At a social gathering last month, I found myself sitting beside a casual acquaintance I knew from the gym where I teach indoor cycle classes. I knew nothing about her personal life, and our lunch together afforded the opportunity for the type of small-talk that facilitates getting to know each other.
As we are of similar age, I inquired about her children and was caught off-guard when she listed her children in reference to their age and marital status.
Her children ranged in age from 25 to 19. The oldest is married. The middle child is single. The youngest, at the age of 19 is expected to get engaged soon. The forthcoming engagement of her 19-year-old daughter clearly delighted my small-talk companion. As she shared the news her face glowed and her arms triumphantly gestured “YES!” as if she had just landed the final JEOPRADY question or scored the winning goal in a championship curling match.
I was clearly taken aback. I was also a bit judgy. I’m like that sometimes. I know judging isn’t cool—I’m committed to working on it.
But still… Having your 19-year-old daughter get engaged and/or married does not resonate as a celebratory achievement to me.
And of course, being me, I failed miserably at the simple task of biting my tongue. As my brain was internally shouting “HOLY FUCK!” I believe I blurted out something to the effect of, “19 is really young to get married!” At which point my small-talk partner was (understandably) inclined to defend her gleeful excitement with an explanation that she too, married at 19 and 31 years later, reflects warmly on the opportunity she and her husband had to grow and mature together.
I can imagine children raised by this energetic and compassionate woman (who clearly loves and adores her children) are really interesting people. As our conversation developed, I gleaned a more developed picture of the citizens she had nurtured, yet her initial opener was….. “My oldest daughter is 25 and married, my son is 23 and single, but he is very happy, and my 19-year-old daughter will probably be getting engaged soon (insert international arm gesture of triumph).”
I would have much rather preferred an introduction of this sort…. “My oldest is 25 and her favorite color is yellow. My son is 23 and grills amazing vegan burgers, and my 19-year-old dreams of travelling to Italy.”
Are you following my point…? For me, it just felt a bit weird to prioritize sharing the marital status of one’s children when making mom-to-mom small talk.
Since I’ve taken it upon myself to think critically about the institution of marriage for my PhD studies, this conversation fascinated me and has me thinking about personal investments in marriage, and what the sharing of this information is supposed to imply about the lives of this mother’s children.
Religion often plays a role legitimizing marriage as a preferred state-of-being. Although I cannot confirm it, I think it is quite plausible that my luncheon companion belongs to one of the many predominately white, Christian congregations that defines the conservative nature of my city of residence. It has been my experience, both being raised in a conservative religion and residing in a community that boasts a large number of conservative congregations, that a 19-year-old choosing to marry isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. To be fair, some Christians might raise an eyebrow, but for the most part, participation in the holy state of matrimony, even at such a young age, reaffirms the overall values that comprise the foundation of western Christianity. Conversely, however, an unmarried 19-year-old woman having unapologetic sex with whomever she chooses would (unfortunately) register much higher on the shock-and-awe scale within conservative communities.
But here’s the deal. And this is the tricky thing. If I support a 19 year-old Mormon fundamentalist woman’s choice to enter a polygamist marriage (which I reluctantly do) and I support a 19 year-old single woman’s choice to explore her sexuality as she sees fit (which I enthusiastically do), then it would be really hypocritical of me to step-on-the-brakes when a 19 year-old conservative Christian chooses to marry.
Personal autonomy is personal autonomy. And although, the argument can be made that women within patriarchal structures never have true autonomy, my efforts to overthrow patriarchy have largely been unsuccessful— although I’m working on it. So, if a 19-year-old wants to marry, then by golly, she should marry. But should she change her mind, she can count on me to drive the get-away car!
Ok, so issues of personal autonomy aside, the conversation between myself and my small-talk companion (who I will remind you is a smart, engaging woman who merely happens to ascribes to values that differ from mine) can be used to disentangle how marriage confers an element of status and assumed stability in adulthood.
Stability—it’s an interesting word, isn’t it?
Life can be difficult and stability is the panacea to all that can throw us off our game. To have people in our lives, be it family & friends, and/or spouses, who we can rely on when the shit-hits-the-fan is probably one of the greatest balms to disappointment, loss, shame, grief, physical impairment and frustration. Likewise, to have “our people” in times of joy, celebration, achievement and companionship is arguably freakin’ awesome.
A treasure trove of research exists linking social connection with multiple markers of health and wellbeing. And marriage is often assumed to be the cat’s meow of social connection. A spouse is a person, who in theory, will be there for you in “good times and bad.”
As mentioned in an earlier blog, my guilty pleasure is the reality show Married at First Sight wherein a team of experts pair strangers into (heterosexual) couples who legally marry. Those who have participated in these arranged marriages over the show’s ten seasons, share a common investment in the idea that one’s spouse will consistently be the foundation of their social connection— being “there” for their spouse, and their spouse being “there” for them, is longingly imagined and assumed to be a naturalized attribute of matrimony.
We love knowing who “will be “there” for us” and we like to think of ourselves as being there for others.
Reliable social connections are one marker of stability that works in conjunction with other markers such as housing, financial security, accessible health care, and consistent and rewarding employment. To be frank, Canadian domestic policy has been predicated on the social and economic privileging of married couples making the aforementioned combined aspects of stability more readily accessible to those who are married.
Consequently, judging another woman for triumphantly championing her daughter’s upcoming engagement is a misplaced condemnation on my part. Why should I dump on this unsuspecting woman my frustration with institutions that privilege marriage at the expense of other care configurations?
But here’s the thing. Although marriage can be an element of stability in a chaotic world, there are no guarantees. All marriages have both beginnings and endings. There are no inoculations from the storms of life. People will come and go from our lives. We will come and go from other people’s lives too.
Stability cannot be predicated upon staking an institutionalized claim on another person.
Afterall, stability is not the exclusive domain of those who are married or otherwise partnered.
Stability comes in many forms and configurations.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, explores how the survival of an ancient forest in the Eifel mountains of western Germany relies on complex system of communication and support facilitated through a web of roots and fungi. His book, The Hidden Life of Trees offers an alternative point of departure when considering the construction of social stability in a non-dyadic (uncoupled) ways.
According to Wohlleben, trees are not only social, but are highly dependent on each other for survival in difficult times. As he explains,
“The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbour trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive.”
The survival of a forest is conditional on a network of roots and fungi that feed stricken trees, nurtures young trees and keeps the ecological system under control.
In my personal life, I have always been drawn to the metaphor of trees as a symbol of strength and resilience. I often invoke the imagery of healthy roots extending deep into the earth when I feel the need to ground myself and/or my emotions.
I am not coupled, yet I have developed a psychological ecology that is a force of stability and resilience in my life. My roots are deep and entwine with many people that enrich my life.
If is not uncommon for those who know me to refer to me as one of the strongest-women they know. And although the myth of the “strong women” is debunked in a beautiful essay written by Elizabeth Hunt, when care structures are allowed to flourish beyond the bonds of the romantic dyad, we are more likely to reap the benefits of stability. Like the trees in the German forest, when we lack, we can rely on our network to sustain us. Conversely, when others are in want, we can give from a place of health.
I had a moment today when a particular concern of mine hit me with full force during a personal training session. I have been training at the same gym for over 8 years—a time span that marks an abundance of personal growth and jaw-dropping life changes. Today’s crying session was not the first, and it won’t be the last. But isn’t it wonderful that my roots are connected to this place, where I am safe to cry?
Speaking of crying, this fall when a romantic relationship of 2 ½ year ended, I had 2 dear friends show up on my doorstep on separate occasions to hold space for me as I wept with a broken heart. I assure you, the sight of a 48-year-old mother of two sobbing with grief is not a pretty spectacle to behold. Yet there they were, sitting on my patio providing comfort and wisdom during my hour of need. My roots are entwinned with these women as we have nurtured our offspring together, laughed, cried, succeeded, failed and loved each other for almost fifteen years.
I have other friends who travel with me. Friends who invite me to dinner. Friends who meet me for coffee and/or cocktails. Friends who text to see how I am doing. Friends who make me laugh. Friends who make me learn.
I am developing new friendships as I journey through my PhD studies, and in time these roots will evolve into long term structures of reciprocal care and encouragement.
I have a network of professionals who expertise has unabashedly nurtured and sustained my life. My massage therapist of over 15 years knows my body better than most lovers. My legal counsel of over 6 years has been a consistent voice of wisdom in the never-ending conflict I endure from my children’s father.
I have a mom who has always patiently listened to me vent frustrations and a sister who always has my back.
The list can go on and on.
I am fully aware that my network of strong roots is a reflection of privilege, but let’s save that discussion for a future blog.
My point is, I understand the pull of marriage. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves. We are all seeking stable and mutually beneficial social connections. Uncertainty is difficult. People coming in and out of our lives can be heartbreaking. Opening ourselves up to love without promise or guarantee is an act of sublime vulnerability. I get it!
But let us not confuse coupling (a.k.a marriage) with stability. Although marriage can be one part of a larger structure of care, without deep roots connected to other deep roots, our ability to flourish will be compromised in difficult times.
So send your roots deep into the earth. Nourish them and allow them to intertwine with others whose roots are equally deep and secure. Perhaps there is magic in resisting the institutional forces that equate stability with romantic pairing.