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We all have one, right? I think for women especially, visualizing when we’d hope to get married, land our first real job, and have kids isn’t a novel idea. I call it the “career-marriage-family timeline,” and I’ve had one floating around in my brain for years.

It seems like the staples of modern American conversation (“Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How about 10 years? Are you a kids person? Do you see yourself getting married?”) enforce the importance of these milestones and our need to plan accordingly. And despite the advance of technologies that slow women’s biological clocks, such as egg-freezing and IVF, they still come at the price of being an older mom and, of course, costing lots of money.

I recently turned 20, which I consider pretty young overall. But in relation to my CMF timeline, it feels like I’ve got to hustle and catch up—either do that or adjust the timeline itself. Let me show you what I mean:

CareerAfter I finish college (age 21), I want to be in the workforce for at least 2 years. Then, I’ll hopefully attend business school—that’s another 2 years. Phew. By then, I’ll either start my own company or seriously buckle down on climbing through the ranks at another one, with the goal of one day becoming CEO. So….that puts me at age 25.

Marriage: My mom got married at 23, and for a while I wanted to get married at the same age. The great thing about her getting married so young is the fact that she and my dad had a full 4 years to just be with one another before expanding their family. I think that’s a wonderful idea, and I’d like to do the same. However, now that that’s only 3 years away, the idea of being so committed so soon scares the hell out of me. At this point in my life, anything earlier than 25 seems too close, and even that age is still pretty young. I’d love to push it back even more if it weren’t for…

…Family: I once dreamed of having my first kid at age 27, just like my mom. I still think that’s an awesome age, but like I said previously, I don’t want to have kids right away. I’d rather be fully adjusted to married life before trying to adjust to family life, y’know? And if my “just us” period—as in, the amount of time my husband and I live sans-kids—is 4 years, that means I’d have my first kid at age 29 and my second at 33. (I always wanted 2 kids with a 4 year age gap, just like my sister and me!)

Having listed everything, it seems like I’ve got this pretty figured out, right? Unfortunately, I can’t let out a sigh of relief just yet. My seemingly put-together CMF timeline is actually nowhere close, due to:

  1. Overlaps between the different components. This CMF timeline dictates that I’d get married at the same age I try to start a company, which is a lot of stress. Then, a kid is thrown into the mix right when my company is probably taking off.
  2. Other people’s lives. What about my husband’s timeline? Or the impact of my parents, grandparents, and sister? There are so many loved ones in my life who will surely have a huge influence on the timing of things. My timeline means nothing to me if it doesn’t include and accommodate the ones I care about the most.
  3. IT’S SO STRICT. All of these ages are fine, assuming that the timeline is followed extremely closely. Given the unpredictable nature of life itself, there’s a huge chance that won’t happen. And I’d be fine with just pushing things back whenever stuff came up if it weren’t for all the…
  4. …Restrictions. There’s no official age to get married or start a business, which is great. But when it comes to having a family, I don’t want to have any more kids after age 35 because of the increased risk of down syndrome. This means that there’s very little leeway when it comes to delaying the family aspect of the CMF timeline.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so inclined to think about the future, but one look at my planner and multiple Excel spreadsheets reveals otherwise. The more and more I age and plunge deeper into adulthood, the more worried I get about whether I’m “on track.” As a good friend pointed out, I’m not alone in the dilemmas I face. CMF timelines can be problematic for everyone, especially because they tend to be based off of what our parents did and where we live. Just take a look at the average age of marriage in every state to see—opinions on when these major life events should take place are extremely varied, and there is no one correct answer.

So should we abandon our CMF timelines? Sure, if you want to! Personally, I can’t—thoughts of it linger with every celebration, accomplishment, and milestone that occurs. But I’ve come to realize that nothing in life is certain, and that’s actually something very beautiful. And as hippie-like as it sounds, I have a mysterious faith in the fact that whatever timeline actually plays out will be a fitting one.

We have no control over what happens regardless, so we might as well just let the universe do its thing and keep moving forward.

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