Aging and Single, Self-Reproachful and Relieved

You know you’re in extremis as far as marriageability goes when you find yourself composing sonnets to the memories of women you met and knew — against your own wishes, exclusively — through social media:

The first “Like” after each posting is mine;
A blogger self-promotion makes or breaks.
Far more than talent, moxie’s what it takes.
Neglected posts are pickled as by brine –
Preserved and yet grotesque, in time confined:
All sapient pretensions shown for fakes,
All judgments stripped and branded as mistakes,
Such boo-boos as the trolls thrill to enshrine.
The second “Like” is yours, you fickle thing.
I rightly blocked you from my Facebook page.
Perhaps your marble conscience feels a sting
You mean by sylphlike haunting to assuage?
To my disgrace I dursn’t break that string;
In this mug’s game, I need your patronage.

Like many poems, good and bad, this one contains a germ of wishful thinking. In actual fact, the second person to “Like” my posts is usually my editor. Still, you get the idea.

Serious questions of taste come into play whenever a writer decides to present his own life for inspection, either for its entertainment value, or as a kind of sociological artifact. Admittedly, I’ve done it before, but never without the fear that I was committing a foul. I risk it now because — well, because aging singles are suddenly hot. No one can hear too much from us. Katie Bolick started it, so if I’m sending myself to the dock, I hope to see her there with me.

In an essay published last month in the Atlantic, Bolick cops to a certain ambivalence over the habits of thought that have left her single at the age of 39. Raised to believe that life would present her with “endless possibilities,” she avoided committing to any of her “long string” of ex-boyfriends. Now, advised by well-wishers to either stay single or find a “good enough” mate, she chooses instead to see herself on the cutting edge of a seismic cultural shift. That is, Bolick takes some satisfaction in belonging to a society where imperatives to marry, both biological and social, are fading into irrelevance. Like historian Stephanie Coontz, she finds it “immensely liberating and immensely scary.”

Here, Bolick interrogates herself:

Of course, between the diminishing external pressure to have children and the common misperception that our biology is ours to control, some of us don’t deal with the matter in a timely fashion. Like me, for instance. Do I want children? My answer is: I don’t know. But somewhere along the way, I decided to not let my biology dictate my romantic life. If I find someone I really like being with, and if he and I decide we want a child together, and it’s too late for me to conceive naturally, I’ll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he’s not open to adoption, he’s not the kind of man I want to be with).

In an interview with National Review Online columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez, Jennifer Marshall, author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of the Single Life in the 21st Century, dissects Bolick‘s essay. Marshall comes out in favor of restoring “more family, congregational, and social support for helping young people discern the path to marriage,” explaining, “That takes a willingness to be in a community where we know others and are willing to be known — really known — by them.” She’s also glad to hear from William Bennett, who blames the current trend, by which women are outnumbering men in higher education, on men themselves. In Bennett’s view, men, having received “different and conflicting signals,” “refuse to get good jobs,” and “refuse to take responsibility in relationships.” It’s a failure of will, and nothing more.

I presume to speak here because my own view of the world splits the difference between Bolick’s on one hand, and Marshall’s and Bennett’s on the other. Like Bolick, I’m 39 and single. Also like her, I know the odds of my pairing off decrease with every passing day. To be coldly realistic, I can look forward to getting uglier, but probably not much richer. I suspect I mourn my fading chance for domesticity a little more acutely than Bolick does, but for selfish reasons. After all, she and I were both raised with what she calls “the post-boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else.” That my marital status might affect the Republic, and maybe cost me my Legion of Honor, never crossed my mind.

But here’s the twist: the reason I never married has nothing to do with any mixture of signals on which qualities were worth cultivating. On the contrary, I grew up with a very Bennett-like set of ideals. Forgive the Freudian lingo, but if a police artist were to sketch my superego, he’d emerge on paper with Bennett’s jowls, Reagan’s pompadour, and Kitchener’s mustache. This may surprise some of my regular readers, who know I was raised mainly by my mother. Well, the lady was smart enough — or, if anyone insists, traditional enough — to date men who were reliable, ambitious and open to commitment. She’s been with the best of them for 27 years, ever since they met on jury duty, which I always took as a plug for civic-mindedness.

No, what kept me on the margins of the marriage market was my growing awareness that I’d never realize those ideals, the first of which is that a man should be a have a career. I never have. My LSAT scores were awful; the grad program I entered turned out to be one for which I had no aptitude. I did endure a decade of misadventures in what eventually became infamous as the subprime mortgage industry, but it was not a field where I’d fain have planted my flag. At 37, after writing off a successful corporate future as a lost cause, I made the risky (if you must, frivolous) move of turning to writing full time. Earning enough to provide well for a family seemed unlikely in any event, so I opted to hang for a sheep instead of a lamb.

The Marshalls and Bennetts and Lopezes will read this as nothing more than post-boomer, follow-your-dreams twaddle. Indeed, given Marshall’s “family, congregational, and social support” for marriage as an end in itself, I might have entombed myself in a low-paying (and insecure) job I hated, and entombed others along with me. Over the years, I’ve met a number of women who seemed to want me, meager prospects and all. Most of them lacked self-esteem. They’d been treated foully — some by ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends, others by parents or life in general. As a result, they expected little. Their resignation frankly repelled me; I didn’t want to be anyone’s little. Either I’d be a lot, or I’d be nothing — Aut Caesar aut Nullus, as a real go-getter used to say.

Here again, I may reveal myself as a product of my age. In truth, I find myself most attracted to women who seem to have been raised, as Bolick was, to pattern themselves after Atalanta or Artemis, or some other avatar of girl power. (These are the ones who’ve dumped me, earning my grudging respect for their powers of discrimination.) If I’d grown up under different circumstances, maybe I’d have looked more kindly on the frantic nesting instinct these other women showed. Well, I’ve learned through the grapevine that three-quarters of them have married men anyone would consider far more suitable than I was. Chalk up three victories for Western Civ.

But Marshall and Bennett would be wrong to suppose that the life I’ve backed into, and have ultimately chosen, is a life free from sacrifice. I’ve given up a lot — not only the comforts of marriage itself, but any ease in being able to move among married couples with any measure of self-respect. Maybe New York hipsters like Katie Bolick have throngs of engaging and attractive single friends, but the late 30-something singles I meet out here in Real America tend to depress or frighten me.

The fact that I’ve recently turned Catholic may explain it. For one thing, guilt-free hookups are out. Studies do show that Catholic weddings are decreasing in number — one reason being, perhaps, that Catholics are marrying later. But that doesn’t seem to have produced a glut of presentable singles my own age — far from it. Recall the scene at the beginning of Animal House, where the rush chairman at the jock fraternity thrusts the geeky freshmen into a dark corner with all the other misfits, and you’ll get some idea of who my peers are now.

This is life. I’m a creature of my own limitations. When I consider where I am and how I’m likely to end up, I’m not nearly so stoical as I try to sound here. (Nor am I so resigned. As we’ve seen, I occasionally forget myself, grasp at fading hopes, and scribble awful poetry in self-consolation.) Nevertheless, I don’t claim to deserve better. That, right there, is what’s left of my inner William Bennett talking.

Outside of statistics, I don’t know too many 20- and younger 30-something men. I can’t say to what extent they resemble Bennett’s caricature. Maybe they’re far more responsible, on the whole, than he claims. If, as Bolick sees happening in her world, more women are choosing to marry men who earn less than they do — well, good for the commitment-craving low achievers. It’s the others I worry about, because I see a mighty backlash coming.

We’ve already heard about the New Victorians, the young marrieds who throw dinner parties for other young marrieds and wheel their kids around in double strollers. If their lifestyle somehow becomes the new ideal (with some auxiliary hectoring from old guardsmen and -women), then society will show these guys no mercy. It’ll be like one of those medieval charivari festivals, where villagers crowned the lintels of cuckolds with antlers and splashed animal blood on the doorsteps of adulterers. What mark of shame will the new wave of revelers reserve for umarried or undereducated men, I wonder?

Actually, I’d rather not wonder. For once, I’m glad I’m old — or at least old enough to have swallowed my pill.

Mike Huckabee, Pope Francis, and the Rise of Mother Manners
Lent and the Lame Evangelist
Monday Mourning Coming Down
Adventures in Acedia

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