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Thoughts from a Yale Mom about the “Princeton Mom”

I think a little perspective is order.

The incendiary advice of Susan Patton ‘77, a Princeton alumna, that Princeton women find husbands while at college and marry early, has crashed the Princeton website and generated millions of comments, most of them outraged, although some supportive.

Doubtless, her letter has gotten more burn than the North Korean threat of nuclear war.

I don’t happen to agree with Patton’s guidance, but the woman wrote a letter, for heaven’s sake. She doesn’t represent a multinational corporation or faction, or speak for the Obama administration, or even for Princeton University.

In her letter, I hear echoes of the sort of well-intentioned but old-fashioned advice that my own mother gave me in my college years. She still speaks fondly of my (admittedly amiable) college boyfriend, and would have been delighted if I’d married him at 21—although she is delighted that I married my husband, later in life, too, and that I postponed marriage and motherhood until my 30s, and got a Ph.D.

I’m more disconcerted by potentially injurious messages that come from larger entities—such as, Victoria’s Secret, or the American Pediatric Association, Congressional representatives, powerful anti-feminist or anti-abortion organizations, or even just from an influential magazine that’s capable of amplifying and operationalizing an opinion in people’s lives, whether through proposed legislation, organized lobbying, or norm-setting.

I don’t know why women are so jittery about and vulnerable to random women’s personal opinions. Is our inner sense of self so undeveloped and doughy that it’s this easily threatened or incensed by a 50-something letter writer’s opinion?  I suspect that the collective over-reaction must be created, or at least profoundly aided and abetted, by Twitter and Facebook.

I also suspect that Patton wrote something light, not knowing that it would get sucked in to the Category 5 tornado that seems to spin all over the place today: Her comment became one moment among hundreds, from Ann Romney to a breastfeeding mom to Sheryl Sandberg, that become vehicles for a ritualized, compulsivelly re-staged lashing out between women about career and motherhood. The vehicle hardly matters, and fades fast enough, and there’s no constructive end in sight to any of this.

Although I don’t want to “pile on” Patton yet more, I have to say that it’s a red flag for me when someone starts pontificating to young people about when, how, if, or whom they should marry.

Princeton women would do well to heed the old 1960s canard, “don’t trust anyone over the age of 30.” Myself included.

Among other things that I disagree with in Patton’s advice, setting aside the obvious point that it presupposes that we all seek marriage, when increasingly, many do not:  First, I wouldn’t equate spousal “worthiness” with the degree of competitiveness of the admissions process at the school the spouse attended.

Second, I’m not sure why Patton’s advice wasn’t extended to men as well. Surely, men will stand no better chance, by her logic, to find a “worthy” woman than at Princeton? Why urge the pursuit of the Mrs. Degree without the Mr. Degree quest as well? The message might have been more modern, or post-modern, had she done so.

Third, the advice is in some ways both redundant and obsolete. One of the major trends of the late 1900s and 2000s is ever more meticulous “assortative mating,” whereby like marries like. Women and men already tend to marry people who are at their exact level of education and earning power, so even without pairing up in college, they seem to be finding their “worthy” mates according to the U.S. News and World Report’s index of college competitiveness. The advice feels obsolete in the age of social media, too, because there’s plenty of time to reconnect with these candidates throughout life. It’s not as if they have one shot to marry them, while at school, and young.

As for the virtues of young marriage versus marriage later in life, I’ll have to follow my own advice: Be wary of anyone who prescribes when, how, if, or whom you should marry. I won’t do that to you.

Any potential decision could work out beautifully, or fail miserably. I know women in all camps—one who married in her early 20s, and is still married, although she tells me she wouldn’t herself recommend it as a course for young women today. I know women who married and had children happily in their late 30s.

If you marry early, and it works out, it can be a relationship where you grow and learn together, and build a life together. If you marry later, and it works out, it can be a nice phase in an already rich life, one that you enter with a firm understanding of who you are, and some lovely relationship experiences under your belt, and confidence in your independence. If you never marry, there are advantages to that lifestyle as well. Just ask the married folks.

“Grass is greener” thinking rules like a warped despot in most discussions among women of marriage, career, and the unmarried life. All marital choices have encumbrances and losses. To choose one is to shut off another. Most choices have advantages as well, and hopefully a great deal of joy. I suppose that’s the only thing you can count on in life:  the unavoidable interleaving of fulfillment and regret. And the imperfection, perhaps slight and hopefully not profound, of whatever choice you make about marriage.

You can’t argue from anecdote, or generalize about the “optimal” marriage window. To do so is precisely to deny the benefits of liberation, and to start re-prescribing the kinds of “ideal” lives that women should have, according to one script, when it was the whole point of women’s liberation to obliterate or at least multiply those scripts.

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It seems to me that young people are fairly rational in how they think about marriage. Women and men earn their own keep now. They don’t have to marry at 20—as half of American women did in the late 1940s and 1950, because, frankly, they needed a meal ticket and a social identity that wasn’t easily forthcoming elsewhere, or by staying single.

The only advice is that you enjoy your college years, perhaps the only time when you’re sentient and at least semi-independent and unencumbered with lifelong commitments; study really cool things; find out what you love to do; and have awesome relationships with as many fascinating people as you can.

The next time you’ll enjoy this big a sense of community, freedom, and creative latitude without too many worries about money, mortgage, and family, you’ll be in a retirement community or a nursing home. Marriage will come when it comes… if at all, and if you even end up wanting it.  


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