How to define your own destination without following your mother's timeline
When I was in my twenties, there was a conversation topic that used to come up again and again with my friends. It went like this: one of us would be complaining about something in her life – her single status, say, or her job that felt like it was going nowhere. Perhaps she was moaning about her nightmare flatmates or her thwarted dreams of living in her own place.
Whatever it was, it was usually a symptom of how unstable our lives felt, how removed we seemed to be from proper adulthood despite being, to all intents and purposes, legal adults. Anyway, at a certain point one of us would always, always bring up our parents, usually our mothers. “By the time she was my age,” we would say, “she had two kids, a mortgage and was married.”
To an extent, our mothers’ timelines defined our own understanding of adulthood, which we saw almost as a series of boxes that you have to tick: house, husband, career, baby. So if your mother got married at 25 and by 30 had three children, hitting those ages only to observe that all you had to your name was an arranged overdraft and a stack of letters from the student loans company felt sobering, to say the least. It’s not that we felt competitive with our mothers exactly – more that their lives seemed to stand in stark contrast to our own. Their milestones were the only blueprint we had, but many of the traditional markers of adulthood felt completely pie in the sky.
It’s natural to compare, because your parents are the first adults with whom you are properly acquainted. We hold them up as pinnacles, and many of us are guilty of idealising their pasts and the opportunities they were given, from free higher education to cheaper property prices.
Yet, with our generation being the first to actually be worse off than our parents – and circumstances being even more challenging for Gen Z, who face a cost-of-living crisis, the fallout from the pandemic, and climate apocalypse – how useful can it be to chart our lives this way?
Not very, is the answer. Speaking from experience, it is certainly not the path to psychological wellbeing. My mum married relatively late for her generation, at 27, and had me at 30, but I still felt a strange sort of sadness when I passed those milestone birthdays and found that I didn’t seem to have it figured out yet. I knew I wanted to get married and even more than that, have children, but throughout my twenties and early thirties my life often felt like a pastiche.
Of course, being haunted by your parents’ timeline is of limited use when things are so dramatically different for our generation. For the first time, the average age at which a woman becomes a mother is 31 years old. The cost of childcare and housing, educational opportunities and career pressure are all factors, not to mention climate anxiety. So for me to be 31 and not pregnant was not at all unusual, yet I put myself under so much pressure (at least none of it was coming from my actual mother). There was some societal pressure, but not to the same extent that our parents’ generation faced. Settling down was often what you did in those days, whether you wanted to or not. Look at photographs of families from the 1970s and the parents often seem old before their time – they dress and look the part, and have the white picket fence, the car, the house in the suburbs, but they are children, really (or perhaps we are just in a state of arrested development).
Either way, the one thing I have learned since getting deeper into my thirties, not to mention becoming a parent, is that nobody truly feels like an adult. Everyone is making it up as they go along. Perhaps your parents had a house and a garden and 2.5 children by the time they were 30, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t ever confused or bewildered by life. Besides, depressing though our prospects can feel in the face of huge generational injustice, there is freedom to be had in not having our lives mapped out for us in the same way. As women, we are able to look beyond marriage and children towards career opportunities, travel, sex, adventure, creativity, and fun. There’s less pressure to fit a certain mould of femininity that sees you branded a crazy cat lady just because you’re unmarried and without children, and more leeway to create the kind of life you want, to write your own story without being shackled by expectations.
It was exploring feelings around what it means to make a life when the old rules no longer apply that inspired me to write my book, The Year of the Cat. Getting a pet when the rest of my life felt unstable felt like a step towards a more settled existence. Though it would be nice were politicians to make a stable adulthood more achievable for subsequent generations with affordable housing and childcare, reliable employment and action on climate – not to mention allowing those in rented accommodation to own pets.
Having to tread my own path has certainly made me more philosophical about what life may throw at me. I can’t say that I’m no longer haunted by how much my mother achieved and by what age, but I’m far less preoccupied by it. Whether you get there in the end or not, the journey – chaotic and confusing and ramshackle though it may at times be – is in some ways as defining as the destination.
The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is out now
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