I was always sure I would get married. I was sure I would be married–with kids–before the age of 35.
When age 36 rolled around and neither had happened, I wasn’t too worried. Lots of people get married and have kids when they’re 40, I told myself. I was a little disconcerted, but figured I just needed a bit more patience.
The same thing applied when I turned 37.
By the time I was 38, I started to realize that maybe I didn’t want to get married after all. And maybe I didn’t want kids, either.
It was a pretty radical realization.
I’d always eyed wedding dresses (and the brides in them) with a fair amount of aspirational envy. I’d watch them, all done up, looking like movie stars, as they got photos done before the ceremony. I’d look at their dresses and imagine what kind I would have. Long or short? Traditional or avant garde?
I’d go to weddings and imagine what kind I would have. What things would I do? What things would I not do? Would it be big or small? Formal or informal?
Would I have one kid or two?
I eyed pregnant women with the same kind of aspirational envy that I eyed brides. How loved they must be, to have found someone to make a baby with. How wonderful it must feel to be making a family! One of my frequent wishes, when blowing out birthday candles or whisking away a fallen eyelash, was to feel loved. Specifically, I wanted to be as radiantly loved and loving as an expectant mother.
I wanted to feel special. I wanted all eyes on me, in my bridal gown or maternity wear. Mother-to-be. Wife-to-be. Slotted in to my own family, with a place and a purpose in the world. I was making a life. What a magical experience!
Then one day, in a conversation with a friend, she mentioned something about the kind of relationship she wanted to have, and how she didn’t want to date a boy because she wanted a different kind of relationship, a different kind of dynamic. I started to think about my types of relationships, and my kinds of dynamics. I realized that she was onto something, and that maybe I’d been dreadfully misguided all along. Maybe the aspirational envy was more complicated than I realized.
Flash forward to a couple months ago. My therapist had me read a book about self-compassion. One of the arguments in the book caught my eye: “Our research indicates that self-compassionate people tend to be more authentic and autonomous in their lives, whereas those who lack self-compassion tend to be more conformist because they don’t want to risk social judgment or rejection.”
That didn’t make sense to me. I’d never been a conformist. My career path, and the many choices that I’d made, had been anything but conventional. I would never have thought of myself as a conformist, whereas I freely acknowledge that I’ve got a lot to learn about self-compassion. So was I merely an exception to that rule?
And then it dawned on me.
I was conforming to the biggest social conditioning of them all.
I didn’t really want a white dress. I don’t think I want kids, either. At best, I’m ambivalent.
The symbolic and legal repercussions of legalizing gay marriage are outstanding. I’m thrilled to the brim that anyone who wants to get married now can. But the implications that, without marriage, one is somehow less whole, that being unmarried is an awkward transitional stage until you become official and validated, bothers me. Because I’m not sure I want marriage.
It’s hard for me to admit that marriage and children don’t matter to me. It feels scary to know that I will have to carve out a different kind of place and purpose, one that is still hazy and unclear. It feels disconcerting to realize how much of a conformist I have been and still am, how shaped I have been by societal conditioning. Here, at almost 40, I am just beginning to discover my own personal preferences buried deep under all that conditioning, and realizing that everything I thought I wanted, I might not want at all.