The Magazine

Modern Singlehood

The Me Decades are gone. What comes next?

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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Now and Not Yet

Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century

by Jennifer A. Marshall

Multnomah, 208 pp., $13.99

The self-help section of your local Barnes & Noble is essentially a catalogue of human egoism, folly, and desperation. Bestselling titles include 1937's How To Win Friends and Influence People (Tip #1: Don't let them see you reading this book), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amazing Sex (stop procreating), The 4-Hour Workweek (yeah, right), and Why Men Marry Bitches (helping single women maintain holier-than-thou attitudes since 2006).

Thank God for Jennifer Marshall, who turns these misbegotten recipes for self-actualization on their heads. In her debut book, Marshall presents a self-help guide which tells us that helping ourselves is not the point--a daring proposition in our era of individualism. Instead of attempting to micromanage ourselves into an uncompromising vision of the good life, what if we stepped back and lived for the sake of something larger than personal fulfillment?

As Marshall puts it, "What makes us think we can demand concierge treatment from God, as though He needs to consult us about whether we'd prefer the direct or scenic route? God isn't running a tourist agency. . . . Life isn't about finding ourselves; it's about glorifying God."

Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, writes with thoughtfulness and an optimism that make this a rewarding read for people outside her target audience of "never-married Christian women in their midtwenties to midforties who are generally well-educated and living mostly in suburban or urban areas."

Because Now and Not Yet is not marketed as an overtly Christian book--there is no mention of God or religion on the front cover, and only a passing reference to faith on the back--an unwitting browser may be put off if she flips open to the chapter on "God's callings." But taken as a whole, chances are that a married agnostic man or a Jewish teenager could find nourishment in Marshall's writing, which is spiritual but not unctuous, sensible but not prosaic. She offers original advice on how best to enjoy the life we're living rather than the life we've patched together for ourselves from snippets of romantic movies.

But because this is largely a work of sociology, let's get back to Marshall's target audience and the question of marriage. In the early 1970s the average age for a first marriage was just under 21. Today it is over 25. Three out of 10 American women are unmarried at age 30. But Marshall posits that this is not due to a lessened desire for marriage among women--nine out of 10 high school girls still say that a good marriage is an important factor in their future plans--but mackled romantic rituals and women's lib, which left women with more choices but did not necessarily arm us with the ability to choose well.

Marshall harks back to her parents' generation, when "life wasn't about finding yourself; it was about knowing God." But instead of mourning bygone social norms, Marshall challenges readers to adapt to the particularities of modern life.

Her discussion of feminism as a movement begins with Title IX, the 1972 federal mandate of educational equality between the sexes. Gen X girls coming of age after the passage of Title IX saw unprecedented options in education, athletics, and the workplace. But with more options comes more ambiguity: Women are "allowed" to remain single, and many choose to do so. But the expectation of marriage is strong enough that, when we meet an unmarried fortysomething woman, part of us can't help but wonder what led her to her "lonely" situation.

Many educated, successful women deal with the Sex and the City paradox: Though tired of shibboleths from their mothers' generation, they still find themselves frantically searching for a mate. They have it all, but feel incomplete.

As background research, Marshall conducted interviews with 12 women in four cities and solicited extensive written feedback from three others. Thirty-one women participated in focus groups in Washington, New York, Chicago, and Long Beach, California. For a broader perspective, Marshall conducted an online survey of 650 women and held focus groups of Christian men in their 20s and 30s.

Her research enables her to pepper her writing with colorful quotations and first-person experiences. The common thread across a wide variety of experience is the struggle to cope when reality does not match one's expectations of what age 25, 30, or 45 is supposed to look like. As the gap widens between college graduation and wedding bells, many women feel they are in uncharted territory. Marshall offers helpful meditations on living deliberately instead of simply killing time until life begins to resemble our fantasy version of the future.