And this is the revelation that greets the woman who has made almost a religion out of her personal autonomy. She finds out, on the cusp of thirty, that independence is not all it's cracked up to be. "Seen from the outside, my life is the model of modern female independence," wrote Katie Roiphe in a 1997 article for Esquire entitled "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)." "I live alone, pay my own bills, and fix my stereo when it breaks down. But it sometimes seems like my independence is in part an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for. I admitted this once to my mother, an ardent seventies feminist...and she was shocked. I saw it on her face: How could a daughter of mine say something like this? I rushed to reassure her that I wouldn't dream of giving up my career, and it's true that I wouldn't." Roiphe then goes on to puzzle over how a modern woman like herself could wish for a man upon whom she could depend. "It may be one of the bad jokes that history occasionally plays on us," she concluded, "that the independence my mother's generation wanted so much for their daughters was something we could not entirely appreciate or want."
Unfortunately, this is a bit of wisdom that almost always arrives too late. The drawbacks of the independent life, which dawned upon Roiphe in her late twenties, are not so readily apparent to a woman in her early twenties. And how can they be? When a woman is young and reasonably attractive, men will pass through her life with the regularity of subway trains; even when the platform is empty, she'll expect another to be coming along soon. No woman in her right mind would want to commit herself to marriage so early. Time stretches luxuriously out before her. Her body is still silent on the question of children. She'll be aware, too, of the risk of divorce today, and may tell herself how important it is to be exposed to a wide variety of men before deciding upon just one. When dating a man, she'll be constantly alert to the possibilities of others. Even if she falls in love with someone, she may ultimately put him off because she feels just "too young" for anything "serious." Mentally, she has postponed all these critical questions to some arbitrary, older age.
But if a woman remains single until her age creeps up past thirty, she may find herself tapping at her watch and staring down the now mysteriously empty tunnel, wondering if there hasn't been a derailment or accident somewhere along the line. When a train does finally pull in, it is filled with misfits and crazy men -- like a New York City subway car after hours: immature, elusive Peter Pans who won't commit themselves to a second cup of coffee, let alone a second date; neurotic bachelors with strange habits; sexual predators who hit on every woman they meet; newly divorced men taking pleasure wherever they can; embittered, scorned men who still feel vengeful toward their last girlfriend; men who are too preoccupied with their careers to think about anyone else from one week to the next; men who are simply too weak, or odd, to have attracted any other woman's interest. The sensible, decent, not-bad-looking men a woman rejected at twenty-four because she wasn't ready to settle down all seem to have gotten off at other stations.
Or, as it may be, a woman might find herself caught in a relationship that doesn't seem to be going anywhere or living with a man she doesn't want to marry. Or if she does want to marry the man she lives with, she may find herself in the opposite situation from the woman in The New York Times: Maybe the man she loves has taken at face value her insistence that nothing is more important to her than her independence. He's utterly bewildered by -- or resentful of -- her sudden demand for a wedding. Hasn't she always said a piece of paper shouldn't matter between two people who love each other? And because they are now living a quasi-married existence, she has no power to pressure him into marriage except by moving out -- which will be messy and difficult, and might backfire. Whatever her circumstances, the single woman will suddenly feel trapped -- trapped by her own past words and actions -- at the moment other desires begin to thrust themselves upon her.
So much has been written about a woman's "biological clock" that it has become a joke of television sitcoms: career women who, without warning, wake up one morning after thirty with alarm bells ringing in their wombs. Actually, the urge for children and everything that goes with them -- not just a husband, but also a home and family life -- often comes on so gradually that it's at first easily brushed away. What a woman is aware of, at around the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, is a growing, inchoate dissatisfaction, a yearning for more, even if her life is already quite full. Her apartment feels too quiet, her work, no matter how exciting or interesting, is less absorbing, and her spare time, unless packed with frenetic activities, almost echoes with loneliness -- think of an endless wintry Sunday afternoon unbroken by the sound of another voice. She starts noticing the mothers all around her especially young, attractive mothers -- pushing strollers down the street, cooing at their babies in supermarkets, and loading up their shopping carts with enormous quantities of meat, vegetables, cans, jars, boxes of detergent, and packages of diapers, as she purchases a few meager items for her own dinner. All the horrors she once connected with babies -- their noise and messiness, their garish plastic toys, their constant crying and demands that wear down and dull even the most strong-minded of women -- are eclipsed by their previously underestimated virtues: their cuteness, their tiny shoes and mittens, their love and wonder, and, perhaps most enviable of all, the change of life they cause, pulling a woman out of herself and distracting her from her own familiar problems.
Alas, it is usually at precisely this moment -- when a single woman looks up from her work and realizes she's ready to take on family life -- that men make themselves most absent. This is when the cruelty of her singleness really sets in, when she becomes aware of the fine print in the unwritten bargain she has cut with the opposite sex. Men will outlast her. Men, particularly successful men, will be attractive and virile into their fifties. They can start families whenever they feel like it. So long as a woman was willing to play a man's game at dating -- playing the field, holding men to no expectations of permanent commitment -- men would be around; they would even live with her! But the moment she began exuding that desire for something more permanent, they'd vanish. I suspect that few things are more off-putting to a man eating dinner than to notice that the woman across the table is looking at him more hungrily than at the food on her plate -- and she is not hungry for his body but for his whole life.
So the single woman is reduced to performing the romantic equivalent of a dance over hot coals: She must pretend that she is totally unaware of the burning rocks beneath her feet and behave in a way that will convince a man that the one thing she really wants is the furthest thing from her mind. She might feign indifference to his phone calls and insist she's busy when she's not. When visiting friends who have small children, she might smile at them or politely bat them away or ask questions about them as if they're a species of plant and she's not someone particularly interested in botany. Whatever she does, though, she cannot be blamed for believing, at this point in her life, that it is men who have benefited most from women's determination to remain independent. I often think that moderately attractive bachelors in their thirties now possess the sexual power that once belonged only to models and millionaires. They have their pick of companions, and may callously disregard the increasingly desperate thirtyish single women around them or move on when their current love becomes too cloying. As for the single woman over thirty, she may be in every other aspect of her life a paragon of female achievement; but in her romantic life, she must force herself to be as eager to please and accommodate male desire as any 1920s cotillion debutante.
This disparity in sexual staying power is something feminists rather recklessly overlooked when they urged women to abandon marriage and domesticity in favor of autonomy and self-fulfillment outside the home. The generation of women that embraced the feminist idealization of independence may have caused havoc by walking away from their marriages and families, but they could do so having established in their own mind that these were not the lives they wanted to lead: Those women at least had marriages and families from which to walk away. The thirty-three-year-old single woman who decides she wants more from life than her career cannot so readily walk into marriage and children; by postponing them, all she has done is to push them ahead to a point in her life when she has less sexual power to attain them. Instead, she must confront the sad possibility that she might never have what was the birthright of every previous generation of women: children, a home life, and a husband who -- however dull or oppressive he might have appeared to feminist eyes -- at least was there. As this older single woman's life stretches out before her, she'll wonder if she'll ever meet someone she could plausibly love and who will love her in return or whether she's condemned to making the rest of her journey on the train alone. She might have to forgo her hope of youthful marriage and the pleasure of starting out fresh in life with a husband at the same stage of the journey as herself. She may have to consider looking at men who are much older than she is, men on their second and third marriages who arrive with an assortment of heavy baggage and former traveling companions. These men may already have children and be uninterested in having more, or she'll have to patch together a new family out of broken ones. Or, as time passes and still no one comes along, this woman might join the other older single women in the waiting rooms of fertility clinics, the ones who hope science will now provide them with the babies that the pursuit of independence did not.
A woman's decision to delay marriage and children has other consequences -- less obvious than the biological ones and therefore harder to foresee. It is not simply the pressure of wanting a baby that turns those confident twenty-five-year-old single career women you see striding through busy intersections at lunch hour, wearing sleek suits and carrying take-out salads to eat at their desks, into the morose, white-wine-drinking thirty-five-year-old executives huddled around restaurant tables, frantically analyzing every quality about themselves that might be contributing to their stubbornly unsuccessful romantic lives. By spending years and years living entirely for yourself, thinking only about yourself, and having responsibility to no one but yourself, you end up inadvertently extending the introverted existence of a teenager deep into middle age. The woman who avoids permanent commitment because she fears it will stunt her development as an individual may be surprised to realize in her thirties that having essentially the same life as she did at eighteen -- the same dating problems, the same solitary habits, the same anxieties about her future, and the same sense that her life has not yet fully begun -- is stunting, too.
When a woman postpones marriage and motherhood, she does not end up thinking about love less as she gets older but more and more, sometimes to the point of obsession. Why am I still alone? she wonders. Why can't I find someone? What is wrong with me? Her friends who have married are getting on with their lives -- they are putting down payments on cars and homes; babies are arriving. She may not like some of their marriages -- she may think her best friend's husband is a bit of a jerk or that another one of her friends has changed for the worse since her marriage -- but nonetheless, she will think that at least their lives are going forward while her gearshift remains stuck in neutral. The more time that passes, the more the gearshift rattles, the more preoccupied the woman becomes with herself and all her possible shortcomings in the eyes of men until she can think about little else.
This may be the joke that history has actually played upon us -- and a nasty one it is. Switch on the television or wander into a bookstore and it is striking how many programs and books are now aimed at a market of thirtyish single women who are unhappy and fretful about their solitary state. What is fascinating about the self-help books in particular is not so much the advice they give but the reader their authors believe they are speaking to -- a reader who scarcely existed a generation ago. This woman is not using her hard-won freedom and her hard-won money to move beyond herself and her immediate personal problems. She is using it, rather, to delve ever more deeply into herself, buying up volume after volume of cheap psychology that only pushes her further into nail-biting introspection. While the authors of these books attempt to differentiate their theories by offering pseudoscientific systems (measuring their readers' "pleasure pattern" or "receptivity to love") or dividing single women into tidy psychological categories ("the Sexual Martyr," "the Co-Dependent," etc.), the conclusion that emerges is always the same: Millions of women need constant reassurance about their self-worth.
The authors of the 1996 best-selling how-to-catch-a-husband book, The Rules, took for granted a readership of single women so neurotically self-absorbed, so desperately out of control, that they needed to be reminded of such things as not to "babble on and on" to their dates, not to reveal "that getting married is foremost on your mind," and not to stay on the phone with men "for an hour or two recounting your feelings or every incident of the day." As feminist writer Katha Pollitt cruelly put it in a review of the book: "The woman depicted as in need of The Rules is a voracious doormat, the sort of woman who sends men Hallmark greeting cards or long letters after a single date, who rummages in men's drawers and pockets, suggests couples therapy when brief relationships start to crumble, throws away a new boyfriend's old clothes, cleans (and redecorates) his apartment without asking, and refuses to see the most obvious signs of disengagement." Pollitt gamely goes on to argue that the woman who behaves like this does so only because she is not a confident feminist who has learned to value her own company. "Her problem isn't too much liberation; it's incredibly low self-esteem," she writes. And that incredibly low self-esteem has to be a product, of course, of this sexist world we live in, one in which men and women continue to "need" each other only for such superficial reasons as "acceptability in a society organized around the couple." It would not occur to someone like Pollitt that a woman might be driven to this kind of behavior precisely because she has spent her adulthood relentlessly pursuing the feminist goal of independence and now feels so inescapably independent that it's driving her nuts.
Yet the self-help gurus, even those who aren't avowedly feminist, by and large agree with Pollitt. In book after book, they repeat the stereotypical feminist attitude of the past thirty years -- that any form of dependence upon a man is potentially harmful and unhealthy to a woman's identity. "Many women still end up in relationships where their wants, beliefs, priorities, and ambitions are compromised under relationship pressures," writes the best-selling author Harriet Lerner in Life Preservers. "The best way to work on an intimate relationship is to work on the self." "If you spend more time worrying what others think than working on what you want or need, you will always be disappointed," warns Dr. Wayne Dyer in his book Erroneous Zones, which has sold more than 6 million copies. Its cover exclaims: "Dyer shows that only you can make yourself happy and points the way to true self-reliance [italics mine]."
This level of self-absorption, however, has the perverse effect of making it even more difficult ever to attract, let alone keep, someone. (As the single heroine of Helen Fielding's 1996 novel, Bridget Jones' Diary, resolves to herself: "I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.") My single male friends in their thirties complain about going on dates with women who spend the entire evening talking about themselves and analyzing themselves aloud. These women are no longer capable, it seems, of holding a general conversation or of even feigning interest in a general conversation. They've become female versions of the eccentric bachelor -- like Professor Higgins or his modern-day equivalent, Jerry Seinfeld -- who are so set in their quirky habits, perverse likes and dislikes, and long-standing relationships with equally eccentric friends, that they cannot seriously involve themselves with anyone else. Instead -- like the chronically single TV character Ally McBeal, who exclaims, "I like being a mess. It's who I am" -- their problems now define their personalities; and without these problems, they wouldn't know who they are. A horrified Time magazine put Ally McBeal on its June 1998 cover over the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" To the editors of Time, the character of McBeal, in her self-absorption and sex-craziness, betrayed everything the women's movement was supposed to stand for. But what after all could better express the spirit of feminist autonomy than this line from another of Time's traitors to her sex, the confessional author Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her 1998 book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women: "I intend to scream, shout, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale's if I feel like it and confess intimate details of my life to complete strangers. I intend to answer only to myself."
From a feminist view, it would be nice, I suppose -- or at the very least handy -- if we were able to derive total satisfaction from our solitude, to be entirely self-contained organisms, like earthworms or amoebas, having relations with the opposite sex whenever we felt a need for it but otherwise being entirely contented with our own company. Every woman's apartment could be her Walden Pond. She'd be free of the romantic fuss and interaction that has defined, and given meaning to, human existence since its creation. She could spend her evenings happily ensconced with a book or a rented video, not having to deal with some bozo's desire to watch football or play mindless video games. How children would fit into this vision of autonomy, I'm not sure, but surely they would infringe upon it; perhaps she could simply farm them out. If this seems a rather chilling outcome to the quest for independence, well, it is. If no man is an island, then no woman can be, either. And it's why most human beings fall in love, and continue to take on all the commitments and responsibilities of family life. We want the warm body next to us on the sofa in the evenings; we want the noise and embrace of family around us; we want, at the end of our lives, to look back and see that what we have done amounts to more than a pile of pay stubs, that we have loved and been loved, and brought into this world life that will outlast us.
The quest for autonomy -- the need "to be oneself" or, as Wurtzel declares, the intention "to answer only to myself" -- is in fact not a brave or noble one; nor is it an indication of strong character. Too often, autonomy is merely the excuse of someone who is so fearful, so weak, that he or she can't bear to take on any of the responsibilities that used to be shouldered by much younger but more robust and mature souls. I'm struck by the number of my single contemporaries -- men and women in their early to mid-thirties -- who speak of themselves as if they were still twenty years old, just embarking upon their lives and not, as they actually are, already halfway through them. In another era, a thirty-three-year-old man or woman might have already lived through a depression and a world war and had several children. Yet at the suggestion of marriage -- or of buying a house or of having a baby -- these modern thirtysomethings will exclaim, "But I'm so young!" their crinkled eyes widening at the thought. In the relationships they do have -- even "serious" ones -- they will take pains to avoid the appearance of anything that smacks of permanent commitment. The strange result is couples who are willing to share everything with each other -- leases, furniture, cars, weekends, body fluids, holidays with their relatives -- just as long as it comes with the right to cancel the relationship at any moment.
""A woman will not understand what true dependency is until she is cradling her own infant in her arms; nor will she likely achieve the self-confidence she craves until she has withstood, and transcended, the weight of responsibility a family places upon her -- a weight that makes all the paperwork and assignments of her in-basket seem feather-light. The same goes for men. We strengthen a muscle by using it, and that is true of the heart and mind, too.""
Unfortunately, postponing marriage and all the responsibilities that go with it does not prolong youth. It only prolongs the illusion of it, and then again only in one's own eyes. The traits that are forgivable in a twenty-year-old -- the constant wondering about who you are and what you will be; the readiness to chuck one thing, or person, for another and move on -- are less attractive in a thirty-two-year-old. More often what results is a middle-aged person who retains all the irritating self-absorption of an adolescent without gaining any of the redeeming qualities of maturity. Those qualities -- wisdom, a sense of duty, the willingness to make sacrifices for others, an acceptance of aging and death -- are qualities that spring directly from our relationships and commitments to others.
A woman will not understand what true dependency is until she is cradling her own infant in her arms; nor will she likely achieve the self-confidence she craves until she has withstood, and transcended, the weight of responsibility a family places upon her -- a weight that makes all the paperwork and assignments of her in-basket seem feather-light. The same goes for men. We strengthen a muscle by using it, and that is true of the heart and mind, too. By waiting and waiting and waiting to commit to someone, our capacity for love shrinks and withers. This doesn't mean that women or men should marry the first reasonable person to come along, or someone with whom they are not in love. But we should, at a much earlier age than we do now, take a serious attitude toward dating and begin preparing ourselves to settle down. For it's in the act of taking up the roles we've been taught to avoid or postpone -- wife, husband, mother, father -- that we build our identities, expand our lives, and achieve the fullness of character we desire.
Still, critics may argue that the old way was no better; that the risk of loss women assume by delaying marriage and motherhood overbalances the certain loss we'd suffer by marrying too early. The habit of viewing marriage as a raw deal for women is now so entrenched, even among women who don't call themselves feminists, that I've seen brides who otherwise appear completely happy apologize to their wedding guests for their surrender to convention, as if a part of them still feels there is something embarrassing and weak about an intelligent and ambitious woman consenting to marry. But is this true? Or is it just an alibi we've been handed by the previous generation of women in order to justify the sad, lonely outcomes of so many lives?
What we rarely hear -- or perhaps are too fearful to admit -- is how liberating marriage can actually be. As nerve-racking as making the decision can be, it is also an enormous relief once it is made. The moment we say, "I do," we have answered one of the great, crucial questions of our lives: We now know with whom we'll be spending the rest of our years, who will be the father of our children, who will be our family. That our marriages may not work, that we will have to accommodate ourselves to the habits and personality of someone else -- these are, and always have been, the risks of commitment, of love itself. What is important is that our lives have been thrust forward. The negative -- that we are no longer able to live entirely for ourselves -- is also the positive: We no longer have to live entirely for ourselves! We may go on to do any number of interesting things, but we are free of the gnawing wonder of with whom we will do them. We have ceased to look down the tunnel, waiting for a train.
The pull between the desire to love and be loved and the desire to be free is an old, fierce one. If the error our grandmothers made was to have surrendered too much of themselves for others, this was perhaps better than not being prepared to surrender anything at all. The fear of losing oneself can, in the end, simply become an excuse for not giving any of oneself away. Generations of women may have had no choice but to commit themselves to marriage early and then to feel imprisoned by their lifelong domesticity. So many of our generation have decided to put it off until it is too late, not foreseeing that lifelong independence can be its own kind of prison, too.
Copyright c 1999 Danielle Crittenden. All rights reserved.