I was reading today's Since You Asked... advice column over at Salon.com when I got to thinking about how constructions and expectations surrounding adult behavior have changed in the last 50 or so years. The column, entitled "To breed or not to breed" discussed the plight of a couple, he 41 and she 39, who agreed that they wouldn't have kids when they got married, but, she had a recent change of heart. Now he is wondering what will happen to their marriage and if it can survive.
After finishing the article, I felt odd about it and it took a minute to realize why. Back in some corner of my mind, I looked at the example of my parents and why they got married. To them, being part of a generation born before World War II, the reason you got married was to have children. That was just the way it was done; you reached a certain age and if you weren't married and working on having babies, you risked classifications like "confimed bachelor" and "old maid" that seemed innocent enough, but actually implied that somehow something was wrong with you.
Now, to all those out there who have difficulty with the thought of marriage, I agree that it's a stifling set of expectations. There is one trajectory, toward marriage, a house, and children. And I understand how that seemingly benign set of circumstances (at least benign to some) can seem like hell incarnate based on childhood experience.
At the same time, I find myself thinking about the different sort of lifestyle that has evolved since the mid-20th Century. Perhaps one way to truly mark the development of a life is to examine the major transitions. There is some shallow part of me (as I am sure I have mentioned before) that looks and sees nothing but an extended "Ally McBeal-esque" adolescence -- an almost neurotic search for companionship as one ages combined with a chase after the sweet freedom of youth. This, it seems, is a life without major transitions and more about being forever young and forever childish.
This is not to say that I necessarily eschew the permanently single life. There are more meaningful alternatives to pursue, without a doubt. Instead one can devote a life to career, intellectual discovery, education, or community service; such endevors are not things to be ashamed of.
This last point reminds me of a conversation that I had in the mid-90's with C., a history and engineering dual major I knew then. I was commenting to her about a TV news magazine piece the previous night about women in their 50's who devoted their lives solely to their careers. I thought that C.'s initial reaction to my description of the piece was telling. She pointed out the inequality of piece by noting that it would be completely unworthy of national air time if it wasn't about men. True equality of the sexes, she commented, will mean that (like a man) a woman giving up the chance to have a family and reproduce in favor of her career will not elicit social comment and mean nothing. To this day, I wonder how many women who ardently pursue careers look at it this way. More than once, I have heard a woman say "it's hard to work in this field because I cannot work the necessary hours to get established and eventually have a family" as if the possibility of not having children was a ever real option to her.
(I recognize that one could once say that men never had to deal with the choice; men can have their career and their family, however absent at home they may really be. I think the skyrocketing divorce rate in the 1970's showed how that does not work. No, I think a man has to more carefully take the family vs. career dynamic into account today. Ironically, it is the older, divorced woman who more often realizes that really she has a choice between the two, and pursues a second career without thought to needing with a man again.)
So where does this leave me? I don't know. Surprised that some people consider marriage without children who probably shouldn't? Surprised that other people don't consider marriage without children who should? It's a bit of both really. It's more about social responsibility. When you do a good job raising a child, that's an act of social responsibility. When you write a book, start a company, become a professor, and not get married or not have kids, that's an act of social responsibility. Being single or married just to buy better toys and treat the world as your sand box, well, that just seems likes like playtime. I think a considered life should about more than playtime. It should be about growing up.
on 2003-12-11 at 1:58 p.m.
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