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Why is Being Single and Child-Free So Threatening to Society?

Aimée Lutkin on Letting Go of the Nuclear Family Model

Billie is proof that opposites attract. I could remember a time in high school when I noticed her looking teary-eyed as we played a videogame where people chuck grenades at each other. I asked what was wrong. “I was just thinking about how sad I would be if I couldn’t have kids,” she replied, and after a silent moment we both started to giggle. Eventually, she had two, though she waited until her thirties before starting her family.

Like mine, Billie’s parents were theater artists, except they’d stuck together. She’d grown up with her brother and parents in a rent-controlled one-bedroom on Avenue A, as my mother and I moved from apartment to apartment around the East Village grid. Even when we eventually went to different junior highs, I’d call up to Billie’s window in the morning to take the MTA bus across town together, pissing off the neighbors, because her buzzer was perpetually broken.

Sophomore year she dated Owen before passing him on to me, and then she dated her future husband. End of list. How would Billie’s life have been different if she’d had more time to experiment, grow, and explore without him? Her development became so deeply entangled with his—a danger for any young person settling down right out of their parent’s house. She even moved in with him sophomore year of college instead of finding a place with me, as had been the plan.

And she’d become an incredibly accomplished person, working for years in a nonprofit and eventually getting her graduate degree to teach. She’d also become a wife and mother, the center of her family, and to all appearances, she was pretty happy. She could even drive. I had just continued to be me, stunted in so many ways by comparison.

The only confrontation we’d ever had as adults about our differing “lifestyles” happened one summer, and it was memorable mostly for being so cliché. As I began dating again, Billie was well into her second pregnancy. She was exhausted from caring for a three-year-old while growing another human being in her torso. Her husband had agreed to take their kid on some sort of shopping adventure so she could have a day of rest and relaxation with me. We got pedicures at a “chemical-free” salon she’d found on Yelp that smelled like every other nail salon I’d ever been in, then went to a quiet restaurant near her apartment. She sighed multiple times, saying how nice it was, how good the food, how much she’d needed this day. Billie couldn’t remember if she’d felt this strained during her first pregnancy. She was really at the end of her rope. She complained that her husband had been having back troubles, which made it harder for him to help with their daughter; that household work was piling up, and she felt so behind with things to do in preparation for the new baby.

Married with no children is suspicious enough. Being single is sinister.

I was probably the perfect person to complain to if you wanted someone to say “That sounds like it sucks” about childcare. Twenty minutes of babysitting always wrung me out like a rag for the rest of the day, even in my perky teens—an age when all young women are pushed toward caring for other people’s kids for cash at some point. So I said “that sucks” a few times and she relaxed further.

As we finished our dumplings, I asked what she was planning for the rest of her afternoon. Billie fretted about some furniture from Ikea that needed to be assembled, but admitted she’d probably sleep for as long as everyone was out of the house. She then asked me what I’d do.

Thoughtlessly, I replied, “I don’t know, I might walk in the park or get a massage.”

What can I say? It was a Saturday.

“It must be nice to have so much free time,” she snapped, a sharp edge of genuine irritation in her voice. It was jarring to feel judged by someone I’d known so, so long, someone I considered my sister. Like a sister, I was angry. The impulse to snap, “Well, you have a family!” was strong.

I wanted to shout about how she’d been able to split the rent everywhere she lived since college without Craigslist roommates, that she had her husband’s health insurance, that she’d traveled all over with someone who helped shoulder the cost, and cared for her when she was sick, and helped her move, and they only ever had to buy one present combined for parties (which is bullshit), and that one day I’d be all alone and she’d be surrounded by grandkids. I deserved a damn spa day before my cats ate my face!

And on her end, she was likely imagining all the sleepless nights, mounting bills, troubles with daycare, and shrinking space in her own mind as all these other people took over, demanding more and more of her, including me. She could have shouted right back.

Instead, there was an awkward moment as we both recovered our tempers; we finished our lunch and bade each other farewell. With the distance of a few hours and a truly excellent hour-long massage, my anger dissipated. Between the two of us, Billie has by far the calmer, kinder, less sarcastic disposition. To talk to me like that, she must have been feeling truly frayed.

But I didn’t try to bring it up with her again, and I never asked her directly if she thought less of me because I hadn’t lived the way she had. That small altercation let me glimpse what Billie must sometimes think about my life, and I was sure I sometimes did the same to her, mostly unconsciously.

External pressure inevitably becomes internalized, leading to a sense of “shame, guilt, disappointment and anxiety for uncoupled people” even though there’s nothing atypical about it.

Despite the difficulties of parenting, especially if you expect to find someone romantically compatible to coparent with, there is considerable stigma against childless people. In a study from Indiana University in 2017, undergraduates were asked to assess the potential happiness of their school’s alumni based on their profiles. All were married; some had children, some didn’t. According to the study, the child-free alums were “perceived to be significantly less psychologically fulfilled” than their counterparts with children.

This isn’t shocking to anyone who has soared past the average fertility years without making a baby. Even my dearest friend saw me, on some level, as a pig rolling in a shit pile of free time. What was I doing with my life besides going from brunch to pedicure to massage? That’s how it sometimes felt with family, too. Though it could technically happen, my grandparents considered me a lost cause as far as producing another generation. I was lucky to have parents who had never pressured me one way or the other, though their lack of interest in my replicating their DNA sometimes felt accusatory, too. Married with no children is suspicious enough. Being single is sinister.

In an editorial for The Washington Post, author Bella DePaulo criticized the conflation of being single with being alone, saying that using the terms synonymously paints single people as isolated and self-centered. DePaulo writes that actually single people are more likely “to support, visit, advise and stay in touch with their parents and siblings” than those who are married and those who have been married. Marriage seems to make you more selfish, not less, even when it’s over. According to a study from the Journal of Marriage and Family, people in marriages often become more insular, and it is generally single people who step up when parents are sick and ailing.

Another study from the Journal of Family Issues suggests that single people test higher when it comes to personal growth, autonomy, and self-determination, all of which grow feelings of positivity in the swinging single person. Conversely, a sense of autonomy breeds negative feelings in people who are married, perhaps driving a wedge between codependent couples.

In her book Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After, DePaulo focuses in particular on the myth that America is always teetering on the edge of the total end of marriage. In her opinion, Americans are far more attached to marriage than they admit, or than the numbers imply. “America, in its own fantasies, is a nation of rugged individualists and daring adventurers,” she writes. “In reality, though, countless adults are so stuck on coupling that they seem reluctant to venture into safe and comfortable places, such as restaurants and movie theaters, unless they have another human at their side. Preferably one of the opposite sex.

“According to its own ideals, America is also a nation of nuclear families. When couples have children, they often settle into the comfort and privacy of their own home. They might slip out now and then for a baseball game or a pizza, but like the cliché says, the home is their castle. With a moat around it. They practice what I see as intensive nuclearity.” In DePaulo’s opinion, marriage isolates people far more than singleness. So why is it that marriage is so rewarded with social acceptance and singleness is not? If the reality is that married people are more lonely than single people, and that single people have a deeper interest in their extended family and neighbors, then we should be pillars in our communities, celebrated for our sacrifice. Or at least get a tax break.

I had a married friend, Tessa, who was very vocal about never wanting to be a parent. Similar to me, she had a childhood best friend with one kid who was considering having another.

“Okay, I can understand, if you feel you must, having one kid,” Tessa said to me one afternoon over coffee. “But two? It’s like you’d rather make an entirely new person than invest in relationships you already have in your life.”

We laughed like she’d just told an off-color joke, knowing this is the kind of thing childless people can never, ever express to parents. Of course, Tessa would love her best friend’s second baby, if it ever came into being, just like I loved Billie’s little girl (and eventual son). It was just a relief to share understanding with someone else who had found themselves edged out of decades-long friendships by entirely new people, literally, and discovered that lamenting that distance was socially unacceptable. We were obviously supposed to have our own kids to fill the gap and retreat into that nuclear family, setting our love for our friends on the pile of childish things.

Sasha Roseneil is a co-author on the book The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm, a sociological study of changing relationship structure in four different regions of Europe. In a 2020 op-ed for The Guardian, Roseneil writes that though there have been weighty changes in obligatory heterosexual partnership from a cultural and political standpoint, they are not nearly as far-reaching as people think. As gender and sexuality have gone through mind-bending revolutions, the norm of couplehood has tenaciously remained, and become even more important, because so many of our other intimate connections have become weaker.

Coupledom becomes so important because many other forms of connection are choked off so efficiently.

“The couple norm mandates that the intimate/sexual dyad is the basic unit of social life,” Roseneil writes. “It operates through laws and policies that assume and privilege coupledom, with myriad economic impacts in terms of access to welfare benefits, pensions, inheritance and housing. It works through the injunctions, expectations and informal social sanctions of family, friends and colleagues who encourage and cajole the uncoupled towards coupledom. And it is perpetuated through cultural representations of the good life as the coupled life that makes it hard to imagine the possibility of contentment beyond the conventional pairing.”

She goes on to say that this external pressure inevitably becomes internalized, leading to a sense of “shame, guilt, disappointment and anxiety for uncoupled people” even though there’s nothing atypical about it.

“This can impel a desperate quest to rectify the situation as people seek the comfort and social inclusion they believe is to be found with a partner,” she adds. Hmm, wouldn’t know anything about that . . .

Nominally, singles can do what they wish, which hasn’t always been true for people who had no urge to marry. But laws and social norms still indicate that what they should want is to be in a couple. When you become part of couple, you haven’t just met a compatible person to share your life with. You’ve acquired the cultural acceptance that comes with conformity to these well-established expectations.

I sometimes felt like a freak around coupled people because they didn’t perceive their relationship as some sort of submission to the relief and safety of the couple norm. Rather, it was a sign of their superiority, a sign they were worthy of love and acceptance, and that meant there had to be something wrong with me. Roseneil says that coupledom becomes so important because many other forms of connection are choked off so efficiently. That means couples are lonely, too, which I sympathized with when I read her op-ed. If thinking something is wrong with people like me helps them through that, I get it. I just wasn’t sure I had to think something was wrong with me, too.

That summer, as I went on more and more first dates and felt further and further from submitting to protocol myself, these became the most sour thoughts I’d ever had about coupled people. Their bitterness was like a warning of what the flavor of my future would be if I didn’t either beat them or join them. There seemed to be very little reward for resisting, besides knowing you lived your life differently. What would everyone on the outside know about my life besides that it was lonely? It was much harder to be brave when I considered what others saw when they looked at me.

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The Lonely Hunter

Excerpted from The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken by Aimée Lutkin. Copyright © 2022 by Aimée Lutkin. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Aimée Lutkin
Aimée Lutkin
Aimée Lutkin is a writer, director, and performer from New York City, where she was born and raised. Her writing has been featured on Jezebel, Marie Claire, and Glamour online, among other places.





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