Growing up in Iraq, Shahd had a roadmap of milestones she thought she had to reach by early adulthood.
I’ve learned not to live by anyone's expectations.
Last month, I turned 29. This milestone reminded me that when I was in high school, my goal was to have a degree, a house, and to be married with two kids by age 25. Did you just laugh? Yes, I did too. None of this, except for the degree part, has happened yet. When you're young, you just underestimate how long everything takes. I honestly thought every single woman in the Middle East had to go through these stages to obtain "stability."
Here are the magical steps for happiness that I learned growing up in Iraq:
Stage 1: Schooling
Stage 2: Find Mr. Right
Stage 3: Have kids
Until you complete secondary school or college, your priority is your education. During this phase, your social network is your group of school friends, and your fun time is in your school yard.
Immediately after you complete either a high school or college degree, you start looking for "Mr. Right". Some women don’t have to find him on their own. A family member or a “marriage counselor” will do it for them. If you have ever lived in the Middle East, you will relate. These people who I call marriage counselors work just like dating sites and they do it for free just for the prestige. They match couples based on their experiences and then have their parents meet up to work things out.
Never mind that Mr. Right is mostly never right. After your degree, it’s time to get married.
As soon as you are married, you now have to show you are productive. Some couples will have two kids; some will have as many as a half a dozen. You will work your whole life trying to make a fortune to leave for your kids. You build a house; you put money in the bank. Once you're gone from this Earth, your kids will take over.
During my 20s, I watched women around me pass through the "right stages" of a woman's life. I thought I was so behind. My life was all about the three stages.
Keep in mind, I am not saying every single woman in the Middle East follows these steps. But it is widely practiced, and there is pressure to keep up. Even men feel this pressure.
Many people, including my family, told me I should have kids before I am too old to handle them. People also told me I am hard to manage, and that I have to change in order for people to want to be with me. I was also called a tomboy for wanting to pay my own bills and take care of myself. Call me proud, but I have enough feminine character; weak people hate to admit it, or they just don’t like seeing women like me being strong and independent.
As I received criticism for not progressing through the stages, I began to think something was wrong with the system I had to live by. It is not like I did not try to follow the system. I met men who I thought would be “the one”, but they turned out to be... a bad fit. If you smiled reading this, you probably went through this too.
Every time marriage was a possibility, either the men disqualified me or they did not meet my own expectations. Either way, marriage did not happen. I have always felt I am on this Earth to live out a different scenario, so I decided to set my own expectations.
Where do I stand today?
I stand in my 29 Spring Zone. The Spring Zone is what I call the positive energy that I have chosen to surround myself with. Every year, I find something more beautiful to enjoy, something I did not do the year before. This has helped me to thrive. It means I have never stopped working on myself and I never will. At 29, I realize I don’t need to get married, earn more money, or hold a better title in my job to be happy; all I really need to do is feed my soul with something magical.
I can't wait to find time to throw a saddle on a horse and just ride. I can't wait to figure out the chords to my next favorite country music song to strum on my guitar. I can't wait to get to my desk every morning and face a new work challenge. I can't wait to meet the family in the US that has become my second family for an Italian dinner and have a great laugh at some jokes I barely understand.
I thought getting close to 30 would be scary. It really isn't.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more knowledgeable, more accepting, and more communicative. I’ve made more friends, listened more, and argued less. I’ve learned not to live by anyone's expectations.
We need to learn to stop chaining ourselves to what our community wants or what our traditions tell us to do. Our traditions were created in the past, and practiced by people from the past—a past we can never be certain of. We only know what has been passed to us over the years.
It is not wrong to get married and have children if it is what you want. But I have learned through the years that life on Earth is not just about reproduction. Just because your friend took a certain path or your cousin lived a certain way, you do not have to live the same way. Create your own path and meet your own standards.
I know I will eventually start a family on my own, but I also know there is so much more in this universe to accomplish, change, and improve before I leave the Earth.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more