The Cautionary Matrons

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.”

The Cautionary Matrons