Ross Douthat’s opinion piece in last week’s New York Times summarized the results of a study arguing for “delayed marriage” as an economic boon to a select population of men and women. But studies that publish the socioeconomic statistical average of a certain population largely ignore the realities of the study’s outliers, like me.
Delayed marriage falls into the “young” spectrum of a lifetime, while childbirth and child-rearing are still a viable option for a married couple. The trouble with quantifying the results of life choices lies in the potential for women and men who are single, working-class or of waning fertility to see the study as a how-to manual, suggesting that individuals who don’t fall square in this average are making the wrong life decisions (or at the very least are unlucky in love).
A college education does not necessarily mean a healthy income. As a college-educated woman who married in her mid-thirties, statistically I should fall square in the norm for the odds of raising a child in a stable, financially secure family unit. Sadly, that is not the case. My husband, also college-educated, makes less money than I, and most of our income goes to rent and bills.
The emphasis on a college education is a dangerous one to argue for many young adults. Last year’s article In the New York Times illustrated the reality of recent college graduates who are so saddled with student loan debt in a shaky job market that they either live with their parents, work just to meet loan payments, or forego graduate degrees to avoid even more debt. For my husband and I, college degrees never led the way to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
Stats about marrying early or late miss the point of marriage. Whether one should marry is only relevant in the realm of a relationship. Planning on marrying at the “right” time can distort a natural progression of an intimate relationship. It also solidifies the stereotype of unmarried women as desperate, from young college students seeking MRS degrees decades ago, to single women planning their weddings online today.
Marriage means different things to each partnership. To lack 50% of the bargaining, compromising and essentially human factor of the marriage equation is far from realistic. Marriage is a contract and a guideline for two people to follow, and is unique to those two people alone. It’s hard to argue that there is an ideal time to do this when humans meet people throughout their lifetime, yet the late-twenties is somehow the correct time to meet someone and come to a decision about mutual life partnership.
Ageism is an ugly prejudice. And its one that is still not only prevalent but endorsed. Youthfulness is celebrated and marketed to women and men as a goal for appearance and vigor. When media points out over and over that aging is the death knell of marriage potential, healthy children and financial security, hysteria grows in the single, childless 30-somethings. Men are not immune. Older men are increasingly targeted in warning articles about older parents producing children with birth defects. To put such a focus on the right age to marry only reinforces the stigma of aging, as early as the 40s. Whether or not to have children is largely a fiscal decision as much as it is an age decision. Statistics and opinion pieces largely ignore the reality that many people wait because they simply can’t afford to raise a child responsibly.
The focus of the study is on first marriages, when you get childbirth out of the way (and possibly leave the option of divorcing and having a more realistic, lasting second marriage even later in life). The study implies that the purpose of marriage is to procreate and establish a healthy financial situation.
So what does marriage mean for two people who neither have children nor are comfortably middle class? If we married too early, we are doing it wrong. If we married in our late twenties or early thirties, we are doing it right, so why are we childless and broke? It is so hard to quantify marriage into any number that makes sense to outliers.
For every new article that comes out speaking to an average of a population, be it married women, childless women, single mothers or working-class women, I have never identified with the statistics. The data should represent me on paper, but in actuality it’s never an accurate portrayal. The same goes for my husband. And the same goes for our marriage. It is uniquely about us. For single men and women fraught with concern about doing it right, the only right way is uniquely yours, and your future spouses, alone.
Tina Rodia is a small-business owner in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and their fish, Misnomer. She grew up in Connecticut, and has a degree in writing and women’s studies.