Finding Mr. Good Enough

In the march issue of the Atlantic magazine, sandwiched between an article about Chinese Internet technology and a review of modernist art criticism, lies a seven-page essay called "Marry Him! The Case for Settling." Its author is Lori Gottlieb, a 40-year-old Los Angeles writer and single mother who admits that the idea of finding Mr. Right, a notion she once harbored, was in fact a bill of goods. Young women in search of marriage and family, she writes, should think seriously about resigning themselves to Mr. Good Enough.

"Marriage isn't a passion-fest," Gottlieb writes. "It's more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business."

Gottlieb (who's an acquaintance of mine) has already adapted this essay into a commentary on public radio's "Talk of the Nation" and discussed it on the "Today" show. It has sparked responses, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, whose collective word count surely exceeds that of her article by at least a hundred-fold. Partly that's the result of the button-pushing nature of the subject, and partly it's because of certain shrewd (or depending on your point of view, appalling) rhetorical choices Gottlieb makes over the course of her article. I won't attempt to capture the tone or content of the entire treatise (it's on newsstands and the Atlantic’s website); I want to quote from one passage that seems to be inflaming people the most.

"Every woman I know -- no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure -- feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.

"Oh, I know -- I'm guessing there are single 30-year-old women ... who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren't widely representative, that I've been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and, basically, that I have no idea what I'm talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you're not worried, either you're in denial or you're lying."

Really? At 30, I felt panic at the thought of being married. But I'll leave the rebuttals on this point to others (some thoughtful, some apoplectic, can be found via a quick Internet search). Besides, I detect enough self-deprecating drollery in the essay to persuade me it's not the crime against humanity that many of its more vehement critics are convinced it is.

What does feel to me like a crime, however, is what "Marry Him!" assumes is most women's relationship to motherhood -- namely that it's as necessary a part of adult female life as breathing. Gottlieb, at 38, had a baby with donated sperm. She could have framed her argument around the problematic aura of "empowerment" that surrounds popular notions of single-by-choice parenting. Instead, she echoes the conventional wisdom that women don't just want children, we need them. We're so delirious with need, in fact, that we should make all manner of sacrifice -- including partnering with any old man -- in order to grab this biologically determined brass ring.

I don't really blame Gottlieb for the premise; she's merely reflecting the values of her culture. And I don't mean the affluent, urban, progressive culture suggested by the details she provides about her romantic quandaries. I'm talking about the way baby hunger has become such a consumer force in this country that some (not all, but some) women want a baby in the same way they want a Louis Vuitton bag, because they've been told to want one. And why not? In some ways, acquisition has never been easier.

Reproductive technology, a boon for countless people, has also created a strange kind of tyranny. By extending the deadline and loosening the criteria for getting pregnant, by granting no exemptions from the unremitting pressure to procreate (Menopausal? No problem! Lesbian? No excuse!), the ever-widening window of reproductive opportunity contributes to the notion that not only should parenthood be available to every individual or couple, it's a good idea for every individual or couple too. One needn't pay a midnight visit to the diaper aisle of Walgreen's to suspect that that might not actually be the case.

Most people do eventually want to become parents. But in the 21st century, there is no good reason to see childbearing as an inevitable extension of a committed partnership or even as an ordained personal ambition. Instead, we need to view it for what it is: a profoundly important and difficult job that should only be undertaken by those who have the will and temperament to do it.

Because we're biologically programmed to take on that job -- or at least fill out the application -- it's unlikely we'll run out of humans. And by all means, if you're truly listening to yourself rather than buying society's relentless parenthood sales pitch, have a child, find a mate or both. But when it comes to Gottlieb's case for "settling" -- for doing that at all costs -- I can't help but wonder if what's missing from the prototypical unhappy single woman's life isn't a man or a baby but an imagination. There are infinite ways to define a fulfilling life. Why enshrine the one whose accompanying illustration shows a marriage certificate and a baby stroller? Talk about settling.

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