Are you a single female reflecting on the year past and the year ahead and feeling in a limbo? Wanting to get on with life already — husband, kids, that American dream? Love and marriage are great things, the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall writes in her book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century, but don’t put off living in the meantime, she advises.
As everyone focuses on New Hampshire, Marshall talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about what is really in the hearts of many you may know or love … maybe you yourself.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: First off, what does “Now and Not Yet” mean?
Jennifer Marshall: “Now and not yet” refers to the tension many single women feel between life today and life as they hope it will be in the future, and it’s also an allusion to the idea that there is a transcendent purpose beyond our circumstances — present or future.
Lopez: What do the numbers look like?
Marshall: Young women’s hopes for marriage haven’t changed much at all in 30 years — about nine out of ten high school senior girls consistently say that a good marriage is important to their future happiness. But in that same time period, the median age of first marriage has climbed more than four years, and today three out of ten women are still single at age 30.
Lopez: Does college campus life add to the challenge?
Marshall: On some campuses there’s the pressure to get the “MRS” degree before graduation. On other campuses it’s the hook-up/casual sex or hang-out culture — and women report that dating is a thing of the past. Neither of those environments is very helpful for cultivating contentment with singleness mixed with hope for marriage. Among the 20-/30-something women I interviewed, none could point to teaching or mentoring that had specifically equipped her to think about single life post-college, especially extended single years that might last most of her 20s or beyond.
Lopez: How could schools or mentors better prepare young women?
Marshall: By equipping them with the tools they’ll need to navigate through single life. In particular, that means helping young women to be discerning and deliberate about their relationships, about recognizing and using their personal gifts, about identifying opportunities around them. Those are some of the things they’ll need to make sense of the choices that they’ll have on the other side of college graduation, and part of finding contentment, direction, and purpose for however long their single years last.
Lopez: Are your Now and Not yet girls going to drop everything and quit when they meet Mr. Right?
Marshall: My interviews focused particularly on women who have been single a decade or more since college and who seem to have a poise of heart between their current circumstances and future hopes. One of the common characteristics among these women is that they have an elastic view of future married life. Even though many of them are quite professionally accomplished, they’re ready to rearrange priorities when something nearer and dearer to their hearts comes along. They enjoy their lives and aren’t looking to escape them (as some indicated they might have wanted to do when they were younger). The prospect of marriage is an idea of mutual enrichment and reconciling callings. They also think outside the box about how marriage, family and work might fit together in their futures.
Lopez: Is there something wrong with the guys? Is that the reason young women aren’t getting married?
Marshall: I’d point more to the cultural fog through which we view each other. We’re living in the wake of feminism and other cultural shifts that have affected life paths for both women and men and have made the realm of romance — fraught with difficulty since time immemorial — all the more confusing and chaotic. As one 35-year-old woman from Chicago said, “We’re still trying to make sense of all these opportunities available to us” — (she’s currently considering a career change that could move her to Eastern Europe or Africa) — “how can men possibly know how to deal with us?!”
Lopez: The point of your book is gals should live their lives now and not be on hold…but will most of your gals get married? And in some ways couldn’t their focus on work make it more certain they won’t get married??
Marshall: Most women do marry at some point in their lives. Living life fully now means a whole lot more than work. That’s one of the characteristics I noticed in the single women who expressed contentment — they have full lives with thick networks of friendships and plenty of activities outside of the office.
Lopez: Besides guys asking for your number, what’s been the most frequently asked question in reference to your book?
Marshall: I’ve actually been intrigued by the diversity of questions — with such a perplexing subject there’s no end to the inquiries one could pursue!
But one common question is how single life is different today than it has been in the past. A part of the answer is that the social script for romance leading to marriage that was fairly well defined in generations past is no longer the predictable path, and that’s the result of many things — including the sexual revolution, prevalence of divorce, and the casual sex culture.
Lopez: How much talking have you done on campuses?
Marshall: Since the book released in late June, my talks have been off-campus thus far, though the school year is presenting new opportunities. Summertime in Washington did offer chances to speak to college women interning in town, and they expressed a lot of interest in the topic.
Lopez: What would single thirty and fortysomething women likely want single college gals to know?
Marshall: There were some great suggestions. A few of the highlights:
“Don’t spend your life thinking, ‘When I am…’”
“We’re single and free; use that to your advantage… Don’t waste a minute of your time waiting around… Live a full life”
“Be committed. Too often our pattern is to go in, get what we need, and get out.”
Lopez: What’s been the most interesting feedback you’ve gotten about your book?
Marshall: Some of the most intriguing feedback has come from those outside my target audience of single young women — from their mothers, for example. Several moms have said reading the book helped them understand how their daughters’ experiences are far different than their own path to marriage. The most encouraging feedback has been from young women who report actually being able to make some more sense of single life in the 21st century, with more spiritual and practical resolve for today.
Lopez: What’s your message to the 30 or 40 something who might have spent Christmas feeling like her life is incomplete because she’s always been marriage bound but it just hasn’t happened?
Marshall: Christmas can make everything more poignant, our joys more full, our longings more sharp. Being with family and hearing news from old friends can be wonderful — or full of grief, if we fall into comparisons and focus on what’s lacking from our ideal life. We have choices: to dwell on what we lack or on our blessings, to let others’ good news cause discontentment or to rejoice with them, to focus on what we haven’t been given or on what we can give.
But Christmas also shows that longing is not incompatible with joy. The Christmas message is about longing, punctuated — but not ended — with the good news of Christ’s birth…the story isn’t complete in Bethlehem. Joyful longing seems to be a biblically encouraged habit, and our Christmas traditions (especially many of the songs) give occasion to reflect on that.
Lopez: Since your book has come out, do you have any sense that there are single-marriage-minded men out there for them? Any idea how they meet up?
Marshall: Yes, I do think they’re out there. But getting beyond common perceptions of independence and differences to appreciate the fullness of each other’s character will require intentional investment, humility in communication, patience, and perseverance. As I’ve spoken to church groups, I’ve been encouraged by their interest in taking on this challenge as a community.
Lopez: How does your book fit into the work of a Beltway think tanker?
Marshall: The rising age of first marriage does have implications for family formation and fertility trends in America, and that’s a subject that researchers are beginning to discuss more. But trends are made up of individual human experiences, and my book focuses on that individual level — the personal responsibility we each have no matter what the cultural challenges. I think it’s helpful for the two conversations — the cultural and the individual — to inform each other on this, and other issues we address in the policy world.