On a freezing afternoon in December, I got down on one knee on top of an old aqueduct on the Potomac River, in the C&O Canal Visitors Center Park and asked Aubrey, my partner of five years, to be my partner forever.
Our friends — who had seen us grow together, spend summers living together and support each other through difficult individual and family circumstances — were ecstatic and not particularly surprised. Other acquaintances from around Yale, who we didn’t know as well, reacted with what I’d call pleased bewilderment. “Really? Wow!” One of my friends in New Haven asked sarcastically, “Did you get her pregnant?”
Marrying young, at least at Yale, is uncommon to the point of being an aberration. Anyone who is engaged before graduating will automatically become something of a curiosity. I think this phenomenon is related to the ways we talk — or don’t — about marriage and family at Yale. I think it’s a pattern worth questioning.
I’m not writing to suggest that Yalies should all get hitched, quickly and indiscriminately. Chances are, the good-looking junior in your history section or your most recent Tinder date wouldn’t make a good life partner — for you, at least. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from rushing into a partnership or from marriage for its own sake.
Nor am I writing to plug the institution of marriage, which, as many critics rightfully point out, has its traditional roots in regressive gender norms from bygone eras where wives were treated like property. Marriage isn’t inherently any better or worse than other, less traditional way of constituting a family. It’s just the one Aubrey and I are choosing.
I am writing, though, to challenge Yalies to consider how we think about our lives, our priorities and our futures. And most importantly, where and how we value our families.
Yale encourages us to rigorously self-examine, constructing a set of beliefs about what we value and what we hope to achieve. It prompts us to imagine and plan for the future, to envision a lifetime of leadership, scholarship and service and chart a course towards those lofty goals. It celebrates ambition, perseverance and clarity of purpose. In short, Yalies do a lot of discussing and thinking about who we will become.
This is a great thing. But it’s a shame that these future-focused conversations are so rarely centered around the kinds of family members we want to be. When a friend asks a group what they want to be doing 10 years from now, the response is invariably a list of artistic, political and career ambitions. When professors and administrators encourage us to think about “the mark we’ll make” or “the legacy we’ll leave,” the conversation is always framed in terms of contributions to industry or public life. We spend so much time conceiving of our future selves, but those visions almost universally focus on our future careers. I’m not convinced that this is a healthy, or productive self-concept.
A thousand years from now, none of us will be featured in a history book; the best of us will be lucky to land among the footnotes. The most profound and lasting impact most of us will ever have on the world will be through the way we love and empower our families, especially our children. And the most meaningful experiences of our cosmically insignificant lives, I’m convinced, are the moments we’ll spend with the people we’ve chosen to love.
I don’t mean to say that thinking about our careers, especially in college, is a worthless or self-interested thing. Work is meaningful and impactful, and it’s something that rightfully occupies our thoughts. But the way we sometimes conceive of work and family as dichotomous forces worries me. “I’m too busy for that right now,” or “I won’t worry about that until I’m in grad school — at least.” Or perhaps we see families, and especially long-term relationships and marriage, as an impediment to self-discovery. “I need to figure myself out first,” I often hear, or: “I want the chance to explore.” In each case, I’d argue the opposite — of course, family entails sacrifice, but a loving partnership with someone we trust and respect empowers us to do our best work and helps us learn far more about ourselves than we ever could on our own.
From my perspective, it seems like the world has a greater need for engaged parents and thoughtful spouses than for well-trained bankers, attorneys and politicians. So I wish that Yale would offer as many workshops on building healthy relationships and families as it does on building impressive resumes and expansive networks. And I hope that – when we each think about what the future holds for us — we think just as deeply about our values and hopes for our eventual families.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .