I'll Settle - for Awesome.

10 years ago

I am 37 years old, I'm single, and I have not had children. There you have the trifecta that is supposed to have me standing on a bridge right about now, or not wasting my time talking to you good people when I could be laughing at the stupid screennames on Match.com.

I've been wondering for a while now, why the hate for single women, hmm? So many people seem to stand in line to judge single, especially childless women. It bothers me. It really does. Some married people are unhappy, some single people are annoyingly jubilant, and vice versa. I didn't celebrate Valentine's Day by dressing in black and getting together with friends to listen to depressing music and drink Yellow Tail. I admit it crossed my mind that saying "I love you" and meaning it, and hearing it back, meant, again would be nice, but that's an every day kind of thing. You can't force it, friends.

The sordid, all-too-simple truth is that I'm mostly okay single, but the "no children" part makes me unhappy. Sometimes I am involuntarily very jealous of people with kids, and if you prick me with comments like, "Oh, you'd understand if you were a mom," or "Oh, you're so LUCKY, so free!", yes, I do existentially bleed. But if settling for a substandard life partnership was the only way to avoid this circumstance, as Lori Gottlieb claimed in her article "Marry Him!" in this month's "The Atlantic" online, then this was the way it had to be - for me.

I'd say I won't settle, but it's more like I can't, and what "settling" means for each of us is likely a very different matter. But whatever it is, I shouldn't have done it in my 20s - oh God no, especially not then - as Gottlieb suggests, and I won't now. And although I'm not one to judge, neither should you, or you, or you. And along with detailing how women my age are falling apart and can't be expected to attract a man at all, really, therefore making the pickings even slimmer, she says that's kind of stupid.

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Now, I have to tell you that I've walked this walk, before I join the disingenuous chorus of denial that Gottlieb shuts down before we even start tuning up. See?

And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.

I might be worried, but that doesn't mean I have to make poor choices. I could have married the man I lived with (Lord help me) ten years ago, who wanted to marry me. I was 28. Oh, and also? I was miserable. I think he was miserable too, maybe just because I was, because living with miserable me? Misery. He was not by any stretch a bad person, but we were totally incompatible, and I really can't even explain how we ended up living in the same apartment. What I can explain, however, is how one day I had such a suffocating fear of living my life with someone who didn't understand what made me tick at all that I had to leave. What I can explain is that every time I hung out with his family I realized that these would be my children's grandparents, and I didn't feel at home with them at all. I realized that I just wasn't feeling it - and that was before he developed the crush on another girl.

But he apologized, and said he loved me and we were still getting married, right? I had missed the proposal if there was one, but wrong. I guess I could have overlooked his lack of interest in conversing with me, his belief that we didn't need to go on dates anymore because we "lived together and saw each other all the time", his dismissal of my writing as "not his style" and a physical disconnection that had him wearing sweatsuits to bed (until I told him I was leaving the state, when all of a sudden I became a lot more attractive.)

Sure, I could have sucked it up, baby. I could have - in Gottlieb's words, not mine, because I'd choose something a lot more harsh - settled. Because maybe now I'd have a baby or two, which would probably be pretty great, but I'm not so sure about the rest of my life. I have occasional visions of chain-smoking and driving a minivan around our old neighborhood, but I force them out of my brain, quickly.

The thing is, it's not just about me. I can want children all I want, and I do. I can find it really offensive and disappointing that I, kickass potential mother that I am, don't have children when so many people do. But until I think I'd be in a situation that would be a great environment for kids, including a loving relationship for the parents, I won't do it. Marriage may be a contract, but beyond tax returns, kids are not a commodity. As much as I'd love to join the club, I don't believe that motherhood is owed to me at any cost.

The choice of with whom to share my life, my home, myself and my family is precious and intensely personal. Whittling it down to a mediocre minimum so I'll have a potential father for a child I may or may not be able to have with him isn't something my conscience or self-respect will allow. If I choose that guy who yells "Bravo!" in the movies (and let me just say right now, no. No. Stop.) and I don't have many good reasons that balance that out, then I'm putting my kids in a bad position. I'm also setting myself up for unhappiness, and cheating him out of a woman who'll think that's really cutting edge behavior, like maybe someone who'll up his ante and scream "Bravissima!" Who am I to do that?

And this is not to say that quality people should be dismissed out of hand for minor matters.
There's a difference between being ridiculously demanding and having deal-breakers that really matter to you for valid reasons. I don't need perfect. Everyone has quirks. But what Gottlieb is suggesting is that it's okay to lack passion, companionship and even physical attraction. She delves interestingly into sitcom land to find examples. Ross and Rachel from "Friends" were doomed, and Rachel should have stuck with Barry the nice orthodontist. Her ideal married couple, however, is Will and Grace. Will is, of course, gay, and Grace's best friend.

So what if Will and Grace weren’t having sex with each other? How many long- married couples are having much sex anyway?

Gottlieb doesn't have a husband, although she does have a child, conceived with donor sperm, and this article left me wondering what kind of marriages she's observed. At least some couples I know actually seem to enjoy spending time together. Settling's not so bad, she says. It's gotten a bad rap. You don't spend so much time with your husband anyway, so it's okay if you really don't like him that much. Let's overlook the fact that you might share a bed. Whatever.

So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?

Can you aim lower than no sex and a time share marriage to Not-the-One? It would be cheaper and less emotionally debilitating to hire a manny. What happens when the kids are older? I can't help but think that when the ultimate decision to marry is living in its own apartment and calling once a week for money that, unless some magical transformation has occurred or a divorce has already happened, there would seem little point in carrying on. I've known some couples who built their lives around the kids, and ended up strangers to each other. Why start out from that point?

I’ve been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it’s the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we’d choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That’s not a whole lot of choice.

That's so sad I won't even touch it, except to say that I disagree, and I blow any and all women who feel that way, for fleeting moments or all the time, a big old kiss. You - we - deserve it.

I can honestly say that the only person I ever knew with certainty that I could happily and effectively parent with was also the only person dated who I considered the best possible partner for me, at least out of anyone I'd met. Mind you, this person had the usual rack of quirks, and he had big problems with some of mine. But in the context of considerable love and support - and what I think now was mutual admiration and shared values - that we had for each other, they were just part of the fabric. What I learned in that relationship is what leads me to disagree so strongly with the premise of "Marry Him!" "Not perfect" is better than okay when it feels right, and no amount of internal negotiating will make it so if it doesn't.

Unfortunately that relationship didn't go the distance, but I also learned that the feelings I had - that my life was immeasurably better with this person in it, that I wanted him in my heart and my home every day and missed him when he wasn't, and that I would have been proud to raise children with him, not as separate entities but as partners - were the kind I needed to have. As much as I have no idea if I'll be that lucky again, and as much as what that might mean scares me, I'm just not interested in compromising on the big stuff.

This article is burning up the blogs. Take your pick.

Maria Niles let me know about the article in the first place, and approached it here at BlogHer from a "happiness" angle

I'm with Jocie Fong at Autology.

Let me be clear: these are not our options. For instance, a big assumption that comes through here is that if a woman does not have a boyfriend/husband, she is alone. A more creative mind might fashion an idea of an untraditional family, of friends, relatives, pets, colleagues, communities and self, with an understanding that everyone has the ultimate choice whether to be "alone" or "all one." A woman may be surrounded by people she loves and still be considered "alone" on Gottleib's terms, and on those of society in general, and this, I believe, is something we should actively change, or at the very least, avoid reinforcing.

I enjoy Mary Elizabeth Williams's question of how this would be approached if it were men in question.

Can you imagine, for a minute, a story in a major monthly by a man that suggested, what the hell, just put a ring on the broad's finger, they all get dumpy eventually anyway. Who cares, as long as she picks your shirts up off the floor? Imagine flipping the gender on a phrase like this, "I say, 'OK, if you’re so unhappy, and if I’m so lucky, leave your husband! In fact, send him over here!'” Oh, ha ha ha. Because men can be traded like playing cards. Think how that would go over if we were talking about women.

My single friends will attest the pickings can be slim out there. And if the institution is more meaningful to you than the participants in it, if Charlotte Lucas is your idea of a good role model, grab whatever's got an Adam's apple and godspeed. I just wonder how huge a favor these women really think they're doing to their ostensible inferiors. A writer like Gottlieb is so caught up in the drama and pain of the female side, so mopily attached to the notion of having to scrape the bottom of the barrel, she's completely cavalier about the guys themselves. Have you ever been anybody's B-list? Imagine signing up for a life of that. Imagine living with someone who both considers herself your better and is also painfully grateful to you rescued her from spinsterdom. Those poor bastards.

Bella DePaulo wrote about the article on the Huffington Post and commented on BackyardBeacon's BlogHer post about the article from a black woman's point of view.

Pandagon readers had pointed reactions to this
post at Modestly Yours that spoke out in favor of settling if you had to, and single people should shut it:

Advice: Singles should stop pretending they're happy and OK with being single, admit that your life would be richer with a mate. Tell yourself that you want a wife or husband, and make that a priority. Drop the New Age "soul mate" obsession (it's wishful thinking and as baseless as the crushes you had in junior high school.) Develop your personality and strengths so that you are an exceptional person and companion. Relearn how to share and give and compromise. Don't sleep around, you're wasting your energies and spirit. Remember where you came from: a married mother and father (for most of us anyway). That institution is the underpinning of our very society, and dispensing with it isn't likely to be an improvement.

Jessica at Feministing:

But in all seriousness, we all know that the media likes nothing better than a woman telling other women how miserable they're going to be without a man. And that's what makes nonsense like this so dangerous - its potential reach. Gottlieb has already been on the Today show touting her article and going head to head with (sigh) professional matchmakers. Who knows how much more media attention this piece will get. Shit, she'll probably get a book deal out of it.

But no matter where this article ends up, it doesn't change the fact that it's pure crap, mixed in with a little sour grapes. (I'm betting it makes Gottlieb - who is so clearly dissatisfied with her life - just nuts that there are all these "disingenuously" happy single women out there. Better that they're matched up with losers than pursuing their own lives.)

So, to Gottlieb and all the others who think that us "old" straight gals should go back to the men we once rejected just so we don't end up miserable spinsters: STFU already. That kind of scare tactic nonsense may have worked in the 80s, but we're having none of it.

Full Moon at Chaos Theory has many, many links to article reactions also.

Sarah Schaefer Munoz wrote about the article in The Juggle, a Wall Street Journal blog about juggling work and family. Interesting comments here.

Andrea Smith's piece at the Irish Independent is a realistic take on the topic from a nearly-40 single woman.

Liz Funk is a 19-year-old student at Pace University who gets worried way before her time by articles like Gottlieb's.

Alarmist articles like this have huge repercussions. Although the Atlantic is a really good magazine whose readers are probably all highly intelligent and have a decent sense of news literacy, the fact that the media emphasizes to young women over and over again that there are no guys left and that women over twenty five are about to expire like eggs sitting on the counter on a hot summer day is, in so few words, NOT OKAY.

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites

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