Of (Non-)Marriage and (Non-)Motherhood

“So, why aren’t you married?”

I thought I had passed the point where people ask me this question. In my experience, it seems to have had something of a statute of limitations on it, and when enough years have passed, no one asks anymore. This is totally fine, because answering it is a bit like answering, “So, why do you have two legs?” Um…

As I considered my answer (to one of the first questions my new friend asked), I wondered what he was expecting to hear – that is, what would be an acceptable explanation for what he apparently thought to be an unusual situation. I’ve had a wretched string of bad marriages and have given it up? I’m gay? My husband died young and I just haven’t remarried yet? I’m an incognito nun? I expect my real answer was a bit disappointing – and not terribly interesting, either. I told him that I just haven’t met the right guy.

This is the truth, as far as it goes, but really, it’s a gross simplification of two+ decades of adult life. I don’t resent my friend’s asking of the question. But I am sad to be reminded that so often we (and I am part of “we”) establish categories for people that can’t fairly represent who they are.

In my day job, I’ve been working on a project about language and how we explain “meaning.” One way that people have tried to define words is by listing their features. For example, a “bachelor” is an (1) adult person who is (2) male and (3) unmarried. This is a true statement, as far as it goes. But the fact is, when we hear the word “bachelor,” a whole world of associations comes to mind. If you don’t believe me, try the same process with the word “spinster”: an (1) adult person who is (2) female and (3) unmarried. The words “bachelor” and “spinster” look alike except for the gender feature, but everyone knows their definitions include a lot more than just these three features.

On the heels of being asked yesterday why I’m not married, I encountered a number of people today – as I do every second Sunday of May – who wished me a happy Mother’s Day. Again, I don’t resent their wishes, but I am reminded of categories.

Sometimes we categorize people because it makes keeping track of them in our heads easier. The older I get, the better I understand this. 😐 But often we do it because we just don’t think. The fact is that most of us defy categories: life is just more complex than a list of features. It’s the complexity that makes us who we are.

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About wendywidder

For LOVE of the WORD
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