safe to say my life has not followed a traditionally socially acceptable path but that does not make me a failure. In fact, I believe the self-assurance and strength I gained from following an unconventional path makes me quite a success – plus I teach little kids to read, so I’m pretty much a big deal!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve challenged people’s expectations of me, for better or worse, and made my own decisions about my life. I have always owned those decisions, and like to believe our success in life should be measured on strength and character. By this standard, a woman my age who is a wife and mother would no longer be simply seen as a success, and myself simply as a failure; rather we would both be seen as we see each other; successful, kind, good people.
So next time you’re asked: “Where is your life taking you?”, tell the questioner “wherever I decided to let it lead me.” Be surprised, have fun and be a little reckless in life, because the only feeling worse than “I wish I hadn’t done that!” is “I wonder what would have happened if I did?” Your greatness is not determined by others and it most certainly is not defined by your age, marital status or any other constraining societal expectation.
I don’t know what life has in store for me, but I do know that whatever happens happens, and what will be, will be. So live and let live, and our world will be a better, more accepting place for all.