A few years ago a good friend of mine went through a mini nervous breakdown. He was depressed and anxious because he was fast approaching an important milestone in every man’s life—his thirtieth birthday.
He’s not the only guy who has experienced anxiety before The Big Birthday; my brothers, ex-boyfriends and other guy pals have all mentioned the stress of turning thirty. It seems that’s the age that most men stop and evaluate where they are in life, how far they’ve come and where they need to go. Many measure their success based on monetary accomplishments like how much they have in the bank compared to their buddies, their role at work, whether they own a place, a car, and of course, how they’re doing with the ladies.
For women, it’s the same, except different. As we get older, societal pressures and expectations seem to mount, and while the pressure of career and settling down is the same, the timeline to get stuff done is different between men and women.
For the longest time, women have been expected to get married and start a family early on before worrying about a career. Society and the gosh-darned biological clock forced our priorities upon us for a long time. Over the past few decades, however, this has changed. These days, 20% of people between 18-29 are married compared to 59% in 1960.
Now more than ever, women are delaying marriage and family– and some delay it indefinitely. Instead they are pursuing lucrative careers, financial freedom, travel and adventure first before settling down. And many are choosing to remain in the workforce after marriage and while raising a family. Many of the married women I know who are still working do so because they want to, not because they have to.
So now you can say there’s a different kind of competition between women; those who “have it all” and those who don’t. It’s not just Bethany Frankel who shows that you can get married, have a family, run a successful business and have your own reality TV show. Now, not only are we expected to become wives and mothers at some point and maintain sparkling, happy households, we are also struggling to break glass ceilings in the workplace, fight for our promotions, log in long hours and build our own empires. All while maintaining a year-round tan, toned body, sexy youthful style and unlimited energy.
But do we all have to have it all? Do we even want it all? And by what age should we have achieved all of this?
Unfortunately, I’ve found that not only do we as women put a lot of pressure on ourselves to compete, but we also put pressures on each other to keep up with what we perceive to be the standard.
I’ve known smart, seemingly happy stay-at-home moms to look at single professional women and feel guilty about being “just” a mom and not back at work, utilizing the degree she worked so hard to earn. I’ve seen smart, ambitious single women who run successful businesses look at married friends and act like they (the single ladies) are failures because they have not yet been married or become mothers.
Many of us are often faced with pressures we put on each other. Occasionally, some of my married friends have “sympathetically” offered me (unsolicited) advice about how I should stop being “picky” and “settle down” like she did, and have a nice “normal” life.
Other times, I’ve visited friends in their new homes and asked myself why I’m still renting. I will beat myself up for half the day until I remember that I live in New York City where the condo fees and taxes alone probably equal double their mortgage payment. I remind myself that I will buy a home when I’m ready to buy, not when someone tells me it’s the right time to buy.
Because we are now trying to “have it all” the pressure can be relentless. Yes, there are moments when I reflect on my status–about why exactly I file taxes as a single person, and how far behind I am. But far behind what? Is it that I’ve fallen behind in the expectations of others– or am I right where I should be? Maybe I don’t have a cozy town house with a sunken family room, 2-car garage and access to the community pool, and maybe I don’t yet have the family that will suck my energy and bank account dry.
But on the other hand, when my bathtub needs recaulking or the air conditioner is broken, I only need to call my super and hand him a twenty. If I’m meeting a friend for dinner in the Village, I just hop on the bike path down 9th Avenue. And when I do travel, I get warm smiles and appreciative comments from fellow travelers telling me how well behaved and quiet my Boston terrier was on the plane. I’m not saying that one status or lifestyle is better than another—although there are plenty of people who will. It’s just easy to get distracted and let others influence our overall sense of accomplishment and growth. If we let others establish the parameters by which we measure ourselves, we’ll always fall short.
Instead of beating ourselves up if a few things are missing in our lives, use others’ accomplishments as motivators that will help set goals—in career, in love and in money—on your own terms. Take the time to define what it means to “have it all” and make it personal. Keep in mind that a little pressure and competition is good for the soul and ego, but there’s no room for friends who put each other down—that probably means someone’s having an unhappy life. Take the time to check in with yourself and reward yourself when you’ve knocked things off your list—whether it’s a new job, becoming debt-free, a dream vacation, a good man, a home or a new business venture.
Let every year be a milestone that you look forward to and celebrate.