Fourteen years ago, my second grade classmates and I plotted our lifelines. Scribbled drawings and nearly-illegible captions adorned the long paper accordions, mapping all the pivotal events that were to occur in our futures.
Almost everyone’s lifeline held images of graduating high school, marrying, raising kids, and working until retirement. I cannot recall one peer who said they would remain single, and no child could fathom marrying somebody of the same sex.
The activity led me to realize at the young age of seven that the life of an affluent individual generally proceeds in a linear fashion. We graduate high school, go straight to a four-year university, find a job, marry, raise kids, retire and die. Our lives are meant to follow a typical trajectory, and society looks with askance at any action that veers from this plan.
Feminist writer Elizabeth Freeman uses the term “chrono-normativity” to refer to this notion of how our paths unfold in a timely pattern dictated by the modern-day cultural climate.
One example of how the world operates by a chrono-normative clock is the time limit put on phases we engage in throughout life. My sister, for instance, once pointed out the abnormality of the fact that my “teeny-bopper” phase carried well past my 14th birthday. “Girls grow out of that phase when they’re like 12,” she’d say.
Dictionary.com describes this phase as “a subculture exclusive to females, serving as a retreat and preparation that allows girls to relate to their peers and practice the rituals of courtship within the secrecy of girl culture, away from the eye of male ridicule.”
The description also emphasizes how teeny-bopperism “allows girls to avoid being labeled sexually.”
That being said, my own teeny-bopper phase lasted beyond the deadline imposed by chrono-norms in part because I was using boys as a safety net to distract myself from sexual identity issues. To me, this demonstrates that while we may at times dillydally and defy chrono-norms to create a space for prolonged self-exploration, at other times such defiance can function as a necessary mechanism for denial and repression.
Society shames people for stepping off the chrono-normative path. How many times have you heard, “Oh, he’s going to community college?” or “Why isn’t she married yet?” “He doesn’t have kids, isn’t he lonely?” might be commonly uttered, while the question, “What do you plan on doing with the rest of your life?” is ubiquitous on the college campus.
Such a question implies that we should have a mapped-out future, but the reality is that even people with a very specific idea of what they’re going to do often pull a complete 180. Nothing is definite; even the most ambitious of us cannot always follow the trajectory imposed by chrono-norms.
My older sister Julia serves as one example of this. After graduating from UCLA, she scooped dog poop for nearly six months before landing a job at a law firm and ultimately getting accepted into Berkeley School of Law.
Along the same lines, my friend Chris Tan from back home isn’t following the societally-imposed plan. Chris studies architecture at community college but hopes to transfer to a four-year-college once he has completed the requirements.
“I live at home and often feel like I’m missing out on the university experience where you’re constantly meeting new people and connected to a larger social group,” Chris said. “But I know it will happen one day.”
Though abiding by chrono-norms can be restrictive, it is important to keep in mind that the clock is entirely a man-made construction. In other words, it’s real only because we make it real; our thoughts and attitudes give form to an abstract fabrication.
Think about that empowering moment in the movie where the little kid annihilates his inner demons by shouting at them with bravado, “You’re not real! You can’t touch me!” Such a scene is analogous to disavowing chrono-normativity on an individual level (although you may want to contain any actual shouting behind closed doors).
Some people would say that such disavowal merely serves to deny reality while blocking out pressure and obligations, but for me it’s more accurate to refer to it as a way of re-thinking reality while adjusting perception to a clock that better fits your pace.
Keeping this in mind, were I to go back to my second grade classroom and re-do my lifeline, who knows what scribbled drawings would end up on the page? Maybe instead of using the permanent markers our teacher gave us, I’d draw them in pencil so that later on they could be erased and re-drawn. Or perhaps it would be best to simply sketch a series of question marks: vibrant, positive and brightly colored, but connoting nothing definite.
If artistically decrepit ELENI STEPHANIDES were to return to her old classroom, her drawings and handwriting would still be scribbled and illegible, as her penmanship has not changed since the second grade. What did your lifeline look like? E-mail reminiscences or scanned photos of the illustrated plots to email@example.com.