Essay: ‘Having it all’ debate doesn’t have to start in college

April 2, 2013

It was a having-it-all moment. Seven months pregnant, at Legoland with my husband and 7-year-old daughter, and I get a call on my cell from The Washington Post: Do I want to write about that Princeton woman?

The editor was talking, of course, about Susan Patton, the Princeton alumna who raised a kerfuffle publicly exhorting today’s undergrad women to find their husbands on campus, now, preferably while they are freshmen and have the most mates to pick from — before it’s too late.

“You’ll never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you,” Patton wrote.

(VOTE: Does “Princeton Mom” have a point?)

Her letter in the Daily Princetonian had gone viral — I’d seen her on CNN at the airport while waiting for my flight to Tampa.

Why did this retrograde cri de coeur attract so much attention? Didn’t we already get past this MRS degree nonsense a couple of generations ago? It seems like we’re back to that trope as old as feminism: Women who focus too much on career and work risk waking up one day in their 40s, loveless and with a biological clock that has run out. Even today, women must pay for their hubris.

It’s a resilient fear because, in the effort to have it all, women do sometimes worry that they are missing out. They may be right.

Some may think that Patton is just speaking an uncomfortable truth. But I sure haven’t seen any evidence of it. I guess I am a poor data point for her argument: I adored my male friends when I was an undergraduate at Princeton, but none of them seemed particularly marriage-worthy at the time. I’m sure they felt the same about me. And I met plenty of interesting people after college with no connection to selective universities who might have been wonderful partners had the chemistry clicked.

Eventually, I did marry a Princetonian but he was an economics graduate student I’d hardly known on campus. And while I came to admire his intellect, the spark I felt had more to do with his kindness, cuteness and awesome foreign accent than anything he knew about monetary policy and econometrics.

So should the young women of Princeton — or any other college — worry about finding husbands? Sure, if they really want to, just like anyone else. In my memory, however, we were all too busy writing our theses and looking for jobs — just like the male students.

Most women I knew at Princeton eventually found husbands, partners or wives. Those who didn’t — or haven’t — don’t blame a lack of intelligence (or a lack of Ivy League pedigree) in the potential mate pool.

Patton may be right in one sense: Happiness may come from finding the right partner. But that works best when you find someone whose morals and ideals match yours — and who has the willingness to share in child-care duties — which has nothing to do with where he went to college. (My husband waits in miles-long lines for rides so that I can sit at a picnic bench and draft these words in a yellow Lego notebook I found at a gift shop here.)

And what about having it all? The reality is way too pedestrian for the kind of headlines Patton garnered. Different women want different things, but our society still doesn’t make that particularly easy, and it won’t until it makes it easier for parents to do the essential work of raising kids.

In my case, having it all hasn’t meant having it all at once. I had a fairly intense career in magazine journalism and then dialed back on that work to enjoy motherhood just as intensely. I suspect that after my son is born in June, I will shift into a different career that has become my new passion. It may bring me less money and status, but it will make the time I spend away from my family more meaningful.

In the end, life isn’t about having it all. It’s really about finding out what you want most.

Sklaroff is a freelance writer based in the District. She wrote this piece while on a family vacation in Winter Haven, Fla.

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