I’m sitting in my local Turkish restaurant after a long Monday at work. I’ve just been to a gruelling gym class with the only one of my friends who willingly goes to something called "cardio killer". I’m waiting for a halloumi salad box, which I’ll take home to the flat where I live alone before eating at my dining table alone and having a bath (also on my own because there isn’t anyone to burst through the door and interrupt my once precious alone time these days).
I flick through Spotify, unable to settle on a song, and my phone lights up with a picture of my younger sister. She’s FaceTiming me.
We are three years apart in age. I’m 31 and she’s 28. She has always joked that she’s had an easy ride because I tested all our parents’ boundaries and broke them down. I did things first and she followed, usually while wearing my clothes without permission. That was always the order of things when we were growing up.
My discarded £10 charity shop cowboy boots saw her through her indie stage (slightly too late to really enjoy the good bands). My ID got her into some of Croydon’s finest clubs – particularly the Black Sheep, where I found out that she’d started using the driving licence that I thought I’d lost when they suddenly introduced a fingerprint scanning system and my print didn’t match my name or photo and I wasn’t allowed in. My mistakes informed her decisions.
When they didn’t, I learned to bite my tongue, to resist the urge to parent her, to let her find out that something was an error on her own and not to say "I told you so" when she inevitably needed advice.
To be an older sister is to be immeasurably proud and unspeakably irritated at once. It is to be so protective that you will unthinkingly throw yourself in the path of anything that could cause your sister pain but to hold back in the knowledge that your intervention is never welcome until it is explicitly asked for.
"Yes….." I answer the call with my tongue firmly in cheek because she’s not replied to my texts all weekend.
"Look!!!" she replies, her face filling my screen. The image moves to focus on her hand, where a sparkling diamond ring sits on her wedding finger. "I didn’t have time to get a manicure and I picked off all my Shellac," she laughs, while simultaneously crying and sipping prosecco.
To be an older sister is to be immeasurably proud and unspeakably irritated at once. It is to throw yourself in the path of anything that could cause your sister pain but to hold back in the knowledge that your intervention is never welcome until it is asked for.
I’m still in the restaurant, sitting under halogen lights, surrounded by the smell of grilled meat, but I start crying too.
"Nan was worried about me telling you," she says suddenly towards the end of our conversation.
"Don’t worry about that," I say, before hanging up.
Two months earlier, I closed the door on a seven-year relationship both literally and metaphorically after the person I owned a home with left. Had I thought I would marry them? I guess so. I like going to other people’s weddings but it wasn’t something I was placing too much weight on.
My sister moved in with her boyfriend long before I was in anything resembling a stable relationship. They’ve been together forever, bought a flat years ago and have shared a dog for the same amount of time. In truth, I’d always thought she would get married before me, if I ever got married at all. If anything, her news actually felt a bit overdue.
I knew it was what she wanted and, because of that, I wanted it for her too. That’s the unspoken agreement of unquestioning support we have.
The next day, I sat on a friend’s sofa and told her. It happened again.
"Are you alright?" was their immediate response.
I felt fine. I was happy. I was excited. Was I not supposed to be? I didn’t feel the need to make my younger sister’s engagement about me, so why did everyone else? Was I supposed to be freaking out? People close to me seemed surprised that I wasn’t.
In 1976, almost everyone married before their third decade on Earth. Nine in 10 women had a husband before they hit 30. Today, the tables have completely turned.
If you’re straight and married by the age of 30 in the UK now, you’re officially in the minority according to the Office for National Statistics. This is a trend that’s been developing for a while so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
The proportion of straight women who had ever been married by the age of 30 first fell below half in 2002. Today it’s a third, with only one in three women marrying in their 20s.
In fact, the average age for heterosexual men to marry now is 37.9 years and for women it is 35.5 years. The reasons for this are manifold – it’s partly cultural and partly economic because marriage is less of a milestone in a world where so few young people can afford to get on the property ladder.
Not that it should matter whether you do it before or after a certain age (if you do it at all) anyway, because we’re all doing things in our own time. The idea that there is a right or a wrong time to do anything in life is linked to milestones that are no longer realistic and that’s a good thing, particularly for women.
It is a good thing because it allows us to focus on other things, to think about what we really want from a relationship as opposed to seeing it as a means to a marriage.
I was recently invited back to my college at university to – wait for it – "celebrate" 40 years of women being admitted. Forty years. You read that right. Women’s education opportunities and economic power is a relatively new societal phenomenon. We’re only just establishing our place in the world and yet, somehow, our success still seems to be linked to our relationship status.
In the early modern period, the word spinster didn’t mean unmarried woman. It literally meant a "woman who spins for a living". In an era where all clothing was made by hand and the women who made it were members of guilds, this was not a bad thing.
In 1976, nine in 10 women married before they hit 30. Today, if you're straight and married by the age of 30 in the UK, you're officially in the minority.
It was later, in the 18th century, that the term became synonymous with "old maid". That's when Jane Austen was writing and testing the idea that a woman could only be defined by her marital status with characters like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.
In Austen's world, the private angst about love and marriage was set against the backdrop of a very public anxiety at a time when Britain's class structure was changing, social mobility was slowly shifting because of the industrial revolution and the autonomy of individuals was gradually increasing as a result.
Once again, our world is changing. It always does. But somehow, the notion that a woman should be married by a certain age and ought to feel shame if she isn't persists.
Rationally, we know this is wrong. And yet still we love to caricature unmarried women as hysterical and desperate to find someone to "put a ring on it". We see them as simultaneously fragile and dangerous when, in reality, so many of them – like me – are just grateful to be financially independent and living in a time where it’s acknowledged that you’re better off on your own for a while than trapped in an unhappy relationship with the wrong person because you’re afraid of what people will think if you leave. As usual, these tired tropes never seem to apply to single men.
My long-term relationship fell apart in slow motion. By the time I’d got a grip on the situation I realised I didn’t want to hold it together anymore. Does that make me feel sad when I’m hungover? Yes. Do I sit in the bath and wish there was still someone poking their head through the door to tell me about their day? Sometimes. Have I grieved for a version of the future that will no longer exist? Of course.
But do I worry that my younger sister’s engagement coming before mine and upsetting the supposed natural order is some kind of evil patriarchal portent? Please. Do I feel anything other than love? Nope.
So by all means ask me how I am feeling about it all but (provided she hasn’t recently stolen a nice top) if I am ever anything other than happy for my sister in my reply, please, stage an intervention because I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and it’s time to go home.
We don’t live cookie-cutter lives (if we ever did). There is no step-by-step recipe for the perfect relationship or career. Perfection doesn’t exist. What matters is not whether our lives follow the same path or whether they look the same but how we support one another along the way.