Friday, 4 November 2011

Misfits with Marrieds

Sometimes I get a comment or email from Single women about fitting in with Married women, particularly Married women with children. The Single women feel like misfits, as though the Married Women with Children are the social norm. And maybe Married Women with Children are the social norm, in that office or that parish.

To visualize this I have to squint into hazy memories of the past because my life is full of Single people without children. My parish--well, actually it's not a real parish but the maximum 70 local people who prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass--is full of Single people. Some are university students, some are middle-aged artists or professionals, and some are elderly.

Some are special-needs adults who will never marry. Some are old-fashioned British bachelors who honestly think marriage means being shackled to a madwoman with a rolling pin. Some are widowers or widows. Some are retired schoolteachers or other professionals who never in their long lives married. Most of the Singles of my parish simply aren't eligible.

I sometimes wish B.A. and I had been married in the parish, just for the novelty it would have afforded the congregation. However, there is now a younger married couple, and they provided us with a baptism last year.

Notice I say "A". We have married couples with adult children in the parish, but only one young couple with babies, so far, although there is a father who brings his three children but not his (rumoured Protestant) wife. And thus--hold on to your hats--it is the young married pregnant woman with a baby who is in the minority. And although she is beautiful, intelligent and fun, she is not a regular at the parties held by the middle-aged segment of the parish, sometimes attended by the students, which are fueled by alcohol and often last until 2 AM.

Married women with children are largely cast out of the Single Eden of drink, late-night parties, spontaneous travel and quiet time. Usually they love their children, but sometimes they feel wistful for the old days, especially if the old days involved flirting and clubbing and other things responsible married-women-with-babies do not do. Unless they have a job, their social lives are sharply curtailed and revolve around their husbands and kids. They feel starved for adult conversation, and they wait all day for their husbands to come home and have adult conversations, only to discover that the men have had enough of adult conversation for the day and just want to watch the news in peace.

Married women with babies and jobs do have access to adult conversation. However, they are also stressed out of their minds, possibly because their bodies (and babies) are telling them that this sucks and they ought to be home with the babies. And thus, they need to complain to other women (which is the one of women's natural ways of coping with stress: men have "fight or flight"; we have "fight, flight or b*tch") who might understand what they are going through. This means other married women with babies.

I spent a year or so in a female-dominated government office. It was a dull job, although I was grateful for the pay, and I soon applied to go to graduate school. Graduate school, incidentally, is full of Single women or married, childless women. In many a graduate department, you are not made to feel bad for not having children. You are made to feel bad for wanting children. Still, here I was in this mostly-boring office,greeting disabled welfare recipients (some of whom were disabled because they were addicted to crack, poor things) and working in the file room with women without deep intellectual interests but with children. But I did not feel like a misfit.

I did not feel like a misfit in part because, admittedly, I had a boyfriend. And I did not feel like a misfit because I had friends outside of work, most of whom were Single themselves. And I did not feel like a misfit because I was more-or-less comfortable with who I was and with my own life, a life unlike that of the women in the office. And I did not feel like a misfit because, even though they talked about recipes and their children, I could enter easily into those conversations. The children (teenagers) were interesting, and the recipes good.

When I first started working in offices, I was a big fat--well, thin, actually, a small thin intellectual snob. This showed up on my face, so as you can imagine I was not very popular with the not-so-intellectual women, just like in elementary school. However, by the time I was in this government office, I had learned that not-so-intellectual women had a lot to offer me.

One woman in this office, who had dropped out of school under the legal age, taught me a lot about kindness, and she was an absolute genius at calming down crazy people off their meds. Another woman, a C&E Catholic, challenged my then-dodgy theology; to my shock, I realized that she had looked up to me in matters Catholic and that I had disappointed her. Another woman entertained me with stories about Poland; all the brides in her village rented the same wedding dress from the same shop. Another woman, who had had servants in India, showed her cultural vulnerability by refusing to help the rest of us carry boxes. It would have broken her heart to move boxes, but the other women assumed she thought she was better than the rest of us, and that is fatal in female-dominated work environments, as you no doubt know.

The point to all this verbiage about my old office is that it is never a matter of a Single woman in the abstract trying to get along with Married-women-with-children in the abstract. We live our life in concrete circumstances, with concrete individuals, all of whom are different. Meanwhile, some Married-women-with-children envy Single-women-without-children as much or more than they occasionally pity you, and if they pity you out loud it says more about the Married-women-with-children than about you Single childless girls.

There are also environments where Single women, or partnered-women-without-children, are the norm. It is quite normal for a woman of any age in my parish to be Single. It was quite normal for women in both my Canadian and American theology classes to be Single, and of course most of the men were unmarried too (but usually priests, religious, or with SSA).

My advice on how to handle situations where Single you are surrounded by Married-Women-With-Children all day is, firstly, to see the women as people other than Married-With-Children and, when it is possible, engage them in conversation about shared interests and to actually listen to what they say.

Secondly, it is crucially important to have interests outside this environment of Married women. Some Married women will be interested to hear about your Single adventures and opportunities, whereas others will voice their panicked feelings that they are missing out on Life by telling you how lucky (or selfish) you are. Do see the value in the opportunities you have as a Single woman.

Thirdly, if you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Some office and school environments are simply toxic, and the majority vent their frustrations on the minority, particularly the minority that seems unfriendly, like the poor formerly-rich Indian lady who wouldn't carry boxes. If you are that unhappy, leave when you can, and learn from past experiences how better to get along with office mates. (NB If the problem is that everyone is discussing their sex life, then have a word with your manager. You don't have to work in in a hyper-sexualized environment, and if people mock you for not being sexually active, this is a form of sexual harrassment. Sex does not belong in the office.)

Fourthly, there is a growing awareness in the Church that Single people are being neglected. I'm not the only Catholic writing and talking to and about Single Catholics. Keep looking for resources for Single Catholics and don't lose heart. The Catechism states that unmarried people are "particularly close to Jesus' heart".


Lena said...

Thank you for addressing this topic.

I wish I were young . . . well, not really. I had way more angst as a young woman.

MaryJane said...

It is interesting to me that your experience is so profoundly different than my own, since every one of my female friends, sans one, is married (and/or) with babies. I have managed it alright (it's been that way since graduating from high school!), but my other single friend has had some truly rude comments made to her, as though she were some kind of idiot: "oh, of course you wouldn't understand, you don't have children." Did I mention she is an elementary school teacher and knows children quite well?

All of this is to say that although my experience is manageable, I imagine many others have had to deal with what my friend has experienced, and on a single women's retreat, it might help to address this problem.

(I agree that one should try to find other single friends, but this can be difficult in very Catholic environments where most people are either single but terribly young - just out of college - or married before the age of 25.)

Domestic Diva said...

I second Mary Jane. Like her friend, I've had many comments made to me about how I wouldn't understand because I don't have children, how I don't have any real problems since I don't have children, and (if some good fortune befalls me) what a lovely life I have since I don't have children. It took me years to realize that such comments indicated how miserable these (rude) people were, but for a long time I felt very much like a second-class citizen because I don't have children. (If only people knew how painful childlessness is, and how quickly I would have traded my good fortune for a child!)

Also, I too am in an environment where singles don't have the same values as I do, and see their singleness as a time to be selfish, party, sleep around. Married people share my interests & values, but the unthinking comments can really hurt.

Seraphic said...

Yes, I bet they do. And I imagine I would be in for some of the hurt, too, since I don't have any children. But I don't work in an office, either.

Focusing on how much women with children hurt our feelings is not a cure for the hurt. Whereas it can be a relief to say to other women, "Married Women With Children---ARRRRRRGH!" it isn't going to get you through the day.

What helps get you through the days is focusing on what is positive about your own life and training yourself not to mind what thoughtless people say. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop you from saying, at an opportune moment, "I wish you wouldn't say that. It is a source of great pain to me that I don't have children."

I married at 38, and by then most of my female friends were in their early and mid-twenties. I had a 25 year old's lifestyle, so it shouldn't be surprising that my friends were so much younger than me.

When I married, I left all my Canadian and American friends behind. As a result, I have only three female friends that I see regularly; mostly I socialize with my husband's friends. One woman is a generation older than me, another is married with children and another is Single: they are both younger than me, one significantly.

I mention this to suggest that no Single (or indeed Married) woman limit herself to being friends only with women her own age. That's more-or-less normal in college, but that's not what adult life looks like. People tend to spend their time with people who have the same job or lifestyle. This becomes much more important than age.

Seraphic said...

By the way, anyone who says "YOU don't understand because YOU don't have CHILDREN" is not exactly an advertisement for marriage-and-mommydom.

In fact it is so offensive that it might be worthwhile to say to someone who says that, if you can bear it, "I'm sorry. Did I say something offensive?"--just to check. It might very well be that the unhappy woman is at the end of her rope and that somehow something you said or did pushed her over the edge into spite.

Single life (and childlessness and aging) means a lot of forgiving of others' thoughtlessness--although that is hard Hard HARD--because sometimes the only other alternative is chewing out your own liver, metaphorically speaking.

As a rule, Married people forget how much it sucks to be Single and Single people don't understand how much it can suck to be Married, even happily married with kids.

And the interesting thing is that Single people are freer to complain about being Single than Married people are to complain about being Married. Out of loyalty to each other, Married people having a bad marriage day generally have to keep their mouths shut.

theobromophile said...

I second Mary Jane. Like her friend, I've had many comments made to me about how I wouldn't understand because I don't have children, how I don't have any real problems since I don't have children, and (if some good fortune befalls me) what a lovely life I have since I don't have children.

I get some of that, too - even from people who remember that I spent a lot of my high school years babysitting my infant siblings. No, babysitting siblings isn't the same as having kids of your own, but I "get" much more of it than they ever did before giving birth. Not my fault that mommydom is such a shock to their systems.

As for being uncomfortable as a Single woman: that happens mostly at the weddings, events, benefits, fundraisers, etc. that I attend on a semi-regular basis. A lot of those are structured around a couple, whether it be the dancing at the end or the seating that always goes in pairs. It's much nicer to go with a boyfriend (well, never taken a date to a wedding, but I have to everything else) than to meander about by oneself amidst a sea of couples - old couples with grandchildren, young couples who got a babysitter for the night, young couples without kids, engaged couples, couples with teenagers. And you, without anyone.

Seraphic said...

That is most definitely how it looks when you are Single. And I sympathize with that because been there, felt that.

It's not until you are Married and wondering who the Single people are that you notice the widowed granny or hear about the cousin whose boyfriend hasn't proposed after six years of dating or the pal who hasn't seen her husband in months because he's on an oil rig or see the married uncle dancing too close with his favourite divorced cousin while his wife drinks too much and laughs too loudly.

Salixbabylonica said...

This is a very sensitive subject and I would never wish to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I’ll just start off by saying: Seraphic, if you think this won’t contribute to a charitable discussion, please delete my comment.

But I do wish to say that I am very disturbed by the harsh interpretation being placed on the comments by mothers-with-children: “thoughtless,” “rude,” “miserable,” “spite[ful].” There is a great sense of hurt conveyed by some of the previous commenters, hurt that I believe these mothers’ comments were never meant to inflict. Isn’t it a wise Christian practice to try and assume good intentions in other people’s speech? It seems that applying that here would deprive these comments of much of their power to wound, since I don’t believe that these women were trying to put anyone down or insult anyone.

Maybe they were being condescending. Maybe they were being dismissive. It is possible. But maybe they were just trying to express, albeit in a clumsy way, a truth. Maybe they were just saying it because it was true for them, true for the mothers in their acquaintance, and will very likely be true for you if God blesses you with a child.

It sure was for me. I can look back at what I thought before I had my child and marvel at myself. I had no idea what it would be really like. And, yes, I had been around children, had babysat, had beloved nieces and nephews and I can tell you that other people’s children were nothing like my child.

What is so insulting and unconscionable about saying that there are some experiences that you can’t fully understand until you have experienced them? One of the major themes of this blog is facing reality. Well, it’s just part of reality that there are some things we have to experience to understand. Did any of you understand what it was like to be in love before you fell in love for the first time? I didn’t. How could I? Why would an enormously transformative experience like having a child be any different?

Marta said...

Very interesting post and comments. I feel both comforted and freaked out. Regarding the freak outs:

Shouldn't that read "As a rule, Married people forget how much it can suck to be single? After all, we read Auntie Seraphic in order to help become Seraphic about our state!

I married at 38, and by then most of my female friends were in their early and mid-twenties. I had a 25 year old's lifestyle, so it shouldn't be surprising that my friends were so much younger than me.

Did you find these friendships fulfilling? I want to know, because one of my greatest worries is that I will end up with no single female friends my age when I'm, say, 38. I assume the married ones with children won't have as much time and energy for me, being that their emotional needs are taken care of. I guess I'm pretty horrified at the thought of a lifetime of loneliness.

Mrs Doyle said...

I wonder why any of our social conundrums should revolve around marital status? Was it always this way?

I have a theory that we create much of this angst ourselves by thinking of ourselves as being part of a camp - I'm single - I'm married etc... and maybe that's fed by a mixture of the secular outlook and the vocational angst.

For instance, I know some of my friends (single and married with children) who HATE being invited to BBQ's (where all the people are mostly Catholic etc..) where all the women congregate in one corner (usually inside) while all the men hang around outside around the BBQ, and the women are forced to talk about nappies and babies and mum stuff when most of them just want a good old gossip and normal adult talk.
I'm not sure what the men think about their group, but I'm pretty sure there would be some who wouldn't be keen on talking about the latest screwdriver set (is that what men talk about? I have no idea - because I'd be in the house!!!!).

Why don't we all start thinking of ourselves are our own people - after all, those who are married don't stop being Jill when she marries Jack Sprat. She doesn't lose Jill and become Mrs Sprat. Jill likes all the same stuff she did before she got married and so does Jack. Why do we only see labels? Why do we seem to project our singleness or marriedness onto other people and confine our conversation to talking 'shop'?

I don't get it!

Mustard Seed said...

Well I think that although a person is still him/herself regardless of whether they just got married/divorced/widowed/etc., their life does change, and the relationship you have with that person will usually change, even if it's just logistically. One of my closest friends got married this summer, and I was thrilled for her because she married a great guy who truly loves her. I was her maid of honor in the wedding. But it changes things. Vacations, spur-of-the-moment drinks after work, celebrating holidays together - all these are things that we shared before and are now changed (though not necessarily 100% gone) because one of us got married. That's ok, and we knew it would happen. Marrying and having kids causes your priorities and duties to change. But if I were feeling especially bummed/worried about my single status (thankfully I'm not), and all of my friends were taking that next step into marriage but I wasn't dating anyone, I can see how this might cause some loneliness and anxiety. I have at times worried about being "left behind" by the friends who are such a huge part of my life as a single woman. Does it have a lot to do with how you look at it? Absolutely. Is it understandable that a single woman could feel that way? Sure, I think so.

About going to weddings alone - I brought a gal pal to a friend's wedding a few years ago, and we had a blast. I had someone to dance with for the fast songs, chat with during the slow songs, and it was way more fun than it would have been to attend alone. Before inviting her, I worried for about two minutes that people would think we were lesbians, but we're not, and who cares anyway. So I would recommend considering inviting a female friend.

One question - for those who have married and/or had kids, what is so different about it than you had imagined? I think I'm pretty realistic about things but I'm just curious after reading some of these comments. I know that having a husband/kids to care for would be substantially different than just caring for myself, so I'm enjoying having this single time to do my own thing while I can. Because God willing, if I do have a family someday, I would not become single again for a very long time, if ever.

MaryJane said...

Interesting comments. Seraphic, it is kind of true that married people get to complain less. I will try to keep that in mind.

Salixbabylonica, I agree that we should have a spirit of Christian charity in interpreting others' remarks, and often the way we hear them comes from our own perception of being in a certain "camp" - in this case, the single one. However, in my friend's situation, the comment was thoughtless at best. Of course we don't know about an experience in the same way until we've had it. But what I'm talking about are situations in which the single woman would LOVE to be married and have babies, and the married women seem to forget this. So if I were around people who were longing to travel, but simply couldn't b/c of circumstances out of their control, it would be terribly rude of me to say, "oh, well, you've never been to Paris, so you simply can't understand." Probably true, but hurtful nonetheless.

Mrs. Doyle, I completely agree! I happen to be a single who is happy talking about nap times and pacifiers, which is why I fit in with the women in the house at the BBQ, but many women don't. I have a married friend w/ no children - she's an attorney, and she can always be found with the men by the grill talking shop with the other attorneys instead of the wives.

It's lovely to have women-only time, but sometimes we do forget ourselves as individual persons! Interestingly, I've noticed that this is less the case with older married couples. The ones who have grown or almost-grown children are much more versatile in conversation.

Little Mary said...

To the marrieds, it is a shock when you have the first round of friends marrying off and family-ing. I wasn't prepared that the change in my friend's lives with also cause a dramatic change in my life.

In my experience, a lot of the hurt feelings I have had have been less about my what my paired and child-ed friends say and do, and more about me mourning that I have less in common with them then I used to, and that they don't have as much time as they used to.

I have had a lot of blessings in claiming my single life (which I would love to be able to give up for the right man) and meeting new folks in more similar seasons of life (energetic empty nesters are fun and wise!). It is still hard trying to figure out how much time and effort to spend on older friends who I have less in common with and how much on newer friends...

Seraphic said...

The comments are so great, I'm taking the brakes off the comments' box for a bit!

Salixbabylonica said...

Mustard Seed,

To answer your question, marriage was pretty much as advertised, at least for me. The surprising things about motherhood are about feelings, not facts. You can educate yourself pretty well about what babies are like and the mechanics of taking care of them, but you can't prepare yourself for what it feels like. I mean, I felt like saying, "why didn't anybody tell me I would love him so much?" But of course everybody did tell me: there's nothing more cliche than a mother's love! Yet it still felt like a shocking revelation because the depth, the intensity, the immediacy of the emotion is impossible to describe. That and how much motherhood changes you. Words fail me.

(P.S. I really admire your ability and willingness to enjoy the good things about being single now. It's a particularly annoying irony that now I would be able to enjoy being single. Instead, I'm left looking back at all those years of fretting about the future and failing to enjoy the present. What a silly waste!)

theobromophile said...

That is most definitely how it looks when you are Single. And I sympathize with that because been there, felt that.

Feelings imply something that is not necessarily reality. But when you are, for ten straight weddings and sit-down fundraisers, the only Single person at your assigned table, that's not "feeling" like you're one of the few lone Singles hanging around - that's mathematical reality.

While there are obviously other Singles (and widows and widowers) around, they make up a very tiny fraction of many of these groups. Now, maybe it makes more sense if I point out that a lot of my friends are from the more traditional, earlier-marrying South, and the others are from the pro-life and family values groups that I'm involved with... and, inexplicably ;) family-values people are more likely to be married than graduate students.

Mustard Seed said...

@Salix, thanks for the insight! It was very interesting. I appreciate your kind words, though I gotta admit I've done my share of fretting too. Maybe it's inevitable when you want something really badly and don't know if you're going to get it. But there's hope, at least.