Going to church has become something of a fraught experience in the last year, and not for the reasons people might think. It’s got nothing to do with God or doubts about my faith. It’s got everything to do with the fact that, after years of being happily single, I am now happily in a relationship, and I am discovering that, as Caitlan Moran writes in her book How to Be A Woman, “For some reason, the world really wants to know when women are having children.” I would add that the world also really wants to know when women are going to get married and how their romantic relationships are going, as if their lives have become an ongoing rom-com and the world is its eager, popcorn-eating audience.
I’ve encountered this as a single woman plenty of times, but what I hadn’t realized is that it gets even worse once you’ve been dating someone long enough for it to be considered, you know, a relationship. A few months into mine, a woman I typically speak to about twice a year strode up to me and breathlessly asked, “Are you still dating X?” “Um, yeah,” I replied, unsure of how to interpret her abrupt intensity. “Oh, good! I mean, I haven’t seen you two together in a while, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear! I hope Katherine hasn’t broken X’s heart!'” At which point she laughed like it was all jolly good fun while I wrestled with the implication that I would obviously be the one to end the relationship and break hearts. Granted, X has been through some tragic stuff that the entire church knows about, so there are some pretty high hopes for his happiness and general well-being (no pressure there!), which I get, but still.
About the time X and I hit the year mark of dating, I was coming out of the bathroom at church and ran into a woman I hadn’t spoken to in months. I asked how she was doing, she talked some about her kids, and pretty much the next question out of her mouth was, “Are you and X are still dating?” When I confirmed that we were, she asked, “So are you guys talking about marriage?”
Then there was the time I was washing my hands in the bathroom (no, I don’t spend all my time in the bathroom–it’s just where I tend to run into other women), and in walked a woman whom I’ve been avoiding the last few months. Why? Because the last time I saw her, she’d jubilantly exclaimed, “I can stop praying for you now that you’ve found such a wonderful man!” and then told one of my single friends, “Now we need to pray for YOU!” So there I was in the bathroom, trapped at the sink, and as she started to ask me something (three guesses what), I interrupted her to tell her I had to run because I was on duty in the nursery. Which was entirely true since I volunteer to help out there once a month. My secret satisfaction at having a bullet-proof ‘out’ from an awkward conversation I didn’t want to have burst when she nodded knowingly and said, “The nursery? Good! Getting some practice, eh?”
A few weeks later, I was in the middle of talking to some people, and another woman I’ve had about six conversations with in the past fifteen years snuck up behind me, grabbed my left hand, and crowed, “Just checking!”
I could go on. And here’s the thing. These are nice ladies. The one making comments about getting baby practice and the one grabbing my hand are both bedrocks of our church—the kind of ladies who wear corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks and will drop everything to bake a casserole for anyone in need. They are motherly and sweet and good, and I truly do honor and love them. And the other women who have made comments and asked questions? Also really nice, good, intelligent people.
But I’ve got to be honest: these comments, questions, and little winky moments are really fucking annoying. Here’s why:
- While they may not be consciously doing so, they are making some pretty big assumptions. They are assuming that I automatically want to get married and have babies and that these are the only things that will truly make me happy and fulfilled.
- They are ignoring (and therefore devaluing) all the other wonderful things going on in my life that are an important part of who I am.
- They are being nosy and intrusive about things that are really none of their business.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does still shock me that we are living in 2017 and there are still so many women—married women—who assume that the primary aim of all other women is to find a man and have babies. And yes, I’m singling out women, because I have never experienced a man asking me about my dating life, asking whether I’m talking marriage with my boyfriend, or making comments to me about babies. Men ask me about what I’m reading, how work is going, what TV shows I’m currently watching, and so on. Anyway, back to some women and their assumptions and why I get fired up about this:
- Assuming a woman’s highest happiness/fulfillment comes from a husband and children is limiting and even damaging in two ways: it demeans single women and sets up unrealistic expectations for women who do get married and have kids and think that’s going to lead to an automatic happily-ever-after. I have written before about being single, and I can truthfully say that I found that time of my life to be just as meaningful, happy, and fulfilling as my current life of being in a relationship. In fact, part of what makes my current relationship so great is that I came into it NOT looking for it or needing it. I wasn’t looking for a man to fulfill me or make me feel happy or special. X doesn’t have to complete me or fill some hole inside me. And thank goodness, because what a lot of pressure on him that would be and often is for many men and women in relationships. It’s not to say that I don’t need anything from him, but that what I need is for the good of nurturing our relationship with each other, not for fulfilling me as an individual. Loving him and experiencing him loving me is wonderful, but it’s the gravy on an already full plate. And I think that’s really healthy and good—for both of us—and has led to a rich, joyful, and easy-going dating experience with pretty much zero drama. As for babies? That ship has sailed, folks. Have I wanted them in some hypothetical way in the past? Yes, now and then. But when I didn’t have them and it became clear that it was unlikely I was going to have any, I discovered I was really okay with that. And now, as I head toward my 44th year on this earth, I can say without any doubt in any corner of my heart or mind that I definitely do NOT want to have any babies. I am too old and too tired and too interested in other things to want to create a human being that will be dependent upon me for the next 18-20+ years. The weird thing is that admitting this publicly feels a little risky to me because there is a very real possibility that some people might judge me as selfish or unfeminine or whatever other negative things people think about women who admit they don’t really want babies. Do they think the same things about men who either don’t want or are ambivalent about having kids? Do men even get asked about that nearly as much as women do? I don’t have any hard data, but I’m guessing they do not. So, married church ladies, that’s #1. Some women—maybe even a lot of women—really want to find a husband and have babies. But not all women. Some women are equally okay (or even better off) with other kinds of lives, or the men/children in their lives are wonderful but not their entire world.
- When people (including women) talk to my boyfriend, they ask him about his kids, which makes sense since he’s got some and, as a widower, he’s a single parent bearing full responsibility for them. But they also (and mostly) ask him about his work and his creative projects and talk to him about things they know he’s interested in and/or has expertise in that have nothing to do with his kids or his relationship with me. They do not see his role as father and boyfriend as his sole identity or interest. Why, then, do women so often define other women according to these roles—even when the other women aren’t in these roles (in which case, they are defined by their ‘lack’)? We are not living in the olden days, where women were defined solely by their relationships to males and children and did not exist as individual adults in the eyes of the law. Women now have the freedom and right to use their God-given talents and abilities in a variety of ways that better the world, and to live many different kinds of lives. Yes, the fact that I am dating a great guy is interesting and exciting. Also interesting and exciting? My job, where I impact hundreds of lives and have to use a high level of skill and creativity daily to educate, inspire, and meet the needs of my students. My writing, which I have dedicated myself to pursuing in a disciplined and meaningful way for over two decades. There’s also travel and literature and music and current culture and politics, etc. All things I love and/or am interested in! The truth is that the large majority of people I encounter at my church and the world at large recognize this and are lovely, gracious, open-minded people who treat me as a whole person and engage with me in all sorts of ways. That’s why I think it’s so jarring when I bump up against those who engage with me only as a Woman-Who-Is-Dating-Someone.
- Curiosity does not always justify an inquiry. X’s close friends and my close friends have the right to ask and know how our relationship is going, and really, that’s all who needs to know. I’m not walking up to married women I seldom speak to and asking them how their marriage is going or whether they’ve ever considered divorce. Because that would be rude. Also? Not all dating relationships become marriages. Some people break up. Some people date for a really long time before they get married. Some people get married quickly and eagerly and end up unhappy. There are many different possibilities and outcomes, and adding pressure to two people already engaged in the delicate and complicated business of building a relationship is not helpful. In fact, church ladies, now would be the time to start praying, not stop.
So much truth in here (I recognize a lot of experiences!) Am preparing a scene from Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler right now… many of those same issues haven’t gone away, have they?!?
Sadly, no–they’ve remained embedded, at least in a good number of people’s psyches. Excited for you to perform in Hedda Gabbler, though! I’m a huge fan of Ibsen, and of you!
Bob D. said:
Very good and thought provoking piece. I guess it’s just a byproduct of my sex, but I would never consider asking those kinds of questions of anyone unless they were a >very< close friend. So sad that that kind of presumption seems to thrive in the church under the guise of fellowship.
Thanks, Bob! What you expressed exemplifies just one of many reasons I consider you Good People :)
Bob D. said:
Aww, shucks. Thanks for thinking of me in that way. I am honored.
Priscilla Atkins said:
Your blog post is so refreshingly honest! Here’s to all kinds of lives (single, avec deep friendship, lovers, etc!) and people letting others bloom how they bloom. And being happy for them, no matter if it is different from what they’ve been soft-wired to believe about “the good life.”
Thanks, Priscilla! Agreed!