This panicked, judgmental exchange did not resemble how my mother viewed my life. At least at first. When I was single in my 20s, my mother and even my much older paternal grandmother took great pride in the fact that I wasn’t focused on marriage or settling down. My mother often told me I was better off being friends with guys I crushed on — adding that I had plenty of time before having serious relationships. “Focus on yourself, your career,” she would say. I agreed with her but never voiced to her my desire for both.
When I reached my 30s, however, everything changed. Every breakup I experienced pained her deeply. If I wasn’t dating anyone, she’d often interrupt what I’d consider exciting career news and ask: “But have you met anyone nice?” Bristling when I’d get annoyed, she’d follow it up with a combative and apologetic rebuttal. Something like: “I’m your mother — I just want you to be happy!” For some reason she could not see the hypocrisy in shouting “live your life” in one moment and then saying “but wait not like that anymore” in the next.
This complete reversal in life advice frustrated and angered me. Sometimes a breakup would be amicable and for the best, but her sigh as I explained it left me with the feeling that my happiness didn’t actually matter if it meant there was no potential fiance in my life. Why push the “focus on yourself, your career” narrative if there’s a ticking clock? Happiness used to mean any number of things, but in her mind post-30 it seemed to be rooted in a serious relationship — and I hated that.
The median age for a first marriage is the highest it’s ever been: 30 for men and 28 for women. As a 38-year-old single woman, it feels like the pressure to marry has just been shifted back a few years. Emma Watson recently spoke to this pressure and the perceived societal expectation to have a husband and a baby by 30. Earlier this year when a reporter asked Taylor Swift about whether she’d be settling down as she turned 30, she shut the question down by remarking how 30-year-old men aren’t asked the same thing.
Leslie Bell, a sociologist and psychotherapist in Berkeley, Calif., considers the pointed question “When are you settling down?” as another form of policing a woman’s choices. “There are still very clear ideas about how women should live their lives,” Bell says. “And people feel very free to voice their opinions and in a very different way towards a successful 35-year-old woman than a 35-year-old man who is also doing well in his career.”
Jessica Tholmer, a 32-year-old content and communications manager in Seattle, faced a lot of interrogation after breaking up with a partner she’d been with on and off for 10 years. “I was surprised how many people expressed concern, like he was my last chance at happiness,” she said. Marriage had never been of interest to Tholmer, a perspective she shared openly and often, so she was surprised when she found herself inundated by people mourning her relationship and questioning, “Are you sure you can’t make it work?”
Friends and acquaintances assumed that resurrecting something with her ex would be better than starting all over again in her 30s. Meanwhile, for her it was the opposite. “Ten years ago this breakup would have ruined my life, and I would have questioned what was wrong with me or how to fix it,” Tholmer says. “And now I’m just like: ‘Well good riddance, this isn’t good for me.’ I have a good job and good friendships. I’m dating someone new. I feel really good about where I am in my life. And if that’s enough for me, why isn’t it for everyone else?”
Why do people reinforce the “yay independent women” mantra for someone’s 20s and then rip it away past 30? Bell thinks there are a multitude of things at play. “The generous response is that people feel they have learned from their own experiences and hope to impart that to others. An attitude of ‘I want you to have in your 20s what I didn’t have’ can become ‘but I do want you to have in your 30s the same things I did.’ But that person commenting might not be examining their own life choices and the realities of how they were influenced by what was possible at that time. Envy might also be at play. And intrusive concern about someone’s fertility ‘window’ has always been used as an argument for settling down.”
People often misjudge singles in their 30s and beyond as not having their lives together. But Janna Zinzi, 39, a travel writer in Los Angeles, feels it’s the opposite: As she’s gotten older, she’s felt more confident of her value. “This binary of either being a settled, married person or a wild partyer is so inaccurate! It is not one or the other! But that’s always the assumption,” she says. Figuring out “who you are and what you want … shouldn’t [have] a time limit on it.”
Bell does believe attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. “The shift in how we think about women’s identity is the one that is taking a while. That one could even conceive of having an identity that is based in friendship and meaningful work and community involvement and doesn’t involve a partner or children. Or maybe it does but it’s not the central part. I do think it’s possible for that change.”
Implementing that change in conversations with my mother has been difficult. I haven’t been able to ask her: “Why was it okay to just be ‘living my life’ a handful of years ago and now it’s not?” To me it’s far easier to brush off societal expectations than my own mother’s words, because I love her, respect her and yet disagree with her. When she insists she just wants me to be happy, I instead hear it as her vocalizing her fears that I’ll wait so long she won’t be around for my wedding or potential grandkids. I finally told her that it makes me feel terrible when she insinuates my life isn’t complete without a partner.
“I’m happy,” I insisted to her recently over lunch while she looked at me skeptically. “I’m happy and I’m not worried about the future.” She probably doesn’t believe me, but all I can do is try.