Princeton Mom Is Everything That’s Wrong With Everything

Princeton Mom is back.

Also known as Susan Patton, Princeton Mom is the woman who proclaimed, via a letter written “To the daughters I never had” and published last year in the Daily Princetonian (and, subsequently, everywhere), that women should view college as valuable insofar as it leads to one’s “MRS” degree. A Princeton grad herself, and mother to two Princetonian sons, Patton’s thoughts have been published in book form — not because she has anything new to say, but because mothers who obsessively fret over their daughters’ shriveling eggs and hate-clickers alike were so mollified/appalled that said letter went viral faster than crabs at a cheap hotel during Spring break. Thus a book deal was born.

It’s not hard to see why she got so much attention — much of what she says is so outrageous it seems designed to be incendiary, a claim she denies. Among her thoughts: If you are not attractive enough, nip ( it in the bud before you get to college. (Yes, she suggests plastic surgery. For high school students.) Cows should not give away their milk for free if they’d like to be purchased one day. (Newsflash: Premarital sex is nearly universal; has been for decades. Also, the cheese lady at the Farmers Market always gives me free samples, and I still buy some.) Interracial and interfaith unions are bad; date rape is actually “mistake sex.” (How should I put this? No. A thousand times no.) Women should learn to bake bread. (Um?)

She advises that, until a woman finds her future babydaddy, she should invest 75 percent of her time in locating him, 25 percent on her studies or professional development. (So a woman carrying a full course load or working 40 hours a week, should also put in 120 hours of husband-hunting? That leaves precious little time for sleep. Not to mention plastic surgeries and bread-baking.)

The crown jewel in the world, according to Patton, is this: a woman should focus the years of her “peak attractiveness and fertility” on finding a husband, and marry him early in order to have adequate time to make babies. The time to do this is college, she says; you’ll never be surrounded by so much quality sperm. “Off campus and in the real world, you’ll be stunned by how smart the men are not.” Real-world-men can’t tap a keg while blindfolded? Tragic!

Sadly, Patton says, women are reluctant to get down to business during the Princeton Mom-defined peaks of their lives because feminism says it’s uncool. Though I am a devout feminist, I’ve never heard of a woman doing anything because feminism declared it cool. (C’mon, it’s hard enough to get women to confess they’re feminists in the first place.) Except, notably, Patton herself: Although she wanted to get married and have children, reads a New York Magazine profile, “women’s liberation was in the air, and she was too embarrassed to husband-hunt on campus.”

Now, let’s get the “peak attractiveness” thing out of the way. Women are shelled with such messages from every direction: our value goes down as our age creeps up; time is running out. This leads us to waste much of our youths worrying about getting older, which is a crying shame: there are so many other, better ways to spend it! Moving to a new city, taking a random job, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or into bed with perfectly inappropriate people. Figuring out who we are. Which, it should be said, will serve one well in one’s hunt for a spouse and father to one’s children, if indeed that is what one wants.

Marriageable men might even find that attractive.

(An example that proves “aging out” is nonsense? Patton herself. Yes, our hero divorced the father of her children, whom she married at the age of 31; she’s currently dating. And loving it. “It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful! I’m financially independent. I look great. I’m healthy. It’s never been better!”)

Most problematic for PM’s central thesis: marrying young is supremely bad for a woman who wants a happy marriage or financial and professional success.

Writing about a 2013 report entitled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage,” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said, “A college-educated woman who marries in her 30s earns over $15,000 more every year than a woman who marries in her early 20s… Men, on the other hand, reap a wage premium for marrying earlier.”

Perhaps Patton should have addressed her letter to them, instead?

Douthat continues, “(relatively early marriage) is perilous for women, because the earnings they lose by marrying early loom large if the marriage then falls apart, which earlier marriages are more likely to do.” (Indeed, a 2011 Chicago Tribune piece concluded, as the age of first marriage goes up, the divorce rate goes down.)

Yet Patton is tone-deaf when it comes to economic reality. “Work will wait,” she says. But in the United States circa 2014, work is not generally a matter of choice. Families need two incomes; that’s the rule, not the exception. The Shriver Report found that only one-fifth of American families have a male breadwinner and female homemaker, and two-thirds of families rely on the mother’s income. And if we don’t get our careers started early, we’ll be operating at a deficit from which we’ll likely never recover.

Also, many women derive fulfillment from our careers, engaging our minds, being productive, earning money. Guess who does, too? Princeton Mom: “I wanted a much broader life than just motherhood … a bigger life, a more creative life, a more engaged life.”

But “just motherhood” seems to be what she’s advocating. “You’ve been so invested in your professional super-stardom that you took your eye off the ball,” she says. “You have no husband and no children, but the ship has already sailed! It’s too late. You don’t get to have everything.”

Unfortunately, there’s a bit that’s legit in what Patton is saying, but it’s hard to hear when the rest is so ridiculous and offensive: in many ways, she’s right to frame children-versus-career as a choice, and yes, choices involve trade-offs. (I wrote an entire book on the subject.) Cruelly, a woman’s prime career-building years coincide with her peak fertility—and, for women, there is, indeed, a deadline when it comes to bearing children. And our society does not make juggling motherhood and work easy.

Instead of evolving to accommodate reality—that mothers and women who will become them do, in fact, work—policies and structures have stagnated: ours ranks 17th out of 22 developed countries in women’s labor force participation, thanks, according to Think Progress, “to a lack of policies that can help working parents, including paid parental leave, protections for part-time work, and spending on child care.” (Patton, while you have the mic, can you please address this? We’re clear on basic sex ed and that free milk thing.)

It’s odd that she’s so wrong (or just willfully ignorant) about so much—the woman went to Princeton after all—and that her advice runs so counter to the way she lived her own life. Is she really this dense? Or is something else going on?

She clearly fetishizes her Princetonian experience. Her apartment is decorated thusly: “Princeton pennants and disembodied tiger tails and orange-and-black craft projects. Orange-and-black pebbles fill a decorative bowl; an orange-and-black quilt drapes the sofa; an orange feather boa sits on a shelf.”

She disses her ex-husband by way of his alma mater: “almost no name recognition… A school that nobody had respect for, including him,” and reveals her fantasy to get remarried in the Princeton campus chapel surrounded by orange roses.

Perhaps it’s her rose- (more likely orange-) colored glasses that have her peddling this schlock? Or could her manifesto be nothing more than projected personal regret over neglecting to land a Princeton lad when her eggs were fresh enough to deliver purebreds?

Would she give the same advice to a woman attending a community college, I wonder?

Oddly, I believe there is a lesson to be found in Patton’s story, after all. She didn’t follow her own advice, and is perfectly happy. May we all do the same.

Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon_BKelley.