Melissa looked around the room, a New York City apartment filled with attractive 40-something singles gathered to celebrate yet another birthday. "Look at this," she said pointing at the room with her eyes. "So many amazing men and women... How are we all still single? Maybe we'll never be married. Maybe we won't have kids." She shrugged and nodded her head thoughtfully. "Will we still be here for each other when we're old?"
The chatter in the room that sweltering 95 degree day was about summer weekends off the Island, the benefits of The Hamptons versus Fire Island and who met who at what bar the weekend before. Singles who live alone move into homes with others for the weekend in the summer, staving off more than the concrete heat of the city. It's simply less lonely.
Jeffery, one half of the newly married couple -- the only married couple -- there, was ready to leave. "We have to get back to Hoboken," his wife said to explain the early departure. They had moved to New Jersey optimistically, making more room for a baby they hope comes. Our group "tries to have a baby" these days. Everything is done with a coating of optimism and gratitude that the right relationship has potentially come in time.
The crowd of singles that gathered that night seem to many to have it all. They've got the looks (not one unattractive individual -- all fit and well-dressed), they've got relative success, they've got the freedom to get on The Hampton's Jitney and take a two-day reprieve. They have no kids to worry about. Their student loans are long paid off. But one thing has eluded them, the men and women alike: The expectation of a life with love, marriage and children.
Americans are marrying later than ever before. And with that, women are having their first birth later than ever as well. But these women are mislabeled as "delayers" or "career women," as if being single and childless at 40 was ever our intention. Women over 30 who want children and are in healthy, loving relationships never say to a marriage proposal: "Let's talk about this in a few years. I have big meeting at work tomorrow."
Their careers are not stopping them from having it all. They are simply and smartly waiting for the right relationship. A 2008 study from the University of Boston Department of Economics entitled "Are Career Women Good for Marriage?" agrees that the right marriage with the right partner is worth waiting for. ("Career women" is their term, not mine. Career women as opposed to what? Single women who don't support themselves financially?) The authors found that women who marry after age 35 have sought 'quality' marriages and are less likely to divorce:
...career women display greater selectivity in the search for marriage partners and greater flexibility in sharing the benefits of a marriage with their partners. Greater selectivity implies that career women will be older when they first marry and that their marriages will be of higher average "quality," possibly making them less prone to breakup. Greater flexibility implies that it is easier for two-earner families to re-adjust the intrahousehold allocation to compensate for changes in outside opportunities, making marriages more resistant to "shocks."
Unfortunately, this does not mean that the right relationship comes in time for every woman (or man) to have the children they wanted. As the end of fertility approaches, nearly 20% of American women remain childless. It's a challenging time as we ask ourselves: Will we find the right relationship before it's too late to have children? (As an aside, the good news is that if we do, women who have their first birth after age 35 are more likely to have more children than the overall average birthrate for women ages 15-44. Plus, we're not alone in late births. Pregnancy rates for women ages 40-44 rose a whopping 65 percent from 1990 to 2008.)
"We thought we'd have it all," Melissa said still shaking her head, referring to the understanding we had as daughters growing up in the 1970s that we'd get the families our mothers had and the social, political and economic equality they didn't. I put my arm around Melissa and gave her a little squeeze. I know too well the moments of grief that come from feeling alone in a room full of people. You don't always get what you want, but as friends, we do our best to give each other what we need.
And no one should ever feel like she's stuck on an island, alone.
The 4th Annual Auntie's Day(R) is Sunday, July 22, 2012
Melanie Notkin is the national bestselling author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids (Morrow/HarperCollins)
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