Societal norms emphasize traditional benchmarks, like marriage and having kids, as a sign of success for women. Other accomplishments often aren’t met with the same level of support. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, discusses how to talk about your priorities and celebrate goals that matter to you, not what society deems is right for you as a woman.
As a woman, certain milestones will always garner emphatic excitement: Engagement, marriage, and babies. A simple post on social media announcing any of these events will bring response after response of “congrats” courtesy of everyone from your close aunt to someone you haven’t talked to in ten years. “Look at you,” their support appears to say, “You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. We couldn’t be prouder.”
The weight and excitement put towards these traditional paths for women are often much more significant than their accomplishments in any other area. Yet, women are so much more than their ability to find a partner and reproduce.
“Our society does a great job of communicating that women must adhere to the guidelines of a strict, heteronormative gender binary and meet specific benchmarks to be valued in society,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC.
Modern women are building on generations of work pushing back against these norms. According to the Pew Research Center, unpartnered women ages 25 to 54 increased from 29% in 1990 to 36% in 2021. The same timeframe and age group also saw the amount of all married adults decrease from 67% to 53%.
However, this doesn’t come without feelings of stress around acting untraditional. “There is a lot of research that points to the impact of comparison being correlated with feelings of fear, shame, and guilt. Comparison impacts how we love ourselves and rarely considers personal experience,” says Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health. “Life paths are just as unique as our fingerprints, and there is no one direct or correct path.”
Reaffirming your path to yourself
Did you tell friends or family about a promotion or move only to be met with lukewarm responses or to have the topic quickly change to so and so’s new baby? We’ll get into how to talk to them about this, but first, let’s check in with you. You’re making these decisions for a reason.
Take time to regularly confirm to yourself why these paths are right for you. “Staying connected to your beliefs and vision and validating your own choices will hopefully help you navigate any challenging situations or relationships,” Lurie says.
Lurie recommends looking for like-minded individuals for support. These people may be your coworkers and already existing friends, or it may require reaching out to new groups, such as communities in your field.
Talking to loved ones about your priorities
You’ll never be able to change other people’s beliefs and statements entirely. With that said, talking to people in your life about the goals that matter to you—especially if their attitude is negative—might make a difference.
A redirect can also work. When someone asks when you’re settling down, try, “I appreciate your interest in my family planning, but this isn’t the right time to discuss. I would love to tell you more about my upcoming backpacking trip in Europe, though,” says Angela Sitka, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
At the same time, don’t assume they’re acting with malicious intent. Open up the conversation with something like, “I feel hesitant to share good news with you,” says Shelton. “It creates an opportunity for you to share how your professional advancements or travel adventures seem to be downplayed because you don’t have kids or are not married. Often the people in our lives will be shocked to receive this information.”
How to confront your own societal biases
Odds are you’re not entirely off the hook with perpetuating these narratives either—internalized societal bias can be deeply ingrained. With that in mind, evaluate the message your actions and words, or lack thereof, send. One considerable aspect of this is removing the assumption every woman you meet wants partners and children in the future. Ask them instead about their plans generally, says Lurie.
Celebrate occasions with them outside of just baby showers and weddings. Did your friend rent a great new place or buy a nice car? Did your cousin get into her top graduate school? Ask them if this is something they would like to celebrate, and then have a wonderful time.
Furthermore, help remove the idea that a partner is the most crucial relationship in a person’s life.