When a Woman “Finally” Gets Married

Like any good, compulsive iPhone owner, I sometimes check my email during my morning run. You know, Cee-lo and Kanye and various NPR podcasts can only hold a girl’s attention for so long. Even while jogging. Even while jogging with a highly excitable mutt who has been known to throw said girl on her back via enthusiasm for a passing terrier. But I digress.

The problem is that the place where I run–a trail around the campus golf course–doesn’t have very good network reception. And so when, one morning this week, I looked at my email and saw a message from my father, I could only see two things: one, that the subject was “news alert.” And two, that he’d sent it to me along with all of my immediate family members–brothers, mom, sisters-in-law.

I have a grandmother who is about to turn a hundred. I have a sister-in-law who recently pulled out her back and a niece who has had a chronic fever for the past three weeks. Also, I’m Jewish. In other words, I spent the  next five minutes, until the full content of the message finally downloaded, in a state of panic.

Then, I saw what it said: “We just heard over the weekend,” my dad wrote,”that Ilene and Allen got engaged.”

Then, I felt a little ridiculous. (Actually, I felt a little angry too: immediately upon returning home I typed a ‘reply-all’ asking that everyone refrain from sending emails with such ominous subject lines in future; two of my siblings quickly seconded the request.)

But back to the message. Ilene, you see, is my paternal cousin. She is about to turn fifty. She is a very successful, very well-paid corporate lawyer with a condo on the Upper East Side. This is her first marriage.

The “news” my father sent wasn’t exactly breaking. My mother had, rather breathlessly, delivered the information via phone the night before.

The thing is that no one in my family is particularly close with Ilene. None of us are that close to the entire side of the family, I should say: they’re lovely people, but they’re a bit, well, different. You know, they have bigger hair and bigger belt buckles and the political persuasion that such things often imply. Even when I lived in the same city, I’m sure I went years without seeing her–or, certainly, any of her Florida-residing relatives.

The news, then, was not so significant because of our relationship. It was so significant because of the particulars. Specifically, the fact that, at almost-fifty, no one expected her to tie the knot.

Most notably, Grandma Edith–the one who is a hundred.

“Did you hear about Ilene?” she asked when I called to check in on her this morning. (You’ll have to imagine my vocal impression here: full-on Brooklyn, Yiddish accent applies. “Here” is more like “heah.”)

“Yes,” I said, patiently. “I heard.”

“Could you believe it?” she asked. “It’s about time. She’s no spring chicken, you know.”

I will chalk up the fact that she repeated that last phrase, or some version of it (“she isn’t exactly young“) about half a dozen times throughout our ten-minute conversation to age: I’m of the opinion that, if nothing else, surviving a century earns you the right to say whatever the hell you want.

But what about my parents? As I alluded above, they’re pretty progressive types. If my father had his way New York City would be its’ own country and all Fox news anchors would be lined up and shot. They’re supposed to be liberated, feminist, enlightened.

So why were they so brazenly glib with the news that this “old maid” was finally getting hitched?

I don’t really want to call my parents sexist–they’re not. (They are, also, wonderfully tolerant and well-humored, relatively private people who put up admirably with an aggressively oversharing daughter–for which I am ever-grateful.) That is, they’re not sexist any more than the rest of us are. And the reaction to Ilene’s announcement reminds me that “the rest of us” still have a ways to go.

Talk about news that isn’t quite breaking, but it still unsettles to realize that, even in our post-“Sex and the City,” women-getting-more-educated-than-men era, the notion that a woman is only worth her marriage persists. To be a single man is a choice; to be a single woman is pathetic.

I’m glad my cousin is getting married. But not because there’s anything significant about a ring or a ceremony. I’m glad because Allen seems like a really good, honest guy who has a good chance of making her happy. Which, no matter how old or successful we are, is all any of us can hope for.


Filed under Love Life

4 responses to “When a Woman “Finally” Gets Married

  1. megan

    I think some “sexism” is justified, as in there are some real differences between men and women, whether we like it or not. A woman at fifty, if she were interested in giving birth to biological children is almost always out of time while a man at fifty is not. I’m not sure if your relative was in this position or not (maybe she never wanted children?). I do not however, think this justifies considering an unmarried woman “pathetic”. I’d think this term applies (in the kindest way, as a feeling of empathy for the misfortune of a person) only in cases (whether male or female) where there was a real desire to be married earlier, but were unable to do so. I know 40 year old men friends I consider somewhat “pathetic” (meant in the kindest way possible 🙂 ) because they want to be married (and have for quite some time), but haven’t found the right person due to a number of factors: too high standards, too shy, etc. And I’d feel the same way about a woman in that position. And it is because sometimes being single isn’t a choice, sometimes those people who want to find someone to settle down with never do find someone and I think in those cases, empathy is called for (whether woman or man).

    • I absolutely agree that there’s nothing wrong with empathy toward someone who’d like to settle down and hasn’t found the right person. I do, however, think that we tend to judge unmarried women more harshly, and are quicker to assume that they aren’t single by choice. That is not at all to say that many of them aren’t, or that we shouldn’t support anyone who chooses to marry at any time. I only wish there was less of a stigma attached to being single later in life, whatever the reason.

      • megan

        I agree, but I also think, unfortunately, that part of that stigma might come from the fact that for women, being married later can often mean not being able to have children of your own. While, not every woman wants to have children, many do. So, I guess I’m just saying the stigma is unfortunate, but I can sort of see where it comes from. Whether we like it or not, we don’t have as much flexibility biologically than men do regarding when we get to have children.

  2. ep

    Unfortunately, the focus on the potential childlessness aspect of getting married later in life is just as problematic as the focus on simply not being married. Elizabeth posits that part of our societal relief at a woman getting married is that it somehow gives her a social worth that perhaps she wouldn’t have had, before. At the very least, it gives her an understandable “place” in society that single women–seen as adrift–don’t have. Switching the focus to children, however, makes a woman’s worth an issue of motherhood, rather than being a spouse. Pitying someone because they aren’t a mother is like pitying them because they aren’t married–it’s making an unfair judgment about who they are or what they should be. I think the issue is, unfortunately, that pitying women for not being married is a matter of making judgments and assumptions that are entirely inappropriate–it’s not a matter of whether or not the woman wanted to be married, have children, or stay single, but the fact that we would assume that being an unmarried woman of 50 is something that we ought to remark on at all.

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