Every chronically single woman has 'the year'.
Like many things, I’d been warned about it by older friends but I didn’t truly understand until I experienced it myself. I’m talking about the year you’re absolutely inundated with wedding, hen party and engagement announcements and invitations. You fork out extortionate amounts of money in train station Accessorizes, on poky Premier Inn suites for one and Beyoncé dance classes you’d otherwise have no interest in partaking in. Your phone constantly vibrates with passive-aggressive messages from strangers on hen do WhatsApp group chats and it seems no one – absolutely no one – can talk about anything other than seating arrangements, first dance songs or the pros and cons of purchasing penis straws in bulk.
'The year' for me was the year I was 29. I was living in London and finishing a master's part-time while working for a national newspaper in the evenings and on weekends. My single dad had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease that would almost certainly kill him and I lived in the flatshare from hell. Normally, I’d make a disclaimer here that I was happy for all my friends getting engaged and married and that I wasn’t bitter at all. But that’s not entirely true. I felt left out, left behind, neglected, jealous and sad. I spent the year celebrating my friends' romantic accomplishments, feeling like nothing I achieved mattered at all. When I got my master's degree, against the odds, I got some social media likes and 'well done!' messages, but no celebration. And when I tried to organise a big 30th birthday party for myself, some of the same people whose hen dos and weddings I’d spent time and money attending begged off with excuses, while those who did attend insisted on bringing their husbands.
'The year' passed of course, the flurry of invites and announcements slowed down and things in my life gradually got better and less other-people's-relationships-centric. I started postgraduate research at a good university in a provincial city and there I formed a tight-knit group of friends all doing their PhDs. For the first time in a long time I found external, and internal, validation from something that didn’t involve men.
So recently, as one of my PhD friends, Jenny, was about to submit her thesis I decided to enlist a group of us to plan and throw her a 'doctoral shower'. She is around the age I was when I had 'the year' and I know plenty of her friends outside academia are busy planning hen dos and weddings. But she deserves a bit of love and recognition, too. We’ve booked an Airbnb in Brighton that we can decorate with naff doctor-themed paraphernalia, where we plan to take her after her viva (the nerve-wracking part of a PhD where you have to defend your thesis in front of experts) for games, quizzes and a lot of well-deserved good food and wine.
While I wish I could take credit for the idea, the concept first came to my attention through an American woman I follow on social media, Anne Christianson. Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota evaluating international climate change policies. Her friends threw her a doctoral shower earlier this year and when I saw the joyous photo evidence of it on her Facebook, I decided to find out more.
She tells me it was an amazing day. "We had trivia, made academic gowns (rather than bridal gowns) from toilet paper, and then had a white elephant book exchange with environment or climate-themed books. People gave toasts to me, which honestly moved me to tears."
Talking about the idea behind the shower, she said: "I realised I was increasingly frustrated that society doesn't value women who set off on a more independent pathway. The ritual of having a gathering to mark and honour the hard, oftentimes harder, work we have done to reach these milestones isn't formally recognised by our friends and family."
But despite the strong sentiment, she said the shower didn’t cause a rift with her married friends. "Many of my friends who have got married and had kids pointed out the need for mutual recognition and inclusiveness of celebrating women's life accomplishments, whatever they are."
Unlike the endless wedding industrial complex sponsored events we keep importing from across the pond (rehearsal dinners, engagement showers, gender reveal parties, etc) this is one Americanism we should be incorporating into our lives more. As Anne put it: "The shower gave me the opportunity to unapologetically say 'I’ve worked hard and I deserve to be celebrated'. Something women often have a hard time saying."
Life isn’t fair, I know. Some people get beautiful weddings. Some people get PhDs. Some people get both, while some will get neither. Similarly, people’s idea of what success and happiness looks like varies greatly and we’d all do well to remember that someone taking a different life path is not a condemnation of the one you chose.
But in 2019 is there not room for celebrating a wider variety of women’s accomplishments outside of marriage and procreation? Next time you’re going all out planning a friend’s hen do, maybe consider putting a similar amount of effort into throwing another friend a party to celebrate that promotion, that new flat, that brave decision to leave a dead-end job.
No matter how big or small the achievement, we all deserve celebrating from time to time.