Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

[Fun fact: Most of this was handwritten during a London to Norwich train journey. Which is looking finer than ever!]

This post is about making life choices during your twenties, respecting other people's choices, and the culture that surrounds the idea of "choice" in the first place. Normally I write about country-to-country culture, but as a twenty-something who is soon to leave education/academia for employment, and single life for marriage, I felt that this was an interesting time to reflect on the expectations of potentially the most transient stage of life. My intention is not to sound dogmatic or arrogant about my own particular path, but I am going to draw upon my own experience and how it relates to people's cultural expectations and responses.

So much has been made of Wander Onwards's "23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You're 23" that I'm hesitant to respond to it at all. But it struck a nerve with me, both because I am only 24 myself and because I recently got engaged. In all honesty, I don't care for this post. It's not particularly because she is criticizing a choice I've actually made; I even think she has some valid points for waiting to get married and knowing yourself well first. But overall, I find her approach anti-feminist. Putting aside the jab that married women become "fat" (from pregnancy?), this author subscribes to the idea that women are either exciting single women with an abundance of adventures ahead of them, or they are boring, man-dependent wives. Neither this author nor the women gleefully re-posting it are convincing me that their life choices are superior to mine. Frankly, I'm confused about why they would want to.

Friends, family and acquaintances have responded to my engagement much more forcefully than any other life choice (and let's remember I moved from almost-London to Mississippi, hardly most people's idea of a reasonable decision). Perhaps there is something stiflingly universal about engagement, expected and elusive at the same time. It's as if the fact that I am engaged sends a message that I think all women should be engaged now too. I guess that means I think more people should be scholars of the South, too? Well... Anyway, the vast majority are congratulatory and sincere, but some - usually my age, usually female - look down at my ring and have an immediate impulse to express and/or defend their own life choices. I've heard variations of, "Well, I'm still single" followed by a chuckle or wince, "I don't think I'll ever get married" with a contented smile or sidelong glance, or, a little more biting, "But you've only been together 2 years?" and, "That's young to get married." With a headshake. I am not someone who wants to show off the ring all the time and tell everyone I meet - wedding planning is so beyond terrifying that I am happy to talk about the weather instead - so I can only imagine the replies to a more gregarious bride.

These responses imply that we think our choices are the result of nothing except our own desires, immune to timing and circumstance; indeed, it suggests we think that we can choose when and how life events take place. I don't believe in such complete control. Right now I'm at home in England and I've had the pleasure of catching up with old friends. Some are in long-term relationships and living together, some are engaged, some are single with various feelings about it. What are my single friends doing "wrong"? I'm inclined to say nothing. (For one, there is no problem at all with enjoying being alone, can we all try to remember this pleeease?) At university I didn't chase after relationships, I turned down what I wasn't sure of, I would not accept blind dates. My mind was focused on becoming a writer, traveler and academic. I got comments about my lack of "experience", unwillingness to "try" and even a suggestion that I might not be heterosexual. And yet one day I met my future husband, and I was only 21. Of course I committed to this relationship in particular, but no, there was nothing I "did" to "achieve" a proposal. I didn't sacrifice my love of travel and academia, either. It was really a combination of choices and circumstances.

When thinking about this post I was reminded of my favorite TED Talk, Meg Jay's "Why 30 is Not the New 20." Jay's argument is that we should not trivialize twenty-somethings and instead encourage thoughtful personal development. Vanessa of Wander Onwards obviously has her sense of fun down, and I admire someone who wants to travel by themselves, but I don't accept her conclusion that she has, "already experienced more of the world in the last 22 years than [her] married peers will ever experience in their life." If you can and want to, I also encourage travel - but let's be clear that it's not the only way to soul-search and develop as an individual. I believe that you can get to know yourself through travel or staying at home, in a relationship or single, in education or at work, as a parent or childless. I believe that conscious choices - made assertively, not due to fear - that are made wherever possible will take you on the path to happiness. It won't be perfect, and we all have things that hold us back, but that is at least a more honest way to live than following someone else's notion of what life should be, whether that means getting married before you are ready or going abroad because you think you should.

We are obsessed, even now, with whether women (and men) can "have it all." I think what "all" means is entirely up to you.