Why We Should Thank the ‘Princeton Mom’
She’s back! Susan Patton, also known as the so-called “Princeton Mom,” has a new book out in which she urges women to spend 75 percent of their time looking for a good man to marry. (This is actually happening). Patton made headlines earlier this month when she published a letter to the editor in The Daily Princetonian advising young female students at her alma mater to look for husbands while at Princeton lest they be dismayed by the ever dwindling slim pickings in their post-college years. Patton (the mother of two male Princeton grads) insists she isn’t speaking to all women: only those who want to have children or “something resembling a traditional marriage.”
But critics argue her book oozes with sexist, elitist and classist undertones as she tells women not to give away “free milk” as if to suggest that the majority of a woman’s value is concentrated between her legs. She even suggests that rape is a woman’s fault if they are too drunk to refuse a man’s unwanted advances and encourages women to focus more a man’s “credentials.” (Never mind the idea of finding a partner with whom you share core values). I was immediately struck by the glaringly flawed suggestion that women should focus on finding a mate at such a young age because their chances of finding one later in life diminish over time. On the contrary, most college educated Americans do get married. As I prepare to say goodbye to my 20s, I can’t help but think about how different I am now than I was in my early 20s. If I had settled down sooner, I wouldn’t have realized half of my potential.
But rather than lament the litany of disturbing pieces of advice Patton offers in her book, I’m going to focus on the one thing of value I’ve taken away from this exciting conversation starter. It was a point Patton drove home on MSNBC’s morning Joe Tuesday while being interviewed by Mika Brzezinski. “Here’s the problem ladies: if you’re going to delay looking for a husband and having children until after you’ve spent the first 10 or 12 years developing your career, you’re now going to be in your mid-30s and you’re first going to start thinking about having a baby, that’s problem number one... Simply from a biological perspective, your fertility has limitations.” Most of what Patton said following this statement was downhill from here but while she was addressing a group of young women on the set I felt her overall point made a lot of sense. So did Brzezinski who replied, “But I also feel like they don’t like what they’re hearing and it hurts. The bottom line is if you start looking for a guy, probably the most important decision you’re going to make in your life would be to marry. At 35 your chances are way less than they were when you were 25.”
I’m not saying women should start planning for a life of domestic servitude once they reach puberty. On the other hand, women are chastised so often for “poor planning” when life takes unexpected detours but rarely encouraged to think as strategically and balanced about our personal future as we are about our professional path. So many career-oriented women (myself included) keep such a lazar focus on our jobs and expect a good relationship to just “happen” but instead “just happen” to find ourselves on the brown side of the grass later on.
As a young, professional, 20-something who has spent my adult years focused on my own career goals while fumbling parts of my personal and professional life along the way, one thing I’ve learned is that at some point women, and particularly career oriented women, need to be very honest about what they want both in their professional and personal lives. And if part of your life’s plan includes having a family as well as a career, it’s a good idea to think carefully about the kind of person you want to have a family with and work to orient your life in that direction rather than wake up in a panicky cold sweat one day when you realize you don’t have anyone to have a family with.
Over the holidays my boss (an accomplished female media professional) gave me the book Lean In, written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as a gift. In it Sandberg writes, “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. A woman who can find someone who is willing to share the burdens — and joys — of home life will go further in her work life.” Oddly enough Sandberg also gets candid in her book about how societal pressures influenced her decision to marry in her 20s and weighed on her insecurities about her subsequent divorce. There are limitations of citing two women many people perceive as preaching to the privileged few and one whose views are so extreme. Conversely, as Brzezinski writes on her blog referring to Patton, “there is an important message in her madness.”
But both women make a similar suggestion (albeit for different reasons) it would behoove many a professional woman to take heed of. Finding a partner in an age where what I like to call “fast-food dating” and this pervasive “hook up” subculture can be described in the words of one friend “as an extension of capitalism,” should be as strategic a decision for women as any that shapes their future. Sandberg explains it much more eloquently. “I don’t know of a single woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully — and I mean fully — supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners.”
Granted, not every woman is striving to be COO, CEO or CFO of a company. And the odds of marriage or healthy partnerships are stacked against certain demographics more than others like large groups of women of color for example — a cohort to which I belong. Still, dating, marriage and/or the lack thereof remain a constant topic of conversation and sometimes woe among many American women, especially those who’ve worked hard in their careers. So if college-educated, career-oriented women put so much thought into plotting our ideal occupational path with the expectation of a more favorable outcome, why shouldn’t we be just as strategic about finding a partner (if that’s the path we chose)? If nothing else, Patton has sparked another much needed conversation in the public discourse... and for that we should thank her.