I know all this now, and yet—here’s the problem—much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it. It’s not that I have to be dazzled by a guy anymore (though it would be nice). It’s not even that I have to think about him when he’s not around (though that would be nice, too). Nor is it that I’m unable to accept reality and make significant compromises because that’s what grown-ups do (I can and have—I had a baby on my own).
No, the problem is that the very nature of dating leaves women my age to wrestle with a completely different level of settling. It’s no longer a matter, as it was in my early 30s, of “just not feeling it,” of wanting to be in love. Consider the men whom older women I know have married in varying degrees of desperation over the past few years: a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t always go to his meetings; a trying-to-make-it-in-his-40s actor; a widower who has three nightmarish kids and who’s still actively grieving for his dead wife; and a socially awkward engineer (so socially awkward that he declined to attend his wife’s book party). It’s not that these women are crazy; it’s that the dating pool has dwindled dramatically and that, due to gender politics, the few available men tend to require far more of a concession than those who were single when we were younger. And while I have a much higher tolerance for settling than I did back then, now I have my son to consider. It’s one thing to settle for a subpar mate; it’s quite another to settle for a subpar father figure for my child. So while there’s more incentive to settle now, there’s less willingness to settle too much, because that would be a disservice to my son.
This doesn’t undermine my case for settling. Instead, it supports my argument to do it young, when settling involves constructing a family environment with a perfectly acceptable man who may not trip your romantic trigger—as opposed to doing it older, when settling involves selling your very soul in exchange for damaged goods. Admittedly, it’s a dicey case to make because, like the divorced women I know who claim they wouldn’t have done anything differently, because then they wouldn’t have Biff and Buffy, I, too, can’t imagine life without my magical son. (Although, had I had children with a Mr. Good Enough, wouldn’t I be as hopelessly in love with those children, too?) I also acknowledge the power of the grass-is-always-greener phenomenon, and allow for the possibility that my life alone is better (if far more difficult) than the life I would have in a comfortable but tepid marriage.
But then my married friends say things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you don’t have to negotiate with your husband about the cost of piano lessons” or “You’re so lucky, you don’t have anyone putting the kid in front of the TV and you can raise your son the way you want.” I’ll even hear things like, “You’re so lucky, you don’t have to have sex with someone you don’t want to.”
The lists go on, and each time, I say, “OK, if you’re so unhappy, and if I’m so lucky, leave your husband! In fact, send him over here!”
Not one person has taken me up on this offer.