Recently I went to a funeral in my mom's nearby hometown for a close family friend. Among those in the church pews were my 80-year-old grandparents, who I call Grandmere and Grandpere. I sat next to them and made small talk while we waited for the mass to begin. As she held my hand and looked around the church, Grandmere whispered in my ear, "I'd love to see you walk down an aisle like that before I die. I just want you to be happy."
I managed to force an awkward smile, and then squirmed in my seat for the remaining hour thinking about what she said. I felt a crushing sense of guilt and uncertainty -- a basic requirement for all Catholics -- because marriage isn't even on my radar.
People love telling millennials what to do. Even in the ever-progressive age of 2013, there are still pressures placed on younger women to fall in love, settle down, and get married. Whether it's coming from family members, Princeton moms, or other pundits, we're told it's something we need to do, a marker for success and personal contentment.
Grandmere isn't trying to oppress me or purposely perpetuate any kind of cultural barriers or gender norms that limit my freedom. She just wants me to be happy based on her own experiences and what she knows, and her marriage to my Grandpere is what's given her joy and happiness.
My grandparents first met at a middle school dance. Two years later when they were 16-years-old, Grandpere bought Grandmere a blue cardigan for Christmas. He gave it to her on Christmas Eve and asked her if she wanted to "go steady," as they explain it. They eventually got married at the age of 21 in St. Mary's church, only one block away from the church where we recently attended the funeral.
Over time they built a legacy of four kids, 17 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. They bought and paid off a house of their own, worked hard to give their children the best lives they could, and even paid for their whole family to take trips to Disney World (I made it on one trip, myself). Grandmere and Grandpere celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows in the same church they got married in, followed by a big party.
Last year, Grandpere bought Grandmere a blue sweater for Christmas. He's given his wife the same gift for 63 years, one for every year they've "gone steady."
This kind of love and passion has truly given my grandmother authentic and genuine happiness, a kind of romance most people never get to experience in a whole lifetime. So when she tells me that's what she wants for me, I'm not confused about why. And I certainly don't think it's because she's a backwards sexist who wants me barefoot in the kitchen (she knows my culinary skills start and end with a grilled cheese sandwich).
But times, they are a-changin'.
Love looks differently than it used to in 1954 when my grandparents tied the knot. In 14 states, same-sex couples can now get married, and so can interracial couples who were once banned from legal union until a 1967 Supreme Court decision. Some people decide to commit to each other, have kids, and not get married at all.
Not only is there a shift in the legal landscape of marriage, but dating also happens differently than it used to. Millennials download apps like Tinder to find people attractive enough for an in-person meet up, make OK Cupid and Match.com profiles, casually date multiple people at once, flirt on Twitter, and have fleeting affairs that start (and sometimes end) at dive bars on college campuses and in big cities. Text messages get analyzed in place of long walks home or notes passed in class.
As a result of all this, happiness means something different in 2013 than it might have in 1954. To Grandmere, happiness looked like a white dress and the man she loved waiting for her at the end of the aisle. But her idea of happiness doesn't necessarily equate with mine, and not just because I have a complicated relationship with organized religion, boys, and white couture.
My ambivalence towards embracing the $72 billion a year wedding industry isn't just because of its historically patriarchal roots or its emphasis on materialism and capitalist gain. I'm a product of my own time and cultural context, so I don't necessarily view love and marriage interchangeably, nor do I view marriage as my end all, be all source of happiness.
Feminist theorist bell hooks once wrote, "Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart."
There's definitely some truth in what bell hooks is saying -- getting your heart broken doesn't always cultivate feelings of optimism and eagerness to jump back into relationships -- but I don't think it's really fair to say all cynicism around love is centered around disappointment and betrayal. Maybe young people aren't necessarily cynical, as much as they are reprioritizing.
I love my Grandmere, and I love that she wants me to find happiness -- believe it or not, I'd love to find authentic happiness too -- but the reality is, I'm still evolving as a human being. Being a 23-year-old woman in 2013 means I have to establish my own version of bliss, and this may or may not include marriage.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers. Learn more