Monday, September 24, 2007

Single DNA in a paired world

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.


  1. Oddly, I was thinking about this yesterday. My co-worker routinely puts child issues above being at work. Yesterday started with "My daughter is sick and my wife can't leave the office, so if she can't stay at school..." He has weekend visitations with his son from a prior marriage, and has even gone so far as to state that leaving early to go get him in a blizzard - in his SUV - was more important than my nearly getting in an accident just trying to get home after 2 more hours of snow had fallen.

    But because I made a conscious choice not to have children, I can't say a word about any of it. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.........

  2. Southwest Airlines just changed their boarding policy, boarding families with small children second, and their blog readers were up in arms about the inconvenience, saying, "I'll never fly Southwest again," etc. After reading dozens of these, I am amazed that some people have children, given how much they complain about the effort they're put to!

  3. Another example of a person who believes he is the privileged center of the universe because he has a child: A young man brought his baby in a folding stroller onto a rush-hour bus. Apparently, he's never heard the constant admonitions of the automated nag system, which among other things reminds you to fold your stroller or cart if the bus becomes crowded.

    He chose to park it near the front, taking up three-quarters of the aisle and making it difficult for anyone to get on the bus at all. Although it was a holiday (Columbus Day), the bus was crowded because it connects north-south routes with the west-side train stations and offices, so those who didn't have the day off still use it to get to work.

    He could easily have lifted the baby (not a toddler) out and folded the cart; instead he let everyone trip over the stroller trying to get onto the bus—including two disabled women with canes. And he seemed utterly clueless that this was outright rude.

    The bus driver didn't say anything, either.

    And if I had, I'm sure I would have been seen as a shrill shrew with a withered uterus or something, because who would be less than smarmy with a proud father!