Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My thoughts on "Princeton Mom"...

You've heard of her, right?  She's Susan Patton, the "Princeton Mom".  Patton, a 1977 graduate of Princeton University, made headlines when she wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal just in time for Valentine's Day, advising young women that they should plan for a husband over a career.

While it's what generations of women before us have done, a statement like that in 2014 seems ridiculously outdated and sexist.  But since I pride myself on trying to understand where most people are coming from-- I've even been known to make a couple of concessions to my husband's ex wife-- I decided I'd read what Patton has to say.  Who knows?  She might make a believer out of me.

Okay… so now I've read her article.  These are the "takeaways" I get from it.

* If you hope to have a family someday, you should look for a mate when you are in college.

* An excellent education is a great gift to yourself.  But if you spend your 20s developing your career, once you get around to looking for a mate, you'll be in your 30s competing with younger, prettier, less complicated women.

* The ticking of your biological clock may scare off potential suitors.

* You are best suited and most likely to be able to have babies when you are in your 20s. 

* Being smart is great, but a lot of smart guys are scared off by smart women.

* It might be difficult to find a man who is your intellectual equal.  If you make more money than he does, it may be even more difficult.

* Not all women want a marriage and family; but if you do, it's best to get started on it when you're young.

I'm 41 years old and I don't have children.  I always wanted them, but it's just not how life panned out for me.  Let's just say I don't want them badly enough to resort to what I'd have to resort to in order to have kids.  That fact makes me think it's best that I don't try to be a mother.  Twenty years ago, I was a young woman about to finish college.  At that time, I thought I would probably marry and have kids, even though I'd hardly ever dated.  I had many male friends, but none of them wanted to go out with me.

At 21, I thought I wanted a marriage and family, because somehow it was drilled into my head that having a marriage and family was a sign that I'd become a successful adult.  I grew up in a small, southern town, the product of parents who, at this writing, have been married for 56 years.  They never told me I had to marry and have kids.  In fact, my mom's message to me was pretty much just the opposite.  Though I went to church, it wasn't necessarily drilled into my head by the Presbyterians that I should marry and have kids.  It wasn't like I was told it was my duty, as it is by some churches.  Yet I still wanted them… or so I thought.  It probably came from watching too many 80s era sitcoms.

If, as a young woman, I'd had the opportunity to take Susan Patton's advice, I might have tried harder to find a suitable mate when I was in college.  I went to Longwood University (then College), a public school where, at least in the 90s, the women outnumbered the men by about 2 to 1.  There was an all men's school just a few miles away (one of the very few still left in the United States).  I suppose I could have tried to find someone there.  Hampden-Sydney College is a private school, though, and in the early 1990s, Virginia still had several all women's private schools where the "Hamsters" could find their women.  Sometimes relationships between Longwood girls and Hampden-Sydney guys worked out, but I was left with the distinct impression that many of the guys at Hampden-Sydney preferred their women to come from money… or at least attend a private school where they could give off the appearance of coming from money.  In any case, regardless of the reason, no one at either Longwood or Hampden-Sydney seemed to want to "get with me" in the 90s, at least not that I was aware of.

The guys I liked didn't seem to like me back, at least not in that way.  There was one guy at another college who seemed to really like me, but he came on way too strong and scared me off.  It never would have worked out anyway because I think he was just looking for a warm body.  Come to think of it, a lot of people seemed that way when I was in my 20s… in a rush to find "the one", even if they weren't ready or even all that attracted to the other person.  If I had ended up with that guy who came on too strong, I feel certain we'd be divorced by now.  A couple of the other guys I liked in college were not into women.

My lack of luck in the love arena continued throughout my 20s.  That was a very stressful time for me, as I had a college degree and two minors, yet had a very difficult time finding a decent job.  I joined the Peace Corps, where there were some young men who seemed to be available.  Several of the guys in the Peace Corps with me turned out to be gay.  Several of them preferred the pretty, English speaking, multi-talented and exotic Armenian women.  I don't want to speculate as to why these guys married locals --and there were a couple of American women who married locals, too-- though I know at least one of the marriages between a Peace Corps Volunteer and host country local didn't work out.  More than one Armenian told me I'd end up marrying an Armenian man, though obviously that never happened.  When I was abroad, it was pretty much the same story for me as it had been when I was in college.  The guys I liked, didn't seem to like me back, though I did have a lot of "guy friends".

So I got back to the United States when I was 25, still decidedly single, though I was looking and sort of trying… while also still trying to support myself and launch into some kind of career.  I was a far cry from my mom, who at 19 was tiny and beautiful and married a good looking guy with a steady career.  By the time I was 26, I figured I'd never get married and it made more sense to focus on living for myself rather than trying to find a partner.  So I decided to go to graduate school.  I opted for a dual degree program, figuring that dual master's degrees might give me a better shot at finding a decent paying job.  I resigned myself to a lifetime of celibacy.  I went to school and worked hard… and then I met Bill.  He was on the brink of divorce.

I never thought I'd marry a man who had been previously married.  Divorce was not really part of my life before I met Bill.  I was vaguely aware of the situations that can arise when families blend and while I had never planned to be a stepmother, I figured other people did it.  Why couldn't I?  Bill did have kids and was happy to be a father, but while he was married to his ex wife (and before he became a Mormon), he got a vasectomy.

I remember that sinking feeling I had when he told me he could no longer father kids without significant medical intervention.  I still really liked him.  I had never "been" with a man, so I wasn't even sure if I could get pregnant and I did want kids.  I knew enough about Bill to know that I wanted to have a relationship with him.  He wasn't like any other guy I knew and that was a good thing.  Besides, he liked me back.  Yes, he did have a lot of baggage.  Still, at age 30, I decided to marry him.  I decided to take a chance that if I was meant to have kids, I'd have them.  Bill got his vasectomy reversed and we tried for kids.  It didn't work, even though the surgeons got him firing live sperm again.

If I had used "common sense" to make the decision as to whether or not I should marry Bill, I probably would have passed, especially as I got to know more about his ex-wife, the kids, and Mormonism.  But my heart won out over my head, and here I am… The Overeducated Housewife, prepared for a career, but living the lifestyle my mother lived, minus the kids.  I worry and bitch a lot, but my life has turned out pretty well, most of the time.  I pretty much do what I want to every day and my motive, mainly, is to enjoy life and learn as much as I can.  That may change after Bill retires from the Army, but for now, it works pretty well.

Yes, I could have married some guy I met in college and had kids with him, but there's a good chance I'd be a single mother right now… or maybe I wouldn't have even been able to have kids.  I don't know if our lack of spawn is because of me, Bill, or both of us.  I do think it's probably fine that we don't have kids, though, under the circumstances.

So here are Patton's takeaways again, along with the truths of my personal situation.

* If you hope to have a family someday, you should look for a mate when you are in college.
I tried.  Maybe I should have gone to a school where there were more available men.  I sure didn't find one at my college.

* An excellent education is a great gift to yourself.  But if you spend your 20s developing your career, once you get around to looking for a mate, you'll be competing with younger, prettier, less complicated women.
This is all well and good, but you still have to be able to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself while you're in your 20s.  Though I was trying to launch a career, really my 20s were more about survival.  I worked a lot of shitty jobs during that decade that had little to do with "professional development", aside from my time in college.  Professional development that involved making a living wage would have been pretty awesome. 

As to the rest of it, I actually think I'm more attractive now than I was in my 20s.  When I was in my 20s, I was moody, mixed up, anxious, and depressed.  I was a LOT more complicated then than I am now.  And I was only marginally prettier.  

* The ticking of your biological clock may scare off potential suitors.
Given that, as an adult, I hardly ever dated anyone besides Bill, I didn't find this to be true.  In fact, Bill very kindly went under the knife again so we could try for kids together.  I would have liked to have given him one because despite what some people think, he's a very kind, nurturing, intelligent guy who happens to be good looking to boot.  He made two kids with his ex wife who apparently hate him, but it's not really because he's not a good person or even a good father.  It's because he and his ex wife split up and he didn't get to spend time with them.  That happens a lot to good men like Bill.  If they knew him, they would love him.  Of that, I am absolutely certain.  

Of course there are guys out there who either don't want kids or don't want to raise some other guy's kids.  Or they have had kids and are now paying child support.  If they are lucky, the kids still regard them as their father.  If they're not, they're paying reparations for the fact that kids were born and their parents' relationship didn't work out.  Either way, it makes sense to find out where the man stands on childbearing before you make an irreversible commitment.  If your biological clock scares him off, it's probably for the best.  

* You are best suited and most likely to be able to have babies when you are in your 20s. 
Maybe biologically speaking I was, but financially and emotionally, I sure the hell wasn't!  I didn't chill out and focus until I was about 30.  And I think a lot of people in their 20s are the same, even though it's easiest to get pregnant during that time.

* Being smart is great, but a lot of smart guys are scared off by smart women.
Any guy who is scared off by a "smart woman" is probably an idiot himself.  I lucked out because my husband used to be married to someone who wasn't that smart and he learned from the experience.  Bill was married to an undereducated woman who thought she was "smart".  It led to disaster.  He much prefers being married to a woman who isn't a dumbass.  I don't think it's a good idea to limit yourself just so you'll be more attractive to a man.  Any guy who doesn't see the value in marrying a woman with brains needs to grow up and get real.  Smart women would be wise to avoid guys like him.  

* If you are too educated, it might be difficult to find a man who is your intellectual equal.  If you make more money than he does, it may be even more difficult.
Maybe there is some truth to this.  I do know women who make more money than their spouses do and it does tend to be a problem for some of them.  On the other hand, dumbing yourself down to appeal to a man doesn't seem like a smart idea.  What happens if the relationship doesn't work out and you have to support yourself?  

* Not all women want a marriage and family; but if you do, it's best to get started on it when you're young.
I don't necessarily disagree with this if you are prepared for the responsibility and you find the right person to be with.  If you are mature enough, have the financial means, and are stable otherwise, it probably does make sense to start early.  But not everyone is ready for marriage or kids when they are young.  It really is a decision that both parties should agree to and be honest about… and that in and of itself may be a difficult thing to accomplish.  Honest communication is important, but unfortunately, people tend to be wimps when it comes to being honest about how they feel and what they want.  Children irreversibly change lives, too.  Ideally, one should be certain about a decision that involves other people, particularly innocent kids.  

* Here's another truth that I didn't see Patton address…  Your age counts in the workplace, too.  Looking older in a job interview can be a turn off.  And so can being a "mommy" with small kids.
It's a sad truth, but ageism and sexism are alive and well in the workplace.  As you age, it can be difficult to develop your career as employers subconsciously consider things like your appearance, your health, and whether or not you'll need extra time off to tend to your brood.  It shouldn't happen in our supposedly more enlightened times, but it does.  While they can't legally exclude you from a job for that reason, they'll just find another reason not to hire or promote you.  And you'd better think about what you want more before you commit either way.

A lot of women are disgusted by Susan Patton's advice.  I am willing to cut her a little break.  I don't think what she says is necessarily wrong for every woman.  She's right that, ideally, it makes sense to have kids when you're physically most up to having kids; but there's a lot more to the decision than just that.  You can marry young and have kids and end up divorced and struggling when you're older.  Or you can marry young and have kids young and end up with a happy marriage and career.  A lot seems to have to do with luck as well as planning.  It's not all up to the woman, though.  Marriage is a team effort and a lot depends on the commitment and maturity of both partners.

You certainly don't have to follow Susan Patton's advice for your life to work out well.  Some people, like me, wouldn't be able to follow her advice even if they'd wanted to.  I admire Susan Patton's guts for putting her thoughts out there and stirring up some controversy, making a name and probably a career for herself.  It sounds to me like she's managed to have it all.  Maybe more women should do what she does rather than what she says.  ;-)
Susan Patton does have a book out.  Maybe someday if I'm desperate for reading material, I'll check it out.

Check out Patton's Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE


  1. Great post Jenny. You should start an advice column, or write a memoir. Or both!

    1. Hey, if Susan Patton can sell books, why can't I? ;-)

  2. How old is Susan Patton?

    If her advice worked for her personally, more power to her, but it's not going to be terribly relevant for a whole lot of young women. You know this, of course; i'm preaching to the choir here.

    I feel really sorry for any young women who devotes her 20's to finding the perfect man, only to have him not turn up.

    From most of what i've seen, significant others seem to turn up where and when they;re least-expected. It would seem that a person is at least as likely to meet a quality mate while doing things to improve himself or herself and/or his or her overall quality of life as opposed to conducting an active mate search.

    To any potential suitor who may be scared either by the ticking of my biological clock or by my real or imagined intelligence, PLEASE do me a favor and run as fast as you can away from me. I have no need or use for you.

    This nonsense sounds like it's straight out of the mouth of Helen Andelin or Marabel Morgan.. You know this, of course.

    I like guys and i hope I find one I can live with, but I cannot devote my twenties exclusively to ferreting him out.

  3. Her point is that you should be in college. But rather than using college for career development, you should be scouting out the appropriate man. And if you don't find one there, go to grad school. It's because that's where you're more likely to find "quality mates".


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