I’m not thirty yet and no one has tried to cajole me into a speculative relationship conversation in a very long time (mostly it seemed to come late high school/early college from well-intended church people). And the only times people have ever asked me my thoughts about childbirth have come on the heels of my sister birthing her babies. Otherwise people seem to be content to smile blandly and nod whenever I tell them about my atypical, seasonal life choices. It might be because I don’t look anywhere near thirty.
The shock and surprise people exhibit when I tell them my age, or they check my ID is predictable and staid, and, sometimes, offensive. (Once, at the ER, the doctor thought my one-year-elder friend was my mom; we were 27 and 28; he thought I was around 18). For years, I never understood why my actual mother was annoyed that she didn’t look her age – she was sometimes mistaken for my father’s daughter (disturbing) – but now I understand that sometimes people don’t take you seriously when they think you are younger than you are and when they find out that you are between five and ten years older than they placed you, they start treating you differently. And that is wicked annoying.
But this may also be the reason no one is hassling me about settling down, getting married, and starting a family. (Also: my fam is pretty cool in that way.) But, even though my fam is pretty cool and I mainly associate with people like myself (nomadic free spirits who find creative ways to live), I am not free from the pressures of approaching thirty. The shift Greenwell talks about as to when people are marrying has happened in our lifetime, meaning that we grew up with people talking about, and thus ingraining in us, the pressures of turning thirty and not wanting to be an ‘old mom’ who can’t get down on the floor and play with her kids (which is relative crap: my mom is 63 and she’s all over the floor with the grandbabies) causing even the least under-pressure of us to have our moments of “Holy shit, I’m thirty and single with zero prospects! Ermagad, what am I going to do?” Hopefully most of you are like me and your rational brain kicks in with “Whatever the hell you want, woman!”
Greenwell reminds us: “…women have an unprecedented number of opportunities…”. More women attend college these days right out of high school with the intention of going to college (as opposed to going to get married), which pushes back marrying ages as we pursue higher and higher education and careers and the like. Women today have the opportunity to be self-sufficient early in life, rather than wait for a divorce to reinvent ourselves Madeleine Albright style (although we retain that option). Nowadays, Greenwell tells us
“The median age for an American woman to first get married is 27, compared to 20 in 1960. That number rises with education level. But despite the fact that 50 percent of Americans are now single, there are no signs that young women are less likely than their mothers to get married eventually, Coontz’s research has found—we’re simply more likely to do it in our 30s instead of our 20s.
It’s not surprising word of this reality is still making the rounds; it is in competition with generations of traditional expectations, including, but not limited to, Greenwell’s Lily Bart example from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (a book I could not get into when I was supposed to read it in college). (Expectations I’m not convinced were ever actually real considering my mother told me her getting married at nineteen was not typical in 1970 and none of her friends got married that young.) The current norm is still permeating the layers of conditioned thought. One day it will be widespread, but the Millennial Generation gets the distinct honor of being on the back-end of the front line that probably really started with the Gen X Baby Busters.
Until it has permeated society, there will still be people who meet a single woman’s thirtieth with outdated statistics and well-intended pieces of terrible advice. Because, as Greenwell states: “well-meaning older people offering unsolicited advice to eye-rolling younger ones is what makes the world go round.” Our elders love to dispense wisdom we learned the hard way to our younger friends in hopes they will make different assumptions about what it means to be a woman. A friend recently asked me what advice I thought would be helpful for her youngest sibling to hear upon her imminent college graduation. The best advice I could give my friend was to give her sister no advice at all, but to let her see how she lives, that was the best thing my siblings did for me. As the youngest, I got to see how four other people handled being an adult and could gauge how I wished to proceed. Because you can tell someone a thing until you are blue in the face, but the best way for that person to learn it is to live it.