On The Ability To Change Gradually

In The Huffington Post, Pauline Millard writes,

There is something about being a 28-year-old woman, especially in an urban area, that makes them flip the switch from party girl to marriage material that often has nothing to do with a ticking biological clock. Some might call it a cab light turning on. The most obvious reason is that it’s cultural, subtly ingrained into our psyches over years of pop culture.

Millard has correctly identified some kind of phenomenon. It’s true that many young women suddenly become serious about dating and marriage, about settling down and about motherhood, when they reach the age of 28. In my observation, the age the change occurs is actually closer to 27, then it takes a year for the women themselves to figure out what’s going on with them. 28 is when they realize that what they’ve been craving over the course of the past year is marriage, family, and children.

Calling the reason “cultural” is also a correct diagnosis, in my opinion, although it isn’t very specific. Sure, it’s culture, but why doesn’t culture make the change happen earlier or later? Millard’s casual conjecture is that the movies tell us that 28 is the age that women shape up. I don’t think a “cab light turns on” in a woman’s mind merely because they see a lot of movies featuring women who get married at 28.

To help think through this, consider every other big change you’ve made in your life. Granted, there are a few life events that are sudden and cataclysmic, such as when we move out of our parents’ house. For the overwhelming majority of major personal changes, though, things happen gradually. Your music tastes develop slowly over time. Your taste in books gradually goes from being what you used to enjoy as a teenager to whatever you enjoy now, as an adult. The person you are in your romantic relationships usually evolves over the course of those relationships; so, over a period of months and years. There is no “cab light.” You don’t suddenly wake up one day and discover that you are a completely different person.

No one goes to bed a “party girl” on her last day of 27 and wakes up “marriage material” the following morning. Drastic changes occur slowly, over time.

I mentioned exceptions, though. High school graduation occurs pretty suddenly, actually. Two weeks before graduation, you’re the same high school student you always were; then you graduate, and suddenly you think you have to be a fully functioning adult. Or, as I mentioned, moving out of your parents’ house and suddenly becoming responsible for all your shopping and chores. It’s not quite an overnight change, but it is definitely sink-or-swim. Within a few months, you will have become who you are as the master of your own house.

The defining feature of these more sudden changes is that culture has no means of making them happen gradually. It isn’t possible to graduate high school slowly, over the course of months. Once you meet the requirements, you’re finished. Moving out of your parents’ home is binary: either you’re here or you’re there. You can’t be here-and-there. You can’t kind of be there. Our personalities change suddenly during these times because the times themselves are sudden. We don’t have any other choice about it.

Similarly, when I became a type 1 diabetic, it essentially happened overnight. The moment I received my diagnosis, I also received my first shot of insulin. I’ve been diabetic ever since. My body did go through a transition, but that was happening unbeknownst to my mind. My psyche changed because it had to change, because there was no other option.

This is how personal changes occur. In most cases, they happen gradually, over time, unless something major and sweeping happens suddenly.

The question, then, is what happens to women at age 28 that is sudden, major, and sweeping, that doesn’t happen at age 27? Nothing, of course. For most women, age 28 is exactly the same as age 27, at least in terms of cultural drivers of personal growth. So becoming “marriage material” is not at all like becoming a diabetic. It’s not something that happens overnight and outside of a woman’s control.

I would argue that becoming “marriage material” is more like graduating high school. Graduating high school is a major, sudden change because there’s no other way to do it. Becoming “marriage material,” too, is a major, sudden change because there’s no other way to do it. Society doesn’t have a script for women to follow that takes them from being teenage kids to being semi-adult college students, to being young women on their own who are looking to slowly transition into a marriage.

Instead, society’s script is to “enjoy your youth.” And for so many women, “enjoy your youth” means “be a party girl.” The script we hand our young women involves a lot of career work, a lot of partying and dancing, a lot of casual sex. The fact that this can’t go on forever is patently obvious. No one should ever question the fact that it can’t go on forever. It can’t. It won’t. It ends. But there’s no script for winding it down. There’s no socially acceptable way to transition out of dancing and drugs and casual sex and into being the kind of responsible person that is capable of motherhood.

Because there is no script for this kind of change, many women find themselves in a position of having to just stop doing one thing and start doing another. They simply reach a point, around age 28, where the dead-end nature of their current lifestyle becomes obvious to them, and they force themselves to acquire a new lifestyle, one with some staying power. That’s motherhood, wifehood, partnership. So they change.

But notice that, prior to the change, they are essentially living a glorified adolescence. Notice, too, that this glorified adolescence is what people have been criticizing in young men for decades. They’ve been called playboys, and man-children, and “failures to launch,” and all the rest of it. They’ve been mocked and ridiculed and denigrated. This phenomenon is old news for men, though. Men have been drawing out their adolescence for as long as they could, because they knew that as soon as they became “marriage material,” it would be time to put the drumsets away and raise children. And that is precisely the path we men have been walking for decades.

Women, then, have finally discovered a parallel situation in their own lives. Now that we all recognize the problem, perhaps it’s time to start crafting a cultural narrative through which we glorify adolescence, partying, drugs, and casual sex a little less; and glorify the eventual transition to adulthood and parenthood a little more.