Jane Austen and the Hazards of Children

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the great pleasures of having a Kindle is that I can download books for free that are in the public domain. Right now I’m reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen. The following quote made me laugh:

You know it is very bad to have children with one that one is obligated to be checking every moment; ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that;’ or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.

These words are spoken by Mrs. Musgrove, a goodnatured but inelegant character, to the protagonist, Anne. Anne is unmarried and doesn’t have children. She was pressured into turning down a suitor at the age of 19–a man she truly loved–and now, at 27, is considered faded, over the hill, and well on her way to spinsterhood.

Austen accurately shows how Anne gets pressured into a care-giving role by her somewhat flakey relatives. She becomes an unofficial nanny for her sister’s children when she visits them, because everyone assumes that is her natural role. After all, she likes the kids, and she doesn’t have a husband or suitors to take up her time.

In a poignant detail, Austen describes how Anne is always called upon to play the piano when her extended family throws parties, but is never expected to dance.

Austen never portrays Anne as whiny or bitter about her situation. And Austen never asks us to pity her. The book also includes an older childfree couple who are portrayed as content in each other’s company, socially active, and not blighted or lessened by their lack of a child.

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion relatively late in her life. I wonder if she was looking back on her own youthful crush object, Tom Lefroy. Unlike Anne, Jane was not pressured to reject Tom–instead, his family forced him to move away from her, believing their match to be financially impractical.

It’s unknown if this was a great loss that haunted Jane forever, or a mere childish dalliance that she got over fairly quickly.

Either way, it was Tom who caved to his family’s pressure, not Jane to hers. Perhaps her sympathetic portrayal of Anne, and giving Anne a second chance at love, helped Jane forgive Tom for his weakness.

Jane didn’t live a wildly unconventional or political life, but her mind was unusually free. Her family encouraged her to read, to write, to dance, and to express herself. I bet that if she were alive today, whether or not she wanted kids herself, she’d be fully supportive of those of us who are childfree by choice.

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“Orange is the New Black” and the Bad Teeth Rule

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Photo courtesy of Netflix and Slate.

Orange is the New Black is a terrific new Netflix original series set in a women’s prison. It’s funny, at times painful, and whip-smart. The acting is all top-notch, and the writing is intelligent (the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, also created the Showtime series Weeds).

And the cast is truly diverse in their races, body types, and gender expression (Buzzfeed has a great guide here). (Asians are underrepresented, but that may be an accurate depiction of prison demographics.)

Of course, this being America, everyone’s just a little prettier than they need to be.

The show makes attempts at uglifying its characters: a junkie’s skin tone gets green and corpse-like as she’s detoxing, and people sweat convincingly. A few even have bad teeth–though, in fine Deadwood tradition, only the least sympathetic characters are allowed to.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at these women. I love that they aren’t all skinny. More than that, I love that they’re individuals. And even the most gorgeous among them never look plastic or styled.

They all look like real people. It’s pathetic how grateful that makes me.

But there are certain lines that are not crossed. We glimpse no armpit hair or leg hair, for example. No one has acne. But then again, why would they? We’re paying to watch this, so there has to be a layer of illusion in place…right?

The opening credits highlight how far the show’s creators are willing to push the envelope on female appearances. They show a montage of women’s faces, containing flaws that are mostly lacking on the show: moles, upper-lip hair, dark spots on cheeks.

Successful film actresses don’t have these distinctive markings. They couldn’t work in Hollywood if they did. You couldn’t cast a show that REALLY looks like the people I see walking around Boston.

The women of “Orange is the New Black” are a remarkable group. And the show’s creators deserve full credit for that. I just wonder when we’ll be ready to let all those other, wonderfully flawed faces speak.

Maybe that’s what documentaries are for?

The Adjective Experiment

In the Adjective Experiment, you ask ten people who know you well to each choose one adjective to describe you. It’s supposed to be useful for personal and professional development, so I gave it a shot last week.

I asked ten friends to email me their adjective (they did not get to see each other’s submissions). Nine of them replied, but one of them gave me two adjectives (my friends are rebels!), so I wound up with 10 anyway. Here they are (words that showed up more than once are indicated with a number):

adventurous (2)

independent (2)

insightful

lovely

non-judgmental

responsible

thoughtful (2)

First of all, awwwww! This made me feel wonderful. We too rarely take the time to seek out positive feedback from people we love.

I was interested by the adjectives that came out on top, with two occurrences each. With the huge number of descriptors people could have chosen (even assuming they were going to go for a positive one), the odds are against any two people choosing the same word by coincidence.

“Thoughtful” and “independent” I can definitely see. But “adventurous” took me by surprise. I don’t think of myself that way–I spend so much time cooking dinner, watching Netflix, working, and reading.

But as my friends pointed out, over the last year I’ve traveled to an unfamiliar city to go on a date with a stranger. I’ve re-learned to drive after more than a decade of pedestrianism. I went ziplining on my recent vacation.

So, OK, I’ll buy it. I’ll buy all those beautiful words.

I highly recommend trying this activity if it intrigues you! One way to make it even cooler would be to create your own list of 10 adjectives for yourself first, and then see if there’s overlap with what your friends and family come up with.

Why I’m a Renter, Not an Owner

Buying a home is supposed to be The American Dream. Renting is something you do up until the magic moment when you’re “ready” to buy.

But I like renting. I like that if something goes wrong with my apartment, my landlady has to fix it. I like that I don’t need to worry about whether I’m “underwater” (terrifying image) if the market fluctuates.

I don’t consider paying rent “throwing money away.” I’m spending money to ensure that I get to live somewhere wonderful, and that all the responsibilities of improving and maintaining that property are not mine to worry about.

Having a kid is similar to buying a house: a multiyear commitment that you have to ride out, even when the circumstances become difficult. I’m a renter. I play with my friends’ kids. I babysit. Then I return them to their parents. Their devoted, patient “owners.”

Neither renting nor owning a home is necessarily a better financial choice. It all depends on the economy in your region, your long-term goals, how much you have saved up, and how much flexibility you need.

Same with having kids, or not. Both good choices–potentially. But ladies and gentlemen, please choose carefully. You don’t want to end up underwater.