In March of last year, The Atlantic published an essay by Lori Gottlieb titled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” which Ms. Gottlieb wrote when, in her idealistic search for the One, she found herself alone in her 40s with a son she had via a sperm donor. A book based on the article will be published in February and has already been optioned by Tobey Maguire for Warner Brothers, with Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) writing the screenplay.
The following year, the magazine published another essay by Sandra Tsing Loh, 47, announcing the end of her 20-year marriage—she had an affair—and cautioning readers against what can happen when your husband considers mastering the perfect bouillabaisse recipe a more titillating activity than giving his wife an orgasm.
Meanwhile, remember Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who once sat crouched on the floor, a young girl staring up at readers through all that self-conscious eyeliner? Now 42, Ms. Wurtzel wrote a piece in Elle this year about her fading beauty and the lonely dating life that accompanies it. Never too shy to turn herself inside out on paper, she is expanding the article into a book.
Now about me: I am 25 and single. If this were the 1950s, one of my multiyear relationships would have resulted in marriage by now. If this were the 1980s, I would concern myself only with purchasing a really nice shoulder-padded suit. Our mothers and grandmothers seemed to have sound instructions. But now—now that the generation of women ahead of us has begun to sound regretful, shouting at us, “Don’t end up like me!”—what we have instead are Cautionary Matrons, issuing what feel like incessant warnings.
‘It must be very confusing. … You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed 45-year-old ladies going, “A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH!”’ —Sandra Tsing Loh
Single 40-something women warn us about being too career-oriented and forgetting to factor in children; married women warn us that marriage is a union in which sex and fidelity are optional; and divorced women warn us to keep our weight down, our breasts up and our skin looking like Saran Wrap unless we want our husbands to later leave us for 23-year-olds.
Essays written by Cautionary Matrons are one of the few genres dominated by our gender; Laura Kipnis’ Against Love: A Polemic and Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love, which landed on the cover of The Times’ Book Review, also come to mind. Not that men are strangers to personal narratives, of course. There’s Jonathan Ames, whose frank tales of his sexual adventures have landed him on HBO; and New Yorker writer Tad Friend, who as part of the research for his recently published memoir went on the self-absorbed quest of asking exes whether he was “a mild jerk or a total jerk.” But while men tend to be cheerfully self-deprecating, women are downright apologetic, asking themselves what they’ve done wrong and how to fix it.
Cautionary Matrons extend beyond nonfiction. In Lorrie Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, the protagonist, a 20-year-old college student named Tassie Keltjin, looks over at the older woman who has hired her to be the baby sitter of a baby she has yet to adopt into an already lonely marriage and makes the following observation: “These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep.”
And then there is ABC’s new show Cougar Town. It’s meant to tease out the empowering side of being 40 and single. But few viewers actually want to a visit a place where even someone as MILF-y as Courteney Cox self-tauntingly tugs the goose skin on her elbows—isn’t elbow skin supposed to be loose?—and refers to her vagina as a “coochie cooch.” And there is Jennifer Aniston. She’s not the Cautionary Matron; it is the hidden tabloid editor who sends her threatening missives by blowing up Ms. Aniston’s thighs alongside headlines shrieking: Old! Alone! Childless!
Of course not all women are unhappy, despite that recent General Social Survey cited by Maureen Dowd and Time (and disputed by Barbara Ehrenreich in Salon). Tabloid-media powerhouse Bonnie Fuller instructed women on how to have the job, the guy and “everything else you’ve ever wanted” in her 2006 book, The Joys of Much Too Much. But how many others are encouragingly passing along the handwritten recipe of their success to us, their younger counterparts? Where are the role models less frightening than Bonnie Fuller?
‘GET MARRIED BY 32’
Last week, I brought all of this up to my friend Jenny, who is 29, single and works in publishing. We were at her Williamsburg apartment and she was making pork chops.
The phrase Cautionary Matron reminded Jenny of a woman whose novel she edited a few years ago. This 40-something author’s novel (and reality) was about an older woman who was desperate to have a child but was dating a man she didn’t like very much, and so over countless lunches and drinks, their talks about the book often turned to men. Or, more specifically, a man Jenny had broken up with and was considering reuniting with.
“And she said, ‘Well, you’re not in a position where you need to do that just yet,’” said Jenny. “But just make sure, whatever you do, that you get married by age 32. Because if you’re not married by 32, no one will want you and you’ll end up like me.”
Jenny leaned back in her chair and swirled her glass of wine. “It was just such a crazy thing to say!” she said. “But it was so honest, too, that it still haunts me. It’s not that I even think ticktock in a biological sense. I think ticktock in terms of what she said about turning 32! And how crazy is that?”
And yet the messages stick. After Jenny read Ms. Gottlieb’s piece in The Atlantic, she stayed an extra year in a relationship that she wanted to end at the time. “I was thinking it wasn’t working out, and then I read that piece and I thought, ‘Well, he’s a nice, cute guy who likes me; maybe I shouldn’t break it off,’” she said.
Last week, by phone, Ms. Gottlieb said this was not her intention and that her forthcoming book will clarify things a bit. (After the article, she received countless letters from women—alarmed by her tale of loneliness—who had read it and immediately got engaged to their less-than-scintillating boyfriends.)
“The article was like I was someone’s big sister and I was saying here’s my experience and all of the misconceptions I had,” Ms. Gottlieb said. “I think you guys are actually lucky because you’ll get a more mixed set of messages. When I was in my 20s, women were all about having it all and ‘a guy is great but he is not the main course.’ We got a single message and it was all, me, me, me, me, me. ‘You go girl!’ And now those of us that grew up with these messages are finally admitting that those messages of empowerment may actually conflict with what we want.”
Ms. Tsing Loh’s piece was directed at her generation, but she said she wasn’t surprised that young women were reading. She speculated about the reason for this apparent surge in matronly warnings: “I think because we’re really surprised!” she screamed into the receiver. “In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers, and there were all these interesting guys out there not like our dads. We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices and that’s why we’re writing these pieces. We’re shocked!” Shocked because even with all those choices, Ms. Tsing Loh’s marriage didn’t work out.
“It must be very confusing,” she said sympathetically. “We were the protégés of old-guard feminists: ‘Don’t have a baby, or if you must, have one, wait till your 40s.’ We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys … Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet. You just have a bunch of drunk, depressed 45-year-old ladies going, ‘A-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH!’”
At a birthday party later last week, in the West Village, I ran into my friend Caryne, who is 31, single, tall and striking, and works at a nonprofit. When I asked her if she’s ever had a Cautionary Matron, she widened her eyes and nodded. “I call her my Anti-Mentor!” she said.
Caryne’s Cautionary Matron is her former boss, who never married but had a series of disappointing romances. “Rarely do I hang up the phone with her and feel comforted. Usually, I feel anxiety and paralysis about the decisions that I need to make to avoid everything she warns me about.”
I asked Caryne why she thought our mentors have taken to enjoining rather than encouraging us. She said she had to think about it and rang me a few days later.
“They are the first generation of women who were presented with choices,” she said. “I think they are in the process of reflecting on a half-century of existence and are realizing that ‘having it all’ was really a lie. Sometimes I think the idea of ‘having it all’ can almost be more disempowering than ‘having it all’ because one is never allowed enough time or energy to excel in one area of their life.”
When confronted with grim advice, some young women go on the offensive. Said Jenny of her Cautionary Matron: “I think there is an element of jealousy there. If she can go back and do it over again, she would. But she can’t and I’m here so …”
Ms. Gottlieb had a response to this: “I think it’s part denial and part arrogance. I get it because I used to be that way in my 20s. I wanted the fairy tale. I thought that I deserved to have it, that it was my inalienable right! So that’s the arrogance, and the denial is that they simply can’t acknowledge that they, too, could become these older regretful women who wished they knew what was important in love earlier on. We’re not envious—we’re wiser.”
Ms. Wurtzel echoes this sentiment, writing in her Elle piece: “Age is a terrible avenger. The lessons of life give you so much to work with, but by the time you’ve got all this great wisdom, you don’t get to be young anymore.” And later: “Oh, to be 25 again and get it right.”
When I contacted Ms. Wurtzel, hoping for an extra pearl or two about how I, as a 25-year-old, might learn from her mistakes and “get it right,” she emailed that she “didn’t have an audience in mind when I wrote it, but if anything I was thinking in terms of people who could relate to it, not so much people who could learn from it.” She also backpedaled a bit from her cautionary stance. “Of course, I’m 42 and I’m not married, but I don’t feel sorry for myself. … It’s not that I’m not sad sometimes, but I’m definitely not sorry.”
Perhaps. But then there’s this part in her piece about her love life today: “Dating this person for three months, that one for a few weeks, sometimes longer. They come, they go, someone is always coming as someone else is going; it’s not like there’s no one, but it’s all so lonely.”
When Jenny—already fearful about turning 32, thanks to her personal Cautionary Matron—read Ms. Wurtzel’s article, she emailed me the following: “Ugh. Now I am going to sit, coma-like, on the sofa and contemplate my impending decay. Great.”