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We all know what we’re supposed to do, right? Graduate high school, go to college, land a decent job, get married, buy a house, have 2.5 kids, and retire to a life of golf and grandchildren when you hit 65, watching the next generation do the exact same thing. That’s the life script we’ve been sold. But you know what? I think it’s ridiculous.
What is the Life Script?
Before I go into how messed up the traditional life script is, let’s take a moment to dissect it. I already gave a super brief introduction to it, but let’s dive a little deeper.
The traditional life script is the idea that everyone needs to follow this one path, which includes all of the aforementioned milestones, in order to live a happy. It’s what everyone in our lives tells us we need to do- from our parents to our teachers to the media. Of course, there are a few small ways you can shift things around – go to trade school instead of college. Get a job right out of high school. Choose to rent rather than buy. Join the military. These tiny variations give us the illusion of choice.
But overall, we’re all taught that we need to follow some variation of this script. And in my opinion, that’s downright dangerous.
The Life Script is Wrong
Ok, maybe saying it’s dangerous is going a bit too far. I’m sure that the traditional life script works wonders for a ton of people. But, there are loads of other people who it doesn’t work for – people who get trapped in the life that they were “supposed” to want, and then they aren’t happy 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, and I doubt any two share the exact same hopes, dreams, opinions, ideas and aspirations. We’re all unique, and that’s ok! That’s what makes us human!
Trying to pigeon hole all of us along the same script is obviously not going to work. So why do we keep telling our children that this is the script that they need to follow?
Happiness Vs Security
I think that most people, especially parents and teachers, sell the life script because they want their children to have secure lives. A parent’s goal is to set their child off free into the world and do not have to worry about them. So of course, they are going to push the route that leads to the greatest 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.
But I don’t think it has to be that way. I think we need to start subverting the life script, and changing the way we talk to the younger generation about what they should do. And I think that starts with changing the life script for women.
Why Focus on Women?
Women get the shit-end of the life script stick. We are taught from a young age that our primary goal in life should be to snag a man and get married. Weddings are celebrated as the epitome of a women’s life – the one milestone that every woman needs to achieve in order 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 who would take care of her. Can you imagine someone saying something similar to a man? Probably not, because a man’s worth isn’t generally based on whether he can secure a woman.
Women are taught to believe that our lives should revolve around securing a man. It’s a relic from a time where 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 are pressured to get married as well, but marriage isn’t celebrated as their greatest life achievement. Men are celebrated for being scientists, athletes, CEOs, writers, and entrepreneurs far more often than women are. 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 it is for women.
That’s not to say that men have it easy – I’m sure they have their unique set of challenges. But, as a woman, I can’t relate as easily. I can, however, easily relate to the messed-up script that women are sold.
Marriage isn’t Bad
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not knocking the institution of marriage, or saying women shouldn’t get married (or shouldn’t be excited about it). Marriage is a great, and finding that one person who you want to spend your forever with is an awesome achievement that deserves to be celebrated. But, we should stop considering it the biggest milestone that a woman can accomplish. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference.
We can start by acknowledging that it’s the groom’s day too. Often, our wedding culture puts so much emphasis on the bride that the groom turns into an accessory. Marriage is a partnership, and it should be about the celebration of that, rather than celebrating the bride for achieving her one ambition as a woman.
We can also start celebrating women for their other achievements. Getting promotions. Graduating from any type of course. Starting their own business. Achieving a different type of life goal (first car, travel, sell a painting, whatever the goal might be). We, as a society, need to shift gears on how we define a woman’s success. Because marriage isn’t the only accomplishment women realize in life.
Why is the Traditional Life Script so Dangerous for Women
Another reason the focus needs to be on women is that 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 abusive.
I was in this trap myself, for far too many years. I even wrote a mini e-book about the emotional abuse that I suffered, in the hopes that other women would read it and it would help them recognize the signs. It’s difficult to escape, even when we do 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 taught us that we need to be submissive, defer, and do whatever we need to do 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 turn into a giant trap for women – far more so than it does for men. Women are the ones whose careers suffer when a child comes into the picture, women are far more likely to quit their jobs (thus lowering their net worth over time) to care for children, and women are far more likely to be judged harshly for any parenting decision that they make.
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
I know this part is going to be a bit controversial – so strap in and get ready!
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. I think parents who actually wanted to be parents knowing full well the trials, tribulations, and responsibilities that they were taking upon themselves are true heroes, deserving of 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.
And I think 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, and not just for her, but for the children that she has that she didn’t actually want.
Subverting 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?
We should start celebrating women for all of their accomplishments, especially the ones that pertain to their hopes, dreams and desires. While we’re doing that, we need to stop shaming women for whatever their life choices are. Way 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.
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. Show younger girls role models that aren’t just family-focused. Show our youth that they have options.
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 child care 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. It may be that you really do want the traditional life script – and guess what? That’s actually 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 that you might 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. Discover your true self. Then, make a plan to go after it. It’s never too late.
Make Drastic Changes
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. I also have an safety net in place – something to catch me should I fall.
You don’t have to make a huge, drastic change all at once though 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 6 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.
Start today. Subvert the life script, and start living your life for yourself.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.