There is an unspoken rule in Western society that life begins to degrade rapidly after age 30. Why? Because all of the worse parts of life happen after then. Sagging skin, balding crowns, infertility, middle management. Mediocrity.
In the dating and love realm, the message is clear: You had better figure out life and marry someone by the time you reach 30, or else no one will want you. This rule is applied much more stringently to women than to men (much of this has to do with biology, of course). After all, no one wants to be associated with a cat-loving lonely middle-aged spinster. Older brides (like Meghan Markle) are judged harshly by public, but are judged nonetheless slightly better than single and childless people over 30. In many ways, it is much more socially acceptable to marry and divorce several times than it is to be single after a certain age.
If you’re reading this, are you a young woman in high school or your early twenties? Then we can guess that you must also feel empowered to pursue your independence, life goals and career aspirations. The whole world is your oyster! You want to travel, date around, drink til your heart’s content and dance til your feet hurt. Eventually you want to get married and have a family, but you want to leave those heavy topics for much, much later, like maybe for your late thirties or forties when the timing is just right. Life is for living now!
If you agree with any of the above, you have been misled. You have sipped from the reality-rejecting, feminist-propaganda-swindling sippie cup. And, unfortunately, you will not understand that you are confused until you are older and it is often too late to go back. I know this because I used to have the same thoughts. Women in developed nations across the world just like you have been told by older generations of women to pursue own their dreams and goals before getting married, and to avoid settling down at all costs. Feminists have encouraged women through books, lectures and public policies to build their own lives before getting married.
Popular culture shows and films, such as Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Grey’s Anatomy and Foxy Brown, have glorified the joys of being young, fun and independent women. Every year, the music industry pushes out feel-good “empowered” pop songs, which usually end up being mega hits. For instance, the Destiny’s Child song “Independent Women” held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for eleven consecutive weeks in 2000. And I don’t think I can list all of the Pitbull-esque “live like there’s no tomorrow” hit songs that have been released in the past few decades.
But for all of the cheers for “strong and empowered” working women, nothing seems to soothe the concerns of middle-aged women who have just realized that they no longer have the option to conceive a child. Women are now waking up to the reality that they made a mistake by prioritizing work (and their independence) ahead of their family goals. In an NPR interview, Barbara Collura, president/CEO of Resolve, the National Infertility Association, sums up the misguided sentiments shared by career women nicely:
“Let’s be honest, women don’t want to hear that they can’t have it all. We can have a great job, we can have a master’s degree, we don’t need to worry about child-bearing because that’s something that will come. And when it doesn’t happen, women are really angry.”
Collura says the first thing (infertile) women say is “Why didn’t anybody tell me this?” That’s a good question. One study (pdf) found that women think that the chance of a 30-year-old getting pregnant in one try is 80 percent, while in reality it’s less than 30 percent. For a 40-year-old, many assumed up to a 40 percent success rate. It’s actually less than 10 percent.
Why are so many women confused about fertility? I have a few ideas:
Fertility discussions go against two feminist ideals: First, feminists believe men and women are completely equal androgynous beings (ugh), so any discussion about biological differences is considered disruptive. Second, feminists want to prove that women can and should be as successful as men, and any talk of women slowing down their careers for their families is forbidden.
Any attempt to teach women about fertility has been silenced. Sex education classes in schools only talk about preventing pregnancies, but say nothing about the reality that women will not always be able to get pregnant (and must plan their lives accordingly). Collura says “A decade ago, a campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine sparked a vicious backlash. Ads on public buses in several big cities featured a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, to warn women their time was running out. But women’s rights groups called it a scare tactic that left women feeling pressured and guilty.”
The media has made the single life look all too good. Shows about single working women are cool, flashy and fashion-forward, while shows about married life are glum and depressing. Husbands are made to look like bumbling idiots on every family TV show.
Thinking about fertility early is important for several reasons. First, women have only so much time to have children. If you wait too long, you may get lucky enough to have one child, but any more than that is unlikely to happen. Second, if you desire to have children, you need to plan for the physical and emotional commitments that go into raising a child (six months of maternity leave will not usually be enough time—plan for taking off several years to bond with your child. This means that you need to select the right spouse). Third, you want to think about fertility because you want to have healthy children. The most common risk factor for Down syndrome is maternal age (read this chart). Fourth, if you wait too long, you might have to face taking care of your teenage children at the same time as you have to care for your aging parents. Yikes. Finally, fertility treatments are expensive (the average cost of a fertility intervention is $25,000) and sometimes unsuccessful.
Second, plan your own life carefully. If you are considering pursuing a new career or starting a new relationship, ask yourself: How many hours will I need to work per week at the peak of my career? If I had to, could I work part-time in my current career field? Does the person I’m dating have the same family goals as me?
It might be helpful for a woman who is switching careers to draw a timeline of the life she wants for herself. For instance, if a woman who is 24 years old, single and wants children is considering going to college, how will she balance graduating from school, getting hired, finding a husband, marrying and giving birth within the next few years? Especially if her goal is to have several children before her fertility sharply declines at 30? Developing a timeline will help young women live the lives they want to live in the future.
I’m in love with all of the knowledge and insights packed in psychologist Meg Jay’s book “The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter—and how to make the most of them now.” It is for this reason that I decided to break down her guidebook into parts, dissecting each chapter into tidbits that will help us on our quest to pursue femininity. As a psychologist who has all too often listened to confused and underemployed thirtysomethings who wasted their early years, Jay offers helpful advice for young men and women swimming in the sea of youth. The book encourages young adults to remember that their twenties do indeed matter and have an effect on the rest of their lives.
I found some of the best takeaways from her book in her chapters in love, marriage and relationships. She encourages young men and women to take their dating lives seriously while they are in their twenties, rather than play the field and engage in casual sex. Jay argues that romantic relationships are important because they offer people the opportunities to pick and create their own families.
“There is something scary about picking your family,” Jay writes. “It’s not romantic. It means you aren’t just waiting for your soulmate to arrive. It means you know you are making decision that will affect the rest of your life…Twentysomethings who aren’t at least a little scared about their relationships are often the ones who are being the least thoughtful.”
Jay implores her readers to be thoughtful in several relationship arenas: Selecting a mate carefully, refusing to move in together (unless you are already engaged), choosing to marry young and deciding to have children early. As a single young woman is who currently dating, I was particularly interested in her advice on mate selection. She encourages young singles to think less about their deal breakers and more about selecting a spouse based on personality traits. Eliminate potential suitors only on extreme differences in values, goals or personality.
“One match maker to consider is personality,” she writes. “Some research tells us that, especially in young couples, the more similar two people’s personalities are, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their relationship. Yet personality is how dating, and even married, couples tend to be least alike.”
You don’t need to take an official test to determine your personality traits. Instead, decide where your personality falls on the Big Five personality test, which identifies five factors that describe how people interact with the world. Neuroticism, which is the tendency to be anxious, critical and moody, is “more predictive of relationship unhappiness and dissolution than is personality dissimilarity.”
In the book, Jay provides an example of a patient named Eli, a young man who is high on Openness and Extraversion, and low on Conscientiousness and Neuroticism. Eli is a poor match for his girlfriend, a withdrawn and responsible person who is low on Openness and Extraversion, but high on Conscientiousness and Neuroticism. This couple needs to break up because their personalities are too different for the relationship to work.
So what if the guy you like isn’t very romantic or likes watching listening to sports talk instead of NPR? Forget the trivial details and choose a spouse with a personality that is similar to yours. Here’s solid advice from Jay: “The more similar people are, the more they are able to understand each other…Two people who are similar are going to have the same reactions to a rainy day, a new car, a long vacation, an anniversary, a Sunday morning, and a big party.”