I have been out at a party. I have a new dress that I have worn out to the party. The next day, I have a slightly pleasurable depleted feeling, as I push my daughter, who is eating a scone in her stroller, on the twenty-minute walk to school in the morning. Later, I am out to Cobb salads on the Upper East Side with a relative who is slightly older than me. She is expressing her view that it is immature for me to be out late at parties; it is undignified for me to be floating through the night like I was in my twenties. She points out furthermore that I have a small child, a fact that I have not, in all of the hullabaloo, forgotten. Here again is the hostility toward the blurring lines, toward the drifting out of categories that, I should in my defense point out, I didn’t choose.
Recently, one of my friends ran into an acquaintance of mine at a party. She leaned into him, hand on his arm, and whispered in a confidential tone, “How’s Katie?” He said, “She’s great. She is having a great time teaching.” This acquaintance leaned in closer, eyes widening: “But how is she really?” My friend, a little subversive of the usual pieties, said, “I think she is the happiest woman in New York.” Untrue, of course. But still, one appreciates the gesture.
And one does have to wonder about this prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does this imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? (The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse. As Warwick Deeping, a novelist of the twenties, observed, “Those who have made a success of marriage can be gentler to the failures.”) I have noticed the couples most interested in the grand tour of my tragedy are often in couples therapy. They are often couples in that phase where they hire a babysitter once a week so that they can sit across from each other at a restaurant and distract themselves from the vast distance, the dullness, that has risen up between them with the bustle of menus and waiters. For whatever reason, it is extremely important for these couples to believe that once you are outside of marriage, you have fallen into the abyss. Furthermore, they are extremely interested in watching you, limbs flailing, as you are falling. But what if you, say, refuse to fall?
I begin to notice that when I am a little bit happy, there is nearly always someone there to tell me that I should be serious. That I should be focusing on my situation. That I should be worrying about my child. There is nearly always someone to deftly reel any subject I have ranged onto back to the question of whether my daughter is okay. I, of course, am always ready to worry about whether she is okay. But I wonder if it is truly in her best interest to embrace the philosophy of perpetual worry people seem to be encouraging. Wouldn’t it be better to take her to the zoo?
When The Age of Innocence came out in 1920, the advertising leaflets began with the provocative tagline “Was She Justified in Seeking a Divorce?” And of course it is still this question that needs to be answered. There may have been a time in the seventies when divorce was too acceptable, and even had a certain amount of cachet, but now we are back to older moral attitudes. There is still the unspoken assumption that if you worked a little bit harder, if you went to a therapist, if you tried a little harder to get along, you could have made it work, for the kids.
Someone I know almost left her husband several years ago. She had always been one of those women unusually invested in the orderliness of her life, in the outward emanations of her various perfections: her sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, her children in their excellent schools, her scrupulously planned vacations. In thinking about her dilemma, she said, at one point, “I am not the kind of person who gets divorced! I am the kind of person who looks down on people who get divorced.” This is perhaps more honest than most people would care to be on this subject. We don’t normally quite say this out loud.
I can’t help thinking that this particular form of moral disapproval is related to our current madness about child-rearing, our desire for $900 Bugaboo strollers, Oeuf toddler beds, organic hand-milled baby food, and French classes for toddlers, not to mention sign-language classes for babies so that they can communicate before they can be bothered to learn to speak: in short, our strange, hopeless obsession with the perfectibility of childhood. We seem to be laboring under the fashionable illusion that if we put everything into making our children’s lives ostensibly perfect, then they will be. And those of us who have separated or divorced have rather spectacularly failed in creating that perfect environment. The true stigma of divorce is that of failing as a parent.