I just finished listening to an audiobook that I picked up because I thought it would be wry and funny. Instead, the author harped and defended well past the point of sympathy— and I have a lot of natural sympathy for her point. The book was I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, by Jen Kirkman, and it was billed as kind of a funny single girl’s response to the peppering question of when she’s going to settle down and have kids. In short, she doesn’t want them, but she’s going to tell you that in the book every way she can possibly think of to say it, citing every insensitive and insulting way she’s ever been asked about it, and she’s going to get bitter and hostile, the longer it goes on.
Now, maybe the problem is that I see myself as more sympathetic to her point than I actually am. I have actually always wanted kids, and am starting to face up to the idea that it might not happen for me, certainly not in the way that I thought/hoped. My sympathy comes from well-meaning inquiries into my love life, where unsolicited advice is rampant, and consolation is offered whether it’s needed or not. I thought it would translate well, and I like a good single girl memoir.
Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t find this to be a good single girl memoir. She lays out her case for why she doesn’t want kids, then talks about her own childhood, adulthood, dating life, marriage, and divorce, and peppers each story with many, many repetitions of “you shouldn’t want me to have kids if I don’t, myself, want them. It’s not the best thing for them or for me.” I agree with that. I think that if you know you’re not up for it, having kids for any other reason may not be a great choice for you or for them. It brings up a whole raft of other issues because of my Catholicism, but in principle, if you know you’re not a kid person, don’t feel obliged to go there on my behalf, please.
She defends her position well past the point of humor—well past the point of argument, even—well into shrill and bitter. And the truth is that you’re not going to convince anyone from shrill and bitter. Excuse yourself from the conversation and walk away. Some people can’t hear anything that deviates from their conception (no pun intended) of the world, so don’t try.
But I think what bothered me most about it (and no, I don’t know why I couldn’t just turn it off. I tried, I promise.) was the shock of recognition. I have these issues that just send me off like a rocket. One of them is the thing about single people being “set in their ways.” Such a load of self-congratulatory crap. My mom said it recently, and I didn’t come back up for air for 45 minutes, deconstructing the self-congratulatory crapitude behind that statement. But, regardless of the merit of the “set in their ways” cliche, my response is nakedly defensive and unattractive. It’s not funny, it’s not insightful, and it comes off as intellectualizing to cover insecurity or bitterness, even though I don’t think that I’m insecure or bitter about it. It’s only one example, among many.
I don’t want to avoid these kinds of responses to avoid “sounding” bitter, I want to avoid them to avoid being bitter. To show a little better grace and class. I’ve said before “if you think I’ve hadn’t had offers or that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to bully some poor sucker into marrying me to get what I want, you misunderstand me. That’s just not what I want. And in the absence of having met the right guy, I would honest and truly rather be single and happy than attached, permanently, to the wrong guy.” There’s nothing that needs defending, about that statement. But the thing that differentiates it from this book that I read is that I actually am single and happy. My dad used to say “living well is the best defense.” I think that’s the key.