Looking at the last few years of my life, the story reads like an exercise in conformity. I meet all the milestones expected of most women: I fell in love with a successful man, got married, a year later we were pregnant and I gave birth to our twin daughters a few months ago. Now, I’m embarking on a new career as a writer while I stay at home to look after our children and my husband works.
It all looks very normal and respectable but lately I’ve started to think about the pressures on women to echo this narrative.
It’s tacitly understood that women should forge a successful career, marry, buy a home and have children, all by the random age of 30. This is part of the mainstream, idealised version of womanhood which excludes swathes of women who are not mothers, older first-time mothers, single mothers and gay mothers.
When we don’t meet these expectations, the social penalties can be significant and we end up feeling behind and left out. We may feel like failures, exposed to the judgement of others and the withdrawal of their support.
It can be very lonely.
But is there any real benefit in bowing to pressure to conform, especially when the associated expectations are contradictory?
When we have children, we’d better have them by 30 and make sure we’re financially secure – which is entirely farcical.
Home ownership, a typical cornerstone of financial stability, is now more unattainable than ten years ago, as the average age of first-time buyers in the UK rises to 34.
Once the children arrive, women are expected to sacrifice themselves at the altar of motherhood, yet somehow maintain successful, illustrious careers. We shouldn’t care too much about our appearance, eschewing style in favour of practicality. Yet we should still look presentable (chic, even) on the nursery run, but not look as though we’ve tried too hard. If our bun is too messy, well then, I guess we’ve let ourselves go.
My takeaway is that I could bend over backwards trying to meet expectations and still feel as though I’m falling short.
I’m much happier doing things in a way that works for me and my family. Together, my husband and I are learning to shut out the outside voices and walk the path we want to be on instead of just ticking boxes.
It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
Zara Oteng is a writer living in London with her husband and two children. You can find her at www.zaraoteng.com and @zaraoteng on Instagram.
October 25, 2020