In my mid-teens it seems as if all my friends and I continued to role play about our adult lives. For some of my friends this meant planning and designing their perfect weddings (at the age of fourteen), picking out baby names and designing their future homes. We all couldn't wait to grow up and become adults.
Of course when you finally become an adult you realise that childhood is a pretty amazing time in our lives. In fact most of us wish that we could, at times, revert back to our childhood; a stage when we had little responsibilities and worries. We didn't tend to overanalyze things at that age and we certainly weren't worried about societal pressures. Childhood was and continues to be a wonderfully significant stage in every person's life.
I wonder then, why we are so desperate and excited to escape it? Why are we so anxious to grow up and realize every life stage at once? It's not a race! Is it?
The Pressure to Conform!
Recently several young girls from my church and I discussed these very issues, particularly the societal pressures that Christian girls feel to get married and have children. Although some of these girls were only 18 or 19 years of age, they already felt inferior amongst their Christian friends because they were neither dating nor married.
Now while there is certainly nothing wrong with dating or even marriage in your late teens/early twenties, it does concern me that so many Christian girls feel incomplete, deficient even, because they are single at this time in their young lives. While these feelings of inadequacy can certainly come from within, external sources place considerable pressure on young women to conform, especially through their relationships. Consequently young girls and even women have a tendency to determine their self-worth through their current relationship status; singleness is equated to failure, whilst dating and marriage signifies success.
Thus many young girls feel the need to race towards relationships so that they may feel worthy and valued. They race so that they may fulfill each and every social marker; the race to find a boyfriend, the race to get married and finally the race to have babies. Unfortunately these girls become so concerned with wanting to fulfill each and every societal marker as quickly as they can, that they forget to ask themselves whether they are doing these things because they think they should or because they really want to.
The problem with trying to satisfy or comply with societal norms is that you can never truly triumph in this race. Once you begin to run, you need to keep running, and running and running to keep up with the world's expectations. You always need to reach yet another next milestone or life stage. When you graduate from high school you are immediately asked what you want to do with your life. Are you going to study or travel? If you are studying, what subjects will you take? Then when you get your first boyfriend/girlfriend you are asked whether you will get engaged. This is quickly followed by the expectation of marriage. How many years should you wait before marrying, you can't leave it too late! Next comes the incessant questions about parenthood. You are asked when you will have children, and of course how many! Eventually you are asked about retirement and funeral plans.
It never stops! The race to accomplish every societal marker is never ending. It seems that single ladies are not the only demographic that feels pressured to fulfill societal norms; societal expectations affect people of all generations and life stages. No one is immune and no one is exempt.
Within the church we need to encourage and embrace people no matter where they are on their life journey. Not everyone is created for the same purpose or to live the same life. Not everyone is suited to marriage or even to parenthood. We are all called to live out our lives in accordance to God's purpose. If we are seeking the world's approval through fulfilling their expectations then we are losing sight of what really matters; we are not focusing on what God has planned for us. And most importantly we are not setting our sights on things above.
In Psalm 139 verses 13-16 it says "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be".
In these verses we are told that our lives have already been mapped out for us by the Creator and that our days have already been written in his book. It doesn't tell us that we should all be married by a certain age or that we must have a certain number of children. Rather it says all the days ordained for 'me'. This signifies that each person will live out an existence especially ordained for them, just as they were especially woven within their mother's womb.
In several passages from James we are also told not worry about how we will plan and construct our lives. Instead we must always set our sights on God who has ordained our existence.
In James 4 verses 13-15 it says "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'"
Again in these verses we are told to set our sights on God and his will for our lives. God should direct the way we live, not societal expectations. Although life is certainly precious, we are but a mist that appears for a little while before vanishing. Instead of worrying about what people think about us and what we must achieve to be socially accepted, we need to ask God what he has planned for us.
Growing with God!
Although many of us want to grow up quickly so that we may accomplish everything at once (marriage, a house and babies) we need to realise that life is not a race. Life is not a competition, and it is certainly too precious to be wasted on fulfilling other people expectations. We need to enjoy life and the various stages we find ourselves in during that journey.
Our lives should not be lived out or seen to be programmed by societal pressure. Rather our lives must be a journey with Christ of discovery and daily opportunities to worship and serve him in whatever it produces.
Alison Barkley lives in Newcastle and is a post graduate student at Macleay College in Sydney in book editing and publishing.
Alison Barkley's archive of articles may be viewed at: www.pressserviceinternational.org/alison-barkley.html