On January 20, 2023, I celebrated my 40th birthday. It was a moment to look back on all those years, from being a rebellious teenager to growing into an independent woman. Today I celebrate the fact that I am single and not committed to a lifelong responsibility for another being (i.e., a child).
My rebellious teen years were my defining moment. I was not happy seeing my father away most of the time, as he had to work two full-time jobs to provide for our family. Nor was I happy with my mother being a stay-at-home mom who was financially dependent on my father.
I started questioning whether there was possibility for a more equal arrangement in a family. I envisioned my mother in a civil servants’ uniform, the most coveted profession in my hometown in Aceh back then. I imagine how she would talk to us about her work, instead of constantly having to keep the house in order. I also longed to see my father sit with us, helping us with homework or taking us to see his business.
But these remained figments of my imagination. My father and my mother’ lives were compartmentalized into two different spheres: public and domestic.
When my eldest brother came of age, after Mom’s advice, my father started taking him on into the family business. Seeing his reluctance to take over the business, I wondered why none of the three daughters were considered for the job instead? Is running a business too hard to learn for daughters?
But somehow, I grew closer to my father, and he began to see my potential. It started one day when he came to pick me up from school and had to wait while I was campaigning to become head of the student council at my high school. I hadn’t told him about this, as I didn’t want to disappoint him if I lost. I was going against a member of the Islamic Student Organization and I knew I had no chance to win.
On our way home, I talked about campaigning for the position. To lessen his disappointment, I told him I wouldn’t be able to serve the student council full term anyway, as I would have to leave for an exchange student program to Switzerland. My parents had seen the letter of acceptance to this program earlier, which was a surprise for them at the time, as I had kept the competitive months-long selection process a secret as well.
This might have started to change his perception of me. He later would trust my big decisions, like when I chose to study in a private university in Yogyakarta, instead of state university in Bandung. His understanding that I was different and his belief in my potential had really transformed our relationship.
“Go and pursue your education, all the way to PhD. I will find a way to support you financially to make it happen,” he told me.
This made me feel I had a complete freedom to choose the trajectory of my life. With his help, I could fly higher without fearing of breaking my wings. I carried this complete freedom with me throughout my adulthood.
Now at 40, unmarried and with no children, I am aware that I have taken an unconventional path. It comes with pressure, from family members to perfect strangers, all seem to have something to say about my status. But I am happy and, while I’m not trying to recruit you to follow my path, these are some things I want to share that have guided my life.
Also read: 6 Feminist Influencers That Will Change The Way You See Yourself and Others
1. Stop fixing your bodies and start fixing the world (Eve Ensler)
Business data portal Statista reported that in 2020 the average female consumer in the United Kingdom spent roughly 450 euros a year in cosmetic products, making them some of the highest spenders on such goods in Europe, compared to 200 euros spent on cosmetics by female shoppers in Germany.
An article on cosmetics surgery and body dysmorphic disorder published on International Journal of Women’s Dermatology shows that in 1992 over 400,000 Americans underwent cosmetic surgery. By contrast in 2015, 15.9 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetics procedures were performed in the United States, out of the total of 21 million worldwide. The other four top spenders on cosmetic procedures are Brazil, South Korea, India and Mexico.
Women, why are we so obsessed with fixing our looks, when we still have a lot to fix for our gender? The 2022 Global Gender Gap Report shows that at the current progress it will take 132 years to reach full parity.
Read these two books by Caroline Criado-Perez if you’re interested in fixing the world: Do It Like A Woman… and Change the World and Invisible Women: Data Bias in A World Designed for Men.
2. Don’t rely on a prince. Save yourself
Growing up watching Disney’s movies, we are conditioned to look for a prince to save us. Our family and society also drill us that marriage is a milestone everyone has to reach by certain age. But here’s a tip: Save yourselves! Invest in your education, invest in your career, unbox your potential and pursue your dreams.
Also read: Being Childfree in Indonesia
3. Spot the red flag.
In my younger years, I received two memorable marriage proposals. The first one was from a man a year older than myself, and he was my mother’s favorite. I turned him down when I found out that he wanted to have four children.
The second proposal came from someone years older than me and was my parents’ favorite. I hadn’t finished my undergraduate degree then, but he promised that he would pay for my school until PhD. Instead of flattered, I was insulted. I had just lost my father in the 2004 tsunami and had vowed that I would get a scholarship to pursue my master’s and PhD. I knew I could rely on my own brains to achieve my goals, instead of having to “surrender” as someone’s wife.
In my social surrounding, I rarely see a relationship that is equal. Even at dating stage, I often see how guys control their girlfriends on how they should look or whom they can be friends with. I observe how some of my friends, previously independent, had to quit their jobs after marriage because their husbands wanted to them to stay home and raise their children. Some of them had to wear modest clothes because their husbands wanted them to cover themselves. I had broken up from men who tried to control me. I told them, if my father who provided for me never tried to limit my freedom, why would I accept it from my romantic partner?
4. Intelligence is sexy, don’t play stupid (anonymous)
When I was about to pursue my Master’s on scholarship in the US, my senior from undergrad contacted me. What started as a casual talk ended soon after I told him of my plan for grad school in the US. I found out later from my mother who was friends with his, that the phone conversation was to assess me as his potential wife. Upon finding out that I would have a higher level of education than he, they decided that I would be intellectually superior to him. Honestly, I was glad that the fact that I have brains scared him off
5. You are not a rehabilitation center for badly raised men.
In my professional life, I use Logical Framework and Theory of Change for designing, monitoring, and evaluating projects. When it comes to badly raised men, though, you do not want to apply Logical Framework or Theory of Change. You should not volunteer to fix, rehabilitate, parent, or raise a badly raised man. For the sake of your mental wellbeing, let him go.
Take this list of recommendations as you like, but you deserve freedom that lets you spread your wings and fly high, the way my late father did for me.