When I got dumped, and I mean, majorly, after-five-plus-years-everyone-thought-you’d-get-married, dumped, a million people told me it would be a good thing if I were single for a while. At the time I held it against them. My take was that they were saying I was needy and dependent and should get my sh-t together without further inflicting it on the public at large. First off, how the heck did they know what was best for me in my time of need? I thought the ideal solution would include a bevy of suitors and looking good in revenge. Secondly, why would the answer to my newfound loneliness be solitude? A delectable but casual rebound seemed far more appropriate.
I was however one of those people who had hardly been single since puberty. Someone whose relationships unfortunately often overlapped. And somehow despite my best intentions I internalized their admonishment. Officially speaking,(meaning Facebook) I haven’t called a fellow my boyfriend in the last half decade. While my best friend might find some of that time debateable-a whole separate conversation would need to be had over what counts as being in a relationship with someone- I can say that I have been commitment free. Able to make my own decisions, “follow my own drummer” and screw whoever I like. That’s what being single means to me. What a 180 I’ve made in terms of preference and perspective from when I couldn’t imagine life alone.
While I am loathe to give into a dialectic that defines being single as either a defect vs. a strength, I can’t help now perceiving coupling as a fear based decision. Something tied to our fear of mortality and of helplessness without a help-mate. A while back there was an article on the teenage brain in National Geographic. One of the things it talked about was a study on decision making that looked at how teenagers perceived risk differently from adults. It used a scenario in which the participants decided on whether or not to run a yellow light. The results showed that teenagers had the same level of judgment but that their actions were dependent on there being peers in the room. When their friends were around they took more risks to show off.
What struck me most was the part that talked about how teens perceive social acceptance as a life or death proposition. It made me think about all the recent bullying deaths and how being ostracized was so traumatic to those who ultimately killed themselves. It makes sense when you think about it on an evolutionary level. There is safety in numbers. We generally speaking feel safer when not alone. There are shared resources, skill sets and deterrent force. The sense that one has utterly failed at the task of assimilation and will be alone in life must be terrifying and overwhelming. And the adolescent phase is when it counts. When I think about who I consider my closest friends/allies I realize that I collected the majority during those same formative years. I was trying to build a community that would sustain me in my adult life. Indeed, especially during the time in which I’ve been single, those relationships have been crucial.
The phenomenon in which people, when coupled, isolate themselves from their friends and community is an unhealthy one. I know a bunch of girls who regret having let their platonic relationships dissolve when they fell in love. Later when their significant other is less dreamy, they wish they had outside support. It is also unfair to demand that one person fulfill the totality of one’s emotional needs. Anyone would seem needy under that guise.
So much of what we do is still animal thinking. I am not a proponent of some of what has been extrapolated. I don’t for instance believe that men are hardwired to seek multiple partners, while women benefit from a single mate scenario. I doubt if anything that people are hardwired for monogamy at all- (see the book Sex at Dawn) but I do believe that most unconscious decisions are based in fear. We are programmed for survival above all.
I think it is brave to be single. It takes courage. Even if it’s not by choice. I learned a lot about keeping myself company in the last few years. I found a few pitfalls along the way,(who knew I was so annoying?) but those too taught me more about who I am. At this point being single feels safer oddly enough. Less chance for surprises and disappointment.
So… I think it is also brave though to give love a try. Whether for the first time or the fifth. I don’t mean to make it seem more noble to stand alone like the great American ideal intones. Being with others means vulnerability. Being vulnerable takes strength. Trust is inherently a leap of faith. It isn’t predicated on evidence or logic alone. It has some relationship to reciprocity but the two are not mutually intertwined. Ideally we want to take the sense of self developed independently and preserve it while accepting and appreciating another human being. We want to see and be seen. This is really hard work. When that alchemy happens it is worth the heartbreak that might be to come later. My mom said, when I was feeling rather desolate, that I shouldn’t worry about being able to love again. Time will pass. You know how to love and be loved, that is what’s important. That’s what we all have to keep practicing. Single or not.
Greetings from the future! Ms. Bolick, I am a representative of what’s to come…
I can’t help but think that being raised by lesbians put me ahead of the game. Having just finished reading Kate Bolick’s tremendous article in Nov. 2011’s Atlantic Magazine, I was struck by the differences and similarities in our perspectives. I, too, had spent my mid-twenties in a long-term relationship (disclaimer: I got dumped and probably would be married right now if it had been up to me).
Still, I’d often reflected on the institution of marriage and struggled against the notion of “settling down.” I, too, had been raised by second wave feminist(s )who encouraged me to wear Osh-Kosh overalls and play with Tonka trucks and assured me that I could do anything I set my mind towards. And while I am almost a decade younger than the author I have also considered at times whether I have missed my chance at true love. Heck, I wrote a memoir to investigate whether I might have, that’s how much I’ve considered the idea. But I’ve found redemption from my heartbreak thanks to the facts of my upbringing.
I was raised in what might be fancifully described as an “Amazon Shangri-la,” a universe largely devoid of men but filled with intelligent, resourceful and colorful women. The particulars: In 1981, my mother gave birth to me, at home, in the company of a midwife, her lesbian lover and her best friend. When she and the lover broke up, they continued to parent together. When I was five my mom married (in a legally non-binding but lovely ceremony) a women she would then be with for the next fourteen years. When teachers asked me how many moms I had the answer varied depending on whom I was counting, which various ex-girlfriends I threw in the mix. Nowadays I stick to the number four, since four women have continuously supported me since childhood. Lots’ O’ Mamas!
That abundance mother-wise contributed to me having what I see as the perspective of the future Ms. Bolick imagines; the one in which women communally parent and support each other. My life has made clear that women don’t need men around to raise children and that an all female household can create a healthy environment for child rearing. I have never ascribed to the idea that family needs members of each gender to create balance and I grew up aware that marriage was an option not an obligation.
Do we need men? No, but I sure like them. Even the deadbeats and players on occasion. The words, “overcompensation,” have been mentioned in conjunction with my healthy sexual appetite. My attitudes towards sex are more progressive than most thanks to the sex education I received that emphasized that my body was mine to do with what I pleased. My mother’s sex positivity is reflective of the gay community’s stance as a whole and I credit my sense of sexual empowerment to having grown up in it’s bossom, so to speak. They (the gays)have a healthy perspective on sex- sometimes you sleep with someone and something comes from it, sometimes you sleep with someone and zilch. Both kinds of sex are fun. There were multiple points in the article that led me to think sex positivity is the hinge on which women successfully navigating the future swings.
I know in my own experience, that I have profited from my own sexual hedonism. The article posits that “hook-up culture” is something modern college women endure, with 80% of them generally bowing out of the race in response. I was one of those 20% of women who were actually having sex and it was GREAT! The prudes on the sidelines have only themselves (and their parents) to blame. The assumption that casual sex rarely leads to enjoyable, if not necessarily monogamous, relationships is one I’d like to challenge as well. Almost all the serious relationships I’ve been in, even the monogamous ones, started out as hook-ups.
And while the line “Or is it that pornography endows the inexperienced with a toolbox of socially sanctioned postures and tricks, ensuring that one can engage in what amounts to a public exchange according to a pre-approved script?” really resonated with me, I couldn’t help but think that so much of life is a performance and it’s feels good to have a lingua franca, even if a flawed one, to start out from. We may have to work towards sensuality. Sensuality is intimate. We may have find balance between freedom and callousness cross gender when it comes to sex. But our era of “heady carnal delights” I think need not be stifled.
However if 80% of college kids disagree with me, it would be in their hands to change it- like Gandhi says, be the change you wish to see on the world. Virgins continue to be hot property through their early twenties at least, so they aren’t taking on that big of a social liability. Wear your purity ring and I’m sure your prince charming will arrive. Just don’t bother the rest of us over sleeping around. Live and let live should be the sexual standard and then things would work themselves out. I am sorry for all the young women who have had less than satisfying sex lives but I can’t help but hold them partially responsible for their own malaise. Sexual satisfaction thrives on communication and I doubt these women are being honest with themselves or their mates about what they desire. The women who are upset are as I see it holdover of the days in which catching a man with one’s virtue was commonplace. If one views sex as a bartering tool for commitment, times are tough. But if one views sex as a mutually pleasureable bonding activity that exists for its own sake, things aren’t really that bad. Lots of men are happy to have sex, that is generally not a problem, and personally I want any commitment to be based on desire not blackmail.
There are compromises to be made in the marriages of the future, perhaps some in terms of expectations of monogamy, but honestly, humans have never excelled at that (See: Sex at Dawn, great book!). Regardless, there are many alternatives to the current norm. The prevailing insistence on getting married at a standard age and in standard fashion I ascribe to the conformist instincts of humanity. The sister heroes of yore: Ms. Millay et al. were artists on the fringe of society and artists are non-conformist by nature. I have been shocked to find that as much as I thought of my liberal girlfriends as progressives, even radicals, they’ve all lined up for relatively conventional lives. Maybe they’d have home births, although so did their mothers, maybe they’d take pole dancing classes and proudly own vibrators but they would get married, stay monogamous, bare children and balance careers with all that. They would try to live up to standards set up in the media and when they failed they would berate themselves. The single ones all admit that if they only could find the right man to settle down with, well then they’d be happy. Our culture is so pervasive, it can force us all to “swim upstream.”
Our generation(s) has been led to believe that somehow between 25 and 35 we are supposed to jam building a career, finding a mate and starting a family. All while looking good and keeping a clean house. It’s stressful just summarizing that. The truth is we each prioritize in a slightly different manner and our lives show the results. Despite the gains made by our second wave mothers many of us still intertwine our sense of identity with our success in maintaining a mate and family. As much as we may value the idea of career it is generally secondary, as it often was for those who raised us and endowed us with their dreams. Even my lesbians hold their personal accomplishments above their professional ones. They would all say they are most proud of being my mother. They would argue feminism wasn’t an attempt to devalue the domestic sphere as much as one to elevate and redeem it, coupled with an expansion of the possibilities available to women outside it.
The consequence of living in an era post- women’s movement may be that at times I feel like good men are hard to come by. I have been kept sleepless on occasion, exhausted but strung out on visions of growing old alone or a future in which it will be me and a mass of aging lesbians, but in those moments my mothers lives act as a talisman, a reassurance that You are the only one who can make happiness for yourself. I have seen them manifest the lives they want to live. They keep their own company and enjoy their own eccentricities. They can be annoyingly self-satisfied. They are strong and rarely lonely.
My mothers reflect the modern woman. They are all four college educated professionals who have been leaders in their fields while maintaining warm and enriching personal lives. They are my heroes and my inspiration in life. They have opened my mind to all the possibilities both in terms of seeking self-satisfaction and forming family. Maybe I will marry, maybe I’ll stay single, maybe I’ll raise kids with friends. They have done all of the above and excelled at it.
Being raised by a quartet has allowed me to think critically about the merits of the nuclear family and I am intrigued by the alternatives. Why not take abundant advantage of the choices offered to us? My parents’ arrangement, four moms, two kids worked out well. I have ample friends in the gay community who might be interested in co-parenting. I agree that “there are many ways to love in this world.” I don’t think it behooves us to limit ourselves when it comes to love.
So my plan to navigate the new reality in which men are scarce and good men even rarer is- I plan to continue to sleep with men I am attracted to, in whatever organic time-frame that occurs and keep my mind open to romantic possibilities without too much concern for my age. My mothers’ lives assure me that sexuality is not defined by how attractive society finds you. My mom gets hit on all the time by members of both sexes and she’s in her late fifties. Sexiness is a state of being without an expiration date. I will get married if the right person presents himself and if not I will nonetheless live a full and happy life. I know that second part is mine to control and that makes all the difference.
Okay I am 99.9% sure it was her. If it wasn’t and it was just some poor lesbian who looked like her having lunch at Hugo’s in Studio City, well at least I made her day with my enthusiasm. I didn’t have any lesbians with me to confirm her identity but I’m really good with faces and I’ve always kind of thought she looks a little like my mom, so as I said 99.9 %. Upon seeing her picture again i’ll even add .05% to it.
To set the scene, I was meeting a friend to get feedback on my memoir and it being LA, I noticed upon plopping down that Vanessa Hudgens (of High School Musical “I dated Zach Efron” Fame) was sitting at the next table over, with only a thin pane of glass between us ( we were seated outside). While I admit to reading gossip blogs, I couldn’t bother to be impressed by her- I know who she is but that doesn’t necessarily make her special. I have not heard good things about “Suckerpunch.”
So I went about advising my friend on her personal problems and neglecting the question of tense in my writing, and Vanessa leaves after kissing who assume to be Austing Butler? I think that her boyfriend’s name ? and towards the end of the meal once we’d finished our egg-white oatmeal frittata, which was better than it sounds even though it included kamut, who should be seated right in my eyeline on the opposite side of the glass but Ms. Etheridge out to lunch with a lady friend.
I about died- and that is why I think it was her, that instant heart based gut reaction. I immediately began to strategize how to approach her and what to say. A few minutes later I strolled into the restaurant with what I hoped was casual purpose and veered in the direction of her table.
Despite my planning, I believe I came off as a babbling fool and probably overwhelmed her. I approached the table, leaned in a little and said, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I just had to say Hi, because I was so excited.” She took my hand and asked me to introduce myself, “I’m Kellen Kaiser and I’m Queerspawn and my little brother, who’s a decade younger than me, loved your songs so much as a little kid and at three knew every word to them, and used to sing them out loud in the car, and now he’s a frat boy at Long Beach State.” I’m not sure why I’d decided that was the most important thing for her to know but there it was. She smiled and said it was nice to meet me, her companion seemed amused at the encounter, like well, this is what happens to you when you’re Melissa Etheridge, crazy people approach you as you peruse the menu. Or at least that’s what I imagine she was thinking…. It’s funny to find out who you really are in awe of- She qualifies. She’s a Big Fish of Famous Lesbians. It’s like her and Rosie O’Donnell. I’m coming for you Rosie- watch out!