I’ve lost count of the times people have told me I was “ruining my life” by taking the path less travelled. I was never a radical but in the late 1960s and ‘70s I embraced a moderately alternative lifestyle and feminism with enthusiasm.
I was first told I was “ruining my life” when I was a 21-year-old university student sharing a house with two men I didn’t know. They would jump me in the night, I was warned. It wasn’t safe. Forty years on, the two men are still dear friends of mine.
I was next told I was “ruining my life” when I turned my back on religion – in my case I was raised Jewish. I was cutting myself off from 4000 years of heritage. That hurt. But what can you do when you lose faith? You can’t pretend. And living without a god is no problem I’ve found.
When I moved in with a man to “live in sin” I was definitely “ruining my life”. But we enjoyed more than a decade of happiness, and though we broke up in my early 30s, we remain close friends.
When I had children with my second partner without benefit of marriage, I was told the children would be called “bastards.” Now I was ruining my children’s lives. Thirty years on, I’m still happily with my man, and no-one has ever called my children bastards. It’s been a complete non-issue.
When we gave our first son my surname no-one quite knew whose life was being ruined but the worrywarts predicted someone would be sorry.
As a working mother with two young children, I was ruining the children’s lives again; plus short-changing my own. But the kids never resented my being a working mother. And they’re still at home. I’ve spent more time with them than my parents ever did with me.
It wasn’t always my parents telling me I was ruining my life. If they felt anxious about my decisions at first, they learnt to adjust. The times were a-changin’, and after clinging to the shore, they started to go with the flow. There was no shortage of other doomsayers, moralists and conformists in Perth and the wider society quick to prophesy a ruined life for a girl who strayed. But soon there was a veritable army of us, and most of us proved them wrong.
Why did it matter – these gestures at snubbing marriage, delaying motherhood, pursuing careers, giving our children our surname, and so on? At the time, each decision was heart-felt; a little arrow fired into the heart of patriarchy, a small step towards changing society. When we began, the double-standard was in full force, wives were second-class citizens, and men ruled the roost and the world. It’s a bit different now, if only a bit – and I like to think these gestures played a small part in creating a more equal society for men and women.
If I have a single regret about non- conforming, it’s that we have two sons with different surnames. They’d prefer it wasn’t so. I swear this was not my decision, rather my partner insisting “fair is fair.” I had the first child at 38 thinking that would be it, and he’d be a Horin. One for the sisterhood! Who was to know I’d want a second baby so much? And he got his dad’s surname.
These days weddings are in vogue, young women wear their husband’s surname, and almost no-one bestows a mother’s surname on the children. I’ve come to appreciate the role of ritual in people’s lives, and I love a good wedding. But here I am worrying about the young. Have they gone all conformist? The kids aren’t fighting the same fights as we did. The economic struggle is consuming their energy. And yet I wished more young women would upturn the power of precedent, question the status quo, and insist on “fair is fair”.
A while ago I caught myself about to utter those “ruining your life” words to one of my children. Of creative bent, he’s taken the road less travelled for now. Conservative sexual morality is not an issue in our house. Career security is the issue for parents like us. We want our children on the path to a good job, a house….But just as my parents learnt to trust my life would work out if I followed my passions and beliefs, so I’m trying to be more relaxed about my kids’ choices. Who can predict what – if anything – will “ruin their life” and what will bring them happiness? Not me.
Because I’m overseas, it might take a while for your comments to get online.
Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘subscribe for free’ to have it emailed to you.