Hello, 1950! Click on the title of this post, and rewind about half a century to Lori Gottlieb's take on why women are better off in loveless, kidcentric marriages than raising their mini-me's alone or--horror of horrors--enjoying a peaceful, child-free existence.
Even The Atlantic.com, in which the article appears, seems to know this is a crock and accompanies the story with a comic strip spoof of a June Cleaver-esque beauty rehearsing her "settling" speech: "So, you're not Mr. Perfect...But marriage means more to me than love ever could!" Wink wink. Nudge nudge.
Unfortunately, Gottlieb is all too serious about regretting the Mr. Wrongs she passed up in her thirties to become an overworked single mom (by sperm donor) whose only choice now is to marry a "recovering alcoholic" or a "trying-to-make-it-in-his-40s actor" or face the prospect of that downhill road to retirement alone. According to her, it would've been better to settle for that cake icing kinda guy--sweet but bland--who would occasionally relieve her of parenting duties in the middle of the night or at least send a child support check. After all, she reasons, "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." And if you're pragmatic enough to marry a good provider, you'll never have to see him anyway. In other words, set your sights low and you won't be disappointed.
There's a nugget of truth at the bottom of Gottlieb's bitter draft, but like that elusive diamond ring she's not getting, you have to wait for it. In the meantime, you'll plow through age-old arguments with age-old flaws.
Gottlieb's first failure is that she equates the 24/7 drudge job of an unmarried mom with the untethered life of a childless single woman. The core of her dissatisfaction seems to be that she's saddled herself with full responsibility for childrearing. Parenting a child is costly, hard work, and if the biology of reproduction, which demands two partners, is any indication, Mother Nature didn't intend for it to be done alone. If Gottlieb is desperate for a hunter/warrior to be her right-hand man, it's not hard to understand why. But recommending the same choice to a childless woman, who isn't under the same pressure, is unnecessary and irresponsible.
Of course, Gottlieb assumes that all women do indeed want to become mothers, and if they don't, they're either "in denial" or "lying," an assertion that would come as a shock, I think, to all the women who've chosen not to have children. Households with kids are now in the minority and falling, and whether or not that's a good turn of events for the future of our country, it indicates that not everyone is as eager as Gottlieb to knit booties and change diapers.
But let's say you are a single who dreams of your very own Beave and Wally and an impeccably dressed Ward or June to complement them. If you choose a Ward or June you don't dig, do you really think Wally and the Beave won't pick up on the vibes of disregard, disrespect, and ultimately hostility that will zing back and forth between you in place of loving winks and caresses? What expectations will that kind of environment establish for them in their own relationships? Maybe Gottlieb couldn't be happier if all children were disabused of any foolish notions of love and warned right upfront, as her mother apparently warned her, that they should settle as soon as possible. That would certainly improve quality of life for the coming generations.
Gottlieb also neglects to invent a Plan B in case of an emergency like, say, divorce. While she contends that her married friends "wouldn’t trade places with me for a second, no matter how dull their marriages might be or how desperately they might long for a different husband," will that hold true for the next 10, 15, 20 years? "They, like me," Gottlieb says, "would rather feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone." It would be interesting to follow up with Gottlieb's unhappily married friends and find out if their marriages are still intact after the last child is off to college and mama has gone back to work. The fear of loneliness is a powerful force locking many people in otherwise unbearable partnerships, but it's amazing how, when they throw off the chains, so many divorcees maintain that they're happier single than they ever were married to the wrong person. Maybe when Gottlieb has been trapped in the corpse of a relationship that's been drained of all warmth and affection, we can take her claim of preference for that state more seriously.
The hard truth is that Americans now spend half their adult lives single, whether by delayed marriage, the divorce or death of a spouse, or the decision not to marry at all. Mated pairings are as transient as singlehood, and you are still the only constant in your own life. Gottlieb refers repeatedly to the black-and-white choice between living with your second-best and dying alone, never acknowledging that the latter is a distinct possibility regardless. More importantly, she fails to understand that the greater tragedy may be all those years spent living your life for someone else. And not for nothing, it's laughable and rather insulting to imply that women of a certain age will be unanimously passed over for "someone younger with whom [men] can have their own biological children" when plenty of older men either don't want children or had them in marital round one.
However, you may remember that I promised you a hidden treasure in Gottlieb's argument, and here it is: She's right on the money about the gender divide that forces women to settle more often than men. The article spends three pages making the case that women are too picky but then concludes that men are no better; the problem is that men have the leeway to be choosy, while women don't:
"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."
Gottlieb portrays women as blindly pursuing some imaginary ideal, forever seeking Superman and forever unsatisfied when she can't find him. I'd like to suggest that she usually does find him--some man who, with all his faults and foibles, is still Superman to her--but that he doesn't want her.
I don't like to dredge up details of my personal life, but I will share this: Three times in my life I've met men who were exactly what I wanted. Yes, they had their flaws. I wasn't denying or minimizing them. But they had all the traits that I would ever need to be happy with a man and, as far as I knew, none of those that would have prevented me from happiness. Yet, in all three cases, those men did not choose me.
Most of the women I know who are single--heck, most of the men, too--have indeed met several people they loved or could have, but those people, for one reason or another, did not choose them back. Now, having tasted that love, most singles are loathe to sentence themselves to a life without it. So they go on searching for a duplicate of that high they got before. The problem is that women have a deadline for their search. Men (at least in their minds) do not, so many of them go on searching for the one who can wear the glass slipper long after the biological clock strikes twelve for women.
So the dilemma remains, and people like Gottlieb claim it can be solved by settling. Personally, going through the motions of a marriage when my heart wasn't in it would require acting chops I don't have, and despite the quotes Gottlieb trots out, no man I've ever dated seriously would've been happy in a cold, stale relationship.
Apparently, even Gottlieb can't buy what she's saying. "Much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it," she confesses.
Neither can we.
What do you think about "settling"? Would you marry someone you weren't in love with if they had other good qualities or if you wanted to start a family?
Fun Link of the Day