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Raising Questions: The Rebrand
Hey friends. I’ve written a pretty long essay introducing a new project, so if you’re just looking for stand up updates, skip this newsletter. As it happens, my next show is in NYC July 11th, and after that, I’ll be in Edinburgh all of August). If you want only political content, a) see a therapist and b) find my political humor newsletter here…
Okay…long essay….have a picture of my cat to create a narrative break…
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Allegedly, in the year 2023, we can all choose exactly how to live. So why does it feel like we all end up living the same way? Why can’t we get more original in how to be?
Allow me to back up.
I’ve grown frustrated with small-talk. This is obviously extremely unique to me. I was trying to articulate my complaints recently. I’d been at a perfectly pleasant party full of perfectly pleasant people. And yet, I was bored. And oddly annoyed.
“There are just so few questions we ask each other,” I told my boyfriend.
I was referring to the typical questions: “what do you do?” “Are you seeing anyone?” “do you have kids?” “Where do you live?”
These are perfectly reasonable questions, and they often lead to interesting conversations. My frustration wasn’t about these questions in and of themselves. And it wasn’t the people who asked them. It was their ubiquity.
In trying to articulate this complaint, I felt like Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, when he keeps forcing Adam Sandler to answer the question “who are you?” Until Adam loses his shit. I wanted questions that got to the heart of who I was. Questions that gave me a chance to show my true self, instead of just assessing how well I stacked up against a defined social order. I just couldn’t think of exactly what those questions would be.
There’s a lot more to me than my love life and career. I recently got a cat, I’m trying (and failing) to stop playing with my hair, and I’m experimenting to see if I’m more productive when I alternate between my desk and bed all day long. These are all things I could talk to anyone about—but how would they know to ask? Do I expect a stranger at a party to say, “have you recently begun experimenting with enhancing your productivity by alternating between bed and desk?” It’s an unreasonable expectation. So we stick to what we know is safe to ask about—home, relationships, job.
I ask about these things, you ask about these things. You’re not a wholly unoriginal human because you bond to a new friend by discussing the difficulty of dating in New York City. We ask people these questions over and over because we have some sort of shared understanding that these are the “important” things. In a sense, we have a collective set of goals. I’m so curious about how people choose whether or not to have children, in fact, that I started a podcast to ask about it.
When I say “we,” I should clarify my demographic. I’m a 32-year-old college-educated white woman living in New York City. Having choices about how to live my life—even being able to achieve the conventions—is a privilege. In light of recent events, I can’t take for granted the fact that I’m empowered to make my own choices about reproduction. The very idea that I could choose to live out my days as a single childless woman is relatively new. No one will send me to a convent against my will! Although, sometimes I read through my own tweets and think maybe they should.
So when I say I feel limited, I’m literally talking about a “feeling.” A convention. A social script. This “sense” that everyone does that same thing, that there’s this certain type of life I should want. I’m not talking about an actual limitation.
Now, you may not agree that there aren’t that many options for how to live. You may accuse me of not thinking far enough outside the box. You may say “communal living!” even if you yourself have never looked into the obstacles of communal living. You may think we have infinite choices, and perhaps we end up clustering around our current conventions because they’re objectively the best ones. No one is pressured to buy Ben & Jerry’s over Halo Top, after all—it’s just objectively better. You may be right about that. But I would like to fact-check you. Also, I buy Halo Top.
I’m starting to feel gripped by cultural inertia. This idea that even if we can choose anything, we don’t. Sometimes, I wonder if the limitation is the pressure to land at all. Maybe what I want is perpetual change. And in many ways, that’s what I’ve had so far. I lived with my nuclear family until I was 18, then I went to college, then I lived with a small group of friends, then I lived on my own and decided I didn’t like it, then I moved in with my sister and her cat, then I got my own cat. I’m currently in a very nice relationship, and if it continues to go well, he and I will eventually live together, which is treated as some kind of a destination. If that doesn’t work out, it’s because we failed.
It’s weird that in childhood, you’re supposed to have stability, then for a decade or so you’re supposed to jump around as much as you can, only to land back on stability, where you’re supposed to stay, unless you fail out of it. What if I preferred the jumping?
I put this question to my Twitter followers—”why does it feel like there are so few ways to live?” Existential polls are basically the last remaining use-case for Twitter. 100% of the responses were about capitalism. Stability effectively means financial stability, which is so hard to find, even in the present. To have any hope for the future, maybe the easiest thing to do is follow a path we’ve seen work for some people.
But what are those paths? I recently joked that as a woman, my options are nuclear family, cult, or spinster. It wasn’t a great joke—not all of them are. But it was a joke that felt true to me. Seriously, though—what are those paths?
I’m going to do something I very, very, very rarely do, and quote David Brooks. This is from an essay in the Atlantic entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”
If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.
I don’t know if I entirely agree with David Brooks, because I’m not sure that our current version of the detached nuclear family is all that free—but I think this framing is helpful.
I’ll start by saying the nuclear family—two married parents with socially-recognized children—is decreasing in prevalence. How do I know? The Conservatives are yelling about it! Also, numbers. I saw a stat that households that fit the definition of “nuclear family” is down to 18%, from a high of 40% in the 1940s.
But what is it that makes a romantic relationship the correct unit to “land on?” Perhaps it’s the idea that marriage is supposedly permanent. We all know that’s not true, but that’s the intention. To provide permanence for the people involved.
One chief limitation of the human race is that we can’t predict the future. But I have a theory that the only way to feel stable in the present is to believe we can. I’m scared to get old and become unable to care for myself. Maybe if I find someone to commit to me now, and if I have children with him, I can live out the next forty years knowing I’ll have support at the end. Except, I can’t know what will happen to a marriage or my children, I can’t count on them to care for me when I’m old, and I don’t know if I’ll even get old. And yet! I want stability so badly! So, I see why we invented the nuclear family. Maybe we’re not getting married for our 30s, or even our 40s or 50s. Maybe we’re getting married for our 80s. So we won’t be alone, then.
Still, I don’t think the decline in nuclear families or marriage is bad. It’s not that I think we need to do away with them entirely, it’s that nuclear families are so specific that we never should have tried to prescribe them to everyone. I think many people do want them, but I also think many more say they want them because it seems like the best out of a number of bad options. For those who want one, here are a few of my questions:
Would you want to get married in your 30s if you knew you’d live to 150?
Or live to 50?
Would you want to be married if you’d be in the same level of health your whole life?
Would you want to get married if none of your friends were married?
Those questions aren’t meant to suggest people shouldn’t get married—they’re counterfactuals, which is to say, they’re incorrect. You’re probably not going to die at 50 or 150, and your health is going to decline, and your friends are going to get married. So marriage may make quite a lot of sense. I’m just asking questions.
I get the benefits of finding exactly one person to form a unit with. It’s hard to organize people, and two is the smallest number larger than one. If we don’t want to be alone, but we want something easy to organize, two makes sense.
There are, of course, people who have romances with multiple people, and sometimes, all partners live together. Polyamorous families are on the rise. Many function like a nuclear family—with the romantic partners as parents and the only adults in the household. There are some benefits to a child having more than two parents, but I’m curious if they still have similar pitfalls to having romance and parenthood linked in a way that isn’t intuitive to everyone. So, I’m planning to ask.
Something I hear again and again is that romantic relationship are “a lot of work.” But what’s implied in that statement is, “so you should be ready to do that work,” instead of “so you should decide if that’s what you’d like to focus your energy on.” What could I do with my time if I weren’t doing that particular set of work?
The good news is that choosing a romantic partner with whom to create a stable unit is just one option. Could romance just be for fun, and could we instead look to friends to give us stability? Basically, swapping the roles of friends and lovers? Could we choose to live communally with a group of friends?
In many cultures today, and at many other times in history, it was normal for the entire extended family to live together. In the same essay, David Brooks glorifies the extended family, but in my opinion, it’s still a limited option that works for some but not all of us. Not everyone wants to live with their extended family, and not everyone has the option. Could we instead choose who joins the commune?
I put this question to a friend last week, who said she wanted to do it, but feared it would become a cult. In my opinion, this is a PR problem. In America, we’re so obsessed with individualism that we take issue with any alternative. Either we need to stop calling everything other than atomic units of one or two people a cult, or we need to start distinguishing between malicious and benign cults. Cults need to hire Samantha Jones.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room for one quick second: kids. The nuclear family developed, in part, to provide structure for children. Because—to put it bluntly—sex leads to babies, which I find inappropriate (they’re children). And so, someone may want a nuclear family because it offers them the chance to have children.
But time has weakened the link between sex and children. Sex is no longer the only thing that leads to babies, and babies aren’t the only benefit (or cost) of sex. There are plenty of other ways to have a baby, if that’s what you’re after. There was a fantastic New York Times editorial a few weeks ago about “Mommunes”—groups of mothers living together. The story began with an anecdote about a single woman finding the mommune after losing her job—the mommune was able to offer her the financial stability a marriage might otherwise have. In that sense, communal living feels like it answers a lot of the questions capitalism asks. Questions the nuclear family answers, but only for a select few.
So, forming units with friends seems great, right? Then again, maybe what’s special about friendship is the lack of pressure. Maybe turning your friends into your family could sour the friendship. Put another way—is there necessarily a link between obligation and stability? Is that why marriage is a vow, and why pernicious cults don’t let their members leave?
Sometimes, I wonder if the issue is we expect too much of people. Maybe we should do our gossiping with one friend, have kids with another person, have sex with someone else, and so on. Maybe we should have a movie friend and a yoga friend and a friend who sees deeply who we are on the inside. Could I then have all my needs met, and be able to live alone? Which brings me to the last option: Spinster.
British journalist Hannah Betts wrote in 2013, “Ask most what has changed about society during my lifetime, and I would answer: the evolution from the stigmatized ‘spinsters’ of my childhood to the notion of the ‘singularist,’ which is how I would describe myself.”
I like the idea that living alone is empowering. Maybe that’s freedom. At the end of the day, you can only truly count on one person, and that’s yourself.
But once you decide to do that, it means you’re responsible for ensuring your own stability. We’ve reached a time historically when women can live entirely on their own, but that means we’re responsible for our own 401(k)s, which was all well and good, until I learned what that meant. I’m not saying it’s not progress. I’m just saying I see room for improvement.
So, maybe you want none of these options. Or maybe you want a constant mash-up. Or maybe you want something else that I haven’t thought of. My hope, at this point, is that you think I have a very limited mindset. That you’ve imagined all kinds of other ways to form units that I haven’t discussed, and you’re in one. And if you are, I want you to come on the pod and talk to me. Or if you think I have a very limited mindset, you’ve imagined all kinds of other ways to form units—units you find very appealing—and you’re not in one—then I also want you to come talk to me. Tell me what’s blocking you.
I’ve given you an enormous number of thoughts and opinions with almost no facts. That’s because I don’t have them. At least, not yet. I’m in the “raising questions” phase of this project, which is, incidentally, the whole project (hence, the name).
Here’s my thought: I think we have choices, but we don’t pick them. It’s not that I think the conventions are bad—it’s that I think they’re limiting. I think we can have more. A lot of people want to rethink our family units from the ground up, but they’re scared to. I know some of the reasons why, but I’m sure I don’t know all of them. So come talk to me.
OKAY SO! What you might be wondering now is why my newsletter, which is typically a quick update about where I’m doing comedy, has been a long rant about family units. I so appreciate you being part of my mailing list community for the past two years. I’m doing something a little different. On my podcast Raising Questions, I asked people how they came to a choice about parenthood. In the course of this podcast, I raised some raising questions. I loved talking to my guests and I learned a ton, but the most interesting part (to me) wasn’t about babies. It was learning how people decided to form the family units they did, and what social pressures kept them from choosing exactly how they wanted to live. This cultural inertia. Why we read off the cultural scripts we do.
So, I decided to organize “Raising Questions” into seasons—to raise different types of questions, if you will. I’m a genius for picking a name that was so ambiguous I could apply it to anything. Season 1 was on the procreation question, and it’s wrapping up very shortly (I have a few more eps to release, and I’ll soon write up something about what my main takeaways have been). Season 2 will be focused on the nuclear family—my first guest is Dr. Stephanie Coontz, a historian who studies the history of marriage, which I believe is a great jumping off point for understanding how we got here. I’m going to get more specific about what the demise of the nuclear family means for men, and how we can embrace positive masculinity (lol—but I’m actually going to do that).
What does it mean for this mailing list? Well, not much. I’m going to continue to release this mailing list once or twice per month, and I’ll continue to tell you my new projects and stand up shows. Instead of rambling about my life or offering some satire at the end, I’ll write up a little something about how my thoughts that month relate to the podcast—and I promise, none of the others will be as long as this one. I didn’t want to start a million newsletters that all have the same content, so I thought I’d condense it.
I want to talk to everyone. People presently making a decision about how to live. People with an interesting perspective that might open my mind. During the course of this exploration, I expect to talk to people about history, aging, the economy, feminism, loneliness, and more. I have a lot of questions. If you want to chat, let me know. My email as firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ultimately, as with Season 1 and almost all things I do, I’m doing this for myself. I’m 32 years old, and I’m at the stage of my life where it seems I should know how I want to live. Except, I’m not all that sure. None of the options seem horrible, but none seem perfect. I know this much, though—if I wind up married with kids, living in the suburbs—which is totally plausible, and really doesn’t horrify me—I don’t want it to be because I didn’t consider all the other options.
The poet Maggie Smith wrote, “Ask yourself about the kind of life you want: What would you do day to day, and with whom, and where? Consider the life you have. Do one thing today, however small, to close the gap between the two.”
I don’t know what kind of life I want, so I figured raising some questions could be a good small step. I also wanted to make sure David Brooks wasn’t the only thinker I quoted.
Raising Questions is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.