Here in the Philippines where I’ve been living for the past two years I’ve become used to being an anomaly. The fact that I have no kids is considered so outrageous by some people that they think I’m just making it up. It’s as if kids were like weather — a given of daily existence rather than predictable products of Cause A yielding Effect B. After the initial shock there usually follows a session of intense questioning to which is appended some serious advice-giving, which I ignore, it goes without saying. Ho-hum.
I knew what I was getting into in PH before I moved here. Here family is everything. It’s the only game in town. So when the truth of my situation comes out — as inevitably it must — the eyes of the person I’m talking too flash the screen message DOES NOT COMPUTE. Here’s a newsflash: it does in fact occur in nature and it does indeed compute. Believe it or not, life really is possible without having a family regardless of what your sexual orientation happens to be. Lo and behold, I live to tell the tale.
Here’s a concrete example of the flack I’m talking about. The mother of a friend of mine on a nearby island decided to do her PhD at the ripe age of 60, not that far from my own age. I thought that show of determination a wonderful thing and told my friend I’d be delighted to meet her. After looking mildly surprised he said OK and we arranged for the three of us to have lunch (my treat, of course) the next time I visited the city. About a month later we did meet at a nice restaurant and passed about an hour together. My friend’s mother seemed somehow ill at ease and at one point and asked, “Why am I here?” I explained that her son had told me about her pursuit of the PhD and I was interested to talk with her about that process. After we went our separate ways my friend texted me with a thank you and I asked what his mom thought of the encounter. His reply: “She said you seem like a nice person but you’re not married and that’s really weird.”
At that point the valves of my attention closed like stone, to borrow an apt phrase from Emily Dickinson. I realized there was no point trying to engage “normal” people here, this kind of nonsense would come up over and over again and who needs it? So that was the end of that and has remained so to this day. I have better things to do with my life, thanks very much. The same thing used to happen in the States until the Age of Political Correctness came upon us. Given the general degeneration going on in the USA at the moment we may well find ourselves back at square one in that regard before too long. I won’t be surprised if that bappens, but it’s really no skin off mine. Been there, done that, don’t give a rip.
My intention here isn’t to point out the problematic aspects of family life or to convince others that the best answer to the difficulties involved is avoidance. Even if I had that intent it would have one phrase and one phrase only written all over it: pissing in the wind. People will do what people will do. Following the patterns society sets figures largely in what people do and will continue to do until we’re no longer denizens of Planet Earth. At the rate we’re going we should have our extinction well on its way to completion before the start of the next century. The fact that family was instrumental in bringing about that demise will, of course, escape attention. The consequences of the fact will do us in regardless whether we apprehend them or not. So consider this my last shot as an outlier across the bow of a failing humanity. We’ll all go down on the same ship but not all of us will have the same amount on our conscience when it happens.
As I think back over the admonishments I’ve received over the years I remember as the first clear instance words spoken by a great aunt. I was a teenager, probably 17 or so, and I’d gone along with my mother and grandmother to visit her. She must have asked me how many kids I planned to have, to which I obviously gave the only possible answer: zero. Her response has remained in my memory all these years: “What will you do when you’re old and you have nobody to take care of you?” At the age of 17 I couldn’t be bothered about such things so I just let it go. As I think about it now a reply comes forcefully to mind. I imagine her standing in front of me now with her bleached blonde bouffant hairdo and I hear myself say, “What guarantee is there they’ll take care of you? Look at you — such a pain in the backside your son stuck you in a nursing home so he wouldn’t have you underfoot. So much for hedging that bet …” Bad me. 🙂
All the evidence I observe on the ground points clearly to the fact that something’s seriously amiss with this business of family, yet people pay no attention to the evidence. If evidence is disbarred from consideration it means we’re dealing with an ideology that no dose of reality can influence. For that very reason I’m pissing in the wind as I write on this subject, I quite realize that, but no matter — I’ll get this off my chest then go have a cappuccino and a double choco muffin to celebrate removal of the mental overburden. Yeehaw.
The fact that the majority of people find it impossible to imagine life outside the structure of family says far more about people and the society they inhabit than it can possibly say about life itself, which is gloriously various in its modes and manifestations. Just look around you at what the Planet has brought forth, there’s the proof of that pudding. Obviously we’re dealing here with a catastrophic failure of human imagination and the insidious workings of ideology, a conceptual black hole we humans fall into at every turn, in every area of life, through some twist of the brain I’ve never managed to understand.
Research on the topic of prejudice against unmarried or single people has yielded clear indication of its nature and scope. Bella dePaulo did a study reported in 2016 in Psychology Today (article here) that showed clear bias against single people in the sample group. From the article:
When I first began studying perceptions of single people, it was demoralizing to discover how easy it was to elicit harsh judgments of them. In the simplest study of stereotyping I’ve conducted, Wendy Morris and I recruited 950 undergraduates and asked half of them to tell us what came to mind when they thought about single people, and the others to tell us their spontaneous thoughts about married people.
Their descriptions were very different: Nearly every other person describing married people, approximately 49 percent, spontaneously suggested that married people are kind, caring, or giving. Only 2 percent of the participants describing single people came up with those same characteristics. Every third person describing married people, around 32 percent, said that they were loving. No one—not one person—described single people this way. Married people were also more often described as happy, secure, loyal, compromising, and reliable. Single people, though, were more often described as independent.
As my friend’s mother said: he’s not married and that’s just weird. 🙂
Ms. dePaulo is the go-to gal for analysis of prejudice against single people. In another article from 2015 by Jessica Gross (here) DePaulo’s case is stated as follows:
DePaulo has coined two words that are essential to this discussion. “Singlism is the stereotyping, stigmatizing and discrimination of people who are not married,” she says. “The flip side of that is matrimania: the over-the-top celebrating and hyping of marriage and coupling and weddings. So if you’re single, you get it coming and going.”
Amen to that. DePaulo identifies the phenomenon as exactly what it is: discrimination. No wonder it has triggered my gag reflex all these years. Allow me to attempt a corrective. It’s high time we discuss the family paradigm from the perspective of reason rather than of mammalian ideology. I hereby appoint myself to the position of spokesperson for that perspective, faute de mieux. If that idea doesn’t appeal then “X” on your browser window marks the spot for you.
The family paradigm’s details depend on where you are, of course. Here in the Philippines there’s no reliable governmental safety net, the family is the only safety net in existence. Health insurance usually covers less than half of actual expenses. Social Security is so small it’s more a joke than anything else. Small wonder, then, that family has prime importance in everyone’s life here — it has everything to do with the survival of the individual. People here have children in order to create a safety net for themselves, not for the children they pop out. It’s a system rotten to the core, in my opinion, but such is life here and there will be no changing it. The same is true throughout Asia, in my observation — indeed, throughout much of the world, if one considers the matter. But for those of us from the United States or western Europe there is a governmental safety net. The European version of it functions much better than the American version, if the truth be told, but Americans do have one. Yet there goes my great aunt shooting her mouth off in the year of our Lord 1970-something, telling me that if I don’t have children there will be nobody to take care of me when I’m old. Had she never heard of the Social Security Administration or Medicare?
Obviously we’re dealing with a rigid ideological framework here. I call it the “Ma and Pa Syndrome.” From the standpoint of an outside observer like me, marriage and parenthood carry an ideological force that sweeps away a person’s individuality and sovereignty of will like winds at hurricane force. As soon as the rings are on the fingers and the egg is fertilized (not necessarily in that order LOL), the die is cast apparently for eternity. One is forever afterward “mom” or “dad,” never just oneself. We’ve all heard the phrase, “once a mother always a mother.” Being a mom is a gig that ostensibly never ends, but when the kids leave home it’s remarkably like being made redundant. In the past men had the role of breadwinner as the main part of their gig, and some still do. But it doesn’t last, either. Kids grow up and leave home. What does that do to the role of Ma and Pa? It scotches it from a practical standpoint, that’s what. You graduate perhaps to Gramma and Grampa, but unless the kiddies are nearby and need babysitting, it doesn’t have a duty roster that takes more than a single paragraph to scope. And it doesn’t fill up your days in the same way, either. Plenty of moms and dads find that out the hard way.
There’s nothing appealing to me about any part of that scenario. It obliterates individuality and involves high levels of constraint. I’ll go one step farther and say that the whole business strikes me as a bill of goods sold to the masses who are too blind to see that things don’t work the way the paradigm promises even if you play your role to perfection. You pays your money for decades on end and you wind up with … what? It’s anybody’s guess, really. Pure luck of the draw.
If that sounds like a good deal to you, then get in touch. I have some land in the Florida swamps that offers a fantastic investment opportunity for your life savings. 🙂
Having established that “happy family life” is chimeric at the best of times and that the warranty package on the family paradigm is crap, it’s time to set aside Ma and Pa and all the rest of it. We’re going to take the perspective of the outsider and see what kind of life is possible if you don’t buy the bill of goods being sold. First the pros, then the cons. I’ll use myself as an example.
The pros are not far to seek. The first advantage that comes to awareness is freedom. If you’re not bound to supporting a family and schlogging through the daily routines associated therewith, you have the freedom to create a completely different kind of life. What that means on the ground is freedom to take chances you wouldn’t likely consider as a family person. In my own life I’ve ditched jobs and taken unpaid leaves of absence because I had only myself to worry about. As long as I could keep the boat afloat, it was all good. That freedom has given me a much wider range of life experience than I could ever have hoped to engage as a pater familias.
But there are even more important freedoms than the experiential and financial ones. I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to engage intellectual and artistic pursuits that were important to me, things that demanded time, attention and resources without any promise of payback other than the self-development they offered and indeed delivered. As long as I had the money I could travel wherever I liked to see stunning architecture or painting, for example. Most importantly of all, my thoughts remained in that open arena of exploration that involved me and only me facing the world in all its astonishing variety. I’ve always been at perfect liberty to choose any avenue of thought I want and set myself off into it like a ship heading out onto the high seas on a voyage of discovery.
As I look back over my lifetime it’s clear that having that freedom brought me to a state of self-awareness I couldn’t possibly have achieved had I stayed in the societal box of family life. I had the time, the money and the energy to pursue things at as fast a pace as I could manage, at a time in life when my energies were at their peak and my stamina was so robust it sometimes astonished even me. I hasten to add that all this went on for the greater part while I was living what looked from the outside like a very normal middle-class life, for long stretches with a 9 to 5 job and a lawn to mow, save for those times when I ditched the job and the suburbs and went off on an extended adventure. My mind was free even though physically I kept up the appearances of being within the confines of the societal box.
Another important advantage is self-determination. Some may think that point a double-edged sword, since many people are perfectly happy to have the responsibility for life decisions taken over by the social paradigm. Relying on the societal boxes spares one the effort of figuring out what to do with one’s life and who to be while doing it. Being Mom or Dad means you don’t have figure out what purpose to serve, it’s all planned out for you from the get-go — you have to support the family. “Mom” or “Dad” is a complete identity package into the bargain — that’s all figured out for you, too. You just tweak it to fit your circumstances, like adding salt and pepper to what shows up on your plate.
I’ll grant you that for people embarking on marriage and parenthood it’s all new — perhaps all very exciting, I’m not one to say — so what is in fact one of the oldest shticks on the books engages your full attention because you have to figure out how to make it work for your own situation. But the agenda itself is a societal default delivered with the act of reproduction. Nobody has to carve out of whole cloth as an individual how to get married or have kids. It’s been going on for thousands of years. And all the while society is giving you a big thumbs up — and tax benefits that single weirdos like me don’t get. Grrrrr.
If you forego the family thing you have to come up with the life purpose and the identity on your own. There will be no help from any quarter because society only has one game in town: family. But I’m not bitter. 🙂 Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Or maybe it’s the dad, I can’t remember exactly …
At this juncture we must consider carefully the dialectical nature of this business. Choosing a divergent path in life means the presence of the thing not chosen remains forever with you as the flip side of your coin — the act of negation itself establishes that intimate relationship with the thing rejected, as is the case in all dialectical relations. Since there’s only one dominant social paradigm a divergent individual inevitably stands in a dialectical relationship to mainstream society and remains engulfed in it while trying to carve out a different way forward through life. In a truly pluralistic world there would be a multiplicity of lifepaths available to the individual, each based on its own set of priorities and goals and offering its own set of rewards. Societies across the globe provide as their primary paradigm only one legitimized lifepath — family — out of the infinite number possible. It’s essentially an animal life based on a pattern set by our biology as mammals. Look at a group of higher apes if you think I’m making up stories.
That experiential niggardliness is the worst possible indictment of humanity’s general state of development. After thousands of years we still haven’t managed to get past the mammalian base pattern — it remains the only serious game in town. For someone who decides not to buy into the game, no other socially supported options appear save those of a religious nature. You can beggar off the entire business by becoming a monk or a nun if you like, in which case you’ll be legitimized but still considered a weirdo. Being a person single by choice identifies you societally only through categorization into one of various types of unfortunates or eccentrics. What a mean and meager repertoire for human life.
Accomplishing self-definition in the vacuum society creates outside the family structure makes the job doubly hard. Being marginalized out of societally legitimized human community because of a choice not to have a family has left me with a resentment against mainstream society I’ll carry to my grave. The narrowness of the dominant paradigm is wholly unnecessary. All it would take to change this lunatic arrangement is a bit of intelligence and a splash of imagination. But what am I thinking, that’s the last thing likely to come to bear on the issue, “family values” now being higher in public opinion than ever. We’re dealing with an ideology that isn’t susceptible to the operations of reason, as human history shows all too clearly is the case with any ideology. In short: I’m pissing in the wind.
Another advantage I think worth mentioning is one that many people might find eo ipso a disadvantage: predictability. It’s the best word I can find to express the texture of life you have when you’re an individual operating on your own impetus outside a family structure. Very few external surprises invade your life if you do your own thing and decide for yourself what happens. There are no kids breaking limbs on the sports field and no teenagers needing to be hauled out of juvenile detention. Life is beautifully calm and the days go along their appointed path for the most part without fits and starts. If you don’t put something in them they pass without any waves at all striking the shore. After observing what happens in families, I consider that predictability a definite advantage. If I need excitement I prefer that it be something fun rather than something requiring me to drop everything to deal with something somebody else has done, usually an emergency or a kerfuffle of some sort. The advantage of my own position has become especially clear to me here in the Philippines, where family life seems to be little more than a string of emergencies punctuated by disasters. My life is wonderfully quiet and orderly by comparison. I would have it no other way.
The last advantage I identify is one most people may well pooh-pooh. As the biological unit I am I carry the same guilt as any other human alive today for overburdening the Planet with my heterotrophic self. We humans are too many now, the environmental scales have already tipped to the wrong side because of the weight of us all. At this critical point in history I take comfort in the fact that my biological buck stops with me. I haven’t spawned more human beings who will put even more pressure on the biosphere. The desire to avoid that circumstance was not the prime motivation for my choice but the result is a happy by-product. My conscience is clear. When I croak the damage to the biosphere from my biological unit stops once and for all. If there were many more people like me, the scales might not have tipped so quickly toward biosphere destruction as they have done. That’s just one more reason society deserves to be whapped up side the head for not coming up with legitimate lifepaths other than mindless reproduction. It will kill us all in the end, that fact has become quite clear.
On now to the cons. The first one is work. Or, if you prefer, effort. Since society can’t be bothered to provide anything beyond the Ma and Pa paradigm, if you diverge from that scenario it’s entirely up to you to devise a workable alternative. You can expect no help from the societal quarter, trust me on that one, Bridget. At this point in my life I have it pretty much down pat so I’m not bothered, but as a young thing I was given a run for my money on more than one occasion. One lacks in one’s younger years the range of experience and insight needed for so major a life task. It’s wildly unfair to burden young people with something complex enough to strain the creative ability of someone twice their age. One soldiers on, of course, and manages by hook or by crook, but it could all be far easier if society were more flexible, more pluralistic.
The second major disadvantage is marginalization. The major way one experiences this phenomenon is by encountering the kind of thing I described in the anecdote about my friend’s mother. Then there are always questions, questions, questions, all delegitimizing, like that posed by my Filipino acquaintance. Nobody has ever asked me, “Ok, so what directions has your life taken since you weren’t busy raising a family?” I’d fall over in a dead faint if anybody asked me that. The upshot of marginalization is that over the years I’ve had less and less to do with family people and avoid socializing with family groups. I rarely socialize with married couples — they’re like members of a club and can really only relate to other club members. That counts me out. I’d rather spend time with my Kindle, thanks very much.
As I’ve become older the marginalization has lost its punch and now seems to me a positive advantage. Staying out of the family fray keeps me from bothersome questions and from things like being invited to holiday dinners because I’m the poor lost soul with nobody oh how sad. If I attend such things I end up surrounded by people I don’t know from Adam who inevitably are doing Ma and Pa things with kids running around. Spare me. I admit that it would at times be nice to feel more a part of the great fabric that is humanity, to feel plugged into it in some more lively and meaningful way. That certainly won’t happen during the remainder of my natural lifetime. And considering the tenor of current societal circumstances, I’m perfectly happy to be marginalized to the far outer edge of the human community. I’ve done without any sense of community for so many years now I’m not bothered. Mess with my Kindle, however, and you’ll be toast in a heartbeat. 🙂
As for the matter of not having anybody to take care of me when I’m old, all I can say is: so what? I’ve taken care of myself throughout my adult life, meeting situations with the best combination of intelligence and creativity I can muster. That’s not about to change just because the years pile up. The prospect of falling at the end of my life upon the mercy of society — which has so begrudged me my divergent lifestyle all these years — doesn’t disturb me. I won’t turn for help to a hand that has never offered it in the past. I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done — take care of myself — and create the best version of whatever situation develops as the years progress. When I compare my position in retirement to my age cohort inside their societal boxes, I realize I’ve done a bang-up job of positioning myself well for the final phase of life. So take that, Great Aunt Whooziwhatsit, and keep your advice for somebody who needs it. I’m doing just fine, thank you, and nobody’s going to stick me into a nursing home because I’m such a bitch. I mean witch, sorry. 🙂
I’m fully aware that some inherently desirable things have gone missing in my experience because of my choices in life, but given the universe of options available in the straightjacketed world we inhabit I’m quite content with the choices I made and with their outcomes. If the world were radically different perhaps I’d have made radically different choices. But the world is what it is, we’re still living animal lives for the most part after several thousand years of what we call “civilization.” I’m quite pleased that my life has diverged from the dominant model and I’m perfectly content with the person I’ve become by going my own way.
So yes, Bridget, a legitimate, dare I say worthwhile life is indeed possible without being a Ma or a Pa. Like any kind of life it has its up and downs, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible. I’m here as living proof that it is.