Hierarchy of Wants

In each of the past three years, a woman I know has left her husband. The first woman, A., left the husband because he was verbally and emotionally abusive, and she didn’t want her daughter to bear witness to it anymore. The second woman, B., left the husband because she found another man, and wanted her daughter and son to see what it was like for her to be happy. The third woman, C., left the husband because they just weren’t in love anymore, and didn’t think her son should be in a loveless home.

Woman A.: well-paid breadwinner in her household, newly engaged and about to buy a house jointly. Woman B.: at-home mom (living and now working full-time with her new boyfriend/fiance). Woman C: at-home mom (now working part-time, single).

Now consider today’s New York Times article by Jason DeParle, “Two Classes in America, Divided by I Do.”  The story is lengthy and well-supported, and paints a painfully clear picture of the present and likely future economic inequalities between two colleagues who work at a child care center. One woman, a single, never-married mom of three, works for the other married mom of two.

I’m most struck by one statement in the story, by the single mom of three, whose

life offers a vivid example of how rapidly norms have changed. She grew up in a small town outside Ann Arbor, where her life revolved around church and school and everyone she knew was married.

“I thought, ‘I’ll meet someone, and we’ll marry and have kids and the house and the white picket fence,’ ” she said. “That’s what I wanted. That’s what I still want.”

As for the married mom of two? Her

life has unfolded in to-do-list style. They did not inherit wealth or connections or rise on rare talent. They just did standard things in standard order: high school, college, job, marriage and children. “I don’t think I could have done it any more by the books.”

How is it that while so many of us want the same things, we go after it in such different orders? (Even after carefully accounting for socioeconomic status indicators, as DeParle does?)

“Meet someone.” First “want” named by the single mom of three.

Back to Women A., B., and C. I don’t know any of them that well, but I often wonder what it is they wanted first, right out of high school.

I wonder about it a lot, because I want our daughter to be open to love and marriage and family, but I want her to want it after so many things. After college. Maybe after a graduate degree. After learning she could do it herself if she wanted, but that it’ll be perhaps more fun and definitely far easier if she does it with another. I want her to be open to it. I don’t want her to run to it–it might mess up the order.

I fully recognize life and love are unpredictable. I’m not saying there’s a right order. I am simply and increasingly convinced that in my mind’s “Hierarchy of Wants,”  “meet someone” shouldn’t be first.

One thought on “Hierarchy of Wants

  1. Our former neighbor got married last summer. Now she’s expecting and due in a few months. While I’m happy for her, because I know this was all in her plan, a part of me wants to say, “Whoa! Slow down! You’re 22!” It all changes so much, so fast… I almost didn’t survive the first year of motherhood and I was 33… Sorry to ramble. I’m finding it hard to express my feelings without sounding judgmental — everyone should make her own choices. But there’s still a voice in the back of my head saying, “You can’t go back.”

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