When I was 16, I thought I'd be married by 26 and be having my first child right about now. I had it all mapped out in my head, the milestones I'd meet and when I'd tick them off, because that's just what people do. I'd have bought a house in there somewhere too, and would be staring down the barrel of domestic bliss, living up to all of society's expectations and doing life the way it's (supposedly) meant to be done.
I am now 28, and all I can say is that I am relieved that my teenaged vision for the future didn't come to fruition. I was only just beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin at 26, and I couldn't even now be responsibly trusted with a tiny human. I bought an apartment somewhere in there, but that's about the only adulting box I've ticked. And you know what? All in all, although 16-year-old me might feel that I've somehow failed, it's all worked out for the best.
Which is not to say that I haven't occasionally felt a twinge of anxiety about my life trajectory. I've lived an unusual life, travelling for work young, completing my degree by distance learning and following risky career paths. Nothing has turned out as I thought it would, which has been unsettling at times. Recently, however, I've felt that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.
I had a revelation a few months ago. It may seem blatantly obvious, especially to those who are older than I am, but it was one of those thunderbolt moments that altered the landscape of my worldview. One day, out of the blue, I realised that my life stretches ahead of me without boundaries. I have my whole life to fall in love, go on adventures, learn new things, work until my little workaholic heart is content, take risks, invest, innovate, and take on new challenges, and the timing of all of that is flexible.
From childhood, we grow up thinking we have to do certain things at certain times. We're told, explicitly and implicitly, through fairy tales, television, films and, most importantly, the people in our lives, that we should want the same things that everyone else wants and follow the same well-trod path. Deviating from the usual can result in blanks stares and probing questions from our loved ones, although thankfully mine have been very understanding. Nevertheless, the milestones we're all supposed to want to achieve still have a powerful hold on society.
And I think I understand why. If we're all on the same pathway, all wanting the same things, life is easily understandable. We can make sense of the people around us by the stage they're at. There's no need for confusion or awkwardness. We're born, we grow up, we get married, have babies, raise them, and we die. There's a reassuringly cyclic nature to it.
And it's completely fine, if that's the way it happens. But if it doesn't happen that way, that's fine too. It's just as "normal" as the traditional journey through life. And what is "normal" anyway?
As I've grown older, I've started to deconstruct the notion of normality. The milestones that were set in stone when I was 16 seem senseless to me now. For example, there's no need for me to get married or have children at all, if I don't want to. If I decide that I do, I'll do one or both on my own terms and in my own time. (Of course, I'm aware of the biological and financial realities of childbearing, but there's no reason why I couldn't have a child on my own, or look into adoption a little bit later. I am aware that I'm very privileged to be in a position where I have options.)
The truth that I've stumbled upon is that the arbitrary targets and timelines we put in place put pressure on a journey through life that we have little real control over anyway. Maybe it's that lack of control that encourages us to conform. If it is, it's futile. As the song goes, whatever will be will be.
When there are no guarantees anyway, I'd much rather take my life into my own hands and be guided by my instincts. I may not be able to map out my future with exacting precision, but I can make a decision to breathe, divorce myself from expectations and work towards the kind of future I'd like while rolling with the punches. As much as it may sound like I'm looking out of my idealistic window wearing rose-tinted glasses, I'm grateful to have realised that the road ahead will lead me towards endless possibilities, and there is no one right way to go.
I think that for young women particularly, there is pressure in almost every area of our lives. We're supposed to be ambitious (but not too ambitious) career women, objects of beauty, generous partners, loving daughters, good friends and sisters and, in the not too distant future, nurturing mothers. That's a lot to shoulder.
Enough. It's time that we drew up our own bucket lists, forged our own paths and lived our lives on our own terms. There are lots of different happily ever afters, and sometimes half the fun is not knowing exactly what's around the corner.