There’s a path we’re supposed to take in life. It’s written, foretold, and hammered into us from a young age.
We must graduate high school, go to college, land a decent job, get married, buy a house, have 2.5 children, and retire to a life of golf and grandkids at 65 so we can watch the next generation to the exact same thing.
Our parents stressed that following this life script is the key to a happy life.
What is the Life Script?
The traditional life script is the idea that everyone needs to follow this preset path for a fulfilled life. Everyone tells us we must follow it, from parents to teachers to the media.
Of course, you can shift things around in a few small ways. You can attend trade school instead of college, get a job right after high school, or join the military.
You can choose to rent rather than buy.
These tiny variations give us the illusion of choice, but overall, we’re all taught to follow some variation of this script.
In my opinion, that’s downright dangerous.
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The Life Script is Wrong
Dangerous may be a tad extreme. The traditional life script works wonders for many people.
However, there’s also a large group of people it doesn’t work for.
These folks get trapped in the life they were “supposed” to want, become unhappy, and don’t really understand why.
They did what they needed to do, right? So why doesn’t it lead to happiness?
It doesn’t lead to happiness because life isn’t one-size-fits-all.
There are billions of people on this planet. No two people share the exact same hopes, dreams, opinions, ideas, and aspirations.
We’re all unique, and that’s ok! That’s what makes us special, makes us human.
Trying to pigeonhole all of us along the same script doesn’t work.
So why do we keep telling our children this is the script they need to follow?
Happiness Vs. Security
Many people, especially parents and teachers, sell the life script because they want their children to have secure lives.
A parent’s goal is to put their child off into the world without worrying about them. So, of course, they will push the route that leads to the most security.
And in our world, having financial security comes from working a soul-crushing job or getting married.
So that’s what we push our youth into.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can subvert the life script and change how we talk to the younger generation about what they should do.
The conversation needs to start with changing the life script for women.
Why Focus on Women?
Women get the worst of the life script stick. We learn from a young age that our primary goal in life should be to snag a man and get married.
We celebrate weddings as the epitome of a woman’s life – the one milestone every young girl must achieve to ascend into full womanhood.
This myth is perpetuated through media, the wedding industry, and families and friends. My own sister once told our younger cousin that she hoped she could find a nice man to take care of her.
Can you imagine someone saying something similar to a man?
Probably not, because a man’s worth isn’t based on whether he can secure a woman.
Women are taught to believe that their lives should revolve around securing a man. It’s a relic from a time when women weren’t able to vote or work outside of the home, and unfortunately, the idea that a woman’s worth lies in her ability to wed hasn’t gone the way of bodices and codpieces.
Men Feel the Pressure Too
Men are pressured to get married as well, but marriage isn’t celebrated as their greatest life achievement.
We celebrate men as scientists, athletes, CEOs, writers, and entrepreneurs. No one ever tells a man he should stop pursuing his interests and settle down before it’s too late.
It’s more socially acceptable for men to go off the beaten path than for women.
That’s not to say that men have it easy. They have their unique set of challenges. As a woman, I can’t relate as easily.
I can, however, easily relate to the messed-up script society applies to women.
Marriage Shouldn’t Be a Woman’s Ultimate Life Goal
Marriage is wonderful.
Finding that one person you want to spend your forever with is an extraordinary achievement we should celebrate.
However, we must stop considering it the most significant milestone a woman can accomplish.
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference.
Marriage is Significant for Both Parties
We can start by acknowledging that it’s the groom’s day too. Our wedding culture emphasizes the bride so much that the groom becomes an accessory.
Marriage is a partnership. Weddings should celebrate that rather than celebrating the bride for achieving her one ambition as a woman.
Women Can Achieve More than Marriage
We can also celebrate women for their other achievements.
We should celebrate promotions, graduations, or new business ventures. Other achievements, like buying a first car, heading off on that solo adventure, or selling a painting, can also be recognized.
All life goals should be celebrated.
We, as a society, need to shift gears on how we define a woman’s success. Marriage isn’t the only accomplishment women can realize.
Why is the Traditional Life Script so Dangerous for Women
The traditional script is dangerous for women.
If our entire worth is based on our ability to catch and keep a man, we will end up in abusive relationships. And our society is so messed up that we don’t even recognize it as abuse.
I was in this trap myself for far too many years. I even wrote a mini e-book about the emotional abuse I suffered in the hopes that other women would read it and that it would help them recognize the signs.
It’s difficult to escape, even when we recognize the signs because failing relationships showcase our failures as women. We enter and maintain relationships where we are clearly being taken advantage of because society taught us that we should just accept it.
Society teaches us to be submissive, defer, and do whatever we must to keep our man happy, even if he’s not pulling his weight.
And that’s not even the worst of it.
The Life Script Keeps Women Trapped
Unfortunately, following the life script of getting married and having kids can become a giant trap for women – far more so than it does for men.
Women’s careers suffer when a child comes into the picture. Women are far more likely to quit their jobs to care for children, hindering their career progression and lowering their lifetime earnings potential.
Many women get trapped in financially abusive relationships that they can not leave because their children would suffer or because they have no other options.
They married young (following the life script) and now have no job experience and no way to support themselves or their children if they did try to leave.
On Having Children
Not everyone should have children.
Our child-centric culture has brainwashed millions of people into believing that having a child will be the most spectacular thing they ever do in their lives and it will bring them nothing but happiness.
How many people only have kids because it’s “what they were supposed to do,” or because they felt pressured, or because society told them a child would make them happy?
These are not valid reasons to have children.
Don’t get me wrong – people need to have kids. We need new people to further our culture and advance our society.
Parents who actually wanted to be parents knowing full well the trials, tribulations, and responsibilities they were taking on are true heroes deserving an abundance of recognition (and way, way more support than our society currently offers).
I took a deep, hard look at all the sacrifices I would need to make for parenthood and noped right on out.
It should be more socially acceptable for us to do that. The life script insists (especially for women) that kids (along with the marriage that we already discussed) are the keys to a happy fulfilling life.
And for some women, that’s absolutely true. But not everyone is the same, and telling every woman that her key to happiness is marriage and children is extremely detrimental, not just for her, but for the children that she has that she didn’t actually want.
Life Script Dangers for Men
Although I can’t as easily relate to the dangers the life script poses for men, I’ve noticed a few glaring examples.
The life script has a preconceived notion of what a “man” is, and any male who falls outside this box is deemed “less than.”
Men are forced into the provider box, even if they are natural caretakers. They’re pressured into sexuality before they’re ready because that’s what “men should want.”
Men who take on traditional women’s work, who express themselves emotionally, and who who don’t toe the line on toxic masculinity are mocked and ridiculed, by both genders.
How Do We Subvert the Life Script?
How do we change things?
How do we show people, women specifically, that they don’t need to follow this path if they don’t want to?
Celebrate All Accomplishments
We can start celebrating everyone for all of their accomplishments, especially the ones that pertain to their individual hopes, dreams, and desires.
This can and should include marriage and having children. Some women do hope and dream of the fairy tale marriage and want nothing more than to raise the next generation. These women should be celebrated!
But so should the scientists and artists who don’t want children and the CEO who wants it all.
We can acknowledge that marriage and children aren’t for everyone and celebrate the achievements women make outside of the families that they create. Celebrate women in science, philosophy, finance, business, sports, and other male-dominated fields.
This would give younger girls role models that aren’t just family-focused and show our youth that they have options.
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Celebrate Men’s Marriages and Child Rearing
At the same time, we need to acknowledge how massive of a milestone marriage and children are for men as well.
For far too long, men have been seen as accessories at weddings. Society looks at men as the “other” parent.
We need to shift the way we think about families. Men can be primary parents. We should celebrate the men who take on this difficult role, just as we should celebrate the women.
When we shift the concept of domestic labor and child rearing from “women’s work” to “people’s work” and acknowledge the important contributions men can and do make, we can slowly let go of the idea of what one person is “supposed to do.”
Lift Women Up
While we’re doing that, we need to stop shaming women for their life choices. Far too many women shame others for not following the same script, and that needs to stop.
Everyone should feel free to make their own choices and live their own lives however they see fit.
We need to start lifting other women up rather than competing with them. Angela at Tread Lightly, Retire Early does an amazing job of doing this in the personal finance space, but we all can do it everywhere else as well.
We can mentor women, share the works of other women, encourage women to follow their dreams, and be positive role models of subverting the script to other women.
Call Out Toxic Masculinity
The idea that there’s a specific way to be a man needs to retire. Men, like all people, have unique hopes, dreams, ideas, and talents.
We should all be treated like the individuals we are. When someone tries to shove a man into the “manly” box, we should call it out.
Male friend groups should support the individuality of their peers and accept the different ways to be a man.
Support Policies that Support Women
A big thing that we all can do to subvert the life script is support policies that help women escape these traps. Take a hard look at the policies that keep women crawling back to the traditional script.
The lack of paid parental leave, horrible childcare policies, discrimination against women in the workplace, lax enforcement of sexual harassment, and a myriad of other things work to keep women afraid of going against the grain.
Be a vocal proponent of change that gives everyone the option to live their life how they see fit.
How to Subvert the Life Script for Yourself
If you’re young and haven’t yet gotten caught in the tendrils of the life script -you’re way ahead of the game.
Don’t let it suck you in!
Take some time to think about what you really want out of life – for you -and not just what your parents or society expects of you.
You may really want the traditional life script – and that’s ok! There’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what you truly want.
But if you don’t want it, don’t get sucked in. Live the life you want to live, and don’t worry about what others think.
Find your own happiness.
For us older folk, it is a bit harder. Some of us bought into the life script, and now we’re trapped. But it’s not hopeless. There are ways out, although it’s harder.
You can start by teaching any children you have that they don’t have to follow it. Teach them to pursue their dreams and do what makes them happy, even if it’s not the lifestyle you would have chosen for yourself.
Next, figure out what you really want out of life. It’s difficult to sit back and think about what you want for you when your entire life you’ve been brainwashed to believe that you want something different.
Take your time. Meditate on it. Dabble in a few different things.
Then, make a plan to go after it. It’s never too late.
Even Small Changes Can Make a Huge Impact
For some of us, subverting the life script means making huge, drastic changes. And that’s scary!
It’s okay to be afraid. I’m afraid of quitting my job in the next few years, but I’m also hopeful, optimistic, and up for the challenge.
You don’t have to make a huge, drastic change all at once if it’s not something you’re comfortable with.
Instead, take the time to prepare yourself for the change. Set up an emergency fund, and make sure you have at least six months of income saved.
Start a side hustle in a field you are interested in (this course is a great resource for starting a side hustle!). Invest your money so it will grow and give you more options. Save money now so you can live a better life later.
There are thousands of tiny, small steps you can take towards building your dream life.
Ditch the Script and Live Your Best Life
We don’t need to follow the path laid out in front of us to be happy. In many cases, we’d be happier following our hearts and living for ourselves.
It’s not too late to ditch the life script and focus on your own happiness. You only get one life, you may as well live how you want!
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.