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Recently I came across this absolutely relevant article written by Joy Chen about the ‘problem’ of ‘leftover women’ in China, and then I realised how much sense it made for practically every career-oriented woman in her 20s. Essentially Chen talks about the concept of ‘leftover women’ – women who are 25 and older and are unmarried (oh the horror!). She makes a statement perhaps not all would agree with – and that is ‘do not marry before 30’. Do I agree? Of course I do. That’s why I’m writing this post in the first place.

Now this concept of ‘leftover women’ could also very well extend to a country like India, where more women are putting off marriage until their late 20s (or even later) in spite of the traditional pressures of getting married and settling down. In India once you reach your 20s as a woman, society starts hitting its head over why you are not married yet and that pressure starts falling on the girl’s family. Sometimes a woman cannot even protest though she is not ready to be bound in matrimony. But everyone around her seems to be having the ‘marriage conversation’.

If you’re an Indian girl, you’d know how the ‘marriage conversation’ goes.
Your aunt’s aunt’s sister’s daughter-in-law asks you:
“How old are you? When are you getting married?”
Your neighbour, who never talks to you otherwise asks you: “aren’t your parents already looking for a boy for you?”
Your maid, who you don’t even see often because you’re always out for work, asks your mom: “when are you going to get your daughter married?”
Seems everyone cares a lot about you settling down. A bit freaky methinks.
So this is the lovely marriage conversation that takes up much of Indian Standard Time once you are considered to be of ‘marriageable age’.

If you’ve read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article about ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, you should definitely read Joy Chen’s article after it. Both women are established in their own fields but have some really different opinions. Slaughter does mention some good points – like the fact that workplaces do not really extend much help to a woman and thereby deprive her of a chance to climb the ladder like her male peers. She does however come back to gendered notions especially with regard to parenting. I won’t get into that much here. I don’t really agree with Slaughter. What I will focus on however, is how relevant Chen’s thoughts are, while adding some of my own thoughts.

Your 20s are a time when you are really just starting to face reality. Since high school and college take up until your mid-20s sometimes, you really only feel the pressure of the ‘real world’ once you get out of that education system. Now though school and college help you grow in different ways, they do not really end your confusion when you head out into the workplace. Questions about who you are, what you want to do, where you’re headed, where you see yourself, swim in your head every second of every moment. Now this is the case with both men and women, I know, but since this is a post deriving from Chen’s article, I’m sticking with women on this one.

In traditional societies like the ones that exist in India, this makes it particularly difficult for women, who are just coming out of the educational system in search of something bigger (READ: not always marriage). Funnily, many parents in India send their daughters to pursue higher education but they do not always intend for their daughters to make good careers (not always the case, but in some cases). Strangely, sometimes the ‘sending to college’ thing only happens so that their daughters seem better ‘qualified’ for marriage. Yes, very strange indeed. Once these girls are married, they sometimes choose to work, or leave their jobs. Higher education out the window.

Anyhow, the 20s bring a lot of personal turmoil for women. They start feeling like they’re growing older and have not achieved much. They face the confusion of what they want to do in their lives. They have career problems, confidence problems, love problems, just practically all problems they can think of. They may never even think about marriage, but marriage always stares them in the face whether they like it or not. All their friends and classmates start getting married around them. Some even start having kids! Though these unmarried women might be terrified at the idea itself, they start wondering if there’s something wrong with the rest of the world or if there’s something wrong with them. It’s particularly the case in India because after 25 years of age, your female friends start getting hitched, and you wonder if you’re supposed to be worried or happy. If you are in a fulfilling relationship with someone, then perhaps you feel less threatened by all this, but if you are single, or worse, are going through heartbreak, you start feeling strange or even saddened. Definitely not a great time to be content – the 20s.

However, you have a lot to be thankful for at that age. You have the freedom to be your own person. Marriage is an extremely crucial step, and in your 20s, when you feel like life is passing you by and you haven’t done anything to catch it, marriage is indeed not the best solution. It can help you to find someone who supports you (if you’re lucky) – but if your partner is as confused as you…then well…goodness help both of you. Some people who wish for marriage to ‘settle down’ may find its security comforting, but if you are unsure of where you’re going, don’t pull an unprepared partner along with you to suffer your confusions along with his. It’s much better to remain unbridled at such a time. Men go through these confusions in their 20s too, and if both partners are confused, it might actually affect their marriage adversely.

Chen makes an interesting point about how the 30s actually bring about positive changes in women. Women may look older by then, their ‘youthful looks’ spent, but they actually feel more confident about themselves. They are generally well-settled in their careers. They’re less confused and are more willing to be out there and explore. They even start attracting the attention of more ‘mature’ men (okay I wouldn’t really know that but yeah). This is the time, because of their relative mental stability, they can choose to commit to something like marriage.

I’d read an article many months ago (which I honestly found quite outrageous). It essentially says that women should devote their early 20s into finding a husband and then get pregnant at 25 so that they can have a high powered career in their 40s! The logic is that by the time you’re 45, your kids are grown and you can devote the rest of your life in climbing the career ladder. Now I’m not sure there’s any sense in that. How can you prepare yourself for work (and not just normal work – a high post) at 45 if you’ve been mothering since 25? You may not have parental pressures anymore, but how does it help you grow really? Your 20s are the time you build your character and career – it is a time you spend to discover yourself. This is also the time you haven’t really started spreading your feet firmly on a career you might want to pursue, but you’re trying to. When you’re standing on shaky ground during those years of your life, just how wise is it to get married to someone, or to give birth to a kid? Those two things require you to focus your energies on taking care of two other people, instead of actually putting energy into understanding your own needs. If you can’t help yourself first, how will you help others?

Of course there are exceptions and not everyone is so career driven – and there are also people who do not want to marry or have kids. There are those who genuinely wish to get married in their 20s, but in some countries like India, it’s a social ‘obligation’.

If you’re an Indian girl (or just any girl from anywhere) being forced to think about marriage, and you don’t want it right now, don’t be pressurised. Your ‘biological clock’ won’t stop ticking once you turn 30 (if you’re looking to have kids), contrary to what most people say. It’s first better to be sure of yourself than to commit to someone else who may or may not be sure of himself either. Take your 20s like they are supposed to be taken – as a time to discover your emotions and strengths and as a time to take all risks. Marriage won’t run away, and hey, is marriage a necessity anyway?