A few weeks ago, I came across a great article by Brittany Berckes. She wrote with “a plea for fellow women to celebrate major career accomplishments with fervor.” After passing the New York State Bar Exam in February (something that less than half of aspiring lawyers taking the test accomplish), Berckes reflected on why she hesitated to celebrate.
“At my age — 27, weddings, bachelorette parties, and wedding showers still seem to be the events in women’s lives that merit the most celebration and schedule rearranging.This suspicion was confirmed when a close friend told me she would not be able to make my bar exam celebration, a casual stop-by-when-you-can-happy-hour, because she had to “prepare” for another friend’s wedding shower the following day. Although completely unintentional on her part, much of my excitement to celebrate this next step in my life was extinguished. I passed the bar, but it’s not like I’m getting married, right?”
I’m not aspiring to become a lawyer, but I related to her frustrations when I came back from traveling. It was a goal of mine since childhood to travel for an entire year. I had saved for the experience since I was in high school. In my year of travel, I saw twelve countries I had dreamed of seeing since I was young. I finished my first ten-day backpacking hiking trip in the mountains. I taught myself how to ski, and I learned how to meditate. Every day of that year, I embraced the risks of travel, confronted them, and consequently challenged myself in ways I never had before. I returned feeling personally transformed and thus felt I had arguably accomplished more in that year for myself than any other year in my life.
I by no means can equate a year of travel to the strenuous effort required to become a lawyer, but I do believe that after traveling, I shared Berkes’ same sense of pride for what I had done. And yet, I too didn’t feel like it was acceptable to celebrate it as much as an engagement.
I don’t argue that marriage is a significant milestone in its own right. It is. But as Berckes argued, I wonder why it has to be the most important one. I wonder why we have created a hierarchy for what makes something worthy of celebration, and why we place “Get engaged” at the top. By doing this, we create a sort of “celebration bias” that leaves many of women’s accomplishments seeming illegitimate.
It reminds me of the “Sex and City” episode when Carrie realizes the total amount of money she has spent on a friend’s engagement gifts, wedding gifts, and baby shower gifts — all money spent “celebrating her friend’s choices.” She wonders why it’s somehow impolite to question the money spent on these choices, and meanwhile so preposterous to suggest celebrating the positive choices single people make all the time.
“Hallmark doesn’t make a “Congratulations You Didn’t Marry the Wrong Guy” card,” she argues, “And where’s the flatware for going on vacation alone?”
These examples may sound petty, but I do think there’s value in thinking about why independence and self-reliance are not recognized in our culture as much as marriage. It’s particularly important when we realize that what a culture chooses to celebrate significantly influences how young people define success and consequently, how they determine their individual goals. Valerie Alexander illustrates this in her article “Let’s Ban Weddings, and While We’re At It, Baby Showers Too” for the Huffington Post. In her article she shares her experiences growing up in a blue collar part of Oakland:
“One family who I was very close to had four daughters. The three oldest got pregnant before graduating from high school and dropped out, and the fourth was hell bent on getting her college education. For the three oldest girls, there were big, splashy baby showers with thousands of dollars in gifts. For the fourth, she was sent off to Santa Monica College (a vortex of collegiate Darwinism) with little fanfare and virtually no help. Where was her College Shower, to give her a laptop, a bookbag, sheets and towels, gift cards and cash and whatever else she might have needed to strike out on her own? Where was the whole family coming together to lionize her achievement, and set an example for younger ones of how you’re revered when you further your education? No wonder she got pregnant and dropped out her freshman year. That was something at least she knew her family would celebrate.”
Similarly, I wonder if we’d see more women taking the risk of travel, exploration and adventure if we celebrated it in the same way we celebrated marriage. I wonder if these amazing female travelers ever were recognized for their bold daring as much as they were recognized for their choice of partner. I wonder if the reason we don’t see more women climbing mountains, flying planes, or simply taking time off to adventure on their own, is because we have convinced them they should be focusing on a different prize.
I’m not suggesting that we add more to the list of what to celebrate extravagantly (in fact, with the ludicrous amount of money we spend on weddings today, it’d be better to scale back as a whole). But I do think it’s worthwhile to take a deeper reflection at what we individually choose to celebrate most.
I remember on the last day of my year of travel, I was walking through a London garden with perhaps the most ecstatic high of my life. I felt almost mad, but in a great way. I felt like my life had culminated in the arrival of this moment. I felt like I had accomplished the first thing in my life that felt so purely amazing and the first thing that felt so undeniably worth it. Most of all, I felt like I had accomplished something that was unequivocally my own.
And then I remembered — for just a few seconds — questioning the feeling: What if this ended up being the best moment of my life? Would that be okay?
In our culture, I’m glad we celebrate being madly in love with someone else, but I wish we also celebrated being madly in love with life. As a single women in my 20s, I don’t know how I’ll feel if I ever do get engaged. But what I do know is that I have been privileged and lucky enough to already have had a feeling complete contentment on my own. I wish we wouldn’t only aspire to that feeling on our wedding day, but instead were told that yes, it’s more than okay, when we also find that feeling from somewhere else.