On the first Sunday of my college career, I sat in my school’s quad with another girl from my floor, enjoying the late August warmth, our relative lack of homework, and the promise of what lay ahead in the next four years of our lives. As we chatted, our conversation turned to boys. My friend’s father had recently passed away, and she said that getting a college degree was more important to her than anything, because she didn’t want to have to rely on a man to support her. She wanted to be able to take care of herself, because you never knew what could happen.
“Honestly,” I said, “if I had to pick leaving here with my college degree or leaving with a husband, I’d choose a husband.”
This, my friends, is West Michigan.
To understand the culture of young marriage in West Michigan, you first have to understand the overall culture of West Michigan. In the mid-1800s, our community’s founding father, Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte, settled in what grew to be Holland, Michigan. Van Raalte originally hailed from the Netherlands, and many of the settlers who came to his kolonie were Dutch as well.
Over time, the Dutch in West Michigan moved beyond Holland to other cities–Zeeland, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Kalamazoo–but by and large stayed within the same general area bounded by Muskegon on the north, Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo on the east, St. Joseph on the south (if you’re being generous. South Haven is probably far enough south), and Lake Michigan on the west. For the purposes of this post, that entire area will be referred to as West Michigan.
In my life, I don’t know if I have ever found a community so proud of its heritage as the Dutch community in West Michigan. We are Dutch and proud, thank you very much. We adore our wooden shoes, our tulips, our windmills, our unpronounceable last names with their confusing double vowels and Vanvandervansmas. We cling tightly to the homeland, until someone mentions how liberal the homeland has become since Van Raalte established “the other Holland.” We shrug that off, disassociate ourselves with it. The Dutch in West Michigan are the chosen ones. The remnant, if you will. The ones predestined by God (always predestined — to be a good Dutchman is to be a good Calvinist in West Michigan) to escape the rampant sin of the Netherlands for the sake of our totally depraved (again: to be a good Dutchman is to be a good Calvinist) souls.
If you’re Dutch and you live in West Michigan, there is an extraordinarily high chance you are Reformed. You might belong to the Christian Reformed Church, and if you do you likely went to *insert city name here* Christian High School, ended up at Calvin College (named after our patron saint, John Calvin), and probably, at one point in your life, cheered on a shockingly good boys’ basketball team (our genes not only predispose us to blonde hair and blue eyes; they also make us tall. Somehow I missed out on all of these benefits of being Dutch. Alas, the modeling career that could have been!). If you’re Dutch but not Christian Reformed, you probably grew up in the Reformed Church of America, which, for all intents and purposes, is the same thing as the Christian Reformed Church, just slightly more liberal (emphasis–so, so much emphasis–on the slightly. We’re talking “jeans to church” instead of “khaki pants to church” liberal, people, not “homosexual accepting, limited gun rights approving, universal health care accepting” liberal.). The primary difference between you and your CRC compatriots is that you probably went to public high school, and you probably went to Hope College instead of Calvin.
In short, to be Dutch in West Michigan is to be Christian and conservative. Yes, there are certainly exceptions (me, for example), but by and large, the people you encounter are politically, culturally, and spiritually conservative. The 1950s are alive and well in West Michigan. Don’t believe me? I’d like to direct your attention, then, to a phenomenon that is also alive and well on the campuses of Calvin, Hope, and, realistically, many Christian colleges around the country: Ring by Spring.
The general idea of Ring by Spring is that, as a female, you have entered college for one reason: to have a diamond on your left ring finger before you have a diploma in your hand. You may be pretending to be in college to get your BA, your BS, your BMus, your Bachelor of Whatever, but in reality you are there to get your MRS degree. You are there to find a husband. That is your primary goal. As a freshman entering college, that was my primary goal.
To give you an idea of how this looks statistically, I went through my Facebook friends. I have 251 friends that were either raised in this Dutch culture or attended college at Calvin, Hope, or an equivalent school (Dordt, Trinity, Northwestern College in Iowa, etc.), and are within one year of me (college class of 2011, 2012, or 2013). Of these 251, 32 are married. 14 are engaged to be married. In total, 46 of my 251 friends within one year of my age are either married or engaged. 46 out of 251. 18 percent. Nearly one in five.
Just take a moment to digest that. I’m 22 years old. All of the people in this sample are between 21 and 24, and nearly one in five of them is either married or will be soon.
Now, I’m very well aware that my life is not everyone else’s life. My priorities are not everyone else’s priorities. People have different goals, different dreams, different passions, and it’s no more my place to point fingers and accuse these people of throwing away their lives or making terrible decisions for getting married than it is their place to point fingers at me and accuse me of being selfish, ignorant, or just plain jealous.
My problem with this culture of young marriage is three fold. For one thing, statistically speaking, one in three of those couples will be divorced before they hit their 10th anniversary. They could, quite possibly, be divorced before any of us hit 30. And that, to me, is extremely sad. I have serious doubts that anyone enters a marriage with the intention of eventually divorcing. I would like to believe when every one of these couples said, “As long as we both shall live,” they meant it. I would like to think they didn’t drop $25,500 on a celebration of something they didn’t intend to be permanent. I would like to believe they understood the gravity of the vows–not statements, not ideas, not if-I-feel-like-its: vows–they made in front of their loved ones and God (because, let’s be real: all of these couples are making their vows in front of God) and didn’t do it because “it’s just what everyone does” or, just as bad, so they could have sex without feeling guilty.
I think it’s safe to assume that most, if not all, couples enter a marriage with the intention of being together forever, which to me, simply begs the question, “Why the rush?” I recognize that there are rights and privileges only available to legally married couples, but many of these rights–hospital visitation rights, medical decision making rights, child custody rights–more often than not don’t apply to 22- and 23-year-old couples. There are exceptions, of course, because you never know when tragedy may strike, but out of all the married couples my age I know, there has only been one case where any of these rights were relevant. To me, if you plan to be together forever, it makes more sense to allow some time to pass to insure that you’ll actually feel the same way about the person you intend to marry in a year or two instead of making a snap decision to get married young because all your friends are getting married young, only to find yourself in divorce court in a couple of years because you’ve continued developing as a person. (This sentiment is really more directed towards the couples my age that have been together for less than a year before getting engaged rather than couples my age that have been dating since they were both 15, or even 18.) Which leads me to my next point…
My other problem comes from my own life experience. When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Chicago interning. I still had classes once a week, but by and large I was a member of the 9-5 “real world.” It was the first time in my life where I had the chance to taste adulthood, and while I learned a lot of things about independence that semester, the biggest thing I learned was that, as a student, I didn’t have any idea who the hell I was as a person. Being in Chicago gave me, for the first time, the chance to define myself outside the boundaries of “student.”
Being in Chicago then, and, even more so, being in Chicago now, also showed me just how young I am. Being 22 (or, in my case, 21) in college feels old, and that’s because in college, it is. You are old in college when you’re 22, just like you’re old in high school when you’re 18, or you’re old in middle school when you’re 14, or you’re old in elementary school when you’re 11. But just because you’re old in that context does not mean you are old, period. The average life expectancy for a man turning 65 today in the United States is 83. For a woman, it’s 85. As a 22 year old, that means you’re only about a quarter of the way through your life. Barring major accident, tragedy, or health problem, you still have three quarters of your life to live. You’re barely halfway to halfway. You’re not old. You are so young.
So young, in fact, that your brain hasn’t even finished developing yet (here’s where that segue two paragraphs back was headed). I don’t know about all of you, but as my brain developed throughout my youth, my passions, interests, dreams, and aspirations changed. When I was 8, I wanted to be a teacher and liked a boy named Chris. When I was 13, I wanted to be a pop star and was completely convinced Andrew and I would end up together. When I was 18, I intended to be a published novelist and was so, so sure Corey would dump his girlfriend for me, because I couldn’t possibly care about someone that much that I wasn’t destined to marry, even if he had been dating the same girl since our sophomore year of high school. I don’t want any of those careers anymore. I’m certainly not interested in any of those boys any more.
As my brain has grown and developed–which, according to studies, it is still doing right now, and will continue doing for the next couple of years into my mid-20s, which I, and my peers, have not hit yet–my tastes and goals have changed. My interests and dreams have changed just as drastically between the ages of 20 and 22 as they did between the ages of 14 and 18. To make what’s intended to be a permanent life decision in the midst of such development and change strikes me at best as risky, and at worst as downright foolish. Just because I’ve really enjoyed studying hip hop dance over the past seven months doesn’t mean I should quit my job and try to make a living dancing. Again, if this were something I had been doing since I was 15 and had loved doing since I was 15, it’d be one thing, but at this point, even though I’m an “adult,” I certainly have not had enough time to know if hip hop is a viable career choice for me (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that unless I develop a lot more swag, it’s probably not ) and probably should not be making any serious decisions about what I intend to do with hip hop and its relation to my life for quite some time.
One of the things I value the most about my life is my freedom. I am more free at this point in my life than I have ever been. I have a boss to report to, yes, but by and large, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. If I wanted to move to San Diego tomorrow, I could. It certainly wouldn’t be responsible, or advisable, since I don’t have a job in San Diego, but the point is: I could. There’s nothing stopping me from doing that, because the only person I’m responsible for in my life is me. My life is not intrinsically linked to anyone else’s. My decisions are able to be my decisions because they don’t affect anyone to the degree that they would affect someone if I were married to them, or, even more so, if I were married to them and had children with them.
But even more than the freedom to pack up and move, right now in my life I have the unique freedom to discover who, exactly, I am. I have the freedom to experiment. I have the freedom to take risks. I have the freedom to make mistakes for which only I will have to bear the consequences. I have the freedom to grow, the freedom to develop, the freedom to become the person I was intended to be. This window of opportunity won’t last forever. Again, barring major accident or illness, I have my entire life ahead of me to be an adult. I don’t have my entire life to be a twentysomething.
Finally–and here’s where the feminist tirade comes in–I have a deep problem with the idea that as a 22-year-old woman hailing from West Michigan, I have to be married, either right now or ever. There’s an unspoken sentiment in the community in which I was raised that because I’m not married, because I’m not engaged, because I don’t even have a boyfriend, period, I have failed as a woman. I have not fulfilled my God-given duty to be a wife or to be a mother. That because of my singleness, I am a second class citizen. I had one job–to go to college and leave with a ring on my finger–and I failed.
I’m sorry, (actually, I’m not sorry), but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. I graduated summa cum laude from a good school with a 3.99 GPA. I balanced a full academic load for three years (and a, um, not quite as full academic load senior year ) with two jobs and six extracurricular activities and still got all A’s (and one doggone A-. Curse you, Intro to Lit!). I held leadership positions in three separate student organizations. I had a full time job in my field–not the norm for English majors by any stretch–fall into my lap six months before I graduated. Do I think I failed my duty as a young woman in college? Absolutely not.
Occasionally I’m asked why I moved to Chicago. I always say it’s because I had a job here, but that’s not the whole truth. I do have a job here that required me to move, but I had every intention of moving to Chicago whether I had a job or not. I needed to get out of West Michigan because I didn’t fit in. As a single 21-year-old with no romantic prospects, I felt like a complete outcast–and how could I have not? I attended five weddings for my peers last year, and I didn’t have a date to bring with me to any of them. Somewhere between the second and third identical sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 and fourth and fifth lighting of unity candles, you can’t help but ask yourself: “How is this happening to everyone my age but me? What is so inherently repulsive about me that I don’t even have a boyfriend, let alone a husband?”
Absurd! I truly believe it’s important to validate, not minimize, feelings, but just look at that! 21 years old and I really, truly felt like I was destined to be an old maid because everything around me was telling me I was. I have a long list of reasons why Chicago has been good for me, and one of the top reasons is because being in this city has showed me that you don’t have to be married at 22. Regardless of what my Dutch, West Michigan, Christian upbringing tells me, it is totally, completely, 100% okay for me to be single right now.
Do I want to be married someday? Absolutely. Do I deeply hope to have a family of my own at some point? Certainly. But I don’t need those things right now. I’m proud of where I came from, but I simply cannot get on board with the culture of young marriage in West Michigan and the stigma around singleness it fosters. I cannot condone the idea that in order to be a whole person, in order to be an adult, in order to fully realize who I am, I must have a man by my side. These concepts, these thought processes, promote judgment and stupendously poor life choices on the part of too many of my peers that do nothing but create the ideal environment for incredible heartache on the part of both single and married people.
I don’t know how many West Michiganders read my blog. I don’t know if any West Michiganders read my blog. But if there are, please hear me: you do not need to be married right now. You do not need a ring by spring. Your worth should not and cannot be determined by the precious metals on your left hand, nor can it be determined by the age at which those metals appear. You–you–have inherent value as a person. Not because you are a husband. Not because you are a wife. Because you are you.
Thanks for listening.