Today I heard that the novelist Barbara Cartland believed that the best way to arrange social life was for girls to marry at seventeen, and then there would be no trouble. I have a great respect for Barbara Cartland, for she is one of the best selling writers of chick lit ever. However, she was also born in 1901 and, as we delicately put it at my house, came from money. Today marrying off girls at 17, even girls who come from money to men with even more money, seems to me a recipe for complete disaster.
My mother was encouraged to get her Bachelor of Arts degree because it would be "something useful to fall back on if you don't get married, dear." It has become traditional to sneer at this observation so often repeated by women of my grandmother's generation to women of my mother's. But it made a lot of sense to women who--let us remember--had never had the chance to go to university.
Mum married a good catch and never needed anything to fall back on. But what I know, and Grandma didn't, is that the more education a woman has, the better her children are likely to do at school. So, from my self-absorbed point of view, Mum's B.A. came in very handy after all.
From Mum's own point of view, of course, there was more to her university degree than something to put on a resume and a beneficial influence upon her children. There was the fun of studying something challenging for four years, and there was the general social polish and opportunities university provides. There was, shall we say, a good dollop of personal development to be had.
Graduate study and careers add to personal development, and careers add to bank accounts. There is nothing like getting a nice pay cheque with a biggish number on it, as I hope most of you know. I wouldn't mind getting a lottery cheque and I do love a birthday cheque, but there is something about a pay cheque that makes my Scots-Canadian/Irish-German-American soul sigh with satisfaction.
So it is not a huge surprise that many women now spend long years in training or graduate school and seek high-paying positions instead of grabbing a pink-collar job after high school or a less obviously pink-collar job after college. (A Canadian civil service job, I have concluded, is secretly rather pink.) The net gains are enormous personal development and, sometimes, good salaries. Some women Ph.D.s make as much or more as the girl who went to beauty school at 16 and now owns her own chain of salons.
The sacrifices, of course, can be huge. One sacrifice of hardworking women in careers or prolonged training or school is that of time spend at parties. You can't go to evening parties if evenings are taken up with research, papers or briefs. And so you can't meet men. Another sacrifice is professionalism at the office. If you're worried about being seen as professional at the office, you can't date your co-workers. I once temped as a receptionist in an office full of single women. And who went out with the most eligible bachelor in the office, a policy analyst with great hair and a snazzy car? Little me. Receptionists get dates. (If I could spin this truth into 200 pages, I'd have a bestselling book.) Finally, the higher up the career-and-money path women go, the harder they have to look to find a husband who is of higher or equal career-and-money status. The men of higher or equal career-and-money status are usually either married or dating the receptionist.
When I announced to my family that I was going to do a Ph.D. in the USA, a programme about which I still have actual nightmares (e.g. last night), my sister-with-the-kid asked, "How long will this take?"
"Five or six years," I said.
She looked appalled.
"But when will you have babies?" she asked.
My heart sank to my socks. Reader, I could have killed her. And in a way, she was right. There was not much opportunity to have babies in the Ph.D. My programme was full of the usual suspects: men who married at 22, men in religious life, priests, a couple of nuns, men with long-term girlfriends, a few men with SSA, and a lot of single women. And as the programme and I weren't getting along, it seemed insane to be sacrificing so many of the last of my fertile years to it.
So where does all this leave the ambitious woman of today? Well, for me it comes down to Providence. It's the only answer that works for me, so I don't have an alternative one for atheist gals, save "get a job as a temp receptionist in an IT or law firm on your vacation." If God wants you to marry someone, He will just have to stick that man before your face. That's what I told Him, and that's what He eventually did. And why? Because He wanted to.
That's me, exchanging small talk with a sheep on my wedding day. As usual, I offer myself as an example of a woman who married late and thinks the guy she married was worth the very long wait. I wouldn't mention this except that some readers, when I got married, said it gave them hope. I like giving hope, and I love stories about women who have babies after 40 because they give me hope.