"Well," Mom said, "she's a bit depressed and teary-eyed. I think she's realizing that she missed out on some things in life."
"Yeah! Like, maybe, sex? Has the woman ever had sex?" I asked.
My mother snapped back in an air of dignified disgust: "Well, I don't know. I've never asked her." After she recovered from the initial shock of my question, she added: "Tootie's done some things. Like . . . she's been to Branson, Missouri, twice, and she's seen Lawrence Welk. Oh, and she's been to the Badlands of South Dakota, too."
I'm sure Aunt Tootie has lived a richer existence than my Mom's answer implies. However, her life exemplifies the fate of an American woman coming of age in the mid-20th Century and failing to snare a husband -- stay at home, work in a respectable, gender-appropriate profession, take care of the parents, and pass into retirement wondering what might have been. Perhaps she was a closet lesbian trapped in a time and place where coming out was not an option. Maybe she just never found a man to rescue her from the nest. Either way, her choices were limited.
I am the modern-day Aunt Tootie of my family. I am a 36-year-old single woman with no potential marriage partner in sight. Of four siblings, I'm the only one who has never married, and I didn't bear any of my parents' six grandchildren. However, beyond that, I am nothing like Aunt Tootie. I've never been to Branson, and anyone that knows me need not question the state of my virginity. Fifty years and a social revolution separate us. I have reaped the bounty of my feminist foresisters' hard work. I graduated from a respectable university and, discounting an occasional handout from the parental units, I've made my own way in the world. I've carved out a very satisfying, albeit not very lucrative, career as a journalist. I live half a nation away from where I grew up, and I've paid enough rent to make several landlords wealthy. I've dated more men than I can remember. I've shacked up with two boyfriends. I've crisscrossed the states, rambled around Europe alone, "studied" Spanish in Mexico and spent a season as a ski bum.
I'm single, independent and rootless, unbound by the chains of commitment, able to pick up and leave in an instant. If I don't like a job, I quit. If I'm fed up with a boyfriend, I dump him. If I grow weary of a town, I move. U-Haul is my friend. I'm liberated, emancipated, free as a bird. The world is my oyster. Yee-haw.
I want to get married.
Call me pathetic. Call me what you will. I want a husband, and, with 40 looming in the not-so-distant future, sooner rather than later. It took me until my early 30s to admit it to myself. But there comes a time in a woman's life when she approaches the Rubicon of childbearing, and, even if the thought of squeezing out children and changing diapers makes her queasy, she stares down that road and realizes that she has a limited amount of time to make some major life decisions. For someone like me, who wouldn't even entertain the tortuous thought of raising children alone, all of a sudden that window of marital/maternal opportunity stretching into the placid haze of "someday" meets the harsh light of "now or never."
But my desire for marriage goes beyond the biological clock. I want to build a life with a kind, sexy, gainfully employed man who makes me laugh. I want a built-in traveling companion. I want a back-up checkbook when I can't make rent. I want someone to cook for me, and I'll in turn clean the kitchen. I want to wash a full load of laundry for a change. I want a permanent, live-in booty call. I want to have unprotected sex.
I'm not the only fabulous single woman who wants to get married. Of my girlfriends, most of them are single, and the majority of those would rather be married, to the right man, of course. My co-worker, Christa, just turned 30. She's talented and pretty and sharp as a tack. Sue is 45. An accomplished journalist, she has traveled the world and just authored a book with a major publishing house. She's smart and funny and kind. Melissa, 37, works as a sales manager for a tech company. She's artistic, dresses to kill and just bought her second house. Sarah, 37, runs a nonprofit organization, is an accomplished musician and has a rockin' bod. Michelle is a single mom who recently returned to school to get her teaching credential. She's gorgeous, smart, athletic and 40. All of these women are bright, educated, attractive, successful, interesting -- and grudgingly single.
Not to leave out the men. Certainly there are plenty of single guys who would like to be married as well. My friend Kevin, 33, wants to find a mate as much as any of my girlfriends. But biologically speaking, let's face it: men have a few more decades of wiggle room than women do. Why can't some of us find suitable mates?
A New Dating Order
I feel guilty about my nuptial ambitions. As a woman living out the feminist ideal, I feel like I should be "above" such anachronisms as marriage and family. As much as feminism taught us to take control of our own lives, it fell woefully silent on the topic of marriage as a legitimate life goal, so it's difficult to reconcile one's feminist-self with one's wannabe wife-self.
Adding to that, pop culture often depicts the marriage-minded woman as desperate and pathetic. As far back as the 70s, she was portrayed by the pudgy, clownish Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Today she's represented by the obsessive and insecure Monica on Friends, the emotionally needy Charlotte on Sex and the City, and the confused, hallucinatory Ally McBeal.
So, in a post-feminist world, I never thought that a bunch of single women whining about their lack of marital status would be of any scientific interest to anyone save Dr. Laura or the folks at Focus on the Family.
So imagine my shock when I picked up the book Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. In 195 pages, Whitehead, a Ph.D. in American social history, managed to unravel my life story. The title of her book is tongue in cheek. Far from being a male-bashing fest, the book sketches a dramatic shift in the American courtship structure over the course of a single generation. For the first time in centuries, the romantic rules are changing.
Whitehead theorizes that while our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers came of age in the "marriage" courtship system, my Gen X and young Baby Boomer friends and I reached adulthood at the dawn of the "relationships" courtship system (or, more to the point, non-system), which may or may not lead to marriage. The dating rules have changed or disappeared altogether, leaving men and women lost in a mire of romantic ambiguity.
Whitehead, 58, married when she was 21 and had two daughters in her mid-20s. The idea for the book hit her as she observed the romantic lives of her daughters, now 34 and 35, and both single. When Whitehead would query her educated, successful daughters about their marital ambitions, the usual reaction was a roll of the eyes and an "Oh, mother!"
"They have lots of friends and satisfying work, and they've had a variety of boyfriends over the years, and I realized that their lives were very different from mine," Whitehead says in recent interview. "This is a social phenomenon, it's generational, and it's really so recent. So I decided to pin some numbers on what I thought was a pretty significant change in women's lives."
Whitehead spent three years researching and writing the book, in which she interviews 60 single women, age 22 to 40, and researches the statistical trends of courtship and marriage. What she discovers is a shift in young women's goals away from marriage and toward career and self-sufficiency. No big shock -- we've known that for years. That change started in the late 60s, with the emergence of the Second Wave of feminism and when women starting going to college in droves. What's new about Whitehead's research is, first of all, the academic acknowledgement that, in spite of women's newfound freedoms, some of us still want to get married; and secondly, that courtship is morphing from one system to another, and women like me find themselves lost in the middle of a major social upheaval.
According to statistics cited in Whitehead's book, a quarter of 24-year-old college educated woman today are married, compared to more than half 40 years ago. In 1970, the median age for a woman entering her first marriage was 21. Today, it's 25. For college-educated women, it's 27. But, Whitehead warns, that latter statistic is misleading. It implies that women are putting off marriage to a later age, as if our would-be husbands are standing in line waiting for their cue. That's not the case. What Whitehead discovers is that, by the time many women are ready to marry, the social structure for courtship has all but evaporated, leaving single women and men at a loss to find each other.
According to Whitehead, there are three venues in which potential brides and grooms have traditionally met one another: school, church and family. In our mothers' youths, the rules were clear. You met a guy at school/church/via a family member and you dated. When things got serious, you were ceremoniously "pinned" or went "steady" as a step toward the altar. You might even have pre-marital sex, but it was just that: pre-marital sex, as in we've had sex so this is serious so we'll get married sometime very soon. None of this "let's live together first" business. The guy either bought the cow or went home without the milk.
Today, educated women tend to put off marriage. But when they do decide to settle down and start a family, the social structure to support that ambition has disappeared. School is over, the family's living five states away, and church isn't a necessity like it used to be. After the bar scene gets old and the workplace fails to deliver, what are we left with?
The courtship structure for older adults, Whitehead's "relationship" system, has emerged to take its place, but the rules are ambiguous, even nonexistent, the goals undefined. According to Whitehead, being a marriage-minded woman caught in a relationship-oriented world "is like being an Amish woman at a rave. . .the process of finding a life partner is often chaotic, unintelligible, and full of unexpected twists."
Take living together, for example. Three decades ago cohabitation was a social faux pas reserved for unshaven men dressed in wife-beaters and women of questionable repute. Today it's not only socially acceptable but is often viewed as a step toward marriage. Sometimes it is. Just over half of couples living together end up getting married, according to Whitehead's research. And the rest? Females often view cohabitation as an evolutionary step in the relationship, while men tend to see it as a free ride -- a way to avoid commitment while enjoying the comforts of home.
"I think there is a feminist case to be made against living together," Whitehead says. "It becomes really easy to fall into premature care-taking habits. I think even the most progressive and liberated women -- for reasons I can't entirely fathom -- still enjoy taking care of someone, and very often that becomes taken for granted. And without the rights as if you were married to put your foot down and say, "that's not going to happen,' women fall into the trap of doing too much."
Even as I write this I can hear the shouts and murmurs of women and men alike. Personally, I can only draw from my own experience, and, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I think she's right. For five years I lived with a guy whom, I assumed, I would marry. That never happened. What did happen was that we shared a home for which I, by default, became responsible for managing. I did all the cleaning and laundry, most of the cooking, wrote out the checks and walked the dog, all while working full time. We remained in a state of romantic stasis -- him not wanting to commit, me not wanting to rock the boat. When we did finally break up, I realized I had no rights. Consequently, he wound up with 60 percent of the profits on the house, the furniture and the dog, which I had helped raise.
The Girl Project
When I was growing up, my parents' goal for me was always college. The question was never if or when, but where. My parents bolstered my sister's and my academic careers with plenty of positive reinforcement. We were told how smart and talented and special we were. Even my sister, the pretty one, received sparse commentary on her looks. We were expected to exceed in upper level high school courses and to be accepted into major universities. Community college was out of the question, and trade school wasn't even in the Chesky vocabulary. My sister breezed through high school and college with the grace of a ballerina. My educational path was rockier, but I made it through nonetheless. My parents' collective sigh on my college graduation day must have spawned a tornado somewhere.
Along the way, I never recall my mother mentioning the words "husband" or "marriage" to me -- in fact, considering some of my romantic choices, I'm sure she's happy that I've remained single. My parents' unspoken agenda was to prepare me to be self-sufficient, and my teachers, friends, the media and society at large reinforced that agenda.
I'm a graduate of what Whitehead calls "the girl project." The women of my generation were the first to be raised to take care of themselves, with or without a husband. Having come of age in the era of equal rights, Title IX and contagious divorce, we were taught not to count on hubby to foot the bills.
The girl project has been a raving success. Whitehead writes: "It is not an exaggeration to say that today's young single women represent something quite new under the sun. In Western history, only a handful of the most privileged or exceptionally gifted woman -- abbesses, heiresses, artists, princesses, and courtesans -- have been able to establish and lead independent lives as unmarried women. And to achieve this kind of independent adulthood, these women usually had to rely on family fortunes, male sponsors, or the resources attached to departed husbands."
Girl project graduates, she writes, have accomplished "an independence that rests largely or completely on her own accomplishments as well as her own resources. Even more remarkable, she achieves this goal at a young age."
Marriage doesn't easily fit into the girl project. It's not that the girl project directly challenges the institution, but it does encourage girls to postpone their wedding day -- and rightly so, I believe -- in order to grow intellectually, professionally and financially on their own.
"I think that all the signals girls get from the sort of larger society and from people who are very interested in seeing women get ahead and being well educated, the idea is that they should bypass the thought of anything that is going to slow you down," Whitehead says. "I think it's institutionalized. . . This cuts very deep. It's not just one or two women. If you're serious about your life, you don't think about marriage and family until much later on."
The Waiting Game
My mother was not only the first woman, but the first person in her family to attend college. I admire her for that. In 1952, she entered the University of Kansas. Her high school accomplishments had earned her a scholarship and she worked in the dorm cafeteria to put herself through school. She studied microbiology with some ambition of attending medical school, but that changed when she met my dad. They were married when she was a sophomore and he was a junior, and it was decided that he would attend medical school while she finished her degree and then went to work. One doctor in the family was enough.
My mother takes quite a bit of credit for getting my dad through med school, not only financially but by helping him study, what with her science and Latin background. Seeing as how my dad, at 65, just learned how to work the washing machine and still can't figure out how to check the voicemail on his cell phone, I find her claim easy to swallow. Once she got the M.D. placed firmly after her husband's name, her familial duty shifted to birthing four babies and raising them practically on her own. Dad was busy working, of course.
Her story is typical of college-educated women of her generation. You went to college to educate yourself, but you also went to college to land an educated husband. By the time I entered college in 1985, things had completely changed.
The women of my generation were raised to take care of themselves. You go to college, you graduate, you work, and then, a few years down the road after graduation, you start thinking about husband and children. Only one person I knew in college married before graduation, and we all thought she was nuts. As a matter of fact, most of my married friends met their husbands after college.
College was a time to study and plan for a career, and party and have fun. Boyfriends came and went, but none of them were considered serious, long-term partners. (Whitehead cites a University of Chicago study concluding that the more educated an individual, the more sexual partners he/she has over a lifetime, because, she concludes, educated people tend to put off marriage.)
My girlfriends and I couldn't wait to get out of school and start working and buy new cars, all by ourselves. A shiny new Beamer (it was the 80s) and a funky, urban apartment -- not marriage -- was the immediate goal. It wasn't until our mid-20s that some of us started thinking about the "m" word. By then the immediate pool of available men had subsided, but we were still well connected with our college friends and meeting other new college graduates. In a span of about four years, I wore seven bridesmaid dresses.
And then the weddings stopped, and the baby showers started. Those of us who were still single at this point began to feel alienated from the strange world of suburbia and motherhood. I ran from it. I wasn't ready. A decade later, I've been there and I've done that and now I'm ready to settle down, albeit not in treeless suburbia. But when I look around, where are the men worthy of the rest of my life?
Looking for Love
Whitehead, herself a Ph.D., is in no way advocating that women start dropping out of college or quitting their jobs to get married. She's simply pointing out that the courtship system hasn't caught up with the new way women begin their adult lives.
"This is because the world of love itself is currently undergoing a profound change," Whitehead writes. "At the very time that the new single woman is entering her prime years for seeking and finding a life mate, the long-established system of romantic courtship and marriage that once served college-educated women like her is fading, and a new system is rising to take its place . . . What today's single woman needs -- but doesn't have yet -- is a contemporary courtship pattern that fits her timetable and supports her efforts to make a successful choice of a life mate."
So what is today's marriage-minded woman to do? Unfortunately, Whitehead's book offers little in the way of solutions. "I will confess to you that the prescription is weak," she says. "I would acknowledge that out of not having a crystal ball for the future."
She swears that a new marriage-oriented courtship system is emerging, she just isn't sure what it is yet. Maybe it's friendship networks in which people set one another up. Maybe it's workplace networks. In Boston, she says, a group of Jewish mothers get together and exchange their single adult children's photos and resumes. And, in the absence of the traditional pairing mechanisms -- school, family and church -- the marketplace has stepped in to fill the vacuum. Thus, we have the explosion of the dreaded Internet matchmaking sites and various forms of the dating service.
Having tried-and-hated match.com and lacking a Jewish mother, my options appear rather bleak. The bar scene has failed to deliver anything one could, with a straight face, call a relationship. Lately I've taken to standing on my office balcony and shouting down to attractive passersby, "Are you single?" I abandoned that strategy when a hottie in a red convertible Mercedes turned out to be a woman.
But Whitehead reassures me that the knowledge and awareness of the changing rules will help, well, younger women to focus their search for a mate.
So here I am, 36 and single, with little hope of partnering up. I can't completely blame a social revolution and the lack of a courtship structure for my persistent singleness. I made my choices. I rejected the concept of marriage and family during my prime marrying years. My late 20s and early 30s were exhausted on a live-in boyfriend, a man-child who had no intention of marrying me, or vice versa. I wasted another two years with an unemployed musician nine years my junior, whose concept of work entailed sitting around my apartment (rent free), drinking my beer and writing songs.
Besides, it's not that I think my life will suddenly become wonderful if and when I lasso a husband. I hold no illusions about marriage. I remember my parents fighting. I know of more infidelity than I should. Many of my married friends complain about their lack of alone time and the disparity of the domestic workload. And as much as I sometimes idealize my married friends' lives, I've also seen the spark of envy flash from the eye of a spouse grown weary with the burden of home and family. At lunch recently, a married friend of mine fantasized out loud about ditching his mortgage and surfing fulltime. Jill simply dreams of lazing away a Sunday afternoon, just her and a book. Of course, they wouldn't trade their lives for anything, but it makes me realize I should appreciate mine a little more.
Nor do I believe I was emotionally ready for marriage until now. Had I married young I'm sure I would have had at least one nervous breakdown, a couple of extramarital affairs and a parcel of emotionally neglected children. In other words, I'd be divorced by now. My time alone has allowed me to get to know myself, to accomplish things, to find a purpose in the world beyond a husband and children.
But sometimes I think back and wonder what might have been if my attitude toward marriage had been different in my 20s. In college I briefly dated, off and on, a great guy named Tim. He was never really a boyfriend -- I made sure to screw things up before it ever got that far. Nevertheless, he's my "one that got away." He's an artist and a musician, cute as heck and abundantly kind. Unlike most other guys I've dated, Tim understood me. I haven't seen him in 10 years. I looked him up the other day and gave him a call. His voice came on the answering machine: "Tim and Dana aren't here right now, please leave a message." Dana was a sorority sister of mine who started dating Tim after college while I was wandering around the country trying to figure out who the hell I was. I left a message and Tim promptly called back. He and Dana are married now and have a 3-year-old daughter and another on the way. He just launched a start-up, she's in pharmaceuticals.
I'm happy for them, but I have to admit the phone conversation left me feeling like I'd been punched in the stomach. I couldn't sleep that night. I lay awake for hours staring at my ceiling and thinking about what might have been, perhaps like Aunt Tootie has done on occasion. That might have been me on the answering machine, living with Tim in treeless suburbia, driving an SUV and perhaps carting around a kid or two.
Ten years ago the thought would have induced dry heaves. Today, it doesn't sound so bad.