A fortnight after my 23rd birthday, my mother received two calls from extended family members.
Both asked the same question: there was a boy, a family friend’s son, who was ‘looking’ – a colloquial way of implying that somebody is searching for a partner.
Although my mother politely declined, she passed the information down to me as an FYI. I was thankful that she had rejected them on my behalf, but that quickly turned to anger, and then confusion. These members of the extended family that had called had known me well; they had seen me grow up, had seen all the ambitions that I have for my twenties and thirties.
I felt offended, if not betrayed, that their first thought on my 23rd birthday, was that they should try to marry me off.
In Indian culture, the optimal age to get married is by thirty, which means that the marriage cogs have to start whirring before then. As my mother explained to me amidst my rage, it wasn’t that my family was calling to make sure I got married in the next six months. It was that they were putting the cogs in motion in order to ensure I didn’t hit the upper age bracket.
This societal pressure is of course not limited to those of Indian culture.
Even in the West, brides in their twenties are considered the norm, even though there is a general trend in developed countries of getting married later. Research suggests that getting married later increases your chances of stability and decreases divorce rates, but the pressure to get married still begins in your twenties.
This pressure is perhaps linked to the biological body clock of a woman, that dictates that scientifically, it is easiest for a woman to have a baby before the age of 35. Working back from 35, factoring in time for a newly-married couple to establish a home, to get to know one another well enough that they actually want to raise a child together, and finally, for them to meet in the first place, probably is a process that has to begin at 25.
However, many women are doing away with the idea of their life timeline being dictated by when, or even if, they choose to enter motherhood.
They are proudly putting themselves, their growth, their careers and their ambitions first – and that is not to say that they never want marriage and children, but rather to ensure that the latter does not encroach on the former.
Holly Winter Stevens, a bridal couture dressmaker, has worked with many older brides; whilst the vast majority of her customers have been in their twenties and thirties, she has also served brides in their forties all the way through to their seventies.
The reasons for brides getting married late are multifold, according to Holly. “They may be onto their second marriage after finding love again following divorce. Others have been widowed.”
“I’ve had brides who survived domestic abuse in past relationships and marriages and learned to trust and love again with the confidence that comes with being older and wiser. More than one such bride has left her abusive husband and married another woman.”
It’s simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking to hear such stories of marriage being both destructive and constructive.
Then there is the practical side of getting married later. “Some have waited because they couldn’t afford the kind of wedding they wanted when they were younger; others found life literally got in the way and they raised children first before getting round to the ‘I do’s. Others never felt the need but became increasingly romantic over time while conversely others still have become more practical and wised up to tax and inheritance laws.”
One common thread that Holly has seen in all of her older customers is that they struggle to believe that they will look beautiful on their big day. “Almost every bride I see over the age of 40 has asked if she is my oldest customer,” Holly tells me, which says enough about the damaging beauty standards that society imposes on women.
The stories of these older women only show that society still tries to dictate when the right time is for a woman to make such decisions. A viral BBC article told the story of a 22-year-old woman who had decided to get married to her partner after a year together, who found that her close friends and family were not supportive as they felt she was too young and ‘rushing’.
I am so comfortable with my mother’s decision to reject those initial proposals.
I am silently backed up by many of my female cousins who are achieving amazing things, and yet denied the recognition they deserve until such a time when their parents can feel as though they are ‘settled’ in marriage. One 32-year-old cousin is completing a Ph.D. in cancer research, and another 26-year-old cousin heads up a team at an innovative FinTech firm.
So forgive us if we’ve got more important things to do before we get married.