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(Marie Lambert)– I have a very distinct memory from my childhood of being in music class and listening to the girls in my class talk about marriage. I was probably somewhere between second and fifth grade, and I remember sitting in a circle on the cold linoleum and feeling very odd. Everyone was talking about how many children they wanted, which genders, what they would name them—although we were no more than children ourselves. I sat in silence for a while until a pause arose in the conversation and I proudly announced that I didn’t want children, and on top of that, I didn’t even want to get married. And I was proud of this fact, this thing that made me different from the other girls (little hipster that I was). If marriage wasn’t good enough for my mom, then it wasn’t good enough for me.
But the responses I received quickly killed the pride I’d had. “That’s weird,” they’d said, because what little girl didn’t want to grow up to have a fairytale wedding with their soul mate and produce children as perfect as the porcelain dolls so many of us grew up with? They asked me why, what reason could I possibly have for not wanting to get married? I couldn’t answer them, but just turned red and stammered something along the lines of “just because.” I went home that night wishing that my single mother had gotten married like all the other moms at school.
Up until that point, I don’t think I’d really noticed how much marriage and the traditional family shaped the world around me, and how I seemed to be cut out from parts of that world. Up until the age of ten, my mother and I lived with her parents in their house until we could afford to move to our own apartment. For a long time, I told people I had three mothers: my actual mother, my grandmother, and my night-light shaped like the Virgin Mary.
Obviously, my concept of the nuclear family was a little skewed. But it wasn’t until after the incident in music class that I really began to notice it. And once I noticed it, I noticed it all the time. I hated having to be partnered with my instructor’s husband during the “father-daughter” portion of my dance recital. I was relived that Father’s Day was in June, after school ended, so I didn’t have to go through the awkwardness of watching from the side while everyone else in art class making crafts to give to their fathers, as we did on Mother’s Day.
I had friends whose parents were divorced, but that didn’t seem quite the same. At least they still somewhat fit into the standard that I believed was the only one existing that defined a proper family. It actually wasn’t until I came to Amherst that I met people who’d grown up in situations like mine, to whom families consisting of two married parents were in the minority.
But up until that epiphany, I was bothered by what I believed was a strict societal expectation for the entire world to be paired. Did everyone really have some sort of “soul mate” wandering around the world whom they were destined to find some day? How on earth were you supposed to find them? And if you did, how would you know it was them? What if they died, or didn’t want to marry you? The whole idea seemed highly problematic and inefficient.
As for marriage, I had trouble committing to one outfit for the day, so how was I supposed to commit to one person to spend all my time with? Why did we have to bind ourselves “forever” to this one person? The whole institution seemed flawed to me, and I might not be alone: only around 51% of the United States was married in 2010, compared to 72% in 1960. Despite these statistics, the country still seems to have a sort of obsession with marriage as an idyll—just look at reality TV shows like The Bachelor/Bachelorette or the Wedding Channel, or the massive commercial enterprise that is the wedding industry itself. We want to win, plan, or shop our way to real love, and then wonder why the divorce rate is rumored to be so high.
But I promise I’m not all cynicism. I recently returned from a wedding (hence the waxing philosophical about marriage), and although my confidence in the institution of marriage has not been completely restored, it’s at least been temporarily amended. Despite what society and Hollywood tells us, no one is ever guaranteed love, happiness, or a perfect match. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The very complex human emotion that we call love takes many different forms and can create many different types of families, some all the more beautiful for their nonconformity.
Do we as a society put too much of a focus and hold unreasonably high standards for romantic love exclusive to marriage? It’s difficult to discuss this without the dismissal of inherent cheesiness and references to “All You Need Is Love,” but I think this is a real issue we should consider. Maybe a less selfish, individualistic love is what we really need to fill the collective hole that we seem to want to fill in our hearts.