How about this: unless you’re speaking to a person who is literally about to walk down an aisle to an altar at which they will proceed to exchange vows of lifelong love to another human being, don’t tell them they’re “next” to get married.
That’s what a friend of mine’s sister told her recently, and … well, I’ll just tell you what my friend — a single lady — expressed in response: “RUH RUH!?!?!” Because seriously. Nobody’s “next.” There’s not a wedding pecking order. Nobody is the first person to get married, and matrimony isn’t a race wherein some people come in second, third or fourth place.
I’ve seen this kind of light teasing throughout much of my adult life and it always squicks me out a little bit. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, and I never had any siblings to compare myself to; my parents never encouraged me to put a relationship before my career, and they never dropped extreme hints about their friends’ kids getting hitched.
But the “squick” comes less from the comparison to other specific people, and more from the idea that there obviously must be a partner, and an ensuing marriage, in any given person’s future. My friend — we’ll call her Petunia — felt the same way.
“I was kind of bothered by my sister’s presumption that there’s an expectation not only that I’m going to get married, but that people are apparently expecting me to,” she wrote in an e-mail, describing the holiday weekend wherein one of Petunia’s young cousins had found an old cake topper in the attic.
“My sister turned to me and said, ‘I’ll hold onto this for YOU. You’re next!’”
Never mind that the cake topper already had the couple’s name on it, and neither of the two had been christened “Petunia.”
Single people, but especially women, are expected to be in a constant state of partner-search, with all other forms of personal fulfillment considered second best to finding a lifelong mate. Doctorate degrees? Making partner at the firm? Crossing Thailand on foot? Paying off your student loans? It’s all well and good, but aren’t you the saddest person who ever lived, otherwise?
Parenthood is possibly the only social expectation that beats out marriage in the “You’re next!” game, and that I do know something about: the period tracking app that I specifically bought to make sure I don’t get pregnant gets unduly excited when my period is a day late.
ELABORATE FLOWERY DING! my phone chimed at me last week as I was sitting at my desk amid a frenzy of largely unmet deadlines. What the fuck was this elaborate flowery ding? I didn’t have my phone set to ‘geriatric garden party alert,’ did I?
Nope. As I read the alert, my emotions ran precisely counter to the bright, all-caps notification that 28 days had become 29. There was a fucking smiley face. My face? Not smiling. My heart? Racing. My thoughts? “Oh, fuck.”
I’m lucky in that, for the most part, no sentient being gets on my case about kids. But Patrick and I are young yet, and I can imagine that by our mid-30s, we’re going to get some raised eyebrows. And look, I get it — most people do get married, and most people do follow up with babies. I wasn’t pissed at the period tracker app (futility ahoy!), and Petunia wasn’t pissed at her sister. But it’s shitty to be reminded that society has a plan for you, a plan that your current life track might not fit precisely.
“I’m not angry about her comment, per se, but her assumption/expectation did bother me,” wrote Petunia. The thing is, Petunia would like to be partnered, and she does want kids; but she doesn’t want it because just it’s the thing she should do, and she’ll happily wait until it feels right, and accept it if it doesn’t.
“I do want a life partner,” she wrote, “and I do want to have babies at some point, but I don’t want either of those things if they’re not the best choices.”
But the presumption is not just that you’ll get married and pop out babies. It’s that you’ll do it because those things are automatically desirable somehow — more desirable than the alternatives. I don’t think marriage and child-rearing are inherently more attractive life choices than confirmed singlehood or a child-free lifestyle. Are they more common? Sure. I’m not predicting full-tilt revolution here. But I do wonder how many people would choose these things in a society that was open to the idea that people can be truly fulfilled by anything else.
Fact is, we never know what’s keeping other people from marriage, from kids, or even from that highfalutin promotion at work. It’s not only presumptuous to imply that other people want what you want or what you have — it’s cruel.
The infertile guy who’s dying to be a dad? Doesn’t want to be teased about how he better start thinking toward a bigger apartment, tee-hee! The single lady who’s at her wit’s end, wading into the wilds of OKCupid after a shitty breakup? Really should not be asked to explain why she isn’t headed to the altar right this second.
In my case, Aunt Flo’s flight was delayed, but she eventually landed; no angry e-mail to my husband’s urologist required. I’ve since tried to find a period-tracking app that’s primarily concerned with avoiding pregnancy, rather than enabling it — to no avail. I love technology, but on this point, I think a sharpie and an old-fashioned calendar that doesn’t yell at me about babies will do the trick. It’s too bad that social expectations aren’t an iPhone app you can easily delete.