Not every woman aspires to be a wife and mother, and these days, women are being increasingly bolder about saying so. A lot of women are waiting longer and longer to get married, and some women in committed relationships are eschewing marriage altogether. Financial reasons are often cited, with women wanting to focus on their education and careers before diving into debt for a house with their partner or being forced to drop out of the workforce to mother kids. Women are now fighting for their personal autonomy and sense of self by challenging the previous mandate to sacrifice their individual identities for the sake of husbands and children.
Women are now redefining what success in life looks like. These resurgences of female independence have occurred throughout the history of our country, sometimes dying out in favor of the 1950s housewife mentality before emerging again. Really, there isn’t anything wrong with being a housewife; my mother was a housewife, and probably some of your mothers, too, or mothers who are friends of yours. The problem is when women are consistently urged to follow one specific lifestyle or path to happiness and fulfillment, at the exclusion of all others.
Maybe the insistence on housewifery has abated somewhat, but the insistence still that a woman should find “the One” and settle down, children or not, into some sort of stable heteronormative relationship is one that simply won’t die. Never mind that this concept excludes the needs and desires of queer women, polyamorous women, asexual and aromantic women or other groups of women who may be marginalized for some other reason. Women may not want “the man of their dreams” to sweep them off their feet, they may want “the woman of their dreams”, multiple partners, or no partner whatsoever. None of these women should be made to feel as though their lifestyles are less legitimate than those of women who choose the hypermasculine “One.”
Let’s explore more deeply the concept of “the One.” From a young age we have been expected to believe that romantic love should last forever; we are taught that even though people change over time, their love can be expected to remain the same “’til death do us part.” We are expected to remain loyal to the same person “in sickness and in health”, but this is sometimes not the reality that men and women face. Men are more likely to leave their female partners in the case of a serious illness than the other way around. No one prepares women for the possibility that their “knight in shining armor” might just bail on them in the middle of a health crisis, or even that the illness of their loved one might be more than they themselves can bear.
Never mind the effects that other changes can have on the relationship, such as the introduction of children or pets, financial woes or the care of aging parents. Sometimes the love that is good right now, is not the love that will sustain you throughout the rest of your life, and maybe that should be okay. Maybe we should stop telling people to live together for “richer or for poorer” and allow them the freedom leave the partner that may be running their finances into the ground. Maybe we shouldn’t tell women- or men- to stay “for better or for worse” without establishing boundaries on how much “worse” things can be allowed to get before they’re allowed to reconsider their own wellbeing. Maybe we shouldn’t consider the end of a relationship as a personal failure, but rather as a chance for a new beginning.
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the cradle.” At least that is what the nursery song says. I just watched- with fascinated disgust- a Ted Talk that was about an issue I was already familiar with: the struggle which young women who express a desire to be sterilized face when approaching their health care providers for help. Christen Reighter was the presenter of that Ted Talk. She was fortunately able to receive her surgery at age 22, but unfortunately some women are forced to wait until their 30s or beyond. This is obviously a gendered issue, because men who go in for vasectomies are not forced to undergo the same scrutiny and disapproval. They are not rudely told, “You will change your mind” or asked, “What happens if your future partner wants children?” as if they were incapable of making an informed decision for themselves. If you have a womb and healthy ovaries, you are treated as a pariah for expressing a desire to never use them.
I am writing this as a woman in a happy, committed- albeit long distance- relationship. It would be excellent if our relationship could weather the storms of life, if it could last until we are old and gray, but I must be prepared for the possibility that this isn’t the case. Giving up on what I have with him doesn’t mean that I’ve “missed out on true love”, whatever that means. As it stands now, marriage and kids are something that I am not even sure that I want to be a part of our future together, but that uncertainty doesn’t make what we have any less legitimate. We love each other and share our hopes, fears and dreams with one another. If this were to end, I won’t have regretted the time spent together, and I won’t be in a terrible hurry to “get back out there”. There is no “expiration date” on my ability to be happy.
That all being said, whenever you enter in to any kind of relationship, there must be some ability to compromise. Someone might have to move, someone might have to stay home with the kids if you can’t afford day care, someone might have to change jobs. The problem arises when the burden is unfairly placed on women to shoulder alone. Nowadays, even women (in heterosexual relationships) who work outside the home still find themselves doing 70%- or more- of the household chores, be that cleaning, child care, or making appointments. They carry an unfair percentage of what can be termed “mental load” or “invisible labor” (see You Should Have Asked by Emma). As a result of this, many women who get married find themselves less happy than before, and less happy in marriage than their male counterparts.
One reason that heterosexual marriage continues to be an unequal partnership for many women, is because of the influences of the patriarchy, which is tied in some ways to the Christian doctrine of complementarianism. This is a doctrine that teaches that because Biblical Eve was originally formed as a “helpmeet” for Adam, it is a woman’s duty to “complement” her male partner as his helper. Combine this with the teachings of Paul in the New Testament, urging women to “submit to your husband as unto the Lord” it is unsurprising that these beliefs and ideals bled into the culture of all nations that had Christianity as a founding religion. Even now in the “modern” era, ideas about female submission, and that women should be “chaste” as well as quiet and agreeable have had a lasting effect on our society. Women are told that we should work harder for less rewards and never complain while doing it.
Men might be harassed by their parents a little about when they’re going to get married or have kids, but if they are in a fulfilling career the pressure for them to find these things is a lot less. Getting married and/or having children are not considered to be the primary goal of their lives. Men get to be a lot more multifaceted, and if they’re ambitious with regards to their job or career, they are praised for it. There is no male equivalent of an “old cat lady”, and the term “spinster” has never applied to men. Slut-shaming of men is virtually nonexistent; instead he is “sowing his wild oats”, and even in Christian purity circles if a man has had sex before getting married he isn’t “corrupted.”
Of course, men have problems of their own (i.e. toxic masculinity) but that is not the focus of this article. I am instead focusing on dismantling the harmful idea that if a woman doesn’t settle down with a man with the intent to remain with him and him alone for the rest of her adult life, that she can never truly be happy or complete. I am here to challenge the idea that if you’re above the age of 30 and you still haven’t “found love” then you are out of luck. Of course, if you want a traditional marriage and a family, you should feel free to pursue that, but you also shouldn’t feel like damaged goods if that doesn’t happen for you right away- or at all. It is statistically impossible for every woman who wants a long-lasting romantic relationship to find it. Don’t let someone relegate you to the corner and throws words like “spinster” at you. You are valued as a woman, and you are under no obligation to allow society’s toxic ideals to stop you from enjoying your life.