“Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I am female. I am Black. I am southern. I am 37-years-old. I am a Ph.D. in a male-dominated field. I am unmarried. I am childless.
When I earned my Ph.D. my grandmother remarked, “I am so proud of you. A Ph.D.! Now when you get married I will be really proud.”
I was deflated. Instead of brooding, I pondered the life-lessons we teach girls when we tell them, implicitly or explicitly, that their ultimate goal in life, nay their sole purpose, is to get married and procreate.
In the 21st century, when our mothers have more formal education than our grandmothers, and we have more formal education, and better and more career opportunities than the women who came before us, teaching our girls to aspire to marriage should be obsolete. I may expect my educated, otherwise reasonable grandmother to hold marriage as a top priority for her only granddaughter. After all, she is a 92-year-old southern Catholic who grew up in a time where marriage was considered a woman’s greatest triumph.
However, what I do not expect is my female peers’ implicit notions that marriage and family are the most important goals of our lives.
During my entire stint as a Ph.D. program hostage, my female friends asked me very few questions about how I was navigating a Ph.D. in research and statistics at one of the top universities in the world. With the exception of my colleagues, women rarely inquired about my research and teaching experiences. Yet, they enquired about my relationship status more times than I care to recall.
I was repeatedly asked, “When are you getting married?” and subsequently reminded of my age and fertility. I suffered the cynicism underlying such questions as, “Well, how long have you been with your boyfriend?” “Have y’all talked about marriage?” “Does he want to get married?” and “What is he waiting on?”
I would respond to such questions indecisively and in angst. I felt shame because I did not have a precise answer. As beautiful, driven and accomplished as I am, I felt less confident, less desirable, because I did not know the exact moment my boyfriend would ask to take me as his wife. It was tortuous. No one asked me what I wanted. No one knew that I had not aspired to marriage. However, it was not until I overhead a good friend tell my niece that no matter what she did in her life she should “marry well,” that I decided to draw a clear line in the sand about who I am, and the example of womanhood I want to be for my niece.
Here is my answer to the clichéd “When are you getting married?”: I may not get married. I may not have children. I may get married and have children. I may get married and not have children. I may have children and not get married.
But I will not be shamed. I will not be pressured. I will not make decisions about my life based on fear.
I will make decisions about marriage and procreation in the same manner I have made decisions about my career: practically, logically, and rationally.
Marriage was once the only way for women to achieve some level of power and financial stability. Because I have prioritized career over family (and because of the groundwork laid by the fierce independent feminists before me), I have achieved more earning potential than my mate. I am my financial security. I define my success.
I do not tie my accomplishments to a man. I do not view marriage as something of which to be proud. Many women can “accomplish” marriage. It takes no special skills. I take pride in my accomplishments that may not be achieved by most women and men. Marriage may be a great addition to an otherwise accomplished, fulfilled life, but it is not the key to my life.
This is my line in the sand, for my niece and all the girls who come after me: We are not our marital statuses.
About the author: Afi Y. Wiggins is a Ph.D. in Research Statistics and Evaluation. She currently works as an evaluation analyst. She loves fabulous footwear, great literature, modern art, quality films, running, and HIIT. She lives in Austin, TX.