Resisting Expectations During the Holidays and Every Day
Standing up for your own life choices with disarming honesty
Posted November 23, 2009
When I posed the question, "Can your expectations shape my behavior," I had no idea how much the issue would resonate with readers. One after another, they shared their experiences of feeling boxed into a corner by other people's expectations of what they should want from their lives. There were so many telling discussions and suggestions that I just had to return to the topic.
What can we do to stand up for the lives we have chosen, proudly and unapologetically? The question may be especially pressing with the holidays approaching. Those are times when Martian Bachelor's suggestion - "Get better friends and acquaintances!" - isn't so readily attainable. Holiday dinners, parties, and get-togethers are often sprinkled with people whom we've never met. They may be most likely to blunder into a conversation based on the false assumption that surely you wish you were married (or had kids), too.
Let's start with Lauri's experience, which made me want to scurry back in time and wring the discussion-leader's neck:
I was out with a group of women who have never really had a personal discussion before. One of the (younger) women actually went around the table and asked all of us if we had a boyfriend. The first woman she asked looked a little sad when she answer no, so the "asker" moved on to the next woman, who also said no, and again got no reaction from the person who wanted to know in the first place, except to move to the next woman. This woman said "husband." And the "asker" replied with a big smile and said, "oh wow that's great!" I was next, and honestly, I have to say, my negative response was definitely lacking the confidence I usually deliver it with! I said it almost in a whisper, and kind of frowned when I said it. Immediately I realized what had just happened. Why did I say it like that? I usually respond with an upbeat, "nope!"
I don't know if I would have thought of this on-the-spot, but when the next person said that she was single, I would have been tempted to interject my own enthusiastic, "oh wow that's great!" Then I'd keep talking, saying that I'm single too and mentioning some of the things I love about being single. (If you're concerned that the other single person might not share your enthusiasm or might not be willing to say that she does, then keep me in mind as your ally. I may not be there in person, but I'm with you in spirit!)
That takes us to Lauri's second point of feeling stymied by the question, "so what have you been up to" when the first person who was asked said that she was now married. Put on your Scout's uniform and be prepared! On your way over to social events, think about the things in your life that you are finding especially interesting or meaningful or rewarding, then share those wonderful experiences with the other guests.
At social events involving lots of new people, where there can be so much superficiality, sometimes nothing is more engaging than the truth. Here's an honest answer I'd love to give if I were in Lauri's place and it was my turn to answer the boyfriend question: "You know, when I hear that question, I know what the answer is supposed to be. I know that if I said that I had a boyfriend or that I was married, everyone would be so happy for me. I know that I should seem sad not to have a boyfriend. But you know what? I don't. I love being single." OK, so that's not exactly short, pithy, or witty, but I bet it would nudge everyone off autopilot.
Then, moving on to Singletude's self-consciousness about being a singles blogger and the conclusions others probably jump to when they hear that: I'd also be ready for that. I really do love blogging, and my guess is that Singletude does, too, since that blog is so great. Have some of your favorite stories and experiences on the top of your mental list, ready for sharing.
Singletude mentioned something else important - these decisions about partnering and having children are so personal. Another conversational option is to say just that: "These decisions are so personal, don't you think?"
I'm so glad that Anonymous brought up the experiences of people who don't want kids. When I'm writing about singles in my formal publications, I sometimes discuss what I call my "developmental life tasks model." In the big picture, attitudes toward singles exist as part of a whole series of societal expectations of what an adult life should look like: You can stay single while you finish your education or get some job training, but by a certain age, you are expected to be married. Then, you can stay married for a while, leaving it at that, but within a few years, people will start asking when the kids are coming.
The dilemmas faced by people who don't want kids are similar to those faced by people who like living single. Other people get you coming and going. So first they will tell you that you should have kids because children are such a joy. If you respond by saying that you don't want kids, they will then claim that you are selfish for not taking on the burdens of raising kids!
In response to inappropriate questions about whether you have kids, I especially like the previous suggestion: "These decisions are so personal, don't you think?" That response covers those of us who don't have kids because we don't want kids, but also hints at another group - people who very much want kids, but don't have any.
Psyngle mentioned how effective it is, when writing peer reviews, to find something to praise in each co-worker. I think this can also work in warding off some of the uncomfortable interactions we've been discussing. In my own experiences, other people often raise intriguing points or ask thoughtful questions about the topics I'm working on (often related to single life). When I see someone like that at a later time, I might start a conversation by saying something like, "Remember when you asked me...well, I've been thinking about that..." What's great about that is that it shows that you really were listening to them and took their points seriously. That's very flattering. Plus, you are now talking about something in your life that you find engaging - and they do, too. No pity-party in that interaction.
There were other great comments as well, but I've gone on long enough. So let me just thank Sheila for being a role model for her students and not responding with defensiveness or apologies when asked about her single status, and throw it open to your comments and suggestions.