Susan Patton, the notorious “Princeton Mom” with a book about to hit the shelves and a Valentine’s Day editorial in the Wall Street Journal that further drives home her thesis of encouraging young women to start husband-hunting while in college, would probably think that I am a very, very, very sad person.
I am almost 30. I am unmarried. Since graduating college, I have put the vast majority of my energy and effort into my career, and have recently been rewarded for this with a new job as a vice president at an advertising company. I fly over 100,000 miles per year, typically for business. I have been known to spend solo nights at home with Chinese take-out, a rye on the rocks, and a Netflix queue chock-full of bad sci-fi movies. I even have a cat!
“Another Valentine’s Day,” Patton wrote in her recent WSJ op-ed. “Another night spent ordering in sushi for one and mooning over ‘Downton Abbey’ reruns. Smarten up, ladies.” Hey, this sounds like my life! In the press release for her forthcoming book, “Marry Smart: Advice For Finding ‘The One’,” she states her aim to help young women “avoid an unwanted life of spinsterhood with cats.” (Ma’am, please stop belittling my cat.)
There’s no shortage of written content out there continuing to encourage women, particularly city-dwelling women in their 30s, to be happy with the single life, and Patton’s series of editorials in favor of the M.R.S. degree (as it’s jokingly and not-so-jokingly known) have fueled a new wave of them — including some fantastic satire, like this from the Washington Post. But what I think hasn’t gotten a whole lot of coverage in light of the ongoing “Princeton Mom” trainwreck is the set of assumptions she makes about how a career path works in the 21st century. The way Susan Patton sees it, it’s perfectly A-O.K. to be a young, ambitious woman in college, but you’ve got to be actively trawling the quads, campus centers, and field houses for your future husband, too.
I’d like to pass along two facts of the working world for career-oriented college women. The first — which is probably pretty obvious — is that now more than ever, the upward career trajectory is faster-moving, more unpredictable, and more prone to diversions. At 29, I’ve changed jobs more times than either of my parents ever did; and many of my friends who followed historically stable career moves (like law degrees) found themselves changing course when the job market turned out to be nothing like that you expected. The second is is that a career, particularly one that you love, changes you. It can alter, ideally for the better, your aims and values and entire outlook on the world.
Taking these two career aphorisms into account: If you have a long-term partner throughout the formative years of this process, particularly one whom you’ve made an effort to “lock down” early, that makes the career climb significantly less flexible. There are paths you no longer have the option to take and obstacles that are significantly tougher to navigate. The idea that women should lock down a man while the pickings are good and then feel like they can dive into full-out career mode far understates the reality that relationships are not easy, especially when both partners have their own lives and careers in mind.
I have far too many friends who married very young — often thanks to familial or cultural pressures — and were dealing with divorces before the age of 30 because the two partners’ disparate careers shaped them as individuals to the extent that their values and life goals were no longer compatible, no matter how dedicated they were to supporting one another. If you ask any of them, none of them would have seen this coming when they believed they’d found their soulmates in high school or college. Many people are ready for a lifetime commitment when they are 22, but I’d argue that among high achievers with an inclination toward the business world, the majority are not. Taking Susan Patton’s argument at face value is the kind of thing that will make a lot of people, both men and women, absolutely miserable. I’ve seen it happen.
Patton’s book isn’t out yet, but I’m hoping it addresses this — I’m not keeping my hopes up, though, because I’m pretty sure that at this point she’s just trying to be shocking as a means of selling books. In the meantime, I can tell you now that she’s dead wrong about one thing: Being an unmarried, work-focused 30-year-old with a cat is far from a miserable life, and we’re well enough into the 21st century that nobody should still be believing it has to be. I don’t spend my days at the office fretting about my “shelf life” (yes, Patton actually used that phrase in her original Daily Princetonian editorial) or whether I screwed up incorrigibly by spending my time in college getting honor-roll status and varsity letters rather than compiling a roster of prospective husbands.
Chances are, if I’m fretting about anything at the office, I’m figuring that I’ll be occupied late enough with conference calls or after-work drinks meetings that I’ll have to go straight to a dinner date without stopping at home in the meantime, and I’m wondering whether I’ve left out enough cat food.
McCarthy graduated from Princeton University in 2006.