Last year, Jane Church hit a major life milestone. For more than a year, the 31-year-old Toronto-based consultant had been building out her own company, a nonprofit natural resources consultancy called NetPositive, when word came in that the organization won a grant she had applied for, and they could afford to hire interns. It was, she said, “a real accomplishment that was going to move me forward toward my goals,” and the most significant achievement of her year. Everything about it made her feel like an adult.
Oh, and she also got engaged.
“I was excited about getting engaged, but it was a mutual decision, I knew it was going to happen, the ring had been purchased together,” Church tells Bustle. “I was excited, but I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything.” Engagement solidified one part of her path to personal happiness, and she was thrilled at the prospect of spending her life with her partner. But the grant solidified a sense of adult achievement, the culmination of profound commitments of Church’s time and her own money.
“The idea of turning NetPositive into a real, sustainable organization, that to me is a real marker of success,” she says. “If I look ahead at my life, I think this is the year we are going to become more sustainable — if we can hire employees, that would be a real marker of success for me. Further ahead from that, I don’t know, I want to have kids, but I don’t know that I would consider that life success.”
As more and more women around the world delay marriage and childbearing, or never marry or have children at all, the traditional markers of adulthood are shifting. Half a century ago, adulthood in America came along with marriage, then a home, then children, in that order, with women typically marrying before they turned 20. Today, the average woman marries at 27, while the average age of first birth is just over 26 — in other words, many women are having babies before marriage, and many others aren’t getting married or having babies at all. As these traditional markers of adult life fall away or get pushed back, women are figuring out how to replace them — and redefining adulthood in the process.
In 2018, the one-size-fits markers of adulthood have evolved. Now, many women are finding that personal independence, like a first paycheck, living alone for the first time living alone, a first solo vacation, paying off one’s student loans, or being able to financially support one’s parents is a more noteworthy milestone than marriage. Johana Bonnell, a 35-year-old chef in Seattle, tells Bustle her transition into adulthood came from forging her own path, including traveling and “seeing how other people live” — and having the freedom to live outside of society’s traditional ideas of what it means to be an adult.
For Anna Holmes, the senior vice president of Topic.com, the editorial arm of the film and TV production company First Look Media, adulthood was more a state of mind than a set of milestones. “The thing I feel was the marker of me transitioning to be an adult was the realization that I needed to ask myself if I liked someone or something, rather than asking if that someone or something liked me,” she tells Bustle. “Was a job, a potential partner, or a friend good for me? As opposed to was I good for them.” Holmes notes that it was this paradigm shift that allowed her to stand up a little taller and feel more in control of her own destiny. “[Women] are socialized to please others to the detriment of ourselves — we can lose sight of what we want because we’re so busy thinking about what others want.”
Before the turn of the 20th century, “the idea of individualism for women was simply off the table.”
Which doesn’t mean there weren’t notable “Now Entering Adulthood, Please Fasten Your Seatbelt” signposts along the way. “The first time I could afford to rent my own apartment in New York was a big deal for me,” says Holmes. “It was a marker of adulthood, I wasn’t going to have to have a roommate anymore. It was terrifying and then quickly freeing.” Bonnell bought her own home earlier in her 20s, a twist on the traditional moving-into-husband’s-house narrative that has long marked female independence.
But the marriage-as-independence paradigm wasn’t so much a kind of freedom, as it was a kind of servitude, or “wifehood,” as historian and author Alexis Coe calls it. As she tells Bustle, “Up until the 21st century, almost all American women had been wives at some point in their lives, whether that was a formal relationship or not. They were wives to husbands, they were wives to fathers, they were wives to brothers. They were always taking care of someone’s house because they were a ward of it. So in American culture, women have held this place of being the fabric of American life, and that explains some of our longest and most vicious battles of American identity — they all touch on the home and the family.”
Men, at least since the American revolution, have enjoyed independence and a sense of adulthood when they were financially autonomous or professionally competent. By the 20th century, the concept of adult milestones came into sharper focus, though they remained mostly gender-segregated. For men, the ability to be a breadwinner for a wife and children was key. But women, according to Coe, were struggling to carve out a sense of autonomy for themselves, too. And they did it on two fronts: labor and consumerism, both of which neatly dovetailed with an emerging sense of personal independence in the United States.
In the 1950s, a booming post-war economy and ample federal assistance ushered white families into single-family homes in the suburbs; women, for the first time in American history, began marrying and having babies at younger ages than their mothers did. The broader cultural message was one of male achievement and female domesticity. Think advertising executive Don Draper and his stay-at-home wife, Betty — a blissfully happy married couple whose arrangement never caused them inner turmoil or resentment (just kidding!).
Consumerism was also built into anti-communism, and the picture of the attractive white American housewife with a bevy of new technologies to increase the productivity of her domestic labor — a vacuum cleaner, an electric oven, a washing machine — was a key piece of pro-American and pro-capitalist propaganda. It’s this era that modern conservatives tend to point to when imagining a time when “America was great.”
But the 1950s were a blip, and reality was more complicated than the advertisements implied. Women of color and immigrant women had long worked outside of the home in the United States — between 1890 and 1960, about 40 percent of non-white women were employed, with little fluctuation. In that same time period, even with the post-war fetishization of white female domesticity, the proportion of white women in the labor force doubled. After 1960, women’s workforce participation surged.
“I bought my parents’ house last year, and that felt very adult.”
Throughout the 20th century, “women’s labor changed consumerist culture in America, which directly impacted women’s ability to carve out an adulthood for themselves,” says Coe. Before 1900, “the idea of individualism for women was simply off the table,” she says. “We see the introduction of that in the 1920s, of women being able to buy hats and French heels, of being able to go to supper clubs, we see department stores sponsoring supper clubs for working class women.”
This commercial power — a woman’s ability to afford something on her own, something long primarily available to men — remains resonant for women today. But instead of hats and French heels, it’s more likely to be a house or an education. Samhita Mukhopadhay, the executive editor of Teen Vogue, tells Bustle that she felt like a real adult “the first time I could buy something really expensive. I bought my parents’ house last year, and that felt very adult." For Anna Holmes, “When I finally paid off my student loans after 12 years, it felt like I was very much an adult.”
Women’s financial independence, and the personal independence it begets, has always been suspect, especially in more conservative segments of society, who rightly see that autonomous women are less likely to play by long-established rules of female subservience and male dominance. With every step toward female freedom, a backlash has followed. In the 1920s, middle-class women heard that their reputations, and therefore their marital prospects, might be damaged if they were seen cavorting around on their own. But the threat didn’t work then, and similar scare tactics — today’s claims that working women are miserable and “can’t have it all,” that delaying marriage and childbearing are ruining the American family or the demographics of white America — don’t seem to be working, either.
“For most women [in the early 20th century], what began as supplementary income became integral not just to a family lifestyle, but to an individual lifestyle,” says Coe. “This idea that we began with, that for a majority of a woman’s life she would somehow occupy the role of wife whether formally or informally, is simply not the case anymore. One doesn’t have to move in with their widowed father; they can work to support him.”
With female financial independence has also come a big shift in social perceptions of marriage. As recently as a half-century ago, marriage was largely about a man ready to enter adulthood, job in hand, and a woman embracing dependence on a husband instead of a father, and signing up to bolster the independence of her husband and future sons. Marriage, in this model, was what marriage scholars call the cornerstone model: one part of building an adult life.
Today, marriage is treated as more of a capstone: A thing you do after you’ve established yourself as an independent adult. But even the concept of “independent adulthood” gets fuzzy for young people who are more likely to live with their parents than any generation in the last half-century. “As we’re having to develop new ways of organizing marriage, child-raising, love, sex, we’re having to find new definitions of adulthood,” American historian and scholar Stephanie Coontz tells Bustle, noting that, “millennial women, in particular, are in uncharted territory.”
“The one time I didn’t really feel like an adult was when I got married, because looking back on it, I realize we were kids who didn’t know how to be married, which is why it didn’t work out.”
The shift in the definition of adulthood felt particularly stark when Mukhopadhay bought her parents’ home. “I was raised middle class, and it had never occurred to me that I would be in a position to help my parents,” says Mukhopadhay. “I thought I would help my own life, have a family and raise my children. When that switched, and they hit financial trouble, that was a moment for me to grow up.”
Holmes, too, notes that her being able to help her family financially may make her feel like an adult, but that comes with its own complications and emotions. “Having to navigate those roles can be difficult because I don’t want to be an adult in this way, I want to be their kid. But when it becomes imperative when I help them, and I say this with no resentment, but there’s a certain amount of role reversal that is pretty upsetting, even though everyone goes through it.”
There’s also a false narrative about how major life events are supposed to transform us into adults. “The one time I didn’t really feel like an adult was when I got married because, looking back on it, I realize we were kids who didn’t know how to be married, which is why it didn’t work out,” says Holmes. “I had markers of adulthood, I wore a wedding ring, and I used phrases like ‘my husband,’ but I didn’t feel authentically like an adult because I was married.” What did feel very adult: getting a divorce. That, she says, “was enough of a shitshow and upsetting enough that having gone through it I feel stronger and more adult.”
Which doesn’t mean that marriage and babies aren’t still what we think of when we think of “adulthood.” Even women who are living outside of the cookie-cutter model find it can be a challenge to see their own life choices (or for some, what feel more like circumstances than choices) treated with the same respect and seriousness as the more traditional events like weddings and baby showers. And even when women do think outside the box, it’s these traditional milestones that all other life events are filtered through and judged against.
“When it’s not a wedding, it’s not as socially ingrained, so people kind of take it for granted. It’s like, ‘Well, I’ll show up for you when you do get married.’”
Deanna Zandt, a Brooklyn-based digital consultant, decided to throw herself a milestone birthday party to acknowledge her four decades on the planet and the community that helped her become who she is. But she knew it wouldn’t be enough to just tell her friends that her 40th was going to be a big deal. For many people, a wedding is the only day of your life (until your funeral) when all of your loved ones are in the same room, celebrating you. Zandt doesn’t plan to marry, and so for her, this was the big equivalent celebration. To really make people get it, “All of the material and everything was weirdly themed about it not being a wedding but treat it like a wedding,” she tells Bustle. For the most part, her friends and family did. But the few exceptions stung. Even with months of notice, there were a handful of people who casually told Zandt they just couldn’t make it work, leaving Zandt feeling like, “If this was a wedding, you would figure out a way.”
For Mukhopadhay, her first book, a feminist look at dating, was a major personal and professional accomplishment — and the reaction to it was a telling insight into just how much the old markers still matter, even to her feminist-minded friends. The book came out right around the same time that most of her friends were getting married, and, Mukhopadhay says, “Especially because of the content of my book, which is an interrogation of heteronormativity and how we put pressure on coming of age rituals for women and marriage... I was really hurt by my friends who made no effort to come to my book party who I had done huge things to come to their wedding — flown across the country, officiated a wedding. It was a turning point for me.” A friend told her that she should say something, and explain why her book party was so important. “And I was like, I shouldn’t have to tell you my book party is a big important thing,” Mukhopadhay says. “You didn’t have to tell me your wedding was a big, important thing.”
Mukhopadhay is quick to note that weddings are also rife with disappointment at other people's self-involvement. But at least with weddings, everyone understands that it’s a big deal. When the big-deal event in your life goes not only unattended by many friends but also largely unrecognized, it’s especially hurtful. “I do think things are changing. But the responsibility still ends up falling on women who have to ask for [support] from their community; it’s not something that’s naturally happening,” Mukhopadhay says. “When it’s not a wedding, it’s not as socially ingrained, so people kind of take it for granted. It’s like, 'Well, I’ll show up for you when you do get married.'”
Broad female independence has been good for women and for families, even if the transition (and the lack of social services and policy shifts to accommodate changing gender roles) has been rocky. After an initial spike when divorce laws were liberalized and women and men alike left unhappy relationships in droves, divorce rates are down. Decades ago, shifting gender roles put a strain on marriage, and couples who shared household labor were less happy and less sexually satisfied than couples with traditional divisions of labor (he worked outside the home, she took care of the house). Today, the opposite is true: The happiest and most sexually satisfied couples are those who are the most egalitarian at home. Feminist marriages are more fulfilling marriages.
“Not getting married isn’t a big political choice I’ve made, it’s not meeting anyone I want to marry.”
In an ironic turn, though, it might be men who feel the continued pressure of these retro markers most acutely. As more women have carved out new adult milestones and identities that are distinct from “wife” and “mother,” men’s sense of independence still seems to hinge on work and the ability to provide for a family — and it’s women who are expected to manipulate them into domesticity. This, too, is a long-standing American reality. “Men have not grown in this area nearly as fast as women, and they’ve retained some of these old tropes,” says Coe.
She tells the story of John F. Kennedy who, as a young congressman with both political ambitions and playboy impulses, is told by his father that he needs to settle down. “So that’s when he starts looking for a bride,” Coe says. “He meets Jackie [Bouvier], she’s 21, a successful reporter, and he marries her. But his first years of marriage were marked by immaturity. She lost children, she lost babies, and he wouldn’t go to her side in the hospital because there was nothing he could do.” Kennedy cut their honeymoon short so he could have his friends join them; in a scene captured on camera, he pushes his new wife away, approaches his friend’s wife, and taps her bottom.
“There’s always been the assumption of maturity with women, whereas there has been the wrangling of maturity out of men,” Coe says. “That’s the JFK and Jackie situation, she was 21 and wanted to be a reporter and got married; he had to be forced by his daddy to marry.” While ambitious young women mostly aren’t marrying at 21 anymore, too many of today’s 20- and 30-something men still have to be so wrangled.
Of course, even some of the most self-proclaimed feminist women aren’t immune to feeling badly about missing certain traditional milestones. For Mukhopadhay, “not getting married isn’t a big political choice I’ve made, it’s not meeting anyone I want to marry,” she said. “It’s shaped me in both giving me material and places for curiosity and inquisitiveness in my work, but it’s also had psychological impacts that I’m only recently grappling with, including what it feels like to feel left out — if I don’t get married and have kids, what’s left for me?”
The old markers may have shape-shifted, and they’re being slowly transformed and sometimes individually set aside, but the original bones are still there. We remain in a period of significant transition, and what’s perhaps most interesting isn’t where we are now — which is muddled and sometimes as painful as it is liberating — but what it says about where we’re going. “What we have now today is the culmination of a new woman that has been created over the 20th century. The exploration today is what’s the most interesting,” says Coe. Today, there are fewer signs declaring that you've arrived — only that you're on your way.