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Ester Bloom

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Free to Be ... Me: Why Do Other People's Choices Make Us So Cranky?

Posted: 07/24/2012 3:24 pm

America is suffering from an epidemic. No, it has nothing to do with smoking or obesity; it doesn't even have to do with gun violence.* It has to do with unwonted bitterness and anger toward other people's choices. No one, it seems, can be comfortable with their own decisions without justifying them by judging and/or dismissing other people's. The trend is exemplified by Amy Sohn, who, in her recent Awl piece, cheerfully and smugly skewers everyone she knows, saying "we" just enough to allow her to criticize her community while also making it clear that she's the observant outsider -- the Mark Twain of Park Slope, if you will. ("The stoners came back with smug grins and then talked about how good the pot was, like if they didn't talk about it, it wasn't quite as rebellious. I decided it was time to go home.")

Amy Sohn must be an aberration, though, right? Not these days. Everyone, it seems, now has an ax to grind. This piece in Salon is ostensibly about how being single is a legitimate life path but in actuality drips with scorn for the alternative:

[Married people] aren't going to pathologize you [single people] for playing around for a protracted amount of time, but eventually you're going to have to settle. And the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don't get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern.
Look at that word choice: "Settle," "boredom," "anxiety," "terror," "concern." What a revolutionary attitude toward marriage! Can't the institution just not be for him without being, well, terrible?

Slate recently ran a series about women choosing to be "child-free" that was actually about how gross & exhausting babies are. The highlight was this entry, entitled, "No Kids For Me, Thanks: I Don't Enjoy Alien Parasites":

So now I cheerfully tell anyone who mentions it -- friend, family, co-worker, overly friendly stranger -- that no, thank you, I will not have kids/parasites for reasons that will probably insult you. These include eww, gross, I-have-better-things-to-do-with-my-time, and there-are-7-billion-people-in-the-world-why-add-more. But if I can suffer through your alien ultrasound photo on Facebook or grin at your crying kids without vomiting, then you can be grateful that women like me will always be around to organize an occasional girl's night out and to keep the population in check.

I mean, jeez, "kids/parasites"? "Without vomiting"? For many years, I felt decidedly neutral/negative on the subject of children, and especially on the subject of having them myself, but I never patted myself on the back for not going all Exorcist on someone else's offspring just because they were making an unpleasant noise.

In Amanda Marcotte's entry "Children Make you Happier, If Someone Else Does Most of the Work," Marcotte contributed this gem to the hall of fame: "Not to say people are bad people for having children, but ..."

But! Ha. The putting down of people who do marry and/or have kids is a theme of Marcotte's: See also "The Real Reason More Women Are Childless" and "Two More Reasons to be a Curmudgeonly Childless Marriage Boycotter."

And I refuse to even enter the attachment parenting fray, which has everyone taking up arms against each other on the subject of their choices, except tangentially: in another unhappy man's case, his wife's choice to breastfeed (and breastfeed, and breastfeed ...) upsets him so much that he has taken his complaints to the Gray Lady. Perhaps he means to raise an interesting point about how a mother's breastfeeding can affect a family's dynamic; what he actually does is castigate huge swaths of the population and whine about how his wife's bond with his son has affected his sex life:

So to all nursing moms, except perhaps those who used a lab technician, I say that the foundation of the parent-child bond is the parent-parent bond. Unlike the baby chicken or the fertilized egg conundrum, partnership precedes parenthood. That's how you got into this position to begin with: by attracting a man who liked what he saw, and wanted to see more of what even the scientists researching extended breast-feeding call mammaries, not Mommaries.

How furious would you be if you were this strident fool's wife? I'd probably rather have my husband cheat on me discreetly than slam me in a public forum. Of course, what I'd actually want is for my husband to say to me, "Honey, I totally get that breastfeeding our children serves some important function for both you and them, but can we talk about why he still has your boobs in his mouth? He can't bring them to school in his lunchbox, after all, so it might be time to start weaning him."

Also, of course his conclusion starts, "To all nursing moms." Because sure, why not lump those women in who are struggling with breastfeeding, despite the numerous hurdles, for the suggested minimum 6 months, with women whose founts overflow until the kid is old enough to choose Sunny D from the fridge himself? Our society makes it difficult enough for women to nurse their children without this doofus weighing in that we're grossing out our husbands, too.

Why the overheated self-justification? Why can't we say, "You do what's cool for you, and I'll do what's cool for me?" Why the rancor, which is just guaranteed to get everyone else reaching for their rhetorical Uzis? Isn't it kind of exhausting?

The triggering event for this round up was my seeing, this past Sunday in the New York Times, a bitter troll complaining about how, now that his gay friends can finally get married locally, he's being invited to too many weddings:

Same-sex weddings can also make us wince as stereotypes go on display in mixed company. Exhibit A: lesbians plodding down the aisle to the Judds. ... I'm talking about one bride in a frilly Vera Wang and one in a butch pantsuit. You're a better person than I am if that attire doesn't make your mind wander into areas of their relationship it doesn't belong.

In other words, "Gay people, stop enjoying your long-sought and hard-fought freedoms! They're interfering with my weekend plans. Also, lesbians, would you please just go away? Ironically, though I am wincing at your displays of stereotypes, I am contributing to one of the more vicious stereotypes about gay men myself: that we are shallow, judgmental snobs who hate women and queer women in particular."

A lot of this vitriol can be understood as people getting prickly because they are choosing less conventional paths: specifically not coupling up or not procreating. But is the defensiveness justified? Being single is a fully legitimate life-path, and our society has never been more accepting of it. Record numbers of people live by themselves:

Only 51% of adults today are married, according to census data. And 28% of all households now consist of just one person -- the highest level in U.S. history. That second statistic may appear less dramatic than the first, but it's actually changing much faster: The percentage of Americans living by themselves has doubled since 1960.

Singleness is, increasingly, the (or at least "a") new norm. And single people aren't ostracized. Look at two of the most powerful women of recent times: Condi Rice and Oprah. Not having a spouse doesn't hold them back. We don't burn older, unmarried ladies at the stake for being witches anymore; we appoint them to the Supreme Court.

Besides, our pop culture consistently reinforces the notion that "settling down" is for wimps, marriage is a sexless drag, and the goal is to remain young, hot, and unencumbered forever:

So what if some of your annoying relatives give you a hard time for not making it to the altar yet? That's what annoying relatives are for. If they didn't have your relationship status to needle you about, they'd be on you about your weight  or your mortgage payments or whether you're going to scar your son for life if you do or don't circumcise him.

Friends, this is very simple. If you don't want to go to other people's joyous ceremonies, don't go. If you don't want children, don't have them. If you don't want to get married, great! Save your money for retirement. I'm not judging you, so please do me the courtesy of not judging me. There's no need to for all of us to turn into Katie Roiphe, is there? That's what I thought.

 

*Sidenote: I liked Batman's own statement on the issue of gun violence from within the universe of The Dark Knight Rises: "No guns," he tells Selena Kyle sternly. "No guns, no killing." My own favorite superhero Buffy feels the same way. One could argue that it may be easier for the extremely nimble, powerful, and quick to heal among us to eschew weaponry, but these avengers also live in even more dangerous times and places than we do. Besides, they're still mortal and they face the prospect of dying on a near-daily basis. If they can choose not to pack heat, can't the rest of us?

 

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