Monogamy Envy

by James Lileks
Why do supposedly brave reconsiderations of a cherished notion sound so trite?

With Mother’s Day nigh, you brace yourself for pieces in Slate and Salon along the lines of “To Hell with Motherhood: The Case for a Holiday to Celebrate the Real Victims of Kermit Gosnell, His Underpaid Staff” or “I’m Sick of Pretending I Love My Child.” Since no one’s written it yet, I’m reduced to imagining how they’ll sound:

Was I the only one who watched The Da Vinci Code hoping the secret message about Christianity was that some Roman version of Hallmark made up Jesus to sell greeting cards? I’m certainly not alone in regarding Valentine’s Day as a manufactured excuse to underscore historical gender norms with a little kiddie porn thrown in (really, what’s with all the naked babies with wings and bows and arrows?), but I know I’m probably in the minority when it comes to Mother’s Day. Hate it.

And so on with the brave, fearless reconsideration of all our cherished notions. One of these days someone will write “My mom hit me with a baseball and I threw up apple pie on the flag” and they’ll close up the sites, having said it all.

Until these pieces are posted, let’s amuse ourselves with The New Republic, where an author wrote “It’s Time to Ditch Monogamy.” A piece from the archives of 1970? No, bold new thinking, spurred by Cameron Diaz’s insights on the superiority of drifting from one chap to the next. Monogamy doesn’t work for Diaz, or the author of the piece, so Ditching must begin. It’s not enough to say, “I just can’t imagine sticking with one person the rest of my life.  I foresee a series of satisfying relationships of varying duration and intensity, after which I retire to Nice and become known in the neighborhood as the iconoclastic woman who turned to pottery at the age of 74.” No, you have to decide that everyone should rethink the idea of faithfulness.

The author is doing future short-term partners a service with this piece, much like a dinner guest who RSVPs with a note expressing his intention to pocket a piece of cutlery during dinner. Excerpts:

Young people usually live away from home, with roommates, at college or through traveling before they entertain marriage. They are used to varied and transient love affairs. The expectations of commitment, when it arrives, require a stark disciplinarian jolt that previous generations did not have to struggle with.

Unless they were men, and were drafted. And heaven forfend that today’s young people have their lives upended with expectations, commitment, and discipline.

There are other assumed rules of commitment applied blindly. What, for example, is the obsession with living under the same roof? In my last committed relationship the most common question I encountered was: “Do you have plans to move in together?” Why anyone would voluntarily give up a peaceful breakfast with John Humphrys, happily drinking anything in the fridge direct from the carton, and trade it for morning dramas of lost shirts and a daily telephone conference about meal-planning is something I can never understand.

You are apparently expected to know who John Humphrys is; I assume he is not a Brontesque charmer who appears on weekend mornings in an ascot to read the Times at the table and murmur appreciative noises at the arts coverage. (He’s a Welsh broadcaster and Guardian writer.) As for the rest, well, I’ve been married for a quarter-century, drink from the carton when wife and child have left the house, have never lost a shirt — there being no interdimensional rift that swallows garments in the closet — and if there’s a telephone “conference” about meal-planning, it’s to figure out when my wife is coming home from her job so we can have our meal together. It’s called “people living together as a family.”

Ah, but that’s another concept we can kick into the overflowing dustbin of history.

If you think life-long commitment is still needed to start a family, a replacement for that has been found too. Earlier this month it was reported that the number of single women seeking artificial insemination with a sperm donor has doubled in five years.

It’ll be a few years before someone realizes this is a Troubling Sign, that women are still being forced by society — possibly through mind-control beams emanating from the phallus of the Washington Monument — to believe that they need to have spawn to be complete, but for now, yay! Yet there’s something rather odd in the author’s construction. If you think buying a car is necessary to drive long distances, earlier this month it was reported that more people are choosing to lease unicycles. Of course women can get pregnant without a man; of course lifelong commitment isn’t needed to start a family. But is it possible to suggest that children benefit from a stable two-parent relationship and that this arrangement has certain emotional and financial advantages? Or does that, too, get you fired from Mozilla?

I’m obviously not suggesting that we treat life like one big Club 18-30’s holiday with a new lover for every change of bed linen. Life would be anarchical, board meetings would be in danger of turning into orgies, and women would have the Child Maintenance Association saved to speed dial.

Ha ha! Whew: I thought the author’s call for the End of Monogamy was an explicit demand for anarchical workplace sex fests, so that’s a relief. As for women having Child Maintenance Association on speed dial, this assumes that women would always be dunning men for resources, and I do believe that’s a sexist assumption and hence worthy of a week in the Twitter Stocks, pelted with mushy tomatoes. No? Guess not. Still, she has a point about women trying to get child-care money out of men; some guys go through life like a perpetually ignited Roman Candle of Insemination, drifting from relationship to relationship without caring what burdens they leave behind.

If only there were an institution that compelled them to focus and shoulder responsibilities. But that would be jarring their carefree days with expectations and commitments.

After our daughter was born, my wife had a good long leave, then plunged back into the corporate world. I was a stay-at-home dad until our daughter went to kindergarten, and even after that I made sure to meet the bus when it trundled up the block at one. The best years of my life. To this day I make sure I’m home doing something in the kitchen, just like my mom, when daughter returns from school. Daughter will be away in college for two years before 4:24 on the clock doesn’t mean the sound of the back door and a warm familiar emotion: She’s home.

Perhaps I would have been more personally fulfilled if I’d moved out ten years ago and had four transient relationships punctuated with periods of solitude where I drank from the carton without caring, but I doubt it, in the same sense that I doubt that sawing off my right hand would have made my left hand much more clever. Perhaps my daughter would have adjusted to a parade of Uncles and learned that men are just comets that enter your orbit and leave with ease, but I’m glad she has constancy.

The article ends:

It is time to modernize the rules and expectations. That means casting away the fairytale . . . 

Note: The only people who ever talk about these fairytales are the people who insist other people believe in them.

 . . . and facing up to the fact that a life partner — should we choose to have one — fulfills only one corner of our emotional, romantic and sexual needs. The belief that we can find one person to meet all of them is one which is very likely to be considered radical in the future.

Well, if it’s radical, then it’s good, right? Once monogamy is dead, perhaps the people who spend their time demanding the end of social conventions they have no desire to observe will turn around and insist that everyone’s doing it wrong and point to some birds who mate for life as proof humans are doing it wrong.

Anyway: This concludes our examination of a vegan’s review of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.