• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

The Heteronormative Pressures On Today’s Young Women

ByOlivia Latimer

Mar 31, 2023

The median age to graduate university in the UK is 22 years old, which for our grandparents’s generation was the average age for a woman to have her first child. Although we have seen generational shifts in heteronormative expectations and norms, there still seems to be subliminal pressures for 21st century women to marry, have a baby (maybe two) and usually juggle having a job, being a wife and a mother. 

The average age for mothers in the UK to have their firstborn is 31.9 years old meaning most women are supposed to achieve this all by their early thirties. But do today’s university students feel this as an added pressure alongside career prospects and their studies?

The latent heteronormative messages still intrinsically installed in society maintain this expectation for women to be someone’s wife and have a baby.

From paying less tax as a married couple to being invited to couples dinners, society still encourages preferences for those in a couple.

Being single is expected to cost you roughly £860 more a month in the UK and there are fewer financial aids one can access as a single individual.

One recently graduated 25 year old stated:

“Although I enjoy being single at this point in my life I do feel the pressure financially and socially to be in a couple as most of my friends are. There have been a few social events I have missed out on due to being single and I feel the financial burden evermore during the recession.”

It seems that couples are favoured in many different avenues of life and this is even felt by women in their early twenties when they have only just left university. Although having children is expensive, it is far more affordable and deemed socially acceptable as a couple rather than a single parent.

But do students feel this pressure because it is their own aspirations or because of cultural and societal strains?

A third year student explained:

“Although I know that I will not want to be a mother any time soon whenever I think about the future I do get stressed about how I should ideally get married and be a mother in the next ten years and I am worried that I won’t be able to fit in my other life plans if I also want that type of life.”

In a country where there is more or less an equal number of female and male university students and there are ever more fair career opportunities, women still are feeling the pressure to ‘fit in’ being a mother before it is ‘too late’, says a second-year female student. It seems that women still feel that their potential to be a mother and a wife at times is valued over their future career prospects or life goals.

Since the 2013 legalisation of gay marriage here in the UK it is interesting to get the queer perspective on the pressure to get married and be a parent. In conversation with a third-year student, they explained:

“Even as someone who is gay I still feel these pressures, people still ask me how and when I want kids and what sort of wedding I would like. But I definitely feel there is still a large emphasis on the nuclear heterosexual family dynamic.”

It seems that women, regardless of their sexual orientation, are questioned on their status on marriage and being a mother showing that there is an evident cultural expectation that women are supposed to be mothers regardless.

There is much discourse surrounding the empowerment of couples and specifically decide not to have children but does this actually ring true in reality?

Speaking with a fourth-year student who has consciously make the decision she does not want to be a mother, it seems her experiences are divergent to this ‘empowering’ narrative.

“When I tell people I don’t want to be a mother people react as though I am being dramatic or juvenile and that it’s obvious my mind will change. I feel there is slight judgement as well that I must be mistaken or confused to have this stance.”

This not only implies the internalised misogyny that many of us harbour which makes us believe that there must be something wrong with a woman not to want to be a mother, but also how this is still the assumed role of an adult woman, even in 2023. In the UK only 18% of women are childless by the end of their reproductive lives. As a minority, childless women do evidently feel a shadow of judgement as they are not complying with heteronormative expectations. 

A childless woman in her 50s : “my partner and I always knew we did not want children and I had no qualms about my choice but continuously through my twenties and thirties people would ask us when we were planning on having children and when I would state never, and they would assume I would change my mind or that I was merely vacuous and cold-hearted. I am neither, I just never had an interest in being a mother. I do love children, but I just did not want my own.” 

This shows that perhaps there has not been much of a shift in attitudes towards heteronormativity and expectations for women’s reproductive actions as there are many parallels drawn between the experiences of two women with a thirty-year age difference.

There seems to be a universal stress on being a mother and getting married. Although there have been cultural shifts and women are having children later while they focus on their careers or other life aspirations, there is still the underlying expectation that a woman’s end goal is to be a mother. When they do not have their desire they are met with questions and assumptions that something is wrong with them. Will our generation be able to break this mould? Or will women always be most valued on their qualities as a wife and a reproductive vessel?

Family Photo printed and framed” by Louish Pixel is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.