“Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out — here’s what you really need to know that nobody is telling you.”
That’s how now-infamous “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton began her letter to “Princeton women,” advising them to lock down a Princeton man by the time they graduate, lest their lives turn, over the next three decades or so, to fetid piles of vaguely unfulfilling upper-middle-class Princeton shit.
Princeton women — and all women, and actually everybody in a place of transition, as so many college students and young people and old people and middle-aged people are — please allow me to finish her premise with the actual thing you “really need to know that nobody is telling you.”
You don’t have a “shelf life.” There’s almost nothing you can’t undo, deal with or mitigate the damage of. You do not have to set your life trajectory on ascend, now or at any other time. You are going to be fine.
Oh, and the other thing: life is a deeply unfair non-meritocracy shored up by a seemingly endless number of intersecting systems of oppression, all of which have rich, powerful supporters who actively work against others’ success for their own personal, professional and financial gain.
Some people will have it harder than others, on the “being fine” part. Part of making sure you’re fine is making sure other people are also fine, or that they can be if they want to be.
To that end, I want to talk to the young people who are like the young person I was, in my late teens and early 20s, wondering what my future held for me and wondering at the many, many ways I thought I might be able to fuck it up with one wrong decision.
Because this lie that Susan Patton told her Princeton Women — that there is one path, and that it involves a partner, and finding the right one before you hit a certain age, and ensuring they have x, y, z social, educational and political qualities that reasonably mirror your own — is one that perpetuates a larger, more insidious, soul-crushing and righteousness-stifling untruth.
That untruth? That where you are is where you have to be, are supposed to be, cannot help but being, and that deviance from your path spells doom. It’s a culturally useful untruth if your goal is maintaining the status quo. It keeps people quiet, obedient and on track. It helps with the upkeep of a society that allows small-minded people like Susan Patton to think they have anything to offer us besides proof of the world’s continuing production of elitism, sexism, of the endless -isms (racism, ableism, heterosexism, -isms upon -isms) embodied in the kind of thinking that would encourage the very few people who have access to a Princeton degree to marry only each other.
And it’s great because that untruth works to reproduce a larger system of inequality whether you’re a rich, white, heterosexual man or, well, anyone who isn’t. Because it simply urges everyone to do what society expects of them.
Patton has talked, in the days since she first wrote her letter, about being the first woman in her family to go to college. But if she’d done what she’s encouraging Princeton women to do — think inside the box, like directly in the center of the box — she herself would never have been in a position to have the privilege of regretting not marrying a Princeton man when she had the chance.
Susan Patton’s regrets are her own, and I am sorry for her that she did not have the marriage she wanted. But it is no one else’s responsibility to have the marriage she never had for her.
Because this is a column about marriage, I will focus on marriage as one of those decisions I was once sure I would fuck up if I didn’t figure out all the answers immediately. I spent my late teens and early 20s in love, in mutual and fulfilling relationships, with a series of brilliant and talented young men, many of whom I was sure could be the one, if only I could unlock the secret to figuring out how you knew when they were the one, which I felt I had to do lest I break some significant part of who I was meant to be in the world and miss the role I was meant to play.
The common thread between all of these relationships was the nagging feeling, in my mind, that it was not the right time. Sometimes that feeling forced me into stronger commitments than I should have been making, in hopes that a promise could hold two young, confused, uncertain people together. Sometimes it forced me to hold out ridiculous amounts of hope, which resulted in ridiculous amounts of heartbreak. Sometimes it forced me to break up with the same guy eight times. Or was it nine? Anyway.
Who would I be if I had married any of those men? Would I be a doting New Jersey housewife? A fiery D.C. lobbyist? A globe-trotting fashion buyer? A divorcee? A mother? I could speculate for hours about the kind of person I might be, and the kind of life I might have had.
But what I know now, that I didn’t know at 21 or even 25, was that the “right” decision could have been any one of them. I also know that the decision I made, to marry a man named Patrick when I was 28 years old, and to live with him in Austin, Texas in a leaky old house with three cats, was the right one.
Because I do not imagine any of these potential parallel lives and want them, or wish that they had come true. Not because I don’t think that any of the things that might have happened to me would be bad or unfulfilling, but because I am deeply, abidingly content with my present situation.
Knock, of course, on every inch of the wood.
“What if?” isn’t gone from my life. But its presence is no longer a primary force in my decision making, at least not when it comes to relationships. I can’t recall the precise moment, but there was one very early in my relationship with Patrick when I realized that I was no longer doing the thing I had done as a young woman: actively seeking out the answer to whether he was “the one.” Instead, something inside me had decided that he was, or very well could be, and it felt good to let that live in my heart.
All that looking, searching, wondering, experimenting, that I did before? Trying to find the right answer, to do the right thing, with the right people? I needed to do that looking, so that I knew what it felt like to stop, or to stop wanting to or needing to.
What Susan Patton, or any person who has a prescription for your life, isn’t telling you is that you are the only person who can recognize rightness when it comes for you. It may not come on schedule, or in the way you expect. And you will still be fine.
Email me at Andrea.Grimes@Gmail.com.