In the run-up to our wedding, Andy said, Well, we can always get divorced. And I nodded, like we were talking about ordering a risky entrée at lunch—we can always send it back. The marriage proposal, the result of an ultimatum, was the grimmest one in the history of the institution. The wife after Anne Boleyn was more psyched for her marriage than I was.
Don’t get me wrong—Andy was a great guy. Here’s how great he was:
When my mother was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, Andy, a nervous driver, rented a car and piloted it through the Holland Tunnel, across 78 and down 81 to West Virginia. He drove to the pharmacy and picked up prescriptions, he ferried us to chemo and bought chicken dinners at the Food Lion. My parents, at that point, were living in a post office (perhaps the subject for another story); he accepted this without comment, perching on a stack of Company Store catalogs behind the wall of mailboxes, forking yams into his mouth. Occasionally a postal customer, retrieving their mail, would peer through the box at Andy on the other side; he’d wave his fork at them.
When my mother had finished the worst of her treatment, Andy and I drove to West Virginia in a rented RV, because there was no room for us to stay in the post office. Some friends came along for a Memorial Day pig roast, at which Andy did not have a particularly good time: He’s a New Yorker, an insomniac; he wants to eat Thai food and see movies at the Film Forum. Pig roasts in West Virginia, camping, even camping in an RV—no.
When the two of us tried to return the RV to the rental place, late at night on Memorial Day, I carefully examined the rental contract and noted that the valves to the sewage tanks had to be left open. No problem, because a nice trucker at the Flying J on 81 had helped us empty the tanks earlier that day.
Andy twisted the valves and gave a strangled scream. I peered through the window. There was a sound of … something … hitting the pavement. Something—you know what it is, but you can’t—you just can’t—that’s not what I think it is—I mean, we emptied the tanks, right? That trucker helped us?
But no. The trucker was in rush, and because we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t know he didn’t complete the job. And now there was a pile—a pile that had originated from nine people over a three-day weekend of pork and beer.
“The tanks are not empty,” Andy ground out, as I peered through the window. I wondered what the schedule of fees had to say about leaving a mountain of raw sewage in the parking lot.
“Well,” Andy said. “Okay.” He retrieved a piece of cardboard from the trunk of our car, maybe three feet by three feet, and tried to lift and fling the mess from the parking lot into a copse of trees.
But a piece of cardboard doesn’t make a good scooper; it’s really more of an icer, like, Andy was using the cardboard to ice the pile across the parking lot like you’d ice a cake. He abandoned that, after a while. He got four plastic bags from the trunk of our car and put the double bags on his hands like gloves. He scooped up handfuls and flung it into the trees.
When another RV and a car pulled into the parking lot, Andy stuck up his hands-in-plastic-bags like a guilty criminal as the headlights swept over us, but either they didn’t notice or didn’t care; they parked their RV near the office, dropped their keys in the drop box and drove away.
Andy never once complained, about the pig roast he hadn’t wanted to go to, the eight-hour drive he hated, the camping, the river of shit.
“Let’s try washing the pavement?” I suggested, and found a hose. It didn’t stretch—we had parked in the furthest possible spot. I found a bucket. We ferried dozens of buckets of water to sluice the blacktop, realizing too late that the lot was on a grade, and the grade sloped gently downhill to the front door of the office.
We wondered what the fee would be for creating a river of filth that ran from the furthest corner of their lot to their front door.
We gave up. We put the keys in the drop box and drove back to our apartment in Brooklyn, where Andy bagged up our clothes and shoes and washed them the next day. He never once complained, about the pig roast he hadn’t wanted to go to, the eight-hour drive he hated, the camping, the river of shit.
This was about the time that Lori Gottlieb wrote “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” (which later became a book) in The Atlantic, exhorting young women to lower their standards for a mate, lest they end up sad and alone. While I wasn’t influenced by that essay specifically, the anxiety of being 33 and unmarried was getting to me. And so I doubled down on what was a fine relationship—we loved each other, he was intelligent and kind, he would clean up sewage without complaining—but not a terrific relationship: He did not want marriage and kids, and didn’t want to give up a precarious artistic life to support them. Still, a fine relationship is better than no relationship. I demanded a proposal.
Our wedding was less fun than the RV thing
It took us five months to set a date, a date to walk to City Hall to stand in front of the—I don’t even know who it was—the clerk? I felt a strange combination of embarrassment and rage, like I’d won a tug of war because the other person let go of the rope and let me fall on my ass in the mud and then stood there with his hands on his hips saying okay, you win.
We got married in May and drove upstate for a two-night honeymoon, an event that had all the romantic thrill of phoning your insurance company after a car accident. We walked around a lake and looked at birds. I remember the details with such brilliant clarity and depressed weight, the slow-motion of going through a trauma, like you might remember with great detail the coffee kiosk in the hospital as you wait for a loved one to die.
It wasn’t great for him either! He hadn’t even wanted to get married and now he had a depressed wife in the car, picking at lint on her coat, head in her hands, feigning great interest in public radio. It was a relief to go back to Brooklyn.
Every generation gets the fear statistics they deserve
Slate recently covered the dearth of eligible (read: employed) bachelors in the United States: 91 men for every 100 women. The comments after the article went along the lines of the comments after the Atlantic article:
“Sorry ladies but it is sexist to expect men to be a provider… Buy it yourself. We can still hang out and bang, at least till your 35 or 40, but I am not picking up the tab.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution linked to the story on their Facebook page. First comment: “Sad. Women looking for a meal ticket rather than a good match and future father. Money isn’t everything.”
An article that is essentially about a lousy economy and a continued job crisis—and how finding a mate who both wants kids and is prepared to support them is somewhat more challenging than it was in 1963—immediately becomes a story about how women suck, amirite?
“Marry Him!” urged women to settle for a lackluster marriage rather than no marriage at all, a directive so depressing that even the author couldn’t do it. Any discussion of settling—any discussion of how women should run their personal lives at all—seems finely calibrated to both freak out and excoriate women ages 33 to 40. (This is, perhaps coincidentally, the moment women enter their peak career years.)
Susan Faludi’s canonical Backlash, published in 1991, noted a constant media “bulletin of despair”: “Single women are grieving from a man shortage. The New York Times reports: Childless women are ‘depressed and confused’ and their ranks are swelling.”
An ultimatum is not the answer
You might win. But it’s like winning the “never-tardy” award at school: For a brief moment you’re proud, until you realize that the other kids were late because they were busy starting very successful Internet companies.
The very existence of the ultimatum meant we were doomed. We should have gotten up one morning, and made our toast, and one of us should have said calmly, you know, we just don’t want the same things, and you should move out. But the thing is, in two thousand mornings of toast, it’s hard to make that toast the day you say goodbye. It’s easier to brush your teeth and go to work.
As much as I would have liked to try a strategy for finding a mate, or followed someone’s instructions, too much of it was just bumbling around and hoping for the best.
The car situation—head in my hands—expanded to include our home life. We sat in silence, not companionable, behind our respective screens. I went down to our car, parked on our deserted warehouse street, and chain-smoked, listening to the Big Band station on the radio. Occasionally I would say to someone, when we went somewhere, “We’re newlyweds!” just to examine the amount of space between their cheerful congratulations and the well of despair and dread I felt.
Two months after our wedding we had the conversation we should have had over toast years earlier. Of course, it was awful: I sobbed and even wailed, furious at my own foolishness, furious at him for not having the nerve to end things before they got to this point, furious at myself for the same. He moved back into his own apartment, which he had not given up in six years, in the space of a day.
Within a couple of weeks, it was like it had never happened. We filed for an annulment. My spirits lifted in a way they hadn’t in years. I contemplated dating, a prospect that filled me, actually, with excitement. I bought new clothes and makeup. My only worry—of course! I was 33!—was that I wouldn’t meet someone “in time” to have a child.
© flickr/JD Hancock
What do the men think about this?
There are a couple of ways that men think about women “settling.” The ugliest is that a woman tricks a “nice guy” into thinking she loves him and lets him support her and her greedy baby dreams. The six years of comments on Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article raise this specter: deceitful trickster women, who see men only as paychecks. The (primarily male) commenters disapprove. The comments on the Slate article concur: The problem is gold-digging women, who won’t marry nice-but-poor guys.
However! The other, not logically consistent, view of settling is that women aren’t worth anything anyway, and they should know it, too. These discussions always rate women on a scale of 1 to 10: the Tens that a man would dream of getting with; the Eights who he thinks are, with a little effort, rightfully his. But it’s the rejection from the Sixes that really make him confused and angry. These Sixes are not the “hot little blondes” they were 25 years ago; they need to be making “more compromises, not less.” These men approve of Gottlieb’s advice of don’t be so picky—because they don’t value women, so why should women value themselves?
In October of that year I met a man at a party whom I really liked the looks of—dark Irish, a musician, a teacher. He chatted with me for a moment and then moved away, and I shrugged. But he refilled his plate and circled back to talk some more. On our fifth date I pointed out that he’d run out of soap, perhaps mildly complaining that I couldn’t wash my hands. On our sixth date there were 90 bars of soap in the bathroom. Within a month he brought up his desire to get married and have children, as soon as possible. So we did just that: married at 35, first kid at 36, second at 39. He makes me laugh every day. We have more fun standing in traffic court than I would in Paris with anyone else.
Having small kids is much harder than I thought it would be, especially without family nearby. Imagine you are Sisyphus, only along with the rock is a toddler who keeps asking why? Giving a bottle to a struggling one-year-old, my husband said, “It’s like you’re in a bar fight, and suddenly the other guy asks you to feed him.” Imagine if your second in this fight, or your cut man in the boxing ring—imagine if you really didn’t like or trust that guy, and you weren’t sure, as you were rolling up your sleeves, that he’d even stick around to tend your wounds. That’s what settling is. You wouldn’t settle for your cut man.
© flickr/beth scupham
I don’t know why I married Andy. I suppose I was settling, but it was a sincere kind of settling—like a frog settles into boiling water. And it was only luck that led me to my current husband. As much as I would have liked to try a strategy for finding a mate, or followed someone’s instructions, too much of it was just bumbling around and hoping for the best.
Directives to women are usually framed as two not-so-hot choices: settle, or be alone forever? (Or, are you an unhappy career woman or a bored housewife? Grim breastfeeder, chained to a pump for a year, or negligent formula-feeder?) Exhortations about marriage are also frequently linked to “biology” and fertility statistics. It ignores that a woman’s reproductive years are actually quite long, that men don’t have much more time than we do, and that women don’t need a male partner to have a family. As the excellent blogger Glosswich writes, the issue isn’t nature, biology, or the female body, it’s a culture that writes off and excludes women.
Will there be women who wanted male partners and biological children and didn’t get them? Of course. There are no guarantees, for anyone. But the cultural trope of the lonely spinster has been used as a boogeyman for too long: There are plenty of ways to have a family besides partnering with a man. Millennials are increasingly uninterested in marriage; perhaps the hard social line between “married” and “single” will blur. And single people have more friends than married people. Perhaps this is the dawn of a new, more flexible era that embraces that life is long, monogamy is difficult, children are inevitable, and human relationships are unpredictable.
The women are all right. It’s the world that’s imperfect. It’s interesting that in all the infinite possibilities that make up “imperfect,” women are apparently singlehandedly responsible for ensuring perfection in the domestic sphere, and bitterly criticized when things go awry: Alone? You should have settled. Your marriage broke up? You settled, you should have known better. Have a baby on your own? Selfish, plus greedy, because you didn’t want to marry someone you’d have to support. Baby too young? Slutty, irresponsible. Baby too old? I feel sorry for your kid, you’ll be dead by the time he’s 25.
It’s no wonder that a woman might feel a little squashed by all the potential wrong turns. I married Andy in a clutch of fear—but once it was done, the permanent barring of real happiness was so much worse than the risk of never marrying. And my current, unexpected, un-strategized-for marriage has brought me a tremendous amount of happiness.
So at the risk of exhorting women to do anything, let me say: It’s not the dearth of men, it’s not biology, it’s not feminism, it’s not the economy. It’s the constraints that will make you miserable. Don’t deliberately shut off possibilities for happiness. Don’t settle.
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