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Pamela Newton Headshot

The Curse of the Unmarried Generation

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I remember a Roy Lichtenstein drawing from the 80s that showed a distraught woman of indeterminate age with a speech bubble saying, "I can't believe it... I forgot to have children!" I appreciated the humor even as a child. Little did I know that I was already on track to becoming that woman.

I'm 34, so it's a bit premature to abandon hope on the kid front. Most people would say that I have plenty of child-bearing years left. But I can't help but notice that I, and several of my friends, are in our mid-30s, unmarried and childless, and listening nervously to the tick-tick-tick of our biological clocks, which seem to get a little louder and a little faster every year.

What went wrong? It's the same thing that went right. Many women my age were raised amidst that special mixture of post-women's-lib freedoms and 80s individualism that told them they could be who they wanted to be and do what they wanted to do, that their lives had value regardless of whether they were wives and mothers, that they didn't need to depend on men for money or security, and that it was good to enjoy sex. In other words, we were raised to date, not marry.

We were also raised to believe (implicitly, if not explicitly) that we should put the precious energies of our 20s and 30s toward building our own careers and racking up life experiences.

So what happens when you have a life you like filled with meaningful relationships, including romantic relationships, but then you wake up one day and find that you're not young anymore and you're still single? And that there are no longer single men growing on trees like there used to be because, to use a cliché that is unfortunately very apt, all the good ones are taken?

What happens is that you are in danger of becoming the one thing you never thought you'd be: a husband-hunter! Because it's not that you don't want love, security, and family like everyone else; it's just that you were focusing on other things, and being choosy about men in the meantime. And suddenly it's like a game of musical chairs, and you're scrambling for a seat.

(This pressure is not, of course, the same for men, although they also may start to feel it around the same age. They simply don't have the biological imperative working against them -- and perhaps not the cultural imperative either, since it is still more socially acceptable to be an older single man.)

It seems to me that there was once a time when single people became married people rather quickly. They didn't live together for extended periods of time before getting engaged; they took chances on each other at a young age just because of attraction, or even convenience; getting married was simply what single people did. But at least in New York City, if not elsewhere, those days are no longer.

Do I envy that generation? Not exactly. There were many unhappy marriages, many divorces, and many unfulfilled and stifled people, especially women. (True, there still are all of these things, but I think the chances for personal happiness and fulfillment have increased.)

But there is some part of me that envies the ease with which people used to get hitched. What if, when I was about 23, a friendly aunt had picked out a nice boy for me from a good family, set me up on a blind date, and six months later we were engaged? Bada bing, bada boom. Or, more plausibly, what if I had married my college boyfriend instead of thinking of him as the first of many boyfriends, which indeed he turned out to be?

I don't really wish for these things. Much of the time I don't even particularly wish I was married, because, like I said, I like my life. But there are those moments when I wonder if I took a wrong turn somewhere, or if something important got left out of all the good stuff I learned about being a girl.

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