Thursday, August 15, 2013

The long fugue down the aisle towards children

Do you know "Here comes the bride" is styled after a funeral march? It's from one of Wagner's operas (and if you know Wagner, you probably know where this is going) and is played as the bride and groom prepare to consummate the marriage (yes, Here Comes The Bride is actually not what Elsa marches down the aisle to) when the antagonist (spoilers!) bursts in and starts killing a bunch of people. It's also meant as foreshadowing of the bride dying horribly because Wagner.

This is a song that 70% of couples choose as the opening credits to their married life, because it's what you do. No wonder it's even odds on divorce.

There is a script that we are all fed for how our lives will pan out. We'll grow up, go to school, start a career, meet someone, get married, have kids,  pressure them to do the same so we can have grandkids, retire, travel a bit, die.

I think at some point in our lives we all buy into this script, but I think it's a toxic one. It encourages us to define ourselves by our roles (wife, mother, teacher) rather than who we are (Monica with a great sense of humor, a passion for model sail boats, and salsa dancing). It tries to force everyone into one mold, and there is so much social pressure that it's hard not to try.

When I was a teenager, I assumed I probably wouldn't get married, and kids were just not on the radar. This was constantly met with people flat out telling me I was wrong and to "just wait". I was open to the idea of marriage, someday, maybe, but kids? Less likely. This went on, but would eventually die down when I didn't relent, or hide my annoyance at people telling me I was wrong and didn't know my own mind and couldn't possibly know my own mind. People would react so strongly to my rejecting the script that they would start fighting with me about it. When I was a 15 year old girl and admitted that maybe in ten years I'd feel differently, but for now?

Ten years later, I'm getting ready to walk down the aisle myself, but I still don't want kids. Those same people who were picking fights with me at 15 are still doing so at 25. Over my not wanting kids, which I've written about before, wanting to buy a condo in the city instead of a house in the suburbs, keeping my last name... People get nervous when you go off script. They get angry, I would assume (and it is just that, an assumption) that because they bought into it, it is the Right Way and by actively not choosing it, you are telling them they (and their friends and family who bought into it, too) are Wrong.

This is where it starts to get toxic. Little girls are not sold the idea of marriage, we sell them the idea of a wedding. We tell them about this magical day where they get to be a princess and everything is about them and everything will be Just. What. They. Want. It will be the happiest day of their lives! I can not count the amount of people who have told me "It's your wedding! Be more of a diva!" which strikes fear I can not readily articulate into me. We're told that this is part of growing up. If you're in a long term, seemingly happy relationship, it doesn't matter that you're 20*, people will start giving you unsolicited advice to just get married already! If you're 25 and in that position people start asking what's wrong, why haven't you done it yet?

It's hard not to be swayed by it. If it were one or two people spouting this it'd be easy enough to brush aside, but it isn't. It seems to be everyone, and it starts so early. It's hard not to internalize it. So we grow up thinking if we're not married by 25-30 we're doing something wrong. It leads to anxiety and panic and maybe getting married because we feel we're supposed to more than because we want to. It leads to having a hard time being happy for your friends when they get married because you're not yet, or because maybe you legally can't get married. It leads to unrealistic expectations of marriage, because half of us are sold a wedding, not a marriage. Which brings me back to my earlier snark about divorce rates.

Marriage is only one step in this process, though. What about kids fresh out of high school who take on staggering debt to get an education when they're not positive that's what they want because they're still kids, and because that's what they're told to do? What about the shame we push on the kids who don't go to school, or can't?

And what about kids? I've written before about how annoyed I get when people ask and insist I have kids. When people tell me I will never understand what love really means until I have kids (again the assumption that I will) and that it is the greatest thing EVAR and really I'm missing out why have I not insisted The Boy put a baby inside me already? They make some pretty horrible assumptions, and not just assuming I'm incapable of knowing what I want. They assume that I CAN have kids. I'm sick, and I don't know what's wrong with me, it's entirely possible that I physically can't. I'm a cook; I'd be skeptical if I financially could either. What about the women who desperately want to have children but for one of many, many reasons can't? What about adoption? There are a lot of reasons that can't work, either, and we talked about making obvious suggestions and how that's bad before, remember? Are we just pretending these people don't exist? That's a painful enough scenario to be in to start with, I'm not okay with adding to their pain by pretending they don't exist, and by pretending that they will never be complete or whole person until they have a child. It's bullshit, and it's toxic, harmful bullshit.

On the other side of the coin there are people who are married, and maybe things aren't going so well and they figure that they'll have a kid and that will help them through this rough patch. Adding kids to the equation doesn't mean making any major changes which will lead to stress and hardships during the time of transition! Babies are magical, after all, and bring nothing but happiness! What if THAT couple faces infertility? Will they feel their struggling (or failing) marriage is due to their inability to check off the next box on the list? Will they not be real adults until they do? What if they conceive and the child is sick and now they're even more angry and bitter at each other because remember what I said above about major life changes stressing people out?

The narrative, and the enthusiasm we push it with, often leads us into shame, embarrassment, insecurity, corners and dead ends because there is no one size fits all life, or path. Yet we push it on others, and ourselves, because that is what we think we're supposed to do. Asexual? Infertile? Disabled? Impoverished? Gay? Doesn't matter! You can** still have all these things! And if you don't then how will you ever be happy?

I feel I often stop and call for us to simply reject a cultural norm on this blog, but I fear I don't fully credit how huge a thing that can be to do. I mean, we can't just will dinosaurs back into existence, as much as I would also like to call for that. I like to think I've rejected the norm, but now that I've taken one of the Approved Steps I understand how easy it can be to get swept up in enforcing and encouraging the narrative. So what, and how, can we do it? Amber and frogs?

Step 1 is recognizing when we're enforcing it. Asking someone why they don't want to get married (or have kids, or go to college or or or) or telling someone they should seems like a good starting point. These are valid choices, or painful circumstances which are really none of our business either way.

Step 2 is having conversations about the narrative with other people. We need to talk about it, and we need to call people out for trying to push this agenda, and we need to support people resisting it.

Step 3 is to invade the media. Wait, what? I know that some of you are artists, in what ever medium you happen to art in, think about breaking that pattern as often as possible. Don't have your hero settle down with their love interest and live happily ever after! Have them find a different kind of happy ending. Seeing other narratives will help us normalize that there's more than one, which will loosen the stranglehold the current one has on us.

I am not saying that these are bad things to want, for the record. If you want to get married and be a stay at home parent? Power to you and I'm jealous you know what you want out of life! What I am condemning is how we push the idea of marriage/kids so fervently that people feel that these are just things you're supposed to do rather than choices that should have a lot of thought going into them.


*No, really. When I was 20 people were pushing me to just marry my high school sweetheart. Co-workers, relatives, random people I'd get chatting with at bus stops...
**I am not, by the way, saying that you can't still get married have kids etc if you ARE these things, simply that they are very real reasons why you may not want them.


  1. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, too. My dude and I are both 30 now and the older we get the more clear it becomes that kids is something we will never want. We've been together since we were 15, so we've heard the questions about marriage, buying a house, kids, more often than I can count. I do have to say we've never encountered anger or real arguing (maybe it's becoming more accepted in Holland that not following that pattern is a valid life choice), but we have heard the 'just wait' schtick.
    Funny thing is, it doesn't bother me so much. Mostly because I've never cared what other people think of my life choices and am used to them being frowned upon.
    What bothers me is the bigger issue in this: why does nobody realise that people who don't want children or don't know if they want them, shouldn't have them??
    Having kids is a big deal! Bringing a person into this already full world is a big responsibility! You should only do that when you really want to!
    There are too many unhappy kids in this world, too many poor kids, too many abused kids. I wonder if this narrative of 'having kids is just something everybody should do', isn't a huge chunk of the cause of that.

  2. As they used to say back in my day, subvert the dominant paradigm. Especially the whole "Princess" wedding thing. (Note that there is a vast industry trying to sell you the largest wedding they can make you swallow.)

    My wife (OK, we did the expected, but we were in our thirties and really meant it) was talking to a much younger co-worker once, and the co-worker referred to me as "Mr. HerName". My wife said "No, he's HisName. I'm HerName".) But, but, you're married!?! said the co-worker. Sure, said my wife, I kept my name. "You can do that?" said the co-worker, astonished.

    So when we say the dominant paradigm, we mean the dominant paradigm.

  3. I've heard this refrain a lot. I'm 38 and may never be married. On the other hand I do want kids and will probably do the sperm bank thing. You'd think that deliberately waiting until I am emotionally healthy enough to handle the stress of a child and financially stable enough to afford the child would be things to admire. Hahahahaha, nope. At the absolute best, I get a surprised unbelieving response: "Really, by yourself? Without a man? But what about ......?" an so on.

  4. So true! I'm 25 now, but my mother's been pushing me to have children since I was six. (And even then it was "You should get married to BoyWhoLikesYouAndWantsChildren and have babies, because I like babies! Look, this mixed-race baby of the race you are and he is is so cute! Don't you want one?") And in the intervening nearly-two-decades, it hasn't really stopped. Yes, even the random people at bus stops. At least now that I've married someone of a different ethnicity, a large proportion of my relatives have stopped (in the hopes that I'll settle down with someone of the same race and have proper-ethnicity-babies) but you'd think that at some point someone- even if just my gynecologist- would have paid attention to the fact that I will enumerate, at length, about 30 reasons why babies are just not happening (including for health reasons...) People also keep telling me that I'm running out of time, but the time limits on fostering or adopting really aren't as defined as time limits on biologically creating one. (And my husband's the same age- they're not in good faith worrying about him.)
    And he's not much help; he'll keep telling everyone who asks that we'll have them in a few years, while I'm scrambling to tell them "No, please, don't save me the family heirlooms, don't hang on to that crib, please don't start the baby quilts, we're not having kids, it's not happening... no, I'm never having kids, yes, he knows that I never want kids, we've talked about this, it was the first thing I said to him on our very first date, I said "Hi, nice to see you, I hope you don't want kids because the fact that I can't have them and don't want them is a total, utter, and complete dealbreaker that I refuse to compromise on, if you think you might possibly ever want kids you should turn around and walk away now before we get emotionally invested in a relationship..." no, really, if he wanted kids that much he's perfectly free to leave and find someone else who really can have kids..."

    Seriously- I try to make it clear that if the person that I'm talking to wants kids, they're welcome to have them, but because of biological reasons that my highly esteemed gynecologist cannot figure out, I am incapable of having biological kids myself, and since I've wanted to not have kids for the past two decades, it works out rather well for me.

  5. I agree with pretty much all of this, but there is one more... ah, legitimate?... reason that people might ask about marriage, if you've been committed for several years, is because of the rights and benefits that come with it. Obviously it's nobody's business but their own, and there's a huge difference between gently asking because they're concerned about your future, and PUSHING (although at the same time such a very fine line between the two...)
    I can see someone being worried that their friend who doesn't want to bother with actually getting married could then be put in a position where having those rights would have made things much easier/less painful for them.
    However, I totally agree that it's a mistake to focus on the wedding and not the relationship, or the LIFE that happens afterward. And the kind of pushing being described here, which is close to bullying, if not a form of it, is definitely NOT okay.

  6. Things get so ingrained that Sig. Other and I, despite not actually being married, are often referred to as a Mr/Mrs coupling by others, and that gentle attempts to disabuse them of that notion fail horribly. So, despite not being married, we often have to let incorrect assumptions stand because we can't otherwise function in talking and interacting with other people and businesses.

    Thankfully, no pressure about kids from anyone. Perhaps because I can point out that I get plenty of exposure to children already.

  7. I noticed that the Wedding March was just a sped-up version of the Funeral Dirge when I was 11 years old. I didn't (and still don't) know enough about Wagner to realize the connection, but the parallel struck me as unsettling. In Elizabethan English, "to die" was to achieve orgasm. Death/virginity/rape themes are found in many fairytales, most prominently Little Red Riding Hood. Clearly marriage/sex/death have been linked in the great unconscious for quite awhile. Considering the rate of maternal mortality in pre-Medical times and it's not really surprising.

    The modern marriage concept still has a whiff of virginity/death about it tho, especially for women. The brides still wear white and their names are still expected to change from Jill Somebody to Mrs. Joe S. Nobody. Your identity is subsumed into that of the marriage, especially once kids show up. Being "a mom" is held by some as a vocation on par with Holy Orders, complete with some kind of pseudo-authority of your opinions by dint of "I'm a *mom*!" (Disclaimer: not personally a mom.)

    My partner and I are pleased to have a barbeque instead of a church service, but still feel like we need vows & an officiant, despite adhering to no religious or spiritual practices. He is also still not reconciled to my refusal to change my name. I am currently a separate legal and professional identity, and I have no intentions to change that for a partner, even a lifetime one. Even I'm being drawn into old patterns, just for form's sake, like my father "giving me away". I detest the symbolism of it, but feel cruel denying him the chance to walk his only daughter down the aisle.

    Yeah, the "diva" message to brides is out there, full-force, but only if you are a "diva" about the *right kind* of things. "You can have want YOU want!" as long as you want a big, expensive dress, and a big, inedible cake and a nice expensive reception. I've been keeping my head about the Bridal Industry Waters so far, but I've seen all my wedded friends succumb, and then put pressure on me to do likewise: "What do you *mean* you don't want a wedding party? Bridal shower? Head table? Placards, assigned seating, caterers, photographer, DJ?!" I mean I don't want them, thankewverramuch. Cue the "You'll regret it" eyebrows. Not the right kind of divaness At. All.

  8. That was a great post.

  9. I've had a lot of reasons, for a long time now, that I don't want children. I'm only eighteen, but even liking more 'girly' things growing up, I never dreamed of a wedding day or having kids.
    I've warmed up to the idea of getting married, granted, but a very small one. I mean not even family is allowed, only very close friends small one. Children I've never warmed up to. Ever. And it quite bothers me when people say 'just wait and see.' And people who know me bother me even more, because as a twelve year old I proclaimed I would never drink, and they know to this day I don't drink alcohol (I'm actually methylphobic, so that's definitely not changing). So when they say 'you'll change your mind,' it bothers me because they should know I'm not going to.
    Beyond all that, my wishes not being respected, I've had a few people horrified at some of my reasoning. Especially when I say "I don't think I could actually love my child." Which is true; to me, it doesn't matter if I'm blood related to a person or not, if a person has enough about them that I dislike, I do. I can't control it. I've never had anyone get angry or violent with me, but they do act shocked when I say with absolute certainly that I don't think I'd love my child. And I love to remind them, "Which is a good reason why, considering all the children out there who were conceived- either on purpose or by accident- by someone who was possibly being careless and now abuses them. It's better I have no child then not love one, isn't it?"

  10. Just a small point on the whole changing-your-name thing: It is entirely possible to have a "conventional" life (marriage, kids) without changing your name!

    My mother, wonderful wizard that she is, never changed her name when she married my dad. I asked her once about it in high school (because I was starting to consciously notice patriarchal things for the first time and wanted to know why she did something aside from the default), and she said it was never any sort of statement. She had always been a Smith (replace Smith here with a fairly common Jewish name) and didn't feel like changing that just because she got married. Unfortunately, in our rather conservative town, she often gets called Mrs. Mineandmydad'sname, but she's lived here so long she has stopped correcting people. I tell people off about it more than she does. More entertaining (because I'd rather see it as funny) is when people who know her but not my dad assume I'm a Smith.

    I am far too young to say I KNOW any of this for certain, but I believe I want to marry (I feel the need to come out as straight here, sorry. Hello!), spawn offspring, and cooperatively raise said offspring. If I do not marry, it is entirely possible I will do the rest of those things solo. But if I get married, I will certainly keep my name because, aside from it being a statement of independence and feminism, I also do not feel like changing a part of who I am.