A young mother can't be expected to work extra hours, a co-worker with grown children recently told me. "It's hard when you have a baby," she said.
I couldn't argue against the point; I don't think anyone could. There are practical matters to consider, such as making sure that either you or your spouse is able to pick up the baby from day-care on time. Then, for working parents every moment spent with the baby must seem precious, especially if he or she is their first. Who would sacrifice their time with the fascinating new infant to work without compelling reason or cause?
But the observation did send a cold probe deep into a hot well of remembered resentment that formed at a job I had many years ago, when I worked with married, middle-aged mothers. As a single, unfettered woman and the reluctant part of the village it takes to raise a child, my lot was to work extra hours (unpaid) so the mothers could pick up their children (none of them babies) to take them to their various activities.
At first I didn't mind, especially if the project I was working on happened to be interesting or challenging. As time wore on, however, my nerves wore on. I would work until 7:00 p.m., 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m., and even 10:00 p.m. and beyond. Lonely. Exhausted. With nothing to look forward to except more of the same.
I began to imagine my co-workers' happy domestic lives. While I sat in a sterile white cubicle under unnatural fluorescent light breathing stale office air, my tired mind pictured idyllic family scenes in pricey suburban houses, with manicured lawns, spotless back yards, comfortable living and family rooms, and warm and cozy kitchens. All this was possible because I was not empowered to say, "No"; that would have been perceived as uncooperative, the mark of someone who's not a "team player." The work had to be done. No one was waiting for me, and everyone knew it. That I liked to go home, sit outside in the fine weather with a book, and have quiet time to myself probably did not occur to my colleagues. For giving up my few simple, unimaginable pleasures, I was not thanked or acknowledged. All of us accepted that this is the way it works.
A single, childless person seems to be a social anomaly with whom most people are uncomfortable, as though the era of the "old maid" or "bachelor" never ended. We get no tax breaks. We are not invited to formal dinners or social occasions unless we can be suitably paired with a single person of the opposite gender—which rarely falls into place. We excite unspoken surprise if we attend concerts, movies, and the like alone. On Amtrak, single people are asked to move if a couple boards and a pair of seats is unavailable. After seeing one single man moved three times in as many hours, I wondered why people who live together can't travel alone for the amount of time it would take for a pair of seats to open naturally. No, three times this man had to collect his belongings and move elsewhere.
The message is clear: The needs of the many, or the pair, outweigh the needs of the one. Always.
A former co-worker told me that, had I lived at the right time, I might have been condemned to burn as a witch. I believe it. I'm single, I'm female, I'm childless, I'm educated, I'm older, I'm unconventional, and I'm apparently completely at odds with our family-centric society. That makes me frightening and disturbing and weird. Societies rarely embrace those whose lot or choice it is to be different.
Except that there has to be someone to work late and give up his or her seat.