Love, for me, has always had the goalpost of marriage and children at the end of it. I was lucky enough to have been raised by a very happy couple who, since I was old enough to understand, always instilled in me the wonderful life that a family brings. Finding someone with whom to spend your life, bringing new, amazing people in the world — what could be better than that? And as I grew up, the world around me only reinforced this idea. Couples smiling while picking out rings, women living happily ever after with her doctor/lawyer/prince charming, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over a newborn baby. There is an overwhelming feeling that this is the right thing to do, that there is a clear good path, and you are taking it.
I was always happy to follow in line. You give me something even slightly romantic, I’ll eat it right out of your hand. I adore love stories, romantic comedies, looking at wedding stuff, cooing over babies, and generally being supportive of the entire concept of “first comes love, then comes marriage.” If I’ve ever cornered you at a party and asked you like some drunken grandmother if you were planning on marrying your long-term significant other — and there are several of you — I apologize. It’s not that I don’t think you’re all wonderful people while single, or simply dating, it’s just that I so love the ideas of commitment, monogamy, and making a new family together. It’s a feeling that comes from somewhere I cannot identify, and colors so much of how I view relationships.
Yet I know that love can exist outside of legal matrimony. I’m aware that couples who, for whatever reason, choose not to get married, can be perfectly happy and just as committed. Similarly, having children in no way defines the level of love a couple might feel for each other — it only defines the amount to which they wanted to have a child. These grand symbols of how love is supposed to manifest itself in our lives are so ingrained in me — in many of us — that they have largely become synonymous with a kind of love that can healthily and happily exist without them.
One only has to look at the kind of response women get when they say they don’t want to have children to understand the degree to which these life choices are not entirely choices anymore. Even the most well-intentioned loved ones in her life will gently prod her about the idea that some day, at some nebulous-but-crucial moment in her life when she “grows up” and/or trips the wire to her biological clock, she will definitely change her mind. There is almost an implication that she is not whole without bringing a new life into the world, that to pass up the opportunity to fulfill her “destiny” is akin to giving up on the majority of her life — it’s never acknowledged that a full, rich, wonderful life can absolutely exist outside of children.
Men, too, are not immune from this societal cajoling. How many of them when, insisting that they are not interested in marriage or children, are told by a frustrated friend or family member to “find a nice girl and settle down”? And worse, how many of them actually cave to the expectation from everyone around them — including, perhaps, their romantic partner — that the only “real” relationships end in marriage? How many of them enter into married and family lives that don’t actually want to?
I consider myself lucky, in that I actually do want these things. The details aren’t terribly important — I would just as soon adopt as have my own children, for example — but I know that being married and starting a family is highly important to me in life. I do not have to justify my life choices to anyone, because they are almost universally regarded as “the right one.” And I have certainly been drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to expecting it from others. I have asked those prodding questions, scoffed at a 20-something saying that they never want to have children. It’s possible, of course, that they will change their mind — but what business is it of mine? It’s almost as though society feels that each couple owes them a child, that it is some kind of tax on being happy and having a relationship you love. Never mind if it’s not what you actually want, or would destroy your life plans completely. It’s what couples do, so it’s what you should do.
When I consider the implications of these societal stances — what it means that I want all my happy couple friends to get married and have kids, and will be disappointed if they don’t — I wonder how much of it is really me talking. Is it really, at the end of the day, what I think is best? No one lives in a vacuum, and it’s undeniable that the media and everyone around me influences the way I view the world, but with life choices as big as this — am I just following a script? I actively think of reasons why I want marriage and children in life, and I do think of a lot of them that exist independently from “it would make everyone happy,” but I realize that most of the time I don’t even consider why I want them, only that I do. It seems natural, inevitable, that I will follow this path and make this life for myself.
At the end of the day, I do believe that many people want marriage and children independently of what others might want for them. But I think it’s likely fewer people than who are actually doing these things. I think that, for many, it is simply a lifestyle that they are molded into slowly over time, and accept with resignation because to continue fighting would mean a lifetime of explaining themselves. Perhaps they do want a life-long relationship, but they don’t feel the need to be married, or want a wedding of any kind. Or, maybe, they are very happy to be married to someone they love, but have no desire for kids. Perhaps they want none of this, and are happy to live a life of independence and personal freedoms. And all of these should be absolutely fine, yet we cannot pretend that they are. We cannot pretend that these choices would be accepted without criticism, without judgment, without open doubt of a person’s ability to decide what they want for themselves.
It is within all of us to take the first step here, to decide actively that each person’s life choices are entirely their own, and that if a woman says she doesn’t ever want children, or a man decides he doesn’t want to get married, that is perfectly fine. Because such personal changes and commitments do not belong to society in any way, they are not something that people should feel obligated to buy into to please an unidentifiable mass of “others” who expect to see it done. The judgments we make on everyone’s choices — even the choice to get married young, if that’s what the couple wants — are so unhealthy, and yet we’re all so guilty of them. We are ultimately responsible for the people who make decisions that they don’t actually want. We have told them, in quiet but very clear terms, that we know what is expected of them — and they’d better not disappoint us.