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We’ve all been there: You’re at a family reunion and your great aunt who you see once a year asks, “When are you going to have a baby?” or you’re out with your girlfriends and Tina remarks, “Is he ever going to propose?” You want to clap back, but by now, you’ve learned to grin and bear it. While these questions often come from a place of good intention, they are intrusive and belittling. It’s no one’s business why you are still single, why your partner hasn’t proposed, or when you plan on having a baby. Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in California, insists that “such pressure is a boundary violation and disrespects the privacy and needs of others.” Yes, your friends and relatives probably mean well, but if you’re uncomfortable with the questions they are asking, they have crossed a line.
“There is so much pressure on women to meet societal expectations,” says Dr. Alexis Conason, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who specializes in body image. What’s more, we live in a social media–obsessed society, so it’s become harder and harder to avoid the pressure of #lifegoals. We’re bombarded daily with relationship status updates, creative pregnancy announcements, and, of course, endless scrolls of those back-to-school photos. It’s no wonder women are comparing their achievements with those of other women. “This pressure keeps women feeling stuck and beaten down. We obsess about things that are largely out of our control—such as meeting our dream partner—and berate ourselves for our perceived failures rather than focusing on living the most satisfying life in the present moment,” Dr. Conason says.
Yet some will argue that these types of questions are harmless or that they can even motivating. “Sure, there are times when positive pressure can work to compel an individual to achieve and grow, but this type of pressure often has the opposite effect,” explains Dr. Manly. For example, she adds, the question “When are you getting married?” can easily translate into pressure to get married to the wrong person or at a premature time. All of these life goals tend to get tied to certain milestone ages. “They are largely related to childbearing and our ticking biological clock, making us believe that if we haven't done X by X age, then it will never happen for us,” says Dr. Conason, adding that this can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of depression and anxiety.
"These are intelligent, attractive, successful women who believe they have less value than others around them.”
Depending on someone’s personal situation, these questions take a toll on someone's emotional state. Who wants to talk about their struggles with fertility with an acquaintance at a cocktail party or explain to their coworker that they've been fighting their boyfriend for months because he isn't sure if he wants to get married? Christine Fuchs, a licensed mental health counselor in New York, agrees: “Many of my female patients, from their mid-20s to early 30s, who have never had any kind of mental health issues before, begin seeking treatment because they feel as if something is wrong because they have not yet achieved what society deems as appropriate for this age range. These are intelligent, attractive, successful women who believe they have less value than others around them.”
A woman who feels constantly battered by other people to reach life goals by a certain time may feel judged and pressured to the point that they start avoiding relationships and social activities altogether. “A woman I will call Lilly came to me seeking support due to heavy pressure from her family to have a child,” says Dr. Manly. “Her once-close relationship with her mother had become a constant source of irritation. At 34, Lilly was engaged, fully engaged in her career, and simply not yet ready for children. Although Lilly’s partner was supportive, the stress from the onslaught of comments such as, ‘Won’t you ever give me grandchildren?’ left Lilly feeling disconnected from her family.”
If you’re feeling the pressure, here’s how to deal:
Politely decline to respond
You don't owe anyone an explanation. Just because someone asked a question doesn't mean you need to give an answer. “Lilly coped with her situation by learning to understand, set, and enforce her personal boundaries,” says Dr. Manly. “As a result, she began clearly and respectfully letting others know that she would no longer tolerate their inquiries or pressuring on the topic of children.”
Ditch the timeline
“Everyone goes through life at a different pace,” says Dr. Conason. “Try to see these differences as just differences rather than judging them as better or worse [than your peers].”
Hone in on what’s important to you
By creating self-awareness, you will know when you are ready to have a child, date again, or shift careers, explains Dr. Manly.
Take care of yourself
“Whether it is physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, self-care is important in managing stress,” says Fuchs. “By giving yourself love and attention, you are able to reconnect with yourself and foster the most important relationship you have.”
Accept where you are in life’s journey and work toward living a maximally satisfying life right now.
“Express appreciation for what you have,” says Fuchs. “It’s easy to focus on the things we don’t have and things we want.” Start each day by identifying three things you’re grateful for.
If societal pressure is leading you down a path of self-loathing, anxiety, or depression, reach out for support. “Many people benefit from input from a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist,” says Manly. “Then when you feel ready, set up your life-goal timeline, knowing that you are free to adjust those goals as is best for you.”