What IS The Right Age To Get Married, Anyway?

Married or single, nearly all of us are tied in emotional knots. Hooray for us.

Jul 15, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

Have you heard? Susan “Princeton Mom” Patton just signed a book deal with a major New York publisher. The news made me sad, but not for the reasons you’d think.
 
In case you’ve forgotten, Patton is the Princeton alumna who wrote into the Daily Princetonian in March, urging women to “Find a husband on campus before you graduate…you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” Oh, and PS: “I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians….My younger son is a junior[,] and the universe of women he can marry is limitless.” (Act fast, ladies.)
 
I’m not surprised that Patton got a book deal. This kind of controversy sells: see such titles as "The Rules" and "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." A publishing professional myself, I know that signing her was a smart business decision.
 
What made me sad was my own elitist reaction to the deal -- particularly to the comments left on Jezebel’s post about it. Boo. I hate being reminded of what a judgey little troll I am.
 
One comment in particular did it for me. A woman from the Midwest wrote in that she already felt like an old maid at 28.
 
“I am not saying ALL women need to get married, or that you should be shamed or pressured into dating when you’re not ready,” she said. “But IF marriage is a goal of yours, it seems like it’s a lot smarter to lock that down early, so you can spend your twenties building your career without worrying over your slowly declining fertility.”
 
I (and many commenters) reacted with disgust. How could any young person say that? Hadn’t she read the recent piece in the Atlantic about how women stay fertile a lot longer than we think, and fertility statistics are based on data from 18th century France? Why wasn’t she concerned that women who marry in their twenties might be limiting themselves professionally and personally?
 
Left out of my judge-gasm was the fact that I am in my twenties and married. I got married at 27 to a man I’ve been dating since I was 23. For Pete’s sake, I’m about to have a baby with him. And yet -- as a reflex -- I thought this woman was a little pathetic for wanting what I had. Why?
 
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The truth is that I harbor a truckload of cognitive dissonance about my marriage and growing family. I’m simultaneously thrilled and terrified about them. One minute I’m fighting back tears of joy, lying in bed with my husband, singing Johnny Cash duets to our unborn son as we feel his little kicks; the next minute I’m clicking through old Facebook photos from my time carousing through Europe, my heart sinking under the knowledge that I will never be able to do that again. I feel like I’ve failed to Maximize My 20’s.
 
When I waddle around town in my pregnancy muumuus, the only comment I dread hearing more than “My God, you’re HOW far away from your due date?” is this one: “Wow, you’re young to be having children.” I’ve heard it more than once, and it fills me with the same FOMO that people like Princeton Mom seem to regard as the exclusive provenance of single women. What am I missing by living this way? And what must other people think? 
 
I know that 28 is not young in most of the country (and world). But I also grew up upper-middle-class on the East Coast. Of the 70-odd women who were in my private girls’ school’s Class of 2003, maybe 10 of us are now married. Just one other classmate -- a devout Christian -- has kids. 
 
The vast majority of our parents, too, started families in their thirties or later. In this community, being a 28-year-old married preggo is unusual, if not outright weird. Anxious by nature, I've always had trouble owning my life's decisions without comparing myself to others. And the majority of my peers are doing different things with young adulthood.
 
People like me occupy a privileged niche of American society, but it’s the same niche Princeton Mom addresses when she speaks of the “‘politically correct’ world where topics of marriage and motherhood are taboo.” What angers me about her attitude is that she thinks all of us “educated girls” will stop being miserable if we quit our whining and bag our college boyfriends. The truth is, marriage isn’t a cure-all for bourgeois existential anxiety. Whether or not we’re wearing a ring, almost all of us are insecure and looking over our shoulders.
 
In Gmail discussions, friends from a similar background -- married and single -- mirrored my contradictory feelings about young marriage.
 
“I do think that people look down on women who find their husbands early, like they’re somehow less evolved, less adventurous, or settling -- when some of them just lucked out and met someone they clicked with early on,” said Kara Baskin, a 34-year-old journalist who married at 27.
 
“I’m a little worried that I’ll get married too young,” said Mary, a 24-year-old in a new relationship. “Part of the fear comes from the shame felt for wanting something you don’t think you’re supposed to want: domesticity, protected living, STAYING AT HOME WITH BABIES.”
 
Not everyone seemed troubled by the idea of a “right” age for marriage. Angela, 26, has no qualms about her desire to get married to her fiancé. “I always assumed I’d get married in my mid/late 20’s,” she told me, although “I never felt like I would be failing if I didn’t.”
 
Nevertheless, Angela admitted to feeling left out recently when a couple of single co-workers bonded with each other and not her, even though the 3 of them had plenty in common. One of them explained to her that it was just easier to spend time with women who were single by choice.
 
Meanwhile, 28-year-old Leigh is beginning to ponder marriage with her boyfriend of two years and has mixed feelings. “Since I’ve spent most of my life convinced that no worthwhile man would ever want to be with me (hello, major emotional hang-ups!), I am somewhat surprised, and -- if we’re being completely honest -- relieved,” she wrote to me. But: “Am I happy that I actually feel relieved to be in a relationship in which marriage is…a possibility? Definitely not.”
 
Married or single, nearly all of us are tied in emotional knots. Hooray for us.
 
My friend Erin -- 30 now, 25 when she got married, and 27 when she had her first baby -- has a cogent explanation for all this: “Patriarchy. We live in a society that is still freaking out about equality for women. (See: TX, NC, OH.) Susan Faludi wrote Backlash in 1991, and it’s still totally relevant.”
 
She continues, “That’s how you get the lies about single 35-year-old women being more likely to die in a terrorist attack than get married, and your eggs disintegrating when you turn 27. (Flat out incorrect.) …So much negativity -- it’s impossible to be a woman and get everything right. We internalize that, we judge ourselves, we judge each other. Like the Mommy Wars. Oh god you guys, wait until you get to the Mommy Wars!”
 
Rare as young married women might be in my part of the country, it’s rarer still to meet a woman of any relationship status who’s 100% comfortable in her choices. That’s why people like Princeton Mom have the power to make national headlines and get big book deals: We’re all floundering in a swamp of self-doubt.
 
Now how do we get ourselves out?
 
*Names (except Kara’s) have been changed.