My Aunt Marsha is nearing retirement age and has never married, but it hasn’t stopped her from creating a rich, loving, vibrant life. She’s been abroad, sometimes alone but more often with other single friends, several dozen times, picking up French and a bouquet of foreign scarves along the way.
As my six siblings and I grew up, we’d take turns spending weekends with her, glorying in her watery oatmeal for Saturday breakfast along with the glut of cartoons mother never let us watch, lazy afternoons in the apple orchard or hitting up art galleries and craft fairs with $5 in our pockets Aunt Marsha had very seriously charged us to spend exactly as we wished. We all fought over whose turn it was to visit Aunt Marsha next, always insisting it was our own. And as her mother, my grandmother, aged into a senile invalid, Marsha tended her every moment until grandmother’s death. That decade transformed my beautiful, childless aunt into the mother of her own mother.
My brother and I once had a conversation during those years about how odd it was that our sickest, weakest grandparent managed to live the longest, and how trying it was for Aunt Marsha to pour her life into someone so needy for so long. I was just then (and still am) knee-deep in my own toddlers, who astonished me with their own need for constant attention.
“Maybe God is keeping grandma alive to give auntie an opportunity to express sacrificial love in a way she otherwise would not because she has no husband or children,” I suggested to my brother.
In Public Discourse recently, Carissa Mulder discusses the plight of (especially conservative, religious) single ladies, like my aunt, in an era of so few good men. She suggests a number of appropriate responses, but seems also to forget some. Her bottom line seems to be: Resign yourself to a husband- and child-less life, ladies, and start diverting your energies to other avenues of service. As my aunt’s life shows, this approach can wrest good from evil, but resigning ourselves to the existence of a bad thing may also end up perpetuating it by reducing the pressure for change.
Girl Power, Redefined
Contentment with one’s lot in life is a virtue, but so is seeking a more perfect good. One of several things Mulder misses is women’s age-old power to cultivate society by transforming men. Women have a unique power to lift men into better versions of themselves, not through nagging and scolding or enticement and entrapment, but by encouragement and attraction. Dante and Beatrice’s story is archetypal. In Divine Comedy, Beatrice serves as Dante’s muse and “good angel” to literally, but slowly, lift him from hell. Her innocence and beauty inspires and guides Dante through many dark nights and evil encounters.
Men tend to be brutish, but they like women, and therefore are willing to do uninteresting things like shower, get a decent job, and curb poop jokes to gain our respect and attention. But this positive power women can exercise to men’s benefit has been obscured by a society that wishes instead to pretend our power lies in acting, not like Beatrice, but Delilah—a temptress who, rather than inspiring men towards virtue, further mires him in his worst vices.
I am not suggesting that women marry “a fixer upper,” but that we realize we are all fixer-uppers to some degree, and that discernment (and perhaps some mentors like an older married couple) can help us find the ones that will fix up nicely. That’s what I did—not that my husband was a terrible lout or anything, but I knew his main vices when we married and calculated that having a family to support would knock him out of his tendency to loaf, especially given his history of working sweaty jobs with long days. I was right. And it’s not just my husband. A number of my friends married “diamonds in the rough.” One, for example, slept through college classes and even work frequently. Once married and on the hock for his family, however, it’s remarkable how his punctuality has improved. If his current quite happy wife had refused “to settle” for an imperfect man, she would almost certainly now not be married, and neither would I. Women who will only take a Mr. Darcy as he appears in the end of Pride and Prejudice bypass the exciting possibility that they can cultivate their own Mr. Darcy, just like Elizabeth did.
Note, too, that Elizabeth needed Mr. Darcy to improve her in return. And so do we all. That may be the entire point of marriage—it’s not a proclamation of two people’s individual perfection, but a path towards mutual improvement. That’s a path we can all take.
Demand Dirty Jobs
Like our society, Mulder also seems to equate “degreed” with “marriageable,” but the two are not equivalent and, further, much marriage material could still materialize in time for many ticking biological clocks. If, for one, all the people reading this article would refuse to let their sons, brothers, cousins, and so forth live at mom and dad’s house where mom does their laundry and cooks whatever nutritious meals they get, I predict a small new supply of marriage-desiring men within about three years, one of my brothers included.
Second, enough of women demanding men function entirely according to female criteria. We’ve done enough damage by trying to apply male criteria to ourselves. It’s time to stop tying success and marriageability to degrees earned. Females may have the patience to sit through 13 years of academic drivel followed by six more to get an often useless bachelor’s, but many men can’t see the logic in spending 19 years chained to someone else’s treadmill with little reward in sight. Men’s more restless, risk-taking, results-oriented nature is surely one reason so many size up the higher education labyrinth and check out. Rather than revert to the worst caricature of female nature and bemoan their idiocy, we should instead demand many more pathways to fulfilling jobs for men. And, honey, a paper-pushing desk job often just ain’t it. It’s time for women to once again start respecting and promoting the dirty jobs men love to do, first because men find them quite fulfilling and second because jobs like that serve up family-sustaining paychecks.
One of my former students at age 13 couldn’t spell or write a cohesive paragraph to save his life. Of course, as a former literature teacher I’m all about correct spelling and cohesive paragraphs. That same young man, however, now makes more money than I do as a warehouse manager, which apparently requires passing several tests to earn certain certifications that each created sizeable salary bumps for him. Now in his early 20s, this capable and loving young man has a wife, a baby, and brand new house. School wasn’t his thing, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a capable, marriageable young man. We must stop defining manly worth as the ability to amass credentials—that is, if actually finding a good husband is of higher priority to us than remaining single and bitching about how there aren’t any good men. In short, just because more women are earning degrees than men currently does not necessarily mean single ladies should despair of marriage. Perhaps it’s time to, I don’t know, value a man for his character rather than his resume.
Pull A Ruth
Yes, it’s especially harder to get married now that men don’t need to trade marriage for sex. “Free” sex has truly screwed women. For more about how the Pill has ultimately made women less happy by reducing our value in the marriage market because we all started giving men sex but not getting what we really want in return, watch this amazing video. But rather than discussing this problem openly and possibly agreeing to once again restrict sex for essentially the same reasons DeBeer restricts diamonds, many women (such as Kristina in this recent Rolling Stone article) hold two radically contradictory ideas in their heads: I can be a “sex vulture,” yet someday the man of my dreams will show up and sweep me off my feet. Sorry, but cheap sex destroys marriage. Someone needs to start telling young women that sexual “liberation” prevents us from getting the happy married life we all want.
Even without the random sex part, I’ve encountered a remarkable number of young ladies who think their dream man will just apparate someday. This delusion leads to cynicism when, in mid- to late 20s, Prince Charming hasn’t yet appeared and the shininess of a career has started to wear. That cynicism quickly turns to despair—and I sense a note of despair in Mulder’s article. If not despair, certainly its sister resignation.
Hate to break this to a post-feminist world, but Millennial women shouldn’t be helpless maidens who sit around in towers waiting for Prince Charming. Since almost all of us want to get married, we should act like it. Compare marriage to getting a career, another major life pursuit. Young people today prep for a career like nobody’s business, and in large part because of pressure from their parents. Kids get internships, march through advanced classes and tests, and generally treat college entrance like the only worthy goal in life. There’s nowhere near a similar attitude about marriage, but there needs to be.
Women who want marriage should take a cue from Ruth. In the Bible, she is a young widow whose former husband was kind of a loser. She sidles up to the guy she wants as her second and much better husband, and asks him to marry her—not quite as directly as “Will you marry me?” but almost that directly. I’m not saying women should start chasing men around. Middle school girls do that and it’s awkward. I am saying women who want to get married should start preparing for and pursuing it early and eagerly, like we pursue other things we prize. There should be no shame in saying and going for what we want, especially when it’s something this good. And parents who care about their kids’ happiness also need to start putting as much time into marriage preparation, direction, and encouragement as they do into career prep. Parents have, of course, done this for centuries, but now for some reason it’s unfashionable to try to steer kids away from poverty (lack of marriage is the largest poverty trigger) and towards a happy personal life. For the sake of the kids, the poor, and the aging young ladies now languishing in front of Cinderella sitcoms with chocolate ice cream, it’s time to admit marriage is an urgent personal and societal priority, and act accordingly.
Bloom Where You’re Planted
Mulder is certainly right that conservatives need to care for what looks like a growing cadre of single ladies. Her suggestions about incorporating singletons into community life are good and right. But loving single people includes supporting their right and proper desires for marriage and children, not just permanently accommodating their present unmarried state.
Single women who deeply desire children can also avoid the macabre, ethically questionable, and desperate step of freezing eggs or concocting test tube embryos with random donor sperm. A mentor of mine, another beautiful single woman, while I knew her best about ten years ago, was trying eagerly to find a husband. When that just didn’t happen despite her efforts, a few years ago she decided to adopt a disabled child from Bulgaria. She told me she deeply believes children should have both a father and mother, but figured that one loving mother would be far better for a child than no mother or father at all, so sought a child who was not likely to be adopted at all.
This woman’s love, like my aunt’s manner of living, is good and beautiful. Both exemplify excellent responses to personal disappointment. Although there are many such ways to cultivate beauty from ashes, we should still seek to prevent fires.