If modernism is right, then the highest organising principle of society is individual autonomy. For women, the primary aim of life will be to maintain their independence. They will aim for economic independence in careers, and they will assert a right to raise a child independently of men. They will act with self-confidence as single girls, claiming not to need men in their personal lives.
Lori Gottlieb did all this. She and a female friend even chose, "in a fit of self-empowerment", to have their children as single mothers through sperm donors. She is not, though, at all content with what such autonomy has brought her. She tells us of a moment when she and her friend, both never married single mothers in their 40s, were out on a picnic with their children:
“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist — vehemently, even — that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know — no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure — feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.
What does all this really mean? First, Lori Gottlieb is telling us that independence isn't the sole overriding good in life. Being part of a family is what is most important to her. Furthermore, she points out that this is not some individual quirk on her part, but a predictable, natural desire of women in general.
The implication is that we should be aiming, as a society, to create the conditions for successful family formation, rather than limiting our sights to enabling ever more radical forms of individual autonomy.
There is a second part to Lori Gottlieb's article. She discusses the idea of women settling rather than holding out for Mr Right. I found her approach to this idea disconcerting, but I'll leave this for a future article.