Do you know "Here comes the bride" is styled after a funeral march? It's from one of Wagner's operas (and if you know Wagner, you probably know where this is going) and is played as the bride and groom prepare to consummate the marriage (yes, Here Comes The Bride is actually not what Elsa marches down the aisle to) when the antagonist (spoilers!) bursts in and starts killing a bunch of people. It's also meant as foreshadowing of the bride dying horribly because Wagner.
This is a song that 70% of couples choose as the opening credits to their married life, because it's what you do. No wonder it's even odds on divorce.
There is a script that we are all fed for how our lives will pan out. We'll grow up, go to school, start a career, meet someone, get married, have kids, pressure them to do the same so we can have grandkids, retire, travel a bit, die.
I think at some point in our lives we all buy into this script, but I think it's a toxic one. It encourages us to define ourselves by our roles (wife, mother, teacher) rather than who we are (Monica with a great sense of humor, a passion for model sail boats, and salsa dancing). It tries to force everyone into one mold, and there is so much social pressure that it's hard not to try.
When I was a teenager, I assumed I probably wouldn't get married, and kids were just not on the radar. This was constantly met with people flat out telling me I was wrong and to "just wait". I was open to the idea of marriage, someday, maybe, but kids? Less likely. This went on, but would eventually die down when I didn't relent, or hide my annoyance at people telling me I was wrong and didn't know my own mind and couldn't possibly know my own mind. People would react so strongly to my rejecting the script that they would start fighting with me about it. When I was a 15 year old girl and admitted that maybe in ten years I'd feel differently, but for now?
Ten years later, I'm getting ready to walk down the aisle myself, but I still don't want kids. Those same people who were picking fights with me at 15 are still doing so at 25. Over my not wanting kids, which I've written about before, wanting to buy a condo in the city instead of a house in the suburbs, keeping my last name... People get nervous when you go off script. They get angry, I would assume (and it is just that, an assumption) that because they bought into it, it is the Right Way and by actively not choosing it, you are telling them they (and their friends and family who bought into it, too) are Wrong.
This is where it starts to get toxic. Little girls are not sold the idea of marriage, we sell them the idea of a wedding. We tell them about this magical day where they get to be a princess and everything is about them and everything will be Just. What. They. Want. It will be the happiest day of their lives! I can not count the amount of people who have told me "It's your wedding! Be more of a diva!" which strikes fear I can not readily articulate into me. We're told that this is part of growing up. If you're in a long term, seemingly happy relationship, it doesn't matter that you're 20*, people will start giving you unsolicited advice to just get married already! If you're 25 and in that position people start asking what's wrong, why haven't you done it yet?
It's hard not to be swayed by it. If it were one or two people spouting this it'd be easy enough to brush aside, but it isn't. It seems to be everyone, and it starts so early. It's hard not to internalize it. So we grow up thinking if we're not married by 25-30 we're doing something wrong. It leads to anxiety and panic and maybe getting married because we feel we're supposed to more than because we want to. It leads to having a hard time being happy for your friends when they get married because you're not yet, or because maybe you legally can't get married. It leads to unrealistic expectations of marriage, because half of us are sold a wedding, not a marriage. Which brings me back to my earlier snark about divorce rates.
Marriage is only one step in this process, though. What about kids fresh out of high school who take on staggering debt to get an education when they're not positive that's what they want because they're still kids, and because that's what they're told to do? What about the shame we push on the kids who don't go to school, or can't?
And what about kids? I've written before about how annoyed I get when people ask and insist I have kids. When people tell me I will never understand what love really means until I have kids (again the assumption that I will) and that it is the greatest thing EVAR and really I'm missing out why have I not insisted The Boy put a baby inside me already? They make some pretty horrible assumptions, and not just assuming I'm incapable of knowing what I want. They assume that I CAN have kids. I'm sick, and I don't know what's wrong with me, it's entirely possible that I physically can't. I'm a cook; I'd be skeptical if I financially could either. What about the women who desperately want to have children but for one of many, many reasons can't? What about adoption? There are a lot of reasons that can't work, either, and we talked about making obvious suggestions and how that's bad before, remember? Are we just pretending these people don't exist? That's a painful enough scenario to be in to start with, I'm not okay with adding to their pain by pretending they don't exist, and by pretending that they will never be complete or whole person until they have a child. It's bullshit, and it's toxic, harmful bullshit.
On the other side of the coin there are people who are married, and maybe things aren't going so well and they figure that they'll have a kid and that will help them through this rough patch. Adding kids to the equation doesn't mean making any major changes which will lead to stress and hardships during the time of transition! Babies are magical, after all, and bring nothing but happiness! What if THAT couple faces infertility? Will they feel their struggling (or failing) marriage is due to their inability to check off the next box on the list? Will they not be real adults until they do? What if they conceive and the child is sick and now they're even more angry and bitter at each other because remember what I said above about major life changes stressing people out?
The narrative, and the enthusiasm we push it with, often leads us into shame, embarrassment, insecurity, corners and dead ends because there is no one size fits all life, or path. Yet we push it on others, and ourselves, because that is what we think we're supposed to do. Asexual? Infertile? Disabled? Impoverished? Gay? Doesn't matter! You can** still have all these things! And if you don't then how will you ever be happy?
I feel I often stop and call for us to simply reject a cultural norm on this blog, but I fear I don't fully credit how huge a thing that can be to do. I mean, we can't just will dinosaurs back into existence, as much as I would also like to call for that. I like to think I've rejected the norm, but now that I've taken one of the Approved Steps I understand how easy it can be to get swept up in enforcing and encouraging the narrative. So what, and how, can we do it? Amber and frogs?
Step 1 is recognizing when we're enforcing it. Asking someone why they don't want to get married (or have kids, or go to college or or or) or telling someone they should seems like a good starting point. These are valid choices, or painful circumstances which are really none of our business either way.
Step 2 is having conversations about the narrative with other people. We need to talk about it, and we need to call people out for trying to push this agenda, and we need to support people resisting it.
Step 3 is to invade the media. Wait, what? I know that some of you are artists, in what ever medium you happen to art in, think about breaking that pattern as often as possible. Don't have your hero settle down with their love interest and live happily ever after! Have them find a different kind of happy ending. Seeing other narratives will help us normalize that there's more than one, which will loosen the stranglehold the current one has on us.
I am not saying that these are bad things to want, for the record. If
you want to get married and be a stay at home parent? Power to you and I'm
jealous you know what you want out of life! What I am condemning is how
we push the idea of marriage/kids so fervently that people feel that
these are just things you're supposed to do rather than choices that
should have a lot of thought going into them.
*No, really. When I was 20 people were pushing me to just marry my high school sweetheart. Co-workers, relatives, random people I'd get chatting with at bus stops...
**I am not, by the way, saying that you can't still get married have kids etc if you ARE these things, simply that they are very real reasons why you may not want them.