The timeline pressures on women
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Right now I’m in a pretty good situation. I’ve got my dream job, I’ve moved out, and I’m content with how everything is going – even if Covid is still trying to ruin things.
Despite this professional achievement, I still get the question of ‘when are you going to get a boyfriend?’ all the time. Eventually this will move on to questions around settling down and kids, there's always the next step that people want to know about. I’m already aware of the pressures on women to follow a strict timeline – and this terrifies me.
Growing up, I always thought that 27 sounded like a good age to get married, and then children would follow. Oh and somewhere in that time you’ve managed to buy your first house and climb the ladder in your career too – don’t forget those milestones.
Now that I’m 23 and I’ve just got into the job I want (and I couldn't really have done it much quicker because I needed the qualifications) it’s dawned on me that 27 is only four years away and I’m not okay with that.
This idea of what to do by the time I’m 27 may have changed as I’ve grown up, but the big emphasis on 30 is still very much there I think.
My issue is that no matter how gender attitudes change and progress, the biological timeline of a woman is still there. I want children, but I already worry about falling behind in my career by wanting this.
Do I think women can ‘have it all’? To an extent, yes. However, I think whatever you prioritize, you’re always going to feel like you’re neglecting the other focus.
If you have kids and continue to work, you get mum guilt that you’re not focusing on your kids but if you stay home then you’re also judged? Personally, I want it all. However, I question how realistic this is.
I spoke to a number of women about these pressures in society…
Sophie is 30, works in administration, and is married:
“Although I hit a lot of the socially expected milestones fairly early – first full-time job aged 21, moved in with a partner aged 21, engaged aged 22, bought a house aged 23, married aged 25 – I am yet to have children which most people would see as the next socially logical step in my life.
“I have been asked about having children lots of times and it’s less about the question and more about how the question is asked. Asking Do you see having children as part of your future? is a decent question and one I don’t mind answering with honesty. When are you having kids?, When am I getting grandchildren?, and Isn’t it time you popped one out? are questions that are incredibly insensitive and completely inappropriate.
“Luckily for me, I don’t have children through choice however those questions would hurt so much more if I was struggling with fertility.”
At school, Sophie thought she’d follow in her mum’s steps by marrying at 23, and having kids at 25 – but that’s changed as she’s grown up.
“I changed my mind and wanted to be 30 before I had my first child. Now I choose to work with what I have now and keep my mind open to a future with or without children.”
Although Sophie believes both men and women can ‘have it all’ when it comes to career and kids, she does think it is very different depending on which gender you are.
“I feel that it is an easier journey for men. Women are born into disadvantage and although there have been steps to help equality, the world is still a long way away from true equality. I was told in a previous workplace that I nearly wasn’t offered the job because I was ‘of child-bearing age’.”
In terms of ‘giving in’ to the these social pressures, Sophie said you shouldn’t compare to others. She said, “The best thing anyone can do is to learn about yourself, work on your own mental health and use your story and your recovery to inspire those around you to be truly authentic with yourself.”
Mia is 23, unemployed, and single:
“I absolutely feel this pressure. I am 23 but I already feel so conscious of my age and fearful of time running out, particularly as this year I have been forced to stall all of the plans that I had to go travelling and get a job.
“I’m always comparing myself to other people my age and feel so useless compared to them. I worry about turning 30 and still not having a relationship and still living with my parents.”
Unfortunately, uni didn’t bring the career start and friends that Mia expected.
“University was such a let-down for me. I didn’t enjoy my course and I didn’t make the friends I thought I would. I always had this goal that I would get my degree and go straight into my dream career, but now I just feel disheartened. I feel like I’ve wasted three years and come out feeling so unsure of myself.
“I just want people to know that it’s okay if you didn’t enjoy university and you now feel despairing about the future - some people just need time to come into their own.”
In terms of the balance of career and kids, Mia thinks you need a number of things for this to be possible.
“I think it’s possible, but only with certain factors like financial security and a partner who is willing to share childcare fairly. I never used to want kids because a lot of my problems come from growing up in an abusive household but now I feel more that I’d like a big loving family of my own.
“I would happily quit a job to become a full-time parent because raising my kids would give me so much more happiness than a job could, providing that I had the financial security to do so.”
Amy is 31, a dentist, and single:
“I definitely feel under pressure to have achieved the whole marriage and kids thing by now, mainly because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing and it’s what people expect because that’s the way people have always done it. “Turning 30 was definitely a big birthday for me, it just seemed to highlight all my perceived failures in the settling down and having kids department. However, now I realise that it’s okay to do things in my own time and to just be happy with what I have achieved so far in life and what I can achieve in the future.
“I do find that people ask me if I’m in a relationship yet, which is where the pressure and expectation comes from. Sometimes it frustrates me because it’s as though people define one another through their relationship status and view us singletons as less of an equal.”
Despite these worries, Amy has been qualified as a dentist for four years now so in terms of career, she’s doing exactly what she wanted.
“I have started to feel more grown up as I have felt more established in my job. I’ve noticed that the longer I’ve been practicing, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes.
“I welcomed this transition from young adult to someone who feels more in control, happy and confident. This realisation has also made me worry less about getting older. After all, age is just a number. It’s what you do with the years that counts.”
Holly is 25, a student, and in a long-term relationship:
Holly feels the pressure, and social media doesn’t help.
“I do hugely feel a timeline pressure. Mostly, from looking at my peers on social media and comparing my life to theirs. Some of them are married and onto their second child, whereas others like me are still finding their feet.
“I cannot help but feel like I need to get a move on with my life, and at the very least be engaged by 30 years old. Turning 30 terrifies me, my sister has just turned 30 a few weeks ago, and she is married with two children. I feel that she is a ‘proper adult’ whereas I am not, even though there is only five years between us.
“I am scared to turn 30 because I feel my life needs to be sorted by then and five years is actually quite a short time to achieve all my goals.”
Although Holly has been with her boyfriend for five years, the questions still come their way.
“We are happy, but it seems we are very behind everyone else. We do not live together, and we are not engaged. I get asked all of the time when we are going to move forward with our relationship. When asked these questions, I am reminded of how much I want those things and begin to pressure my boyfriend which puts a strain on our relationship.”
Holly actually said that when those questions aren’t asked, they’re both happy preparing for the future. Both of them are currently studying for their careers and saving for a future together.
“We understand that by putting our careers first, other things have to be on hold, but it is still quite frustrating, especially when it is pointed out.”
Hannah is 23, fresh out of university, and recently single:
“I think there is definitely a timeline pressure for women, and I do feel in some way pressurised to find the right person and be married before I’m 30 otherwise it may be ‘too late’.”
Despite this feeling, Hannah feels positive at the fact that it is more normal for women to have children later on now.
Instead of dreading the age of 30, Hannah said how listening to certain podcasts has made her realise that it isn’t something to be scared of.
“I used to find the idea of turning 30 terrifying, but I have been listening to podcasts and reading books by famous women such as Dolly Alderton and Elizabeth Day and it has made me realise that my 30s may indeed be less chaotic than my 20s and that I should not feel pressurised to do everything expected of me by society in my 20s.
“In a way, I’m excited to get to 30 as I will probably feel comfortable in my own skin and will be settled with a job and in my own house etc.”
Hanna has recently come out of a six-year relationship, and now has much more on her mind than settling down.
“Within the next 20 years, perhaps I can see myself being married and having children – but I wouldn’t say it is an ‘ideal’. At the moment, I am much more driven by the idea of a great career and having done everything I want to do such as travel the world and spend lots of time with my friends and family.
“Even as someone who is recently single, I have been asked many times when I will be looking to date again and I find it so interesting how people are so keen on their friends to be dating whereas I am very happy to be on my own for a while, something which I think will be valuable. I now realise I want to focus on myself and what things I want to do before committing to anything or anyone else.”