never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: envy

the sum total

But I would look elsewhere, away from how we might want to define ourselves in opposition to Amy and more in terms of how we’re all like her. We are all the sum totals of our failures, the times that our hearts broke or our lives crumbled or our worlds fell apart. We look at other people with envy and bitterness. We want what we don’t have and when we get it, we want something else. We’re often not very nice to the people who most count on us to be so, and we sometimes don’t understand just how much we hurt those around us. Just like people scatter from Amy, there are those who simply don’t want to be around us, who run when they see us coming. What Enlightened got right, particularly in its second season, when it was the best show on TV, was that the act of simply being alive, of sitting in your home or standing on a street corner or driving through the night, can hurt so much. Every second is another opportunity to feel alone or useless or washed up. Every day is a new chance to wash up on the island of your own lost opportunities.


Hmmm… I will have to get to this one soon, as Henry James, Emily Dickinson, and Edie Sedgwick have all been mentioned in this blog:

How much of Nora’s fantasy is true — and to what degree the Shahids must share blame where it is false — is at the core of Messud’s novel. Though she invokes Ellison, the writer Messud brings to mind is Henry James — with his involuted prose, often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience.

It becomes increasingly clear that we can’t always rely on Nora’s view of events. Even as she pointedly tells us that she is the woman upstairs, rather than the mad woman in the attic, her art commemorates suicidal figures such as Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick and Virginia Woolf. Nora herself suffers a breakdown of sorts in the aptly named Galerie Werther.

But like Emily Dickinson — the predecessor that Nora’s art most fully honors — Nora’s heightened state lets her see things others miss: how postmodernism reduces meaning to pastiche and art to easily consumed images; how women continually “glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price”; and, in an exquisitely rendered nod to that most Jamesian of themes, how she has failed to fully live because she has been overly afraid of dying.

ranty women

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know.” Those are the opening lines of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. The novel is about a single woman, Nora, who hasn’t fulfilled her dreams of being an artist and having children. Nora’s plight is complicated when she befriends a woman who has done both.

The book explores deeper themes about what it means to sacrifice everything for one’s art and the inner life of a person whose dreams have been thwarted in relation to external realities. Part of that inner life, says Messud, is anger and she has long been interested in how anger manifests itself in the form of a rant.

“As a reader since very early I have found myself drawn to rants,” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was in my senior year of high school when I read Notes From Underground by Dostoyevksy and it was an exhilarating discovery. I hadn’t known up until that moment that fiction could be like that. Fiction could say these things, could be unseemly, could be unsettling and distressing in that particular way, that immediate and urgent way. And in the many years since I have read and loved a number of ranting narrators, and it struck me eventually that they were all men and that I didn’t know of a book in which a woman expressed her anger and I thought perhaps I should write one.”


I admit I’ve also had my fill of photos of: “Perfect Family – Posing on the beach all dressed in white shirts, khaki pants with beaming smile and the glorious sunset on the horizon.” It’s as if people are posing their families to look like magazine ads:


AVC: These last two episodes deal quite a bit with Krista. That character seems like she would have been easy to remove, but she’s there throughout. What do you see as that character’s role?

MW: To me, Krista is Amy’s Achilles heel, and that’s why I felt it was important to keep her there. There’s a reading of the show that is like the “baby envy” reading of Amy, and the show itself is the kind of mischief people can get into if they don’t have kids to distract them. [Laughs.] Amy seeing Krista being pregnant and having all the things that she maybe wanted at one point, but now the milk has been spilt, and there’s no going back there—there’s something about Krista’s complacency and the simple pleasures of Krista’s life that drives Amy crazy. She sees the husband coming to work to visit her and kissing the baby belly and all the friends excited for her, and she doesn’t see it as, “Oh, I’m jealous of this,” she sees it as, “This is what’s wrong with America!” [Laughs.] Everybody’s excited about their own little sphere, and they don’t care about the babies suffering on the street and things like that.

So I felt like the culmination of that was Krista having her baby and having her moment, the most personal, emotional moment of her life, and then Amy comes in and says, “You fucked me! You fucked me, Krista!” She’s so wrong, and that’s the part of Amy that is her Achilles heel, but, at the same time, that’s not the only part of her. So that felt like the right end to that relationship, having her looking back at the hospital after ripping Krista a new one for no reason at the most inopportune moment. But I relate that to me; sometimes you see that if you’re concerned with these bigger questions, you can get kind of crazed. I remember when I first became a vegan—I wrote a movie about this—suddenly your mind is in the slaughterhouse all the time. “They’re killing animals, and it’s disgusting the way they do it!” And you see people eating their lunch and feeding their kids, and you’re like, “Can’t you see what’s happening!” I think that Krista isn’t a bitch. She’s just somebody that isn’t thinking about these bigger things; she’s just living her life. And that’s fine. That’s totally valid. And for Amy, there’s this connection between the personal jealousies of the life she could have had and seeing that there is something wrong with that and that there is something that Krista should be doing. She’s constantly trying to evangelize to Krista.

the collective unconscious

Here are the choice bits I promised from Henriette Mantel’s No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood. Although I’ve picked some of the sadder passages, all the essays in the book end on some note of triumph. So just buy the book already, along with Jody Day’s Rocking the Life Unexpected:

Nora Dunn, p. 22: The women I know who have children never say they want another person. They always say they want another baby. They don’t seem to realize that no matter how many babies they have, the baby will always get bigger.

Laurie Graff, p. 57: When I look at Facebook, I am a voyeur. I see pictures, happy pictures of the families my peers have created. I see the choices of girlfriends while piecing together the lives of ex-boyfriends. Artists and civilians alike, divorced, married, widowed, single, straight, or gay, they update their status and show off their kids. I do not know how they really feel, but it looks picture perfect. I look at those pictures, and I feel a pang.

Ann Slichter, p. 85: Back at Gelson’s in the checkout counter there’s that lame US weekly. I think of all the comparing and wishing and hoping I’ve done over the years. Famous pregnant women clad in cute outfits are on every cover. Five months pass, I look at the magazines, same gals, this time they’re pushing strollers. Six more months go by, and every publication has “How I lost my baby weight,” juice fasts, and low-carb eating plans. Those silly little magazines are designed to make me feel bad. And I fall for that trick every time. According to them, I’ve failed.

Andrea Carla Michaels, p. 94: I mean, since turning fifty, I have been placed in the role of older woman, someone’s mother, lonely cat lady– where “independent and free-spirited,” adjectives folks used to ascribe to me, have been daily replaced, “kiddingly” of course, they insist, with “eccentric” and “quirky,” and with multiple references to cats.

Jeanne Dorsey, p. 98: In the ideal world, she will be at peace with this choice, and her identity as a woman remains complete. In the real world the stigma of being a childless woman is part of the collective unconscious.

Betsy Salkind, p. 126: You’d think that people who do have children would take a greater interest in the world of the future, but I’m not seeing that so much. Parents often seem more intent on making sure their kids have advantages over other children than improving the situation for all.

Judy Nielsen, p. 147: My ability to live so well with MS for twenty-five years is the result of having had the time and middle-class privilege to heal myself — and of having the choice of not having children… Instead, I have had time, precious time, to pay attention to my eating, my sleeping patterns, my feelings, my dreams. I participated in my wellness by committing to the age-old practice of practicing.

Kathryn Rossetter (her essay is worth the price of the book alone):

p. 194 Major assumptions are that I am a feminist and career woman who never wanted kids; that I was traumatized as a child; that of course I have had one or more abortions; that I am selfish and self-absorbed and I will never understand life and the depth of unconditional love. Men assume I’m so independent that I am not even looking for a relationship and am just a good-time girl. Some have even intimated that as a woman I seem “unnatural.” I usually just shrug and say, “Life doesn’t always work out.” I offer no more information.

p. 196 During this time, the first phase of my college friends were beginning to have their children. Christmas cards were full of baby pictures and tales of how the love of a small child had transformed them. It was a feeling they could never explain and a depth of love they never knew possible… A divide was forming between the mothers and non-mothers.

p. 196 Whenever I was in a serious relationship, I would feel the strong desire to have a child with that man. I would see us creating new life out of our loving union. But I never felt this when I was on my own, and during those times, I didn’t give children much thought.

p. 198 I suppose it was that I just couldn’t wrap my head or my heart around having a child alone… Unfortunately, I had no one in whom to confide my thoughts, fears, and sadness. At that time, the women’s movement was too fragile to be able to afford the time to support those left confused in its wake.

p. 199-200 Going to L.A. at forty with a broken heart is just slightly less painful than taking a sharp stick in the eye. At that time forty was the new sixty, so personally and professionally, I had a lot of time on my hands… Most of my friends were living a suburban lifestyle… There was no place for me there. I felt excluded from “real life” and profoundly alone.

p. 201 … I threw myself on the bed, and from deep within came a sound like a wolf caught in a trap, howling for its life. I cried for my disappointments, I cried for my mistakes, I cried for my losses. I was a failure as a woman. No one loved me enough to commit to me. I was embarrassed. I felt I needed to apologize for my life.

p. 202 I don’t see my issues discussed on The View. There are no books written, statistics kept, or exposes done on single, childless women of a certain age. My opinions are not sought. I am not even marketed to as a viable consumer.

fear and loathing

“I loathe women,” she cried in a mild temper. “What on earth can you say to them, except talk ‘lady-lady’? I’ve enthused over a dozen babies that I’ve only wanted to choke. And every one of those girls is either incipiently jealous and suspicious of her husband if he’s charming or beginning to be bored with him if he isn’t.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

other dreams

I wish, in this answer, that she’d given some space to the possibilities of a childfree life:

Oh, the dream. The god damned man + baby dream. Written by the High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction and practiced by couples across the land, the dream’s a bitch if you’re a maternally-inclined straight female and not living it by the age of 37.1; a situation of a spermicidally toxic flavor. Of course you want to bring out your six-shooter every time you see another bloated mom hoisting up another squinty-eyed spawn on Facebook. You want the dream too! The man. The baby. The whole god-damned shebang.

But, M, you didn’t get it. Not yet. Not quite ever, perhaps. That doesn’t mean all is lost. This is not “how your story ends.” It’s simply where it takes a turn you didn’t expect.


In the middle of this podcast, the three hosts discuss a GQ article entitled “The Cooler Me” by Eric Puchner in which the author, a domesticated parent, compares his life to a bohemian doppelgänger. The female host reports that she was a bit disappointed by the ending, in which the author “of course” has to insinuate that his kids make all his compromises worth it. All three hosts are childless, so it was interesting to hear their take:

And here’s the essay, with some highlights:

“It was like being winked into a secret world,” Kyle said. “I sort of realized I didn’t have to be a busy ant. People get so caught up in ending up somewhere specific, in chasing a certain kind of life, but it’s like that Alan Watts quote: Every point on the surface of the sphere is the center of the surface. You’re at the center already.”


What about kids? I asked. A family? Did he ever worry he was missing out on something?

He stared at the bed sitting in the middle of the yard. “I haven’t knocked it off the list. It might be fun to be one of those freaky old dads. But I’m too attached to my freedom, I guess—waking up at 10 a.m. and hopping on my skateboard to check out the surf. I like watching all the bandwagoners hustling off to work. If I’m feeling good, I’m the king of the world.”

“And if you’re feeling bad?”

“I’m the scum of the earth.”

I told him that children would help with that. If I’d had a bad day of writing or teaching and I was generally feeling like a worthless piece of shit, there was nothing like being greeted by your kids back at home to snap things into perspective. I was bragging a bit—I wanted to squeeze some jealousy from him—but it was also, I felt, one of the unconditional rewards of fatherhood.

“But it’s important to feel like scum sometimes, isn’t it?” Kyle said. “To get down in that dark place and dwell awhile?”

I looked up at the house, surprised to see stars twinkling in the empty window frame. It was one of the hardest parts of family life, actually, the thing maybe I missed the most: the loss of that lonely place I used to dwell. As a young man drunk on books, I used to walk the streets for hours, feeling like an alien creature, following the darkening detours of my mind. People tend to talk about self-absorption as if it were a bad thing, but I missed those walks very much.


There was his amazing popularity in the neighborhood, for instance. It seemed like everyone who walked by burst out smiling or yelled his name or asked him if he wanted to hit the surf. “My buddies,” he called them. It was like sitting next to the groom at a wedding reception. When we went to buy beer at the corner, the Korean convenience-store owner embraced him like a son. In L.A., my life was consumed by family—I knew almost none of my neighbors, and the ones I did know I actively avoided. I had a balcony, but I never used it. If I wasn’t inside the tortoiseshell of our beautiful apartment, I was in our low-emission station wagon driving the kids somewhere or getting myself to work. Here was a man who lived three blocks from the beach, one block from Golden Gate Park, whose life—as far as I could tell—was spent on porches. He even went outside to piss.


Recently I went to see a famous old poet read at the college where I teach. His poems were about death, yet they were hopeful and elegiac. Between poems, he rambled on about not being afraid of the unknown. He talked about his friends in Hawaii who were astronomers, how they understood that time was a fiction. He discussed the last line of his most famous poem, how it is important to bow “not knowing to what.” Then something terrible happened. He began to trip over his words. He seemed lost and disoriented. Eventually he said he felt too weak to go on, and when he sat back down his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he lay there motionless, gaping at the ceiling. I thought he’d had a stroke. The look on his face—its yawn of frozen terror—seemed like a perfect rebuttal of everything he’d been talking about, of his life’s work. Time, it seemed to say, was definitely not a fiction.

They shepherded us out of the room while sirens wailed in the distance. Strangely, when I got outside, my first thought was: Did he have children? It seemed like a very important question. As it turned out, it wasn’t a stroke, he’d be okay—but I didn’t know that yet. When I got home, my daughter was still awake, and I kissed her good night and sat on her bed longer than usual. I told her a story from my childhood, one of her favorites, and she corrected me when I got a detail wrong. She knew the story better than I did. Miniature plastic planets hung from her ceiling, meant to mimic the geography of the solar system. A few of them—like Saturn—had fallen off, but the earth still dangled above us, hanging literally by a thread. If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I thought, I would still want to be sitting right here. Because it was going to happen someday—very soon, in fact, in cosmological time—and it mattered immensely where I was. There was no time not to waste.

the new normal

While childless Xers certainly sympathize and support the special challenges facing parents, they would like their lives outside work celebrated too – or, at least, respected. Some of our interviewees lamented the difficulty of caring for a dog or getting to the gym when kids provide the only legitimate cover for leaving the office at a reasonable hour. “I don’t begrudge my colleagues with children,” one financial services professional admits, “but I’d like someone to acknowledge that I have a life outside work, too.”


As choosing not to parent becomes “the new normal” for Generation X, their employers need to make sure that childless Xers aren’t relegated to second place in the war for work-life balance. Otherwise, they risk losing the fathers and mothers of their own future.