Here we go again! We are in another moment of pondering the benefits of marriage versus those of singlehood, with the all-important corollary question: Should we choose to become parents or go childfree? When I say we, I mean women, of course. As Elissa Strauss, writing for The Week, recently pointed out, these ponderings rarely include men. Why would they? Only one sex needs to choose between having a life and giving it. As for men, their slogan could be “Having It All for Thousands of Years.”
As is frequently the case, this conversation is happening over recently published books. They include Spinster by Kate Bolick and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, an essay collection edited by Meghan Daum. They talk up the decision not to couple up, not to marry, not to have children. You should read these books. They are terrific. But in case you don’t get around to them, let me sum them up: Being alone, being coupled without children—it’s not so bad! In fact, it’s great! You can write, you can drink, you can have fun . . . Why, you can have a life!
It seems like in every decade we endure a spate of books and essays promoting singledom and the childfree life. In the aughts, we saw such books as Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the anthology Maybe Baby. Some authors, most notably Sandra Tsing Loh, have managed to play both sides of the fence. She wrote a celebrated essay in 2009 about the demise of her marriage, and all but accused her married friends of enduring miserable arrangements because they didn’t have the nerve to call it quits. She then turned around and, earlier this year, published a homage to coupledom, claiming that her single friends in their forties and fifties lead lesser, lonelier lives; many of these poor creatures “bond more unapologetically with their animals.”
(By way of disclosure: I have been married for more than two decades, and I have two children whom I manage, in the way of many twenty-first century parents, simultaneously to love to pieces and to complain about mightily, and I have bonded unapologetically with my poodle, whom I insist on referring to publicly as my only daughter. But I digress.)
In fact, Kate Bolick’s Spinster, like Tsing Loh’s work, faces both ways. From the jacket, which shows the gorgeous author sitting on a couch, to the inside, where she details a social and dating whirl befitting a Hollywood ingénue, her book takes great pains to assure us that no, Bolick is not a girl who can’t keep a man’s attention. This book isn’t some elaborate rationalization. No sirree! As Laura Kipnis pointed out at Slate, “She’s a spinster by choice! She could be married in a heartbeat!”
So what could be going on?
As Peggy Orenstein observed several years ago, we live in a half-changed world. We ladies are told we can put our careers and personal fulfillment first, and then discover that we will be judged for our decision to marry and procreate after all. Do you doubt me? Well, take a look at the double standards all around us.
Society celebrates bridezillas, not groomzillas. There are no male equivalents to the eternally popular Harlequin Romance novels, with their romantic happy endings that occur in less than two hundred pages. Women, not men, talk about returning to work after the birth of a child as a sacrifice. The New York Times calls its parenting column Motherlode. And let’s face it: If any male candidate for president has talked about his family as much as Hillary Clinton talked about hers—Clinton’s Twitter profile identifies her as a “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS” before mentioning she was a senator and secretary of state—I am not aware of them. For the record, Marco Rubio’s profile reads, “I am running for President of the United States of America,” Jeb Bush’s says, “43 Governor of the State of Florida,” and Ted Cruz proclaims, “Candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States.” No mention of children or spouses at all.
While it would not be true to say that books celebrating the joys of marriage and parenthood don’t get published, they certainly don’t get the public acclaim and, perhaps most important, the sales numbers of the ones that are discussing the single, childless state. Why would they? People who do the socially approved thing—for whatever reason—don’t need the pep talk.
We will know American society thinks it’s really okay for a woman to be single or childless when the slightly self-defensive tomes promoting and explaining the position cease to attract attention at all. And that will be a good day.