The U.S. has been hitting some bleak milestones lately: our country is experiencing below-replacement fertility and the marriage rate is at a historic low. Driving these trends is the fact that many women are now getting married to their career instead of to a man.
Instead of spending our twenties trying to establish families and a home life that will fulfill us for decades to come, many young women are completely devoted to their careers. Often, we put in such long hours that we don't have time to even date at all.
It's natural to want to develop our professional accomplishments and be able to support ourselves financially. Work brings a level of intellectual challenge to our lives that can be deeply satisfying. And in reality, most women will find themselves needing to work to financially support themselves and their families. But none of this is an excuse to ignore everything else important in life – namely, finding a good man to marry and building a family with him.
Instead of seeing home and family life as the end goal, and work as the thing that supports that ultimate end, we have flipped everything around. Our culture now positions professional success as the highest good, and family life as something you maybe get around to. Marriage and family are seen as an addendum to our lives, not its primary purpose and mission. And it’s definitely not something we’re encouraged to do until we’re well into our thirties (or forties, if you’re a man). In our culture, career comes first, family second.
In reality, this hyper-focus on our careers as the singular path to satisfaction is a recipe for unhappiness. So how did we get here?
Career Success Is Pushed As the Only Goal Worth Working Toward
Growing up, young women are told we’re oppressed and held back by society due to our gender. We’re told the hardest thing we’ll ever do is have a successful career because the world is supposedly against us. The true mark of feminine virtue, therefore, is to prove ourselves professionally. If we can “beat the system” and become professionally successful, we’ll prove we’re just as worthy as men. We’ll stick it to this outdated, sexist system, and show what women are really capable of. The whole idea is that if we really want to prove our worth as women, we must focus intently on our careers.
The end result of this narrative is a generation of women who have wound up married to their careers instead of to a man. We were told the only way to prove ourselves is in the workforce, something we would never achieve if we stuck to focusing on marriage and children.
The whole idea is that if we really want to prove our worth as women, we must focus intently on our careers.
American culture prizes and prioritizes women’s involvement in the workforce first and foremost. Our culture now largely rejects the idea that being a wife and mother is good and fulfilling in and of itself.
Except that this narrative doesn't work with reality. Researchers Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers broached the sensitive topic in their analysis, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. They found that although, by objective metrics, women's life circumstances have improved significantly over the past few decades, their happiness has declined – both in general and relative to men's.
Depressingly, the profile of the unhappiest person in America matches what society has sold us as empowering:
42 years old
Household income under $100,000
Professional (doctor, lawyer, etc.)
It's obvious that the career-above-all-else pathway isn't resulting in more happiness for women, even if we are in more positions of power or more financially independent.
Our Culture Positions Marriage and Family Life As Secondary
Another reason women marry their careers instead of their family is that our culture positions marriage and family as low-status endeavors.
In the past, we regarded motherhood and fatherhood as revered roles. Being a parent was seen as a good and noble thing to do. Today, smart young women are fed the false narrative that only unambitious women get married and have families at a young age – that the thing that will really prove our smarts and our value is to have a successful career.
Young women are fed the lie that only unambitious women get married and have families young.
There’s a toxic idea that it would be beneath us to get married before we’ve had a career and that only dumb girls do this. Being married or a mother, especially in your twenties, is positioned as something done by people who lack a sense of adventure or who failed by never “getting out and experiencing the world.” Marriage is positioned as a form of slavery, the end of our freedom and opportunity.
Nevermind that marriage and family life are totally new experiences in and of themselves, ones that test us in important ways and require us to grow in selflessness and self-knowledge. Nevermind that neither marriage nor motherhood precludes a woman from working, from traveling, from having adventures, or from embracing opportunities she finds meaningful.
We're Tempted To Pursue the Predictable Dream Rather Than the Difficult One
Many women may not realize it, but they focus on pursuing their careers rather than a relationship because the pathway is more predictable. We can’t control other people, after all – love can be scary and uncertain. We feel we have more control in the professional realm, where we can choose what type of work we do, where we do it, and how we accomplish it. You know that if you send out enough good resumes and fill out enough applications, you'll eventually find a job. It's not surprising that people seek out the certainty of professional goals rather than the vulnerability of trying to find love.
Yet when we pursue relationships, we often find they’re our biggest teachers and the most enriching part of our lives. Going boldly into relationships and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable within them is how we grow and learn and experience love. Instead of shying away from the challenge, we should strive to become women who are stable and healthy in relationship with others, and to identify the qualities that make a man marriageable and go out and find him – even when it’s hard.
The promise of career as the ultimate source of fulfillment turns out to be a lie. The workforce will just never fill that space in our hearts that’s meant for communion with other people. We’re designed to love and care for one another, and when we try to replace that with a work life, it just doesn’t measure up. We end up lonely, frustrated and unfulfilled.
We're Told Not To Depend on a Man
The common adage “Never depend on a man” is an oft-repeated but toxic idea that leads women to marry careers instead of a man. It sounds nice and liberating, but it sets us up for a life where it’s actually harder for us to form a family.
Yes, women do need a way to make money so we don’t attach ourselves to the very first man who offers to provide for us. We need to be able to support ourselves while we grow and look for a man who would make a good spouse – but that doesn’t mean we should totally demote marriage as a goal and replace it entirely with work.
Relying on a man gives him a sense of purpose and meaning while relieving our burdens.
And once we do find a good man, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with depending on him – in fact, we’ll likely want to when we have young kids. Relying on a man not only gives him a sense of purpose and meaning, but it also removes from our shoulders the burden of having to do absolutely everything on our own. There’s nothing wrong with relying on a man - emotionally or financially - at some points in our lives.
Division of labor is a tried and true concept, and it doesn’t only apply to economies – it applies and works well for us in home and family life too.
Our single-minded cultural focus on career often drives women to unhappiness. It positions us toward being atomized individuals clocking in and out instead of toward commitment and love, which is the building block for a family – a cohesive unit with love, care, and duty for one another at the center. When our primary duty is to our bosses, not to our loved ones, it only leads to unhappiness and unfulfillment.
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