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When Your Personal, Private Choices Enrage Others

Maybe they shouldn't care, but strangers get angry at you for your choices

I think we are living in a golden age of personal choices. Big life events that were once considered obligatory, such as marrying or having kids, are now optional. There is no one way to live. It is a win for the possibility of living an authentic and meaningful life.

Because these kinds of choices are personal, you might think that other people won't care about them one way or another. I'm not talking about the people close to you, such as your parents, who feel that they have an investment in your life. I'm referring to complete strangers. Yet anyone who has made one of these uncelebrated and unsentimentalized, yet increasingly commonplace, choices – such as choosing to live single or to not have kids – knows that these choices can enrage people who don't even know you.

That reaction mystified me when I first started doing the research for Singled Out. I thought about it a lot and did some reading of the relevant research, and in the next-to-last chapter, "To Be or Not to Be Single: Why Does Anyone Care?", I shared what I learned about what was happening psychologically.

Recently, I was asked to address, very briefly, the question of why women who do not have children are still stigmatized. My response, and those of four others, were published in Time magazine and in the Up for Discussion forum at Zocalo Public Square.

The other panelists were terrific and here I'll share just a snippet of what each of them had to say. (You can read their full answers by following either link in the previous paragraph.) At the end, I'll reprint the version of my answer that I sent to them (before it was edited).

Laura S. Scott, director of the Childless by Choice Project, picks up on a theme I have been ranting about for quite some time – that research studies we read about most often are not exactly a representative sample (nor, I would add, an accurate one):

"Everyone chooses to ignore the multitude of studies that point to happy, socially connected, regret-free childfree seniors who are living their dreams and contributing in many creative ways."

The eminent historian, Elaine Tyler May, author of Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness, notes that:

"…there are many ways to have children in one's life without giving brith to them or raising them. Just ask any devoted aunt, teacher, doctor, childcare worker…"

Melanie Notkin, author of Otherhood, suggests that:

"…the only way to live a meaningful and happy life is to live an authentic life – making the right choice for oneself, not by the measure of what society believes is the 'right' choice."

Bill McKibben – you might know him for his contribution to environmentalism – said:

"It's time that we learned to accept that people, and families, come in many different shapes and sizes; that they face different circumstances and want different things. It's time, that is, to stop with the judging."

Here's my answer:

"As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what's best for children and society." That was one reader's response to a 2002 cover story in Time about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. At the time, I was just starting to research my first book on single people and I was perplexed. The reader had no relationship to the women in the story – they were strangers. Plus, they weren't complaining – some explicitly said they liked the lives they chose. So why was this guy so angry?

"I hadn't yet recognized the power of people's views of the world. With regard to marriage and family, one of the most fundamental beliefs is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. If they follow the prescribed path, this worldview holds, then they will be happier and healthier than everyone else – and morally superior, too.

"Worldviews help us make sense of the world. They can boost our self-esteem, enhance our good feelings, and keep our bad ones at bay. We want other people to share the worldviews we care about the most. The "problem", then, with women who do not follow the culturally valued life course of marrying and having children, is that they are threatening beliefs that people hold dear.

"What's more, it is even worse if they choose not to marry or have kids. For example, research has shown that single people who want to be single are judged more harshly than those who want to find a partner. They are seen as lonelier, colder, less sociable, and more miserable. Even more tellingly, other people express more anger toward them. That irate reader of the Time story was not angry at the women despite the fact that they were happy, he was angry because of that. How dare they claim that life without marriage or kids is a good and happy life – a life that someone would actually choose!"

[Note: Maybe also of interest, some answers to the question, "Why don't you have kids?" Also, I am continuing to put together collections of links to my blog posts, organized by theme. I just finished one on religion in the lives of single people. You can find links to all of the collections here. Also, Kate Bolick's just about to be published book, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, is already getting lots of attention and is likely to get much more in the coming weeks and months. I wrote a review for Psych Central that should be published there fairly soon, and I'll be blogging about the book here and at my Single at Heart blog.]

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