I’ve been thinking lately about a line in the blessing for every bar or bat mitzvah at my temple, which declares, “And may your proud parents be with you when, in your own time, you stand under the huppah with your beloved.”
The power of that sentiment rests with the key words, “in your own time.” On the face of it, the message is that we’re not rushing our children to marry. But when I dig a little deeper for the subtext of that phrase, I find how crucial marriage is in Jewish life and to Jewish continuity. Its import is such that we begin to remind our children about it on the cusp of puberty.
According to the rabbis and Susan Patton, timing is everything in the marriage arena. Who is Susan Patton? She’s the Jewish mother of two young men and “the Princeton Mom” who wrote a letter to the undergraduate women of her alma mater a couple of years ago, encouraging them to be actively looking for husbands while still in college. Patton’s letter, published in the Daily Princetonian, went viral and according to her new book, Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE,” it garnered over a 100 million hits on the Internet. From there it was a quick jump to the morning shows and then on to expanding her thesis into a 200-page book.
It’s easy to criticize Patton. She writes in rhythm to women’s “ticking biological clocks,” which she mentions early and often in her book. She tells young women—women just entering college—to think seriously about their life plan if they want to have children. To be smart at 20 is to realize that in 15 short years marriage prospects and fertility are severely diminished.
Whether it’s true or not, Patton makes me want to scream, “Slow down lady!” She writes that, “It’s never too early to start planning for your personal happiness and looking for a husband who will respect you.”
Patton admits that her book is highly anecdotal—a forum really for her blunt instructions on how women can avoid ending up childless and sad in their thirties. Although she acknowledges that her methods are not for every woman, she blithely assumes that ever woman’s happiness is predicated on having a husband and children.
Patton’s advice not only seems plucked from a different era, it’s sexist for the way she puts the onus on women to hunt for mates in college as intensely as she-lions scour the jungle for food. Yet for marriage-minded young women, Patton makes sense to some degree. During the college years there is a ready-to-date collection of age-appropriate men who are intellectual and social equals. Where things get ugly is when Patton tells a young woman she’ll never look better than she does when she’s 20. And if she’s not looking her best she might endeavor to do so with the help of plastic surgery or a serious makeover. But chip away at some of Patton’s ludicrous and sometimes offensive layers of advice on how to reel in a man and I think you have a well-meaning, albeit misguided Jewish mother.
When I walked down the aisle at the age of 30, I knew that I had won the marital lottery. And it’s true that when I looked around at my reception, I saw that a good number of my 30-something girlfriends—gorgeous, smart, talented women who wanted to marry—still hadn’t found their besheirt, their destiny. Over the past couple of decades some have fallen in love and married, some have taken matters into their own hands and become single mothers and some have abandoned their dream altogether of having a family.
At my engagement party, one of my friends asked me “How did you know Ken had the potential to be so adorable?” It only took a good haircut and a trip to the optician to spiff up my handsome groom. Patton would call him a diamond in the rough. Maybe so. But he wasn’t very hard to spot when I was 29.
I probably could have skipped some of the adventures I had in my early 20s. But without those formative experiences would I have been ready for an amazing man like my husband? I can’t answer that with any certainty. Will I sit my own daughter down and tell her that 75% of her time on campus should be spent actively looking for a husband? I don’t think so. But I will echo some of Patton’s advice on our hooking-up culture and the emotional fall-out from meaningless sex. I won’t put it in the same irritating terms as Patton does when she invokes the old chestnut of why buy the cow when she’s giving away the milk for free. Our daughters are not cows.
The big takeaway from Patton’s bluster is that young women should not be afraid or bullied into thinking that wanting marriage and a family is a second-class alternative. What is shameful is not honoring all of the choices that women make for their happiness.
And yes, God willing, I do look forward to being a proud mama under the huppah.