Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Selfishness Sweepstakes

A Single reader wrote in to ask about married people and our willingness to visit out-of-town friends. She has noticed that once her friends marry, they are no longer so willing to visit her, although they don't stint on their invitations to her. Was this just the way life was, she wondered, and would she be the same when she married?

The email seemed jocular, so she got a jocular reply. In short, it is a widely known fact that couples gain at least ten pounds after marriage, in part because they become very reluctant to go outdoors after dark. We come home from work, we eat, we watch TV, we go to bed. The next day, we go to work, we come home from work, we eat, we watch TV, we go to bed. If children come along, they complicate matters and make it even harder for married people to go outdoors after dark. Husbands famously never go out with their wives at night, etc.  That was the gist of it.

Well! The Single reader wrote back in what looked like a fury, saying that it confirmed what she suspected, which was that Single people were less selfish than married people, for married people just lived for each other and their children, whereas Single people live for others.

There was sincere regret at the other end for having written the jocular reply, but also some confusion as to how spouses and children don't count as "others" and how a Single woman could conclude, given the contemporary dating climate, that in general Single people live for others.

In fact, the most deeply selfish people I have ever met are Single. However, it could be argued that their very Singleness is a mitigating factor, for it is more difficult to climb into the pits of self-absorption when you are married: there is always this other person there with, like, needs and wants of his or her own, who won't let you.  If you resist, he or she either convinces you to shape up or he or she runs away, and hey presto, you are [functionally] Single again.

It is good to live with other people, for it forces a person to think of others, at least if that person wants to live in peace and harmony. It is a dying to self, and my goodness, the sufferings of real-life, concrete Edinburgh parents who sacrifice so much (especially sleep) for their children fill  me with awe. The childless married person usually has to think just of his or her spouse, which is not that difficult, if he or she has chosen well, and usually involves some kind of housework and never saying "I told you so" or "You never." Still, even the childless have to be willing to sacrifice this dream and that, this anticipated treat or that long-awaited ambition, for the sake of a spouse.

It is not, as a matter of fact, selfish for a married person (or anyone, really) to turn down an out-of-town invitation from a Single friend. In fact, the married person who delivers the bad news is probably doing the unselfish thing in taking the heat on behalf of his or her spouse. "I'd like to see Mary Sue," I can imagine the wife saying. "Can we see Mary Sue next weekend?"

"Next weekend?" wails the husband. "You KNOW what kind of week I'll be having at work. By the weekend I won't want to do anything but sleep and veg in front of the TV. I'm sorry, but driving all the way to Buffalo and back is just too much for one weekend ."

"Well, I'll go see Mary Sue then," says the wife, bravely, for she has never been the same confident driver since that accident that time.

"But you hate highway driving," says her husband. "Why don't you ask Mary Sue to come here?"

"But she came last time; it's our turn to go there."

"I'm not driving to Buffalo, and that's final," says the husband. "And I don't want you white-knuckling all the way down the I-90, either. Meanwhile, I'm barely going to see you all week. Let's spend Saturday at home and then go out for dinner. Mary Sue can come with us if she wants."

So the wife, with some relief, just hunkers down and emails Mary Sue to say "We can't come, but you can always come here!"

And Mary Sue has the choice to be hacked off at the thought of the drive or to be delighted that her friends have given her an open invitation.

There's a married woman in Toronto who is wonderful company but has three children under 7. She doesn't have much time for her Single/childless friends, poor sweet. After (or concurrent with) family obligations, she manages to arrange "play dates" with other exhausted mothers of small children, which are always when the vast majority of her Single/childless friends are working.

This married mother has a childless friend who has visited Toronto once a year for the past six years. When they meet, they never travel farther than the nearest shopping street, and this is almost always with at least one child in tow. Usually what they do is sit in the married mother's house amid a sea of toys and children and drink herbal tea. The childless friend holds one of the children, and the married mother runs around doing this and that for this child or that child or her husband. And the childless friend just sits there with the baby or the toddler, happy as a raccoon at a baby shower--to quote the American car salesman on the British TV advert--and looks at her friend.

"You're doing the most important job in the world," she says to  the married mother, who always looks a little thinner and a little more tired than she did the year before.

"I really hope so," says the married mother fervently.

She almost never writes, she almost never calls, she almost never checks Facebook. She really has no time. But her childless friend waits and looks forward to her next trip to Toronto and as much sitting in the toy-and-child sea as possible because...well, love.


  1. "happy as a raccoon at a baby shower"

    Oh, British television commercials. You do not understand American country similes. While they may sound like word salad, they are not, and any given analogy must be rooted in truth.

    A raccoon, being a nocturnal animal, would be miserable AT a baby shower, typically held in the mid-afternoon. Even if it raided the trash the night after a baby shower, it would be disappointed, there being too many ribbons and wrapping papers in comparison to food. Rather, the phrase should be "happy as a raccoon after the Superbowl" or popular local sporting event of choice, because the trashbins will be overflowing with the chicken bones and pizza crusts beloved by the suburban raccoon.

    1. I quite agree! The advert always makes me laugh and assume that the British do not know what a raccoons and baby showers are. But your phrase is quite brilliant, and I will use it myself, with an exaggerated Canadian accent.

  2. Beautiful writing!! It made me laugh, and the ending made me cry. So very, very true. I think only certain friendships can bridge the married/single divide, because they have a depth to them that makes them strong and adaptable to change - like an ocean! It can be hard to accept not all our friendships will have this quality, and it is not anyone's fault - it is a mystery.

    Some people might look at the friendship you describe and see an unequal investment of time and travel, but others can look at these two women - one childless, one overwhelmed with children - and see a beautiful and profound truth that each woman is actually giving out of her poverty, and so in that moment is giving her friend all that she has.

  3. Thank you! I think one thing that Single people don't understand is that every social plan can give rise to an argument. Not only do social butterflies often marry homebodies, but social butterflies often crawl into a homebody cocoons when they marry. The married social butterfly has to consider "How far do I want to push it with Spouse in order to make Mary Sue/my old pal Bobby happy?" Married men probably hear "No, I need you at home" as much as married women hear "Do we haaaaaaaave to?"

  4. Thank you for this post! It is particularly apposite for me, since I am about to make my semi-annual trip to visit a married friend with 5 children. We spend most of our time in her house watching movies and cooking, with occasional trips to museums and parks with the kids. Hopefully I will be able to get her out alone for lunch one day, but there is no guarantee for that.


  5. A thought on your concept of "others".
    To the single person, everyone is an other. Parents, siblings, fellow parishioners, friends and friends spouses. So if the single is not doing something for herself, she is doing it for others.
    Sometimes the single wants to be considered an "other" so that once or twice a year, she might be the beneficiary of a selfless act.

    A married couple, with or without children, is a self contained group. Certainly the wife views her husband as an other, whom she serves, same as the children. the single, that group is "you" "you all" or "you guys" wherein, the single may do something to serve you guys, like driving across town to hold babies and read stories.... But when does the single get to be an "other"? Typically not until she's the recipient of a bridal shower... Correct?
    There is no service to the single other.

  6. Oh heavens, yes, there is, if you look for them. As much as I complain about them, Catholic dating sites perform a service to Singles as do Catholic organizations for Singles. The Single is also "the other" when she gets presents at Christmas, on her birthday and even, from very close friends, in a tricky, possibly bittersweet way (perhaps) on Valentine's Day. And then there are often good-bye parties for girls who are going off to the convent, or simply retiring from work. I imagine nuns wish each other a happy birthday, although I suspect they make less of a deal about it than the friends of a Single woman in the world.

    As a childless woman, one of the nicest things is (as it was when I was Single) spending time with my siblings' or friend's children, so that is definitely a gift for me as childless-woman, even as a married woman. I think in particular of driving through Belgium in the back seat with my niece and younger nephew; my brother and SIL probably thought I was doing them a favour, but I didn't see it that way!

    The one thing I do concede here is that nobody celebrates the continuing singleness of a Single, unless he or she is in vows (and then they're celebrating the anniversary of the vows more than the state-of-just-being-unmarried). I suppose this is because nobody embraces non-vowed-Single-life as a historical event or thinks involuntary singleness as something to be celebrated as if it were not involuntary but a cross.

    This is why it is all the more important for Single girls to look out for each other and to celebrate each other and toast their freedoms as Single women while mutually commiserating on the downside. Gradually married women forget what it is like to be Single or find themselves unable to really identify with Singles' problems, just as a chap who leaves a religious order to get married gradually discovers he no longer has much in common with his old brothers in religion.

  7. Oh dear, the last sentence in the penultimate paragraph doesn't make grammatical sense. What I mean is that it would be insensitive to celebrate a Single's protracted singleness when it was something she didn't choose but is a a cross to her. I would be furious if someone had a surprise infertility party for me. Oooh, don't go there. Of course infertility brings a certain kind of wordly freedom--yay--but I wouldn't have chosen it.

  8. Right. Of course, no celebrations of missed fertility!

    But you forget, other than her closest friends who exchange trinkets for Christmas and birthdays (no complaint on trinkets... Favorite costume jewelry and snarky luggage tags show they 'get' me) - but there are no gifts from family. My mom gives me a check so I can buy my own gift, which is kind, and generous, but not as much fun as opening something thoughtfully selected. And I buy dozens of gifts for my brother and his family... And get a bottle of wine or a gift card in return. They don't even know what a kind of wine is my favorite. ( I live a state away)
    They also don't come to visit, because I'm "the one who moved away".

    Not complaining, necessarily, just explaining how one comes to think there is not much service for single others.
    My church is happy for my availability in many ministries, and sometimes I'm invited to dinners, but now that I have a boyfriend, I suspect I'll get lots more attention for being alive!