Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.
I used to have a book where I would plan out my life. The torn-up, yellow college-ruled notebook was filled with lists of children’s names, sketches of the classroom I would teach in and estimations of when I would get married or move out. Second grade me went all out, but the notebook found its way to the trash as the predictions became more and more wrong.
The notebook was filled with the expectations society tells people are important, but literally, none of the predictions were right. I’m not lying when I say that second grade me was dumb. She had assumed that because society had useless checkpoints, she had to follow the path. That’s not how life works. If there were a standard life people experienced, the world would get really boring really fast.
The expectation of a standard life disregards the differences between people and their resources. Even the smallest components of life are judged on an invisible timeline. When I tell people that I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 19, they tend to act like I broke a rule.
The pressure to keep up with the unspoken checkpoints can have negative consequences, and this doesn’t just relate to driving. The feeling of having to meet certain life goals is ingrained in American culture and can make choices for people without them even realizing it. From careers to relationships, there is a generalization of what people want at certain points in their life.
The constant push for the standardized narrative creates a culture of cutting corners or accepting something less than what people deserve. Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist who writes for The Atlantic, argued in favor of settling in a relationship. Her argument was rooted in the belief that women need to be married and in families in order to be happy. Gottlieb cites the opposition to settle as the reason women are unhappy when they’re single after 30.
Gottlieb explains, “... Marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you’re looking for a stable, reliable life companion … While settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you’re looking at it from the vantage point of a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you’ll probably be relatively content.”
Despite the heteronormative undertones of the article, the underlying assumption that everyone wants to get married and have kids follows the societal norm. For people who do want that life, the prospect of not getting it can be terrifying, but for the people who don’t want the stereotype, this pressure can push them into something they don’t even vaguely want.
Settling for a less-than-great relationship isn’t the solution. The act of settling is built on the idea that this is something you have to do. Settling for someone you don’t love simply because you can like them just enough doesn’t help you. Settling for a relationship so that society can stop pushing you to do so isn’t going to help you either. Relationships are a personal choice. To dictate who has to be in one at a certain point removes their social agency. Are you dating because you want to or because enough people told you to?
Relationships aren’t inherently wrong, but the pressure to participate in specific versions of them is extremely harmful. My 20-year-old-friend regularly claims she is going to die alone because she hasn’t dated yet. Relationships and life don’t follow checkpoints, despite what society claims. This framework also ignores that you can have a happy and fulfilling life without a romantic or sexual relationship.
Of course, the invisible path isn’t just linked to relationships. Education, career and social development are also presented as needing to follow a set path. According to a column published by The New York Times, one in three high school students told the American Psychological Association that stress leads them to sadness and depression, and the number one cause of stress was school. Doctors have reported patients as young as five-years-old coming in with migraines or ulcers linked to stress.
The expectations school puts on students has a massive impact on their health, and this applies to college as well. Past the stress of trying to get into college, college students are still exposed to more academic stress. A professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine noticed an alarming amount of stress and depression among his students. He implemented a set of changes that, over the six-year program, actually made an impact on the number of mental health issues he saw.
The expectations society puts on students isn’t fair, but it also isn’t fair to expect everyone to go to college. College is expensive and it's unrealistic to expect lower income students to participate in a system that neglects them. Expecting student loans to solve the problem ignores the impact the massive debt can have on people.
However, another problem for pushing college is that not everyone wants to go to college. While the general public pushes the idea that college is necessary for economic fulfillment, not everyone wants to go. College is hard, and a lot of the time it’s harder than it needs to be. In addition, some careers don’t require college. Whether people directly enter the workforce or invest in vocational or trade schools, college isn’t a necessary part of every single life plan.
The assumption that everyone wants the same thing isn’t fair. Societal checkpoints aren’t fair for people who don’t want the standard. Wanting a relationship or a degree isn’t a bad thing, but making them the standard makes those who don’t want or can’t have them seem inferior.
My yellow notebook did little to get me to where I am today, but it did show me that I was living someone else’s expectations. My motivation to come up with kids’ names, diagrams of a classroom and an entire life plan was to make sure that I didn’t fall behind. If you don’t follow society’s yellow notebook, you aren’t falling behind because life doesn’t have a script or outline. Don’t settle just because you haven’t hit some invisible assignment. You deserve better than that.
Edited by Bryce Kolk | firstname.lastname@example.org