May 12, 2007

May 12, 2007 | Commentary on Education

Single on Mother's Day

Despite the bad rap from our feminist foremothers, dreams of marriage and motherhood have in no way gone out of style among young American women. For the past 25 years, nine out of ten high-school senior girls consistently have said that marriage and family are important to their future happiness. 

But during these same two-and-a-half decades, the gap between young women's expectations and reality has widened. Marriage is not as prompt a suitor as it was in generations past: The median age of first marriage has climbed more than four years since those of us in Generation X were born. The proportion of unmarried women ages 30 - 34 has more than tripled. Almost a third of women are still single on their 30th birthday, and many would say that's not by choice.

That's a rude awakening for a 21st-century woman who's grown up in a culture that tells her she can "have it all," on her own terms, on her own timetable - education, career, sex, marriage, children. A satisfying marriage and family life, however, seems to be the major exception when it comes to having-it-all on-demand.

In fact, getting married and having children are among the few areas of life that may present more of a hurdle to twenty- and thirty-something women today than they did to our mothers. In the wake of feminism and the sexual revolution, today's marriageable women live in the midst of cultural confusion about male-female relationships and personal fulfillment. The path to marriage and motherhood can no longer be taken for granted - and that presents both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity to sharpen our sense of what makes these fundamental institutions worth pursuing.

Leon and Amy Kass illustrate this generational contrast with a description of their own experience entering marriage in their literary anthology on romance, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar:

Opportunity was knocking, the world and adulthood were beckoning, and most of us stepped forward into married life, readily, eagerly, and, truth to tell, without much pondering. We were simply doing - some sooner, some later - what our parents had done, indeed, what all our forebears had done. Not so today.... For the first time in human history, mature women by the tens of thousands live the whole decade of their twenties - their most fertile years - entirely on their own: vulnerable and unprotected, lonely, and out of sync with their inborn nature. Some women positively welcome this state of affairs, but most do not, resenting the personal price they pay for their worldly independence.

That leaves marriage-minded women (and men) in Generation X and Y the difficult task of trailblazing through new cultural terrain. But seeking longer and harder should make us reflect more seriously on just why we're searching and exactly what for.  Developing a stronger sense of the true significance of the institutions of marriage and motherhood would be a benefit to us all: single and married women alike, as well as society at large.

Much of the "have-it-all" counsel to young women today promises personal fulfillment through accomplishments. From this perspective, achieving the rank of "Mrs." or "Mother" is a self-worth enhancement. Marriage and motherhood amount to socioeconomic status symbols, the entry points to a psychological comfort zone complete with man, kids, suburban McMansion, and an SUV for shuttling to school and soccer practice.

Such misconceptions have serious personal and social implications. On a personal level, these can leave single women feeling they're incomplete today and building up false expectations of post-wedding fulfillment - expectations that, once unmet in marriage, have the potential to turn disappointed women into desperate housewives who feel trapped in a situation they didn't anticipate. The expectations formed in young women today will directly relate to the strength and stability of marriage and family life tomorrow.

On a societal level, these same misconceptions explain our social confusion about the role of marriage and family in today's public-policy debates. This is particularly true in disputes over the definition of marriage and divorce policy. Marriage is not primarily a contract for the self-gratification of adults; it is an institution for mutual care and responsibility, particularly for the welfare of children.

In the midst of this confusion, Mother's Day offers an opportunity for clarity about why we should esteem and seek marriage and family. Mother's Day is an occasion to honor the institution of motherhood as well as to express our gratitude to the individual women who have lived faithfully in this calling. On this day, we also celebrate the gift of life, and mothers' role in nurturing and sustaining life. We celebrate human bonding in its most elemental and permanent form. And we praise the selfless virtues that motherhood engenders in women.

When it comes to an agenda for having it all, these pursuits - the celebration of life, the joy of human connectedness, and the cultivation of other-centered virtues - promise to be much richer than competing proposals. They're not only worthy reasons to aim for marriage and motherhood, but they'll make the meanwhile worthwhile as well. 

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century(Multnomah, June 2007).

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

First Appeared in NRO