WHEN I was young my mother sometimes hinted that a good career option would be to marry the prince of Wales. How a second-generation Italian immigrant thought she was going to manage an introduction for her mouthy, scabby-kneed Catholic daughter to the heir to the House of Windsor is anyone's guess.
But I have discovered since that she was not alone, and that other mothers, Lucilles and Anitas and Bridgets, talked of a white wedding in Westminster Abbey despite the obvious requirements of Realpolitik and the Church of England.
They are a singular group, those women, who have since seen their daughters married to men with less conspicuous bloodlines. They are the last moms in the world to think that being a princess is a dream job.
In just a few weeks, in Japan, another mother will see her daughter married, and as she does it may occur to her that never has a bride approached her wedding day amid such a societal miasma of sympathy.
Masako Owada graduated from Harvard, entered the foreign service, and rose through the ranks. But the 29-year-old diplomat has decided to chuck that career for what, once upon a time, might have been called another, that of wife to the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Charting public opinion, it seems people were happier for Anne Boleyn when she went to the block than they are for this young woman on what is supposed to be one of the more joyous occasions of her life.
At first glance, it's easy to tell why. Pictures of Ms. Owada P.P. (pre-prince) show a lively-looking woman with shortish skirts, a no-nonsense handbag and a sense of get-up-and-go. Many of those in high places thought she was too modern, too Westernized, having lived in Massachusetts and taken ski vacations, to be a suitable bride for the Prince.
But the prince thought she was perfect, and though she turned him down repeatedly over the last six years, finally she was persuaded to give in for the good of the country. Suddenly her hems and her gaze were cast down, and she was photographed in a kimono, with one of those silly little purses that the queen of England favors. Boy, did she look like a sacrificial lamb.
Or the heir to the Diana misfortune. The princess of Wales, who got the guy my mother thought would provide me with financial security, an unmortgaged house and a big engagement ring, is in part responsible for the flagging image of princesses.
Recent disclosures about her unhappy private life have made clear that marrying a man who not only expects to be treated like a prince but actually is one can lead to great unhappiness and a persistent problem with having private telephone conversations.
In the interest of equal protection I should add that being a prince is not the job it once was, either. At the very least it once guaranteed universal deference and the chance to be admired by many women. But as Crown Prince Naruhito, who has been characterized approvingly as a Michael J. Fox type, learned when he went searching for a wife, these are no longer guarantees.
The exception has been Prince Albert of Monaco, who has parlayed his exalted status into a much publicized friendship with Claudia Schiffer, the onetime Guess Jeans model. But Monaco is a raffish little principality. Albert's sister, the disco Princess Stephanie, has managed to parlay her title into a singing and swimsuit designing career and a baby with her bodyguard. Their family is not emblematic of royalty.
In fact royalty has not been much emblematic of royalty since the descendants of Queen Victoria were dispersed to watering holes around the globe, done in by democracy, tyranny and modernity.
And being a princess, making your fortune through marriage, is no longer quite so popular since many a young girl has learned to make her fortune through clever career moves.
Apparently Masako Owada's prospective mother-in-law, who found princessing arduous, promised the princess-to-be that she could retain her own personality even if she married into the Imperial clan. It does not look so far as though she will be permitted to retain her own wardrobe.
Being a princess is not the carefree life of spinning straw into gold and going to Ascot that my mother apparently thought it would be. For this one, so far, sympathy overwhelms the well wishes.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.