With this post and yesterday's I'm worried I might be in danger of being suspected of closet feminism.
I've said it before. I'm not a feminist. I barely count as halfway enlightened. I am often quite cheerfully sexist. But I'm also a devout democrat. Note the small d. That makes me a you-ist. I tend to take people on their own terms. If we were to meet I'd deal with you as you and I'd cheer you on in the job of you being you, as long as that job doesn't include hurting other people. Consequently I often appear to be acting and speaking and writing in ways that can be misconstrued as feminist or at least sympathetic to feminist goals and thought. But trust me, you can't trust me.
So when I tell you that this article, Marry Him, by Lori Gottlieb in the latest Atlantic caused me to hurl the magazine across the room in disgust I want you to believe that I'm not trying to pass myself off as some sort of sensitive post-gender male fellow traveler to the Cause. Western Blogtopia (TM Skippy) is full up to the back teeth with such types and I can point you to their blogs if you're looking for someone to do your dishes. Here it's just insensitive, old-fashioned, sexist me.
And I don't want you thinking that I was disgusted by any implicit sexism in the article---though I don't much care for its anti-you-ism which is here, as it often is, really a form of You should be like what I tell you to be like and nevermind what I am-ism.
What ticked me off was Gottlieb's, possibly unconscious, propagandizing on behalf of perpetually adolescent men and her advocation of marriage as an economical form of ensured quality day-care.
Gottlieb is a single-mother who has come to regret her singleness. The father of her son is an anonymous sperm donor not, she informs us with a sigh of exasperation at her own short-sightedness, one of the several boyfriends she might have married but dumped because she thought they just weren't good enough and she refused to settle.
Guess what her advice is to young women who may be considering following in her footsteps and starting families all on their own.
That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, 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. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)
Gottlieb thinks husbands are essential to child-rearing but not for any old-fashioned crypto-patriarchal "A child needs the example of a good strong man" reasons. She advocates marrying and settling on purely practical grounds.
Husbands are a cheap and convenient way to get yourself a live-in nanny.
The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?
Before I start unpacking this, I have to say that to a degree I agree with Gottlieb on this point. I think it's a good idea to have help when you set out to have and raise kids. Child-rearing is a fifteen-person job (It really does take a village) that we've downsized to four, two parents, the kid's teacher, and whatever sort of babysitter the parents can afford. Further downsizing it to one parent usually means downsizing the whole job to two and a quarter, because for most single-parents, who are mostly single-mothers, good and reliable babysitters are out of their price range, and thus increases the burdens exponentially.
Let's ignore for now, because Gottlieb ignores it, the fact that most single-mothers aren't single because they refused to settle but because the guy they settled on has removed himself from the picture.
It's not the marry first part of Gottlieb's argument I don't like. It's the settling part.
First off, this idea, that a nice, decent guy who will take out the trash, play with the kids, and give you twenty-minutes alone from time to time is so worth settling on that you should overlook his minor flaws and eccentricities and put-up with his essential boorishness, is advancing the cause that's the theme of countless beer commercials, far too many sitcoms, and movies like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin (but not of Superbad, which I've seen lumped in with the first two. It doesn't deserve that, but that's another post), which is this:
Nice, decent guys (nice and decent being defined as ME) deserve to get laid by any woman they lust after as a reward for their niceness and decency and nevermind the fact that these nice, decent guys act like oversized twelve year old boys who never learned manners, good grooming, or otherwise how to conduct themselves like responsible adults.
Basically the argument here is the same as Gottlieb's, babes should learn to settle. Gottlieb doesn't and wouldn't use the term babes, but she seems to assume that all the young women she's advising are intelligent, vibrant, talented, successful, sexy, and otherwise wonderful, because nowhere does she sincerely suggest that while they're settling for some guy the guy might be settling for her. He's getting the better end of the deal every time. It would be one thing if Gottlieb was giving young women the advice Rosalind gives the heartbreaking shepherdess Phebe in As You Like It, "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets." But she isn't. She's saying take what you can get, even if you know you deserve better, because better just isn't likely to come along. Gottlieb doesn't like it that it's most often the woman who has to do the settling but she accepts it as if it's an unalterable fact of life, so it's the same idea: Great women should be happy to take up with less than great men.
She doesn't seem to realize that the reason this unfairness might seem unalterable is that many men don't see why they should have to alter themselves and that she's just given them one more reason not to see it.
As for Gottlieb's arguments for settling and her extremely pragmatic view of marriage, I feel I first have to remind you that I am not a romantic with any starry-eyed ideas about love and marriage. In fact, when it comes to marriage, there are days when I feel like the P.G. Wodehouse character who declared, "Marriage isn't a means of preserving love, sir. It merely mummifies the corpse."
But I just can't let Gottlieb get away with advocating settling and not marrying for love on the grounds that the daily grind of raising kids and running a household take the "zing" out of any relationship. True enough. But if two people who love each other and have decided to spend the rest of their lives together because they want to be with each other not just because they need cheap live-in babysitting grow weary and irritable with each other over things like paying the bills and cleaning up after a sick kid and arguing over whether or not to order take-out or make sandwiches because both partners are too tired to make dinner, what's going to happen between two people who don't especially care for each other?
It may be that too many of us, men as well as women, only think we have to settle because we have a too romantic view of either ourselves or of life. It may be that we get in our own way and prevent ourselves from falling in love with the real person at hand, Mr or Miss Good Enough, because we're too obsessed with finding Mr or Miss Not Just Right But Perfect.
I don't know.
I do know that love is essential to a marriage. It's essential to raising children. Children don't just need to be loved. They take it for granted anyway when they are. They need to see people loving and caring for others in order to understand what it means, how it works, how to do it. Watching a couple of respectful partners who've settled on each other passing them back and forth on schedule teaches them that they are either burdens or that other people are there just to be utilized.
This is why I am not a believer in staying together for the sake of the children. I am in favor of staying in love for the sake of the children, which is an idea that deserves some more thought, on my part. It's better that children move back and forth between loving step-parents than staying put with unloving parents.
Love is the most important thing, the first requirement, and to support this I will quote from scripture. My scripture, The Book of Cheers.
There's an episode from the tenth season when Sam and Rebecca are trying to have a baby together. It's the last episode of that misguided story arc, in fact, when they realize that they are making a mistake because they don't love each other. Sam comes to this realization first but he's reluctant to accept it. He wants to be a father. But he wants his kids to grow up happy and secure and he's afraid that won't happen if he doesn't love their mother. Then he meets a man, the father of two boys, who has been married for a long time. Sam doesn't flat out ask him if it's possible for two people who don't love each other to be happy together. He asks what's the most important quality for a successful marriage. The man doesn't hesitate.
"Love," he says.
Sam looks dismayed. He tries to suggest there might be other more important things. "What about companionship? What about a sense of humor?"
The man makes a scoffing noise. "A sense of humor, what's that? Look at Martin and Lewis. They had a sense of humor. Were they happy?"
Sam reacts as if this is the most profound insight in the world. "No."
The man insists that love is what's most important.
Sam says, "So you and your wife really love each other?"
"Nah," the man says, "We can't stand each other. It's been twenty years of living hell for me."
We hear the man's bratty kids squabbling in the background and yelling insults and taunts at him. The man looks at Sam sheepishly.
The man says, "On good days, I pray for death."
Usual offer here. Gottlieb's article is available online but I can't tell if it's only for subscribers. If it is, I'll be glad to email you a copy if you drop me a note.