This week, the Men's Style section of the New York Times published an editorial called "Meet The New York Bachelors Who Yearn For Something More." The piece is positioned as a great reveal of a huge secret: Some men don't enjoy the life of the permanent bachelor — they crave families or romantic partnership instead. As a woman, I found this piece to be hilarious, heartbreaking, and fury-inducing, as it seemed to present as novel the same marriage-and-babies pressure that women in their 30s and 40s are subjected to all the time. But this isn't a revelation of a new social phenomenon; it's actually proof that subjecting men to the same pressures about their life choices that women have always had to deal with isn't progress; instead, it hurts everyone.
This article tries to create "news" where there really isn't any (some people crave romantic companionship? Story at 11!), and it furthers gender stereotypes while apparently trying to break them down by reinforcing ideas about women, childbearing, and aging. Further, it pushes a one-size-fits-all version of "adult" happiness — and claiming that that's the only way to be truly happy just ends up making everybody unhappier by forcing us to worry if we're "missing out" by making specific life choices.
But more than anything, the piece made me think about what it could have been. Imagine: We could have had an honest discussion of what it's like when men feel the pressure for fatherhood from family and friends, perhaps, or an examination of how dangerous the "bachelor" myth (that men are somehow innately driven to be single forever, like James Bond) actually is for the male psyche.
Instead, what we got was a collection of interviews with nice, articulate dudes in their 40s, stitched together into a piece whose overarching narrative was about how weird it is that they don't want to party all night any more. Here's why this kind of discussion does more harm than good — and makes this piece a missed opportunity:
1. This Isn't Actually A Sign Of Gender Equality
On the face of it, this sort of turn-the-tables journalism may look like a step forward for gender equality. The notion that the landscape after 40 is a lonely, meaningless place without kids or family is normally reserved for women in media narratives, and so on the surface at least, it's pleasing to see it turned on men for once.
But the premise of the article gives the impression that this is some kind of New Exciting Discovery, and that we ought to be surprised and deeply shocked. Even the title "Meet The New York Bachelors Who Yearn For Something More" suggests that they're some kind of strange anomaly, like a rare breed of Arctic vole. And that just ends up reinforcing the stereotype. Men who want babies and don't want to be single forever? Good heavens. Pass me my fan, Margeurite, I shall faint.
Gender-focused journalism often treads a fine line in this regard. Bringing things to light that contravene long-held ideas about differences between the sexes (in this case, the archaic notion that all single men are footloose and fancy-free) actually often risks doubling down on those ideas. It's like the question "can women have it all?": If reporters breathlessly recount stories of women who, miraculously, manage to have a job, a marriage, a child, and some measure of sanity, they reinforce the notion that this is Amazing and Rare and Should Be Reported On, rather than just, you know, a thing that happens that we all deserve to have if we so choose. Similarly, reporting on the fact that some men actually want to marry and raise children doubles down on the idea that being interested in starting families or forming serious romantic partnerships is really a "woman thing."
2. It's Not News That Not All Men Dream Of Being Single Forever
It is good that the article gave the men profiled a place to express their desires and emotions, particularly about loneliness and the fear of "missing out" on having babies (i.e. a conversation that women of childbearing age are expected to have basically every day if they haven't yet fruited their wombs). The notion that wanting children, or indeed being lonely after age 40, is solely a feminine trait does need to be busted.
But the tone of surprise about their subjects and their "increasing distaste for a life that many married men would say they envy" implies that this distaste is a serious contravention of accepted wisdom — a stance that is especially surprising considering that 80 percent of Americans age 40 and older are married. Yes, that 80 percent includes a large number of 40-something men. Not every over-40s male is Leonardo DiCaprio, you know.
3. It's Not Great That Being Single Is Now Considered Shameful For Everybody
The gender-equal single-shaming I mentioned earlier? While it's somewhat validating to see a high-profile article discuss the notion that single men fret about marriage and kids too, it's not the kind of gender equality that is going to help anyone in the long run. Because its ultimate takeaway isn't that enforcing expectations on anyone, of any gender, about how they should live their adult lives is silly — instead, it's that now everybody needs to panic about marriage and kids.
"Although few single men are willing to admit to a sense of panic," the article says, "they know there is always the chance of waking up one morning in a cold sweat... Their options were narrowing. While they are not dealing with a reproductive deadline, they had the feeling that the party was nearing its end." Commence doomsday countdown, and the feeling that Being Married And Having Kids is the only possible way to reach fulfilment and be satisfied in old age.
I fully validate the feelings of these men, and applaud them for revealing them — and am sorry that some believe that that revelation makes them weirder than your average Star Wars background alien. But why can't articles like this examine where this sense of panic comes from, rather than trying to strong-arm everybody into blindly submitting to it?
Yes, we're social animals, and many folks report a biological pull to become parents. But psychologists believe that it is also perfectly possible to have a happy life as a singleton, well past the reproductive "panic" years. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist who wrote Singled Out, the definitive tome on the way culture stigmatizes singles, has pointed out that there are serious psychological advantages to being single, and that we tend to give them short shrift because our culture hypes up the marital structure, while simultaneously misunderstanding of the benefits of solitude. The fact that The Atlantic actually had experts at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival answer the question "Can Single People Be Happy?" proves how utterly foreign this concept is to many — and how it should not be so.
The basic psychological position of those who believe it's possible to be single and emotionally healthy is that it's loneliness that really makes us miserable, rather than not having a romantic partner or children. If you have a rich social life with lots of different types of connections, you're likely to be just as happy as someone who has "achieved" markers of adult social success like marriage and childbearing.
But this article makes the single life out to be a wasteland, using words like "not healthy," "regret," "envy," and others loaded with negative associations, as if they were natural reactions to not being paired off. Of course, maybe if society weren't constantly pressuring everybody to get married and have kids, this sort of terror wouldn't exist in the first place. And perhaps these poor New York bachelors wouldn't be so panicked.