“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.” “Good King Wenceslas”
We women do not often share our war stories with our young. We dress our battle scars and hide them with our successes, makeup and fashion. But our close friends are privy to our journey. If I could go back and advise my younger Princeton self, I would tell her “Follow your passion, and pay more attention to your goals first.”
My grandmother gave me a clue, the night before I married my first husband: “I don’t know why you are getting married,” she said. “You are educated, you have a career, and you don’t need a man to take care of you like I did.” I was amazed, not just because my evangelical grandmother seemed to be advocating living in sin, but couldn’t she have she have shared these sentiments before the eve of my wedding day? Shouldn’t she have?
I did not go to college to “get a husband.” I had always thought that marriage was the goal of my mother’s generation, as finding a spouse while in college was often a goal of many college bound women in the fifties. I met my first husband at Princeton. We became a couple after the first semester of my freshman year. In the seventies, for women of color, Princeton, appeared to be “raining men” : black, brown and Asian. White men were often not an option for most of us. Recent studies have shown that black women are still less likely to marry outside of our race than any other group, with the exception of white men.
Although I was blessed with a daughter from that marriage, we had clearly married too young. I had never planned to raise my daughter alone. However, I was now free to focus on the career choice which was best for me and I pursued a career in law. I no longer had to sacrifice my career to follow an ambitious professional husband from city to city, state to state for the benefit of his career. Yet, I had to be mindful of the effects that my ambition and career satisfaction would have on my young daughter, and I had to try to balance my needs against hers.
After college, after the divorce, I discovered that the educated pool of single black men was substantially diminished. Where did they go? They were married. I recall a Princeton colleague who often lamented, “why didn’t someone tell me that the real world was not full of men like at Princeton?” It is an inconvenient truth that the pool of marriageable men, especially those of color, is substantially reduced after college and graduate school.
Of course, there is also the little discussed fact that the pool increases again when men are divorced, or what I call, “recycled.” In my thirties, the “recycled” age was mid-to-late thirties. These days, because people are marrying later, 30 is considered the “new 20.” In more contemporary times, given the shift/delay in maturity, I suspect that the “recycled” pool will probably be in their early forties, and unless one is lucky enough to get a widower, most of these men will bring the baggage of ” baby mama drama” to the table.
Curiously, both my mother and former mother-in-law, who were both widows, silently conveyed another truth; that they had no desire to marry again! The recycled men of their generation required too much upkeep, and these women relished their freedom and financial independence. I wish they had not been silent! Marriage is hard work!
During my single years, before my current marriage, my friends were amused at the angst I suffered while dating in my thirties, because I had married so young (at 23 years old). They had experienced the heartbreak of dating in their twenties and during their thirties, were either in marital comfort/discomfort, or nicely settled in their singleness.
Recently, my daughter expressed her sympathy about my having “to work” and be a single mother sacrificing her desired “mommy time” to put food on the table. I was surprised that she thought that I “had” to work because of the divorce. I set the record straight: any imbalance resulting from my attempts to juggle “mommy time” with “career/me time” happened because I wanted a full life; I always wanted a satisfying career and to be a staple in the community in which I lived. I informed her that I did not work solely because I needed a paycheck to support us, but did so because of who I am; a woman who never wanted to limit her options, regardless of our financial situation. Thus, I could never have been a stay at home mom!
Yes, if I could go back and advise my younger self, I would tell her to “Follow your passion, and pay more attention to the men in college/graduate school.” And, when my younger self thought that she had found ” the right one, ” I’d tell her to make certain that he’s on board with her career AND family goals, and to pay attention to whether or not he is primarily focused on his own goals and ambition. I would tell that young woman not to take herself so seriously; to lighten up, to compromise with others, but NOT to compromise herself OR her values. I would tell her that, “when someone shows you who they really are, believe them.” And finally, to tread BOLDY in the footsteps that others have left so that you may gather strength in the storms of life, in order to leave footprints for those coming behind you.