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Is modern love enough?
A marriage, a career, a debate
Today’s essay is by Taylor Majewski, our resident editor at Diem. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, MIT Tech Review, STAT News, and Vox, among other outlets. Want to write for us? If you want to pitch a guest essay idea for the newsletter, read this guide and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Across the internet, there is a never-ending flame war as to whether or not Jo March, everyone’s favorite little woman, should be married. “I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man,” Jo says when Laurie, the March girls’ wealthy next-door neighbor, asks her to marry him. That rejection, revived in an impassioned, autumnal scene during Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, has always been controversial.
Louisa May Alcott’s ending to Little Women is intentionally unsatisfying—Jo marries the middle-aged professor Friedrich Bhaer and Laurie marries Jo’s least favorite sister, Amy. Alcott originally wanted Jo to end up as a “literary spinster,” like Alcott herself, but Alcott’s publishers insisted that Jo had to marry someone to sell the book. Readers have always felt that Jo’s marriage to the professor is a betrayal of her character. In the context of her time—the 19th century—Jo is a tomboyish and independent free thinker, a writer dedicated to her work. She is full of hope and desire—to make money off her mind, to live outside of the confines of her economic and social expectations to marry.
For generations of readers, Jo also represented choice. It’s why she’s everyone’s favorite March sister. Her journey as a heroine isn’t defined by the pursuit of love or marriage, but instead by her tendency to instinctively follow the strong tug of her all-consuming ambition. Naturally, I thought of Jo when, last week, I read a New York Times essay by David Brooks, which circles a trend that worries him: young people are prioritizing their careers over marriage.
Brooks, one of the paper’s more conservative-leaning columnists, says that these days, young people aren’t thinking hard enough about marriage in their formative years, pushing it aside until they’ve successfully established themselves—through their careers—as adults. He writes: “Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and crappy career you will be happy.” The essay is mostly regressive and oddly reminiscent of the sentiment pushed by Louisa May Alcott’s publishers circa the 1860s: For happily ever after, there needs to be marriage.
I got married one year ago, almost exactly to the day. My wedding day was filled with many of the usual customs—I wore white, our vows made me cry, there was dancing, we ate cake, we drank wine. But in the months leading up to those moments, I bucked against it all. I hated the ritual of it. The official-ness of it. The idea of marriage itself gnawed at me. Why does anyone get married? I lost so much sleep mulling over that question. I talked about it on a loop in therapy. I felt frozen in place, like I was on a train that I didn’t remember boarding, barreling towards a destination I was always headed for. It was all very Jo March-coded.
Marriage is a socially constructed institution that’s over 4,000 years old. Originally, it had little to do with love or religion but existed to bind women as property to men for practical reasons, like bearing children. Over the past century, we’ve lived through an industrial revolution, world wars, a sexual revolution and the introduction of contraception, all of which have pushed women out of the home and into the workforce. While marriage was once the prerequisite to living with or having kids with someone, it’s normal to do those things outside of an official union today. To that end, I was suspicious that marriage would change my life in any meaningful way. I always loved the easy way my partner and I fit together, our relationship simple and absolute. Couldn’t that be enough?
In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino wrote a particularly poignant chapter about the bizarro and excessive tradition of weddings. “The paradox at the heart of the wedding comes from the two versions of a woman that it conjures,” she writes. “There’s the glorified bride, looming large and resplendent and almost monstrously powerful, and there’s her nullified twin and opposite, the woman who vanishes underneath the name change and the veil.” If you, like me, grew up as a girl in the ‘90s, you might have experienced another paradox. As told by some of history’s finest romantic comedies, marriage is more emotionally exciting for women—your wedding day will be the best day of your life. But also, when you grow up, don’t forget that you can do anything. You can be anyone.
I took the latter messaging to heart, and have always loved to work. I also deeply love independence and a career is something that only I can wield. Over time, my career has given me purpose, power and a voice. It’s been unpredictable, which has also made it thrilling. Heterosexual marriage, as most women know, can take away those things. It’s well-documented that women, by far, carry the heaviest burden in marriage. On average, married women do more unpaid and undervalued work in households. They report worse mental health than single women, whereas married men report better mental health than single men. A Harvard Business Review study from 2017 found that women still find it challenging to achieve both a successful career and family life—the illusion of having it all forever out of reach.
The most compelling point in Brooks’ essay is that long-term, intimate relationships are the core of life. I agree. My relationships with my family, husband and friends mean everything to me. But also, I think a part of me died a little on my wedding day. Fulfillment is highly subjective, and the idea that marriage will make you happy sounds far-fetched. For me, like Jo, getting married was never going to be the thing I wanted most. But it is a lovely thing.
What do you think? To be happy, does marriage matter more than a career?
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