Mary's Feminist Book Project inspired me to take a look at Flux by Peggy Orenstein. In that book, there were profiles of educated, successful women who were horrified by the prospect of being 40 and single. However, based on their life choices so far, it seemed to me that they were headed squarely towards the fate they wanted so badly to avoid. Their sheer terror at being 40 and single, coupled with the fact that a number of these women had had chances to marry, made me wonder...Is a glorified "Mr. Right" just another impossible ideal designed to frustrate and distract women, like being a size 2 or having perfect hair? (See The Beauty Myth for more details.) Women expect to marry these difficult-to-find men (nurturing and sensitive, yet ambitious and assertive), however we are terrified of being single. We are put in a position where we cannot win, and where we are pressured to spend vast amounts of time and energy in pursuit of this elusive ideal.
Another form of self-torture illustrated by Flux is "The Perfect Mother". Whatever a woman does for her children, it is never seen as enough--to the people in her life, to society, and to herself. Contrast that to her husband, who is praised as an "involved father" just for helping out with the kids once in a while. Even in couples who share the parenting equally, women still bear the vast majority of the judgments, expectations, and if something goes wrong, the blame. The women interviewed in Flux claimed to have no time or energy for self-awareness until they were in their 40's (!). Like the Beauty Myth or Mr. Right, women are so overburdened by being Perfect Mothers that they can lose their sense of self in the process. For eons, women were solely defined by their relationships to men and children. But in our current culture, where women have more choices but can never make the "right choice" (Stay home with your children, but have a career!) it can feel like we've just replaced one prison with another.
Yes, Flux is kind of depressing. However, the author didn't include interviews with anyone who didn't prove her thesis. I feel lucky to know a number of people who have rejected society's standards for what men and women "should" be. As time goes on, will they become the norm or remain the exception? Right now, giving up the quest for Mr. Right is a radical choice. But people are starting to make it, so maybe that speaks well for a future of more real options. What remains crucial is that people making these "radical" choices actually discuss them, so people will know that the option exists.