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