Dear Mrs. Patton: From one ‘Princeton Mom’ to another

Dear Mrs. Patton: I’ve been watching the media tour surrounding your new book, Marry Smart, with some interest. For starters, you’ve done an amazing job at branding yourself. You are now “The Princeton Mom,” which means that none of the other 700 women Princeton graduates every year, about 80 percent of whom eventually have children, can use it. Nicely played.

You’ve also figured out that by promoting a thesis that sounds really annoying, you can get people talking. Nice job getting on the TODAY Show, then having that appearance mocked on The Daily Show, and so forth. I don’t know if it sells books — Sylvia Hewlett’s book on ticking biological clocks didn’t sell that well a decade ago — but it does make you famous!

And finally, you managed to turn a letter to the editor — not even a whole article! — into a book. I joked last week about the idea of “say things in fewer words” turning into a whole book (Brief) because we like our Big Ideas in book form, and here you have taken even less raw material and expanded it. As I’m sitting here waking up every morning at 6 a.m. to crunch numbers for my next book, I admire this efficiency.

Nonetheless, I must confess — one Princeton mom to another — that I’m a bit puzzled by your book. Not by the broader thesis, that if women want to get married and have children, doing so on the younger side has its benefits. We can overstate the case, to be sure. If you want to have 7 kids, you probably should start by your early 20s. If you want to have 2 — which most women do — it is quite possible to do that at, say, ages 33 and 35. We do not immediately shrivel up. Your early 20s do not have to be a mad dash. Indeed, the survey numbers I’ve looked at find that there is no epidemic of childlessness among smart Princeton women who didn’t find husbands in time. Princeton women have children at largely the same rate as other American women.

I am, however, puzzled by the idea that focusing on finding a husband, and building a career, are pursuits that leave little space for each other. You’ve been telling the dewy-eyed interns shows trot out for you that careers can wait but your biological clock will not. But many couples meet each other through professional events, or because they work for the same company. Even something like moving around for a job might broaden the pool of eligible gentlemen you meet. Speaking from personal experience here, men also like women who have interesting things to talk about. I met my husband in a bar, and what he remembers of talking with me from that night was how passionate I was about a book I was writing.  

Of course, he was not a Princeton man. (Mrs. Patton, get this — he went to a state school. And yet he seems to comprehend my intellectual awesomeness! I know your book assumes such a mixed marriage will be difficult, but we make it work!) Your solution to the problem statement — women have a somewhat limited time frame to have kids — is that young women should hunt for their husbands on campus. But one of the major reasons I wound up marrying young (25) and then having my 3 babies at dewy-eyed ages (28, 30, 32), is that I didn’t go to school with my husband. Guys who go to school with you are the same age as you. If we’re going to make sweeping statements about biological clocks and being washed-out has-beens over age 30, let’s make another, which is that guys in their early 20s generally aren’t ready to get married and have a family.

Some are. But I met my husband when he was in his mid-30s and looking to settle down. That he was then trying to pick up 24-year-old women in bars may fit with your world view (men do like adorable and dewy-eyed young women!) but looking for a husband during college wouldn’t address that. Maybe hunting for a husband as an undergrad sneaking into the 10th reunion tent would be a better idea.

That’s an idea for your next book.

Sincerely, Laura Vanderkam ’01



41 Responses to Dear Mrs. Patton: From one ‘Princeton Mom’ to another


  1. Diana Watters says:

    Great post, Laura.

    • Laura says:

      @Diana- thank you :)

  2. oldmdgirl says:

    HAHA!! This made me laugh.

    Good for you on continuing to get up at 6AM! I have no such self discipline. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to 5 years of 5AM wakeups, so perhaps I can cut myself a bit of slack for the time being.

    • Laura says:

      @oldmdgirl- sleep in while you can! I’m just in crunch mode right now. It’s good to have opportunities, but they do require work!

  3. Karen says:

    Cikey! I’ve never seen you so angry – and with good reason, too (I followed your link…)! I imagine that her follow-up, ‘How To Catch A Man’ will also be a best-seller, since having a husband is the only option that we’re all secretly hankering for, isn’t it? I teach in a girls’ school, and I think the original letter and your excellent riposte would be extremely useful for all sorts of reasons, if you don’t mind me using it.
    (and now the air pollution we’re experiencing in the UK today has been explained – it’s obviously the steam of fury coming out of your ears, Laura!)

    • Laura says:

      @Karen- of course, I’d love for you to share it with your girls. Thanks!

  4. Liz says:

    There seems to be missing/extra words in the second sentence of the fifth paragraph.

    • Maxine Brink says:

      …the shows trot out dewy-eyed interns…?

  5. Chelsea says:

    when I read her letter, my initial reaction was that her perception of student life is out of date. Maybe in the 1970s there really was a huge amount of “women’s lib” pressure not to admit to wanting to marry and have children (or maybe it’s an Ivy League thing), but I never felt like there was any pressure not marry right out of college (or to marry, either).

    I will say that you’re never surrounded by more young men your own age than when you’re in school. I and my two roommates all married guys who lived in the same dorm as us right out of college (and these roommates went on to be a vet and a college professor). When you get out in the real world, your peers are generally older (which, as you know, isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

    But to say that getting married should be your #1 priority is pretty crazy. #1 is get an education. #2 is have some fun – and if that overlaps with meeting someone and falling in love, then great. If not, all the friends I know who have wanted to get married have been able to do so no problem even if it was years after college.

  6. Leanne says:

    Great post. I think the thing that infuriates me most about Patton’s “theory”- though it’s hard to choose- is the idea that all women are READY to marry and have children when they’re in college. I met my husband in college (we both went to a state school, too, by the way, and are not complete idiots!) but we didn’t get married until 27, and had our first child at 31. I started feeling outside pressure to get engaged shortly after we graduated, while he felt no such pressure. Luckily, my husband had the presence of mind to know he wasn’t ready to get married young just because we’d met young. I say luckily, because I wasn’t ready either, though I didn’t know that until I actually did get married and found it an unexpectedly difficult adjustment. I’m grateful I had the extra time to know myself better outside the marriage, and I think we’re both stronger for it. Patton is simply adding more pressure and taking away more options for women.

  7. Astra says:

    The part where she puts down her husband’s academic credentials with respect to hers does grate, doesn’t it?

    • Laura says:

      @Astra- yep. There is something to realizing that people (all of us, really) have various character flaws, but our character flaws are often unique to us, and not based on our membership in a broad group of human beings.

  8. Karen says:

    I liked all your points, and especially that you addressed the fact that she puts down men as well as women. This idea that men who don’t have Ivy League degrees can’t make women who do have them happy is pretty sad and I think it makes Princeton come across as snotty and elitist. My husband of 17 years didn’t even go to college in this country. And, he’s almost 4 years younger than I am.

    I did look for a long-term boyfriend on campus–and didn’t find one. Back then everyone was all riled up about a Newsweek article that said a woman over 30 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. That statistic has since been completely discredited (and laughed at), but at the time, people took it seriously, and some of those people used it to scare young women into making decisions against their own best interests. I sometimes wish I could go back to my 22-year-old self and tell her not to worry so much, that promoters of these ideas had their own agendas, and that everything was going to be okay.

  9. Ana says:

    Love it! Nice to see your usually even composure (that you project on-line, in any case) get ruffled up a bit, too, it keeps it interesting!

    • Louisa says:

      I agree, your mocking style is something new and fun, worth developing as a writer!

      • Laura says:

        @Louisa – it has to be aimed at the right person/concept. I don’t like being mean!

  10. Cara Marcano says:

    Youth is beauty in our culture and women probably would be smart to find a man earlier rather than later. I don’t find this to be like bad advice. Men who want kids generally do it like earlier but men can also do this much much later in life than say biologically is possible for women. It is easy for those of us who probably can make a living to make light of this but for most women in america a marriage and man is necessary for financial security. College — and society frankly — could probably do more to foster the kind of respect and genuine interaction that fosters genuine romance and connection and respect for women that is grossly lacking in the society. We can focus on making our boys better men etc. I think also we should encourage our girls to take risks that might put you in the path of a man you might want to be with. and in self-actualizing around your interests and strengths… to be fair for most women in america marriage is statistically the only way to be middle to upper-middle class. this is terrible and more should be done about it. but it is in fact fact and I think to be young and good-looking and 2x and to have a man who gives you this upper middle class life and then to look down on it with all the single mothers out there struggling is to downplay reality. for example, actually and unfortunately single mother hood is a prescription for poverty in this country.. I’d really like someone to hit the bestseller list talking about how childcare credits should be a 100% business deduction rather than the small amount they are… there is a lot we can do in america to help women self-actualize and we don’t do it. teaching women to get ahead is ok with me and I think teaching them about marriage and their options and their looks is OK as long as it is done in larger context of their self-actualization etc.

    • Louisa says:

      I agree, child care is a travesty in this country, but a lot of the single mothers in this country are women who a) wanted it or b) didn’t use birth control, or c) wouldn’t have an abortion (another travesty), so the sympathy card you’re trying to play is completely untenable.

      • Cara Marcano says:

        Wow. just wow. lots of MARRIED WOMEN AND MEN who don’t want kids DON’t use birth control. Lots of MARRIED men ask their wives to abort babies conceived b/c said men don’t use birth control. This has not happened to me but it has happened to LOTS of my friends.
        Don’t romanticize your own upper middle classness and your marriedness that you forget where you are. You live here in America in 2014 and if you are girl in this world it has a lot of dark sides this today show land a man crxp does not touch.

        get off your I’ve-got-a-man-soap box so scXXw that bxxx without one and get a clue. this idea that you have what you have and the single mother got hers is outrageous. I can’t believe you’d actually feel this that you’d articulate it. or the idea that marriage is so perfect that you can be out there judging the single parent.

        • Laura says:

          All right, let’s keep everything calm here.

  11. Cara Marcano says:

    25% of college women- ivy league and otherwise- report being raped while in college. so what does say this statistic say about what she is saying. 25% of women in the military are also raped by their fellow soldiers according to their own accounts.

  12. LOVED the videos of the “dewy-eyed interns” on The Daily Show. Those poor young women having to be filmed listening to her. (Worst internship experience EVER.)
    *
    Side to your DH: Whoop!

    • p.s. I’m a total romantic. I can’t imagine getting married just for the sake of getting married. I totally believe in True Love. And True Love doesn’t work with The Rules or even being dewy-eyed etc. If a man is just attracted by youth and beauty he isn’t worth marrying (or even worth spending time with).

    • Laura says:

      @nicoleandmaggie — :) And yes, the intern who traded off doing the producers’ Starbucks runs for a few days to get out of that totally got the better end of the deal.

      • Where did you find out about that?

        • Laura says:

          just a theoretical answer. This did not actually happen.

  13. Griffin says:

    I watched the Today Show interview, but I have not read the book. I find Mrs. Patton’s message very unproductive. We help no women by frightening them into early marriage, but we also do harm in making women think having a child (or children) at the desired intervals in one’s early 30s comes easily for everyone. Infertility is not only about egg quality; there are many other factors that can prevent a couple from conceiving according to a plan, some of which are male-factor. There is hubris at both ends of this conversation, hubris that one can find the right mate (if you are looking for a same-sex partner, are you really ready to talk egg/sperm donation at age 20?!) and hubris thinking infertility treatments are a walk in the park. Prolonged infertility treatment can be very distracting and tethers you to your doctor, a legitimate challenge if your job requires travel. Consider the irony of delaying children for your career only to find that your yet-to-be-conceived child is impacting your career. Life is messy, and I would rather hear stories about men and women working through those messy patches, not about how someone’s life went according to plan.

    • Laura says:

      @Griffin – of course. People experience infertility at all ages, but there’s no shrill lecturing point that will get you on talk shows to be made to a 26-year-old who’s having difficulty conceiving. So we never hear about that.

      • to be fair, doctors aren’t in a particular hurry for an anovulatory 26 year old either…I would have gotten faster more intensive treatment had I started at30.

  14. Jenn says:

    Great post!

    As a woman is closer to 50, my advice to younger women would be take time for yourselves before settling down.

    I married a much older man when I was 22 and had children in my mid twenties. I filed for divorce due to an abusive situation and raised my kids alone.

    While I don’t regret having my kids at a young age and have chosen not to marry again, I do regret marrying so young.

    Perhaps if I’d taken more time to do my own thing and figure out the kind of life I wanted, I may not have made such a bad choice in a husband. And just maybe, I wouldn’t feel like “something’s” missing.

    For the record, I have encouraged my sons, now grown, to take their time.

  15. Caitlin says:

    I’m 28 and got divorced last year when my ex-husband decided he absolutely did not want to have children, and I realized that was my dealbreaker. [Yes, we discussed it before getting married, and I don't think we got married too quickly or too young--there were a couple of other factors but sometimes people just don't know what they want.] I certainly don’t think that getting married and having children takes up all of your time and prevents you from having a career, and I find this encouragement from Mrs. Patton odd for many reasons. One of the biggest ones that jumps out at me is that, if you would like to someday get married and have children, aren’t you theoretically working towards that anyway? I hate the notion of “hunting” for a husband. You can build your own career (and I think people should), but you have little control over when and if you will meet your spouse and when and if you will have children. There will be another person involved and therefore little control on your part. Laura mentioned that most guys in their early 20s don’t want to get married and have kids just yet, but I think it’s even longer than that. It’s anecdotal, to be sure, but many of my friends and acquaintances have or had significant others who were reluctant to get married and have children, even into their late 20s and early 30s, wanting to extend their partying, fun-loving lifestyles. Nothing wrong with that, if both parties agree. I personally think that there are a large number of women out there who do want to get married and have children, but the menfolk don’t want this (or at least not yet), regardless of when or how hard the women “hunt.”

  16. I predict she’ll be divorced within 5 years, btw. It seems to follow people who write books on how to catch a man.

    • Astra says:

      She’s already divorced. A lot of this seems to be directed at her ex-husband, really.

      • Oh man, the media. I guess it really is Bread and Circus days now, except without the bread part.

  17. Debra says:

    Oh, curses to those of us who went through college, grad school, and post-grad programs, perfectly happy to forgo the kids altogether. I almost jumped on the get married/make babies bandwagon, and there were plenty of people trying to convince me it was what I wanted. One size surely doesn’t fit all.

  18. Gladys says:

    Laura, I really love your blog!
    This is a great post.I read her letter and can’t believe all the things she said.

    • Laura says:

      @Gladys – thanks so much! It was quite a piece of work, I must say…

  19. Rinna says:

    Laura – I really like your tongue in cheek response. To be fair to Mrs. Patton, she not only graduated from Princeton but sent her sons there, so maybe she’s a bit more of a Princeton mom than you ;-)

    I thought her letter was grating and condescending and I doubt many people took her seriously. Frankly, I’m surprised as to how easy it seems to get a book deal for some people!

    With all that being said, I do think there are some messages I wish I could impart to young women in college right now. I wouldn’t focus on hunting for a husband, but I would tell them that having meaningful, respectful and serious relationships in college, even if it doesn’t lead anywhere close to marriage, is of benefit to them. I know it makes me sound hopelessly middle-aged (is 38 middle age these days?), but I don’t understand why women think they can have meaningless sex with no strings attached all through college and their 20s and then expect to get married and have kids when they turn 30! Finding out what you want in a relationship and the kind of man who is worth marrying takes time. Plus, it’s good to get used to having people in your life treating you with respect – you will need it in life. Not sure how a booty call at 2 am (even if it’s totally consensual and fun, to boot) teaches a young woman that she has any sort of worth.

  20. AF says:

    Make me gag. There is so much more to life and it rarely goes as planned. Quit worrying about your age and enjoy!!!!

  21. Susan says:

    I love this post! Yes–If men prefer to marry women who are younger, like Mrs. Patton says, then why is she telling Princeton women to look for men on campus who are the same age? And the statement in her letter about men’s preference for intellectually inferior women is too broad. There are men who appreciate a woman with brains!

    • And they are the only ones worth marrying.

      Man, this is all so sad.