Wednesday 24 January 2018

'Twentysomethings get nothing done'

We're meant to hit the milestones of career, house, marriage and baby, but it just doesn't work that way

A different path: Maggie Armstrong describes her twenties as a perilous kind of freedom. Ronan Lang
A different path: Maggie Armstrong describes her twenties as a perilous kind of freedom. Ronan Lang

Maggie Armstrong

The twenties are one long and lovely sweep of freedom; I don't disagree. But it's the most perilous freedom, because the more you embrace it, the more trapped you become. Not by a boring marriage, or motherhood, or a wretched job, but by yourself, and the fact that you had too much fun.

You had so much fun that it isn't clear, looking back, when being a teenager ended. The only difference is that as a teen you rebelled, but your parents, schoolteachers and the law stamped it out.

In your twenties, no one does that. You're loose, living dangerously. And it could go on indefinitely, you start to feel, as the view erodes, the decade closes in, and you still haven't got anything done.

This should sound familiar. But if you're one of those girls in their twenties with a career, a family and a house, go away, you make me sick. Because I'm in the other, hopelessly increasing category of girls whose lives are shambolic.

I had a casual arrangement with the future, but it screwed me. Nothing has happened the way it was supposed to. At 29, I was supposed to be settling down about now. With a nice house in Dublin's Ranelagh, a husband type-thing, a roaring career and, with all that, the means to have a little baby.

Babies! I laugh, and then read a health article reminding me 28 was the optimal time. Some of these expectations are terrifying, some are exciting; the whole project is exhausting.

Whoever plotted out this little conspiracy of milestones -- career, house, marriage, child -- did it wrong. Those things all conflict. We can't do everything! But there are insidious voices urging us to do so. Every adult has the impunity to ask: "So, what are you doing with yourself these days?" Every girl pops the question: "So, any gossip for me?"

I've started just making up stuff. "I'm an arts journalist and I write fiction". And: "Oh, I had this saga with [ ... ], but I ended it."

Liberation is a wilderness, and we are lost. We're confounded by our opportunities. We've been given so much freedom that, like bees against glass, we're unsure how to access it. We're don't know what to do first.

An obvious place to start is at the big milestone, career. I am one of the lucky ones who got a job in ill-fated '08. I jammed my foot into a door that closed on other punters. I messed around for a time, and suddenly found myself harbouring wild ambitions to achieve historic things that will be feted by the nation. I only want to work.

But just when you decide that, something else takes on a monstrous significance. The work stone is blocked by the second, most elusive stone.

At risk of letting the side down, here is the truth: all a girl in her twenties wants is to bag a man. It's the only thing -- I mean the only thing -- we talk about. It starts around the age of 27 and it dominates every moment. It's uninteresting, but terribly addictive.

Of course it is. Love is all we need! It's precious and transcendent. It makes everything else worth living for. But men aren't ready for any of this, they understandably couldn't be bothered. So the thwarted pursuit of it nullifies our thoughts and impedes our progress.

So we need that third milestone, the infamous bricks and mortar one. Housing. With the country in arrears, where are we going to live? Recently, I took my paperwork to the bank. I wanted a loan, but the mortgage adviser seemed to be stifling a laugh when he saw my bank balance. Pathetic.

It would make you stray over to that last little milestone. A baby. Surely it would be the sweetest panacea to all these headaches, to have a little baby? But I'm old enough and bluestocking enough to know that won't work either. I've seen friends in that situation, and a woman in her twenties with a child in 2013 can feel as isolated as a working, unmarried woman in her twenties did 50 years ago.

Which takes me far back to the blurry, idyllic pasts of my grandmothers, Sheila and Grace. They married at 21 and 23 respectively. They would have thought me an odd, unladylike species of independence. We wouldn't have had much to say over a pint, not that they frequented pubs.

My grandmothers were never in their twenties in our sense. They recognised that catch that is still, incredibly, in the Constitution; "their life within the home".

It wasn't that marriage was the only option in the mid-1940s, but it was an attractive one. Sheila came from Sligo, and did a year of nursing in Holles Street in Dublin. She went home and married Frank, a solicitor 17 years her senior. They lived over a bakery until he bought them a house by the sea.

At my age, she had five children. Five more followed.

Grace studied Arts at UCD, and was one of two women to be called to the Bar in 1943, aged 20.

She was sharp, witty and cultured, but she hated it. It was a man's world presided over by belittling judges. Thankfully she married her solicitor, Alexis, and 10 months later my mum came along (six more followed).

Sometimes I am incapacitated with jealousy for their set-up, compared with our disorderly existence. Not only did they have everything decided without time-wasting, but they had class.

Sheila drank sherry, Grace gin and tonic. We consume vast quantities of everything, and end up doing Jaeger Bombs. They had thrift. They cooked as post-war home-economists did; I peruse the expensive and exotic recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, and don't have the ingredients. They had style. Sheila filled her home with furniture she bought at auction, antique china and handmade embroideries. I have been meaning to go to IKEA. And they had a God, a piety to cradle their fears. When I take a notion to pray, it's into a very dark vacuum.

But my grandmothers' lives were physically exhausting. They were marked by infant death. They had limited social support -- particularly Sheila, who never felt she fitted into her small squinting village.

Had they worked, it would have been tedious. Their chances of being promoted and valued would have been even slimmer than they are today. And what a terrible loss to a society, never to be able to shine outside the home. Never to have dwelled on the option of the conflict and the struggle, between independence and a prescribed life.

Then I approach my mum, Jacqueline, who really doesn't want to talk about her twenties. She had a great time working as a tour guide in London in the 1960s, where she sported a maxi-coat and became a chic vegetarian. But she always knew she would be caught by one of the various suitors who came her way. She married Fergus (another solicitor) when she was 25. That was in 1972. She didn't work, because that was how things were, though one family friend said it was a "tragedy, because she was so bright".

I'm saying goodbye to my twenties soon. They were fun, but they demanded a lot of me, more than I could give. I'm getting out of this interminable decade.

If I could do it all again, I'd look in the least likely place for the freedom, the real freedom, that was there all along. And fly through the open window.

Irish Independent

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