Young ladies need to know that this is absolutely true.
What we rarely hear – or perhaps are too fearful to admit – is how liberating marriage can actually be.
Our grandmothers, we are told, took husbands the way we might choose our first apartment. There was a scheduled viewing, a quick turn about the interior, a glance inside the closets, a nervous intake of breath as one read the terms of the lease, and then the signing – or not. You either felt a man’s charms right away or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you entertained a few more prospects until you found one who better suited you. If you love him, really loved him, all the better. But you also expected to make compromises. The view may not be great, but it’s sunny and spacious (translation: he’s not that handsome, but he’s sweet-natured and will be a good provider).
Whether you accepted or rejected him, however, you didn’t dawdle. My late mother-in-law, who married at twenty, told me that in her college circles in the mid-1950s, a man who took a woman out for more than three dates without intending marriage was considered a cad. Today, the man who considered marriage so rashly would be thought a fool. Likewise, a woman.
Instead, like lords or sailors of yore, a young woman is encouraged to embark upon the world, seek her fortune and sow her oats, and only much later – closer to 30 than 20 – consider the possibility of settling down. Even religious conservatives, who disapprove of sex outside of marriage, accept the now- common wisdom that it is better to put off marriage than do it too early. The popular radio host, Laura Schlessinger, traditional in so many of her views, constantly tells her listeners not to consider going to the altar much before thirty. In 1965, nearly 90 percent of women aged 25 to 29 were married; by 1996, only 56 percent of women in this age group were. Indeed, the more educated and ambitious a woman is the more likely she is to delay marriage and children, the Census Bureau reports. And if she doesn’t – if such a young woman decides to get married, say, before she is25 – she risks being regarded by her friends as a tragic figure, spoken of the way wartime generations once mourned the young man killed in battle: "How unfortunate, with all that promise, to be cut down so early in life!"
I remember congratulating a young woman upon her recent marriage to a friend of mine and commenting perfunctorily that both of them must be very happy. She was 24 at the time. She grabbed my hand, held it, and said with emotion, "Thank you!" As it turned out, I’d been the only woman to offer her congratulations without immediately expressing worry that she’d done the wrong thing. Her single female friends had greeted her wedding announcement as a kind of betrayal. A few had managed to stammer some grudging best wishes. Her best friend nearly refused to be a bridesmaid. They simply couldn’t fathom why she’d tossed away her freedom when she was barely out of college. And she, in turn, couldn’t convince them that she really had met the man she wanted to marry, that she didn’t want to keep going out to bars in the evenings and clubs on the weekends, postponing her marriage for half a decade until she reached an age that her friends would consider more suitable.
In this sense, we lead lives that are exactly the inverse of our grandmothers’. If previous generations of women were raised to believe that they could only realize themselves within the roles of wife and mother, now the opposite is thought true: It’s only outside these roles that we are able to realize our full potential and worth as human beings. A 20-year-old bride is considered as pitiable as a 30-year-old spinster used to be. Once a husband and children were thought to be essential to a woman’s identity, the source of purpose in her life; today, they are seen as peripherals, accessories that we attach only after our full identities are up and running.
Read on and find out what really is the cost of delaying marriage.