Marry Young!

This week's Weekly Standard includes Meghan Cox Gurdon's review (subscription required) of How She Really Does It. The book is about career women raising their kids, and Gurdon likes it, but notes that it accounts only for what the moms go through --there are no interviews with the kids about what they think and want. What caught my eye, however, was the suggestion
that ambitious women should have their children young and then have careers, which is how earlier generations managed to Have It All (think Madeleine Albright, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Margaret Thatcher).
For roughly a dozen years I've worked at offering Catholic marriage preparation classes, and after observing hundreds of engaged couples, I've come to the conclusion that we make a mistake discouraging people from marrying young. I recognize the possibility of marriage is not exactly under our own control, and those who know my personal circumstances know I recognize quite well that we sometimes meet "the right one" quite late in life. What I am referring to is the advice we give young people to finish college, have a stable job, find themselves, etc. before they take the plunge. We assume that marriage requires maturity and experience, which comes with age, and we want to spare young people the hardships of poverty.
I concede that marriage requires a certain maturity. . . .but it is not the maturity of knowing fully who you are, having a stable income, or anything like that. It requires (assuming basic mental health) only the maturity of being able to stick to a commitment. I grant you this is not a trait our culture is notably good at forming at present, but frankly, I don't see that most people are any better at this at 35, 45, or 55 than they are at 25. But setting the problem of cultural adolescence aside for the present, here's my thinking.
Psychologists say that character solidifies at around 30, at which point it becomes vastly more difficult --not impossible, but more difficult-- to teach the old dogs new tricks. The further a couple gets from 30, the more set in their ways each of them is, and the process of truly knitting themselves into a 2-in-1 flesh couple becomes commensurately harder and more painful. Youth, by contrast, is more flexible, and --again, assuming basic good character-- a young couple has the benefit of truly forging their family life together. They have the advantage of building from scratch, rather than trying to tear out walls of two buildings to remodel them into one. From what I have observed, the younger a couple marries, the more success they will have knitting a coherent family life rather than persevering forever in what is more or less a roommate model of marriage: two separate lives lived in the same household with some necessary overlap.
And then there's the question of children, which it takes a good deal of energy to raise --if the couple can conceive at all, beginning at 38,39,40 and above. Even comparing the births of our first and most recent kids, I can say that you bounce back from pregnancy much quicker in your 20s than in your late 30s. Much. The word I hear most frequently from moms describing their lives these days is "overwhelmed." There are several factors in this, I believe (don't get me started), but I am convinced that one is simply physical. It's harder for my generation to raise kids because we are 10-15 years older for the most part than our parents were when they did it.
I have some friends who married as high school sweethearts at 19. Their early years were lean as you might expect in a couple trying to put first one and then the other through college. But now they're in their mid-40s, still quite young by today's standards, and they truly grew up together, learned to lean on each other through thick and thin, raised nine children and find themselves with a vast future ahead of them while they are still young enough to enjoy it. They can travel, she can pursue a career if she likes. . . .and they aren't facing the most challenging (because exhausting) years of marriage and family life at precisely the moment their personal energy levels plummet. They're celebrating their silver anniversary at a time when many of their peers are just getting started. That seems like a better model to me.
I am not suggesting there is something morally wrong with getting a late start if that's the way your life plays out. But it definitely seems to me like doing things the hard way. I don't think we do kids a favor when we discourage them from marrying until they have settled careers and know themselves better. Isn't that just another way of telling them they aren't capable of making tough decisions, of being fully adult? But they are. Or at least, they would be if we raised them right.