Marriage? I'm good, thanks. Just kidding. Marry me. Please?
July 6, 2010 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I understand that marriage and children aren't necessarily what I will want or need in my life, and yet I fear being unfulfilled down the line without those things. I know I'm not alone. How do women handle that internal conflict?

I'm in a long term relationship with someone I love. He is good to me and we're a good fit. We've known each other for a very long time and we've been together on an off for about four years. We're best friends.

We're both in our late twenties, career-minded, and pretty independent people. I just finished grad school and am embarking on a new career. Several of our friends are engaged; some are married. When we've discussed marriage (albeit briefly), we've been on the same page. It is clear that neither of us is ready or looking to get married anytime soon. We've both just moved into new apartments, in the same neighborhood, separately. Moving in together was never a consideration for either of us.

I was raised in a home where traditional gender roles and family values abounded, but I've never been the most traditional girl. I'm pretty pro-monogamy (I've always preferred long-term relationships), but somewhat anti-marriage. My personal stance has been that I believe there can be deep commitment without marriage, that I won't want to get married until I'm a bit more established financially and career-wise, that I am happy having a partner who is my equal whether or not the law says he is my husband. While I love the bejesus out of my boyfriend and would like to continue to be with him, I question marriage as an institution and don't necessarily envy my friends who are married. I believe marriage will probably feel more necessary if and when I decide I'd like to have children or adopt a child, and I won't be ready for that for years. I will never want an engagement ring, or a surprise, elaborate proposal. I would not want a traditional wedding ceremony if I were to wed. Call it feminist, independent, marriage-phobic, weird, whatever you will. Most of the time, this is where I stand, and that stance works for me. How I FEEL, on the other hand...

Every time I send friends heartfelt congratulations and best wishes on their engagement, or hear about a particularly emotional proposal, I find myself visiting what I've started to refer to as "the dark place." Here is what happens there:
"Are Boyfriend and I just going to be boyfriend and girlfriend forever?"
"Why don't we want to get married? Shouldn't we WANT to marry the crap out of each other?"
"What if I decide I DO want to get married and he doesn't and I've just wasted years of my young life just like my mom said?"
and my FAVORITE:
"What if I'm 40 and husbandless and childless and alone while all my friends live their family-filled lives?"

I entirely recognize the ridiculousness of each of the above "what if?" statements. It's like I have a tiny devil on one shoulder and a tiny angel on another, except one is the rational me who says "Um, you're gonna have a great career and awesome experiences on your terms and possibly a great partner by your side to share life with and if you aren't a wife/mother, it wouldn't mean you were unhappy and a husband and a kid aren't going to make you who you are." aaand the other is irrational me who has seen "When Harry Met Sally" one too many times and has too many bridesmaid dresses in her closet and wants nothing more than to give her parents the joy of walking her down an aisle and holding her firstborn. I recognize the inconsistency and fail to understand it. How can I so adamantly believe and think one thing, but feel so differently sometimes?

I'm interested in hearing how other women have dealt with this - knowing what's good for you and what ideologically seems right, but also feeling like there should be more. I find myself teetering between happiness with things as they are...and pining for what I've been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways throughout my life what I SHOULD want, the more traditional things in life. I understand that marriage and children won't necessarily bring me total fulfillment, and yet I fear being unfulfilled down the line without those things. How do I fight that inner conflict, keep my emotions in check and stay committed to what I think is right for me? And, what the hell is the source of those stupid emotions anyway? (Hold the biological imperative, plz.)

Thanks all!
posted by blackcatcuriouser to Human Relations (42 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes ideology isn't what it's cracked up to be.

What most of us have had to do is sit down and have a very honest chat with ourselves-in which we ask ourselves what WE want. Not what society says we must want, not what media says we should want, not what books or movies or maiden aunts or best friends or....etc.

You need to decide what it is YOU really want. Maybe you honestly don't really know. But you are the only one who can answer that question.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:14 PM on July 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

(About three decades ago I was asking myself similar questions. So were a lot of my peers, fwiw.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:15 PM on July 6, 2010

My partner and I are also no-marriage, no-children, although we do live together. A lot of my friends from high school and college have gotten married and had kids in the past few years.

When it comes down to it, when I'm being honest with myself, marriage doesn't matter ALL that much to me. It's a piece of paper. Since we rent, and don't own a house, and have good health insurance, there's nothing really we need from marriage right now.

As for kids, I totally understand the hormonal inclination to wonder about kids, and I've definitely felt it. But I also like going to a Broadway show on a moment's notice. We live in a not too small, but ridiculously cheap apartment in Manhattan. My SO bought me an iPad today. We're going to Europe for several weeks next summer. We stay out till whenever we want, and wake up (on the weekends) whenever we feel like it. None of those irreplaceable, wonderful things would be possible if we had children.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:16 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, there are good things and bad things about both paths (and of course there's more than two paths, but even if we just take the marriage+kids path vs. no-marriage+no-kids). That's why you're torn. It's normal to be torn between good but incompatible options.

Maybe you are just starting to see the good stuff of the marriage+kids path, and some of the bad stuff of the no-marriage+no-kids path, more clearly as your friends start actually living the marriage+kids stuff -- whereas before maybe these things were more abstract.

But also, this is just part of aging, I think. It's easy when you're in your early 20s to think, I want life to stay like this forever, lots of autonomy, relatively few obligations, unlimited freedom to pursue my career/intellectual/hobby/travel etc goals. But it's also easy to imagine that you will stay young and your friends and family and peers will stay young forever, as part of the package. (Thinking about myself here.) And that turns out not to be true. You age, physically and emotionally, and you value different things as you age, and the people around you age and start ordering their lives differently too (your peers start families, and your parents age). So, the simple picture of "I want life to stay like this forever" is unattainable, and anyway as time goes on your priorities may change and you may become unsatisfied with things that would have satisfied you in the past.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on July 6, 2010 [10 favorites]

I question marriage as an institution and don't necessarily envy my friends who are married. I believe marriage will probably feel more necessary if and when I decide I'd like to have children or adopt a child, and I won't be ready for that for years. I will never want an engagement ring, or a surprise, elaborate proposal. I would not want a traditional wedding ceremony if I were to wed.
I call this normal, because I feel exactly the same way (so, maybe it isn't normal, because I'm not very typical :D ). I don't have a dark place like you do, though, because this stuff doesn't interest me - I was never the typical girl and really loathed the idea of being a girl who has had her wedding planned since age 5 (no offence to those of you who might've done that - it just wasn't for me). And that's the thing - you just do what works for you. You have choices. If you want to get married, you can. But you don't have to. You really just have to be honest with yourself and be ok with what you want and your choices.

It seems to me that you have a lot of pressure - having grown up in a household with traditional gender roles and hearing things like this from your mom: What if I decide I DO want to get married and he doesn't and I've just wasted years of my young life. I have similar views to you, but I didn't grow up in a similar household as yours, so maybe that's helped me.

So I'm going to have a talk with your dark place:
"Are Boyfriend and I just going to be boyfriend and girlfriend forever?"
Maybe. But what's so horrible about that? You could also be partners. You could be common-law. You could have the same level of commitment as married people (and in a lot of cases, better).

"Why don't we want to get married? Shouldn't we WANT to marry the crap out of each other?"
I think by this you mean that the love you have for each other should be SO great that there's no one else out there for you and you're going to be each one's beloved for the rest of your life. It's a very romanticized, unrealistic vision of marriage, which is promoted a LOT in american culture (cf. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Whee! Marriage is the best thing ever! Not.)

"What if I decide I DO want to get married and he doesn't and I've just wasted years of my young life just like my mom said?"
I think you've internalized what mom said. Presumably you won't wake up one day and say "I just have to get married right now!!!" but throughout your relationship you will have had discussions and agreed together on what to do. And honestly, I don't think any relationship is a wasted one because each relationship gives you the chance to learn about yourself.

"What if I'm 40 and husbandless and childless and alone while all my friends live their family-filled lives?"
And what if you're not? What if your friends are in the same position, or are going through divorces, or are unfortunately in not-so-great relationships? They could look at you enviously that you don't have kids to worry about, etc.

Ultimately, you just have to be ok with yourself, and allow that your needs and wants may change, and that you're capable of getting those needs met.
posted by foxjacket at 7:28 PM on July 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm 40, single, no kids. I've been married once, did not do the proposal and big wedding thing. I wasn't against any of that, but a lot of it just didn't occur to me as being important until I was more established in my career, etc... your post reminded me a lot of my younger self.

Here's what I've learned: Planning is good, thinking is good, and reflecting is good. But, if you spend too much time looking into the future or into the past, you miss the present. Live in the present. No matter your choices on these things, the present you have when you are 40 will be wonderful. Live in the moment, and let the future come as it will.
posted by Houstonian at 7:28 PM on July 6, 2010 [11 favorites]

I have had a rollercoaster of a relationship with my mom, in particular, that stood in the way of my consideration of parenthood. I was absolutely terrified that I would repeat her mistakes and resent my kids. Now? If I had a slightly more stable financial situation, we'd be screwing like bunnies. So what happened in the intervening time? I found the right partner.

I didn't know what I wanted, but I wanted to have every option I possibly could. Through a bad marriage and a misguided relationship after that, I knew it wouldn't happen. But now that I have stability in my relationship, I can focus on the issues with my mom and the issues with myself. And, sure, the prospect is still terrifying, but it should be!

Think about the things you value in life, and how you could get them if you have kids. Think about the things you value in relationships with young people, or growing children with whom you form bonds, and how you could get them if you don't have kids of your own.

I'm not saying that you'll immediately want to have kids when you reach a certain age or point in the relationship. But you need to look at your life and see if the kids are really the issue, or if something else is standing in the way of being able to freely make these decisions.
posted by Madamina at 7:31 PM on July 6, 2010

though i'm still young enough to be told fairly often that i will change my mind, i think about this same thing all the time. i don't identify with my friends who can't wait to be married or who talk about their future children non-stop. i identify with my friends who are happy to take things as they come, who are comfortable being unconventional, who don't need to live by everyone else's standards to be content with their lives.

i think a big part of the devil/angel scenario you described is being bombarded by the traditional scenario, whether it's friends and family or in movies and books. though there are obviously people and media that demonstrate non-traditional ways of life, the traditional scheme (get married, have kids, "settle down") is so dominant that it's hard to escape. the "what if?" voice you hear is probably just years and years of being told or shown "this is what people do!" and your mind is trying to reconcile that with what makes you happy and comfortable.

personally, i have come to accept that my views may change over time and that's okay. i have a recurring chat with myself that goes something like this:

"self, it's cool if you don't want to get married or have children. it's okay if you're not so sure about long-term commitment. if you want to travel or join the circus or live alone or become a dog lady, do it. and if you change your mind, that's okay too."

i gave myself permission to check in with myself once in a while, and leave it at that. it's working well so far.
posted by gursky at 7:34 PM on July 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

And I don't think the "wow, maybe there is something to this baby thing after all" has to be hormonal. I think it's something that your feelings can change about for perfectly rational reasons.

If everyone around you is starting a family, and your own relatives are getting older, it's rational to think, what am I going to be doing at the holidays in ten or fifteen years, since there's no guarantee my parents will still be around? What about thirty years? Am I going to be happy with that, or am I going to wish that I had started a family when I was younger?

I also think that when you see friends beginning to parent, you (if you're like me!) see more concretely what some of the good aspects of it are, and you see that some of the bad aspects are not as bad as you might have thought. I think this is true of just about anything in life -- friends start doing something you thought you didn't want to do and you get a better picture of what it's about, and your preconceived notions are challenged.

I don't at all think it's inevitable that you have to decide to get married and have kids. At all. But I think the answer to your question is just - there are a lot of good aspects of those things. It's not surprising you are torn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:35 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most of the people I know who got married in their 20s are divorced and on their second marriages or are single and playing the field once again. Marriage is no guarantee that you'll never be alone. The same same with having children, lots of people assume that having a kid means you'll have someone to keep you company and take care of you in old age, but pfffffft, there is a lot that can go wrong with that plan too.

What do you want to do with your life? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Is having a husband and family part of how you see yourself in the future? You should live your life the way you want to and not feel pressured by what your peers and society think you should be doing. If you love your partner and want to make get married, you should do it. If you want to start a family, then do it! If you don't want to, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that either.

I personally think there is something kind of romantic and rebellious about living with your partner for many years unmarried. I know multiple couples who didn't get married or decide to start families until their late 30s and older.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:40 PM on July 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

The phrase from your question that stuck out to me is this: I find myself teetering between happiness with things as they are...and pining for what I've been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways throughout my life what I SHOULD want, the more traditional things in life.

Is it possible that the idea of what is traditional and normal has changed? What if you disconnect from the valuation and character connections and just let choices be choices? I know that in the phrase above you are referring to happiness with a non-married state, and pining for married bliss. What if you reverse them? What if you imagine that people have been telling you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways --as they have been-- that you should be happy to be independent, "feminist," and fulfilled without kids or spouse? In the meantime, you are actually happy with things as they are: a stable, loving, equal relationship, tentatively on the road toward cohabitation and maybe kids.

From your question it sounds like you do know yourself and what you want without reference to outside actors, but are getting a little stuck in deciphering what you want and what other people say about what you want. Maybe reframing the ideas in that way would help start to detach them from this generational-societal-cultural-emotional net.
posted by ramenopres at 8:02 PM on July 6, 2010

Same situation here, even the finished-grad-school/first-job bit. I worry about the same issues from time to time (8 years with SO, living together), though they don't get me down as much-- I wouldn't call it a dark place.

With respect to marriage, I see our current arrangement as (at worst) a starter marriage with a free divorce in the future. We're still transitioning, moving around the country, no kids, so why lock this in legally when we don't need to? Also, the idea that I've "wasted" my youth on this guy has stopped bothering me at all. I'm living my life and not turning down anything I want to do, so what am I wasting? Plus, it's not like if we get married now, he can't decide to trade me in when I'm "old".

My reasoning with respect to kids is that I can change my mind whenever I want. Adoption is fine with me. I sometimes tell people that I'll have kids "when I get tired of having things my own way". Maybe that will happen in time to have kids the old-fashioned way, maybe not. It will work out.

Two suggestions:

1. Seems like the key is not to focus on these decisions as your defining characteristics. I don't want to get married NOW, I don't want kids NOW. Trying to build it up as a philosophical choice that you have to defend just sets you up to feel bad if you change your mind. I.e., you don't have to hate marriage to not be married.

2. You are not passing up all chances for happiness, nor can you prevent unhappiness by following the prescribed path.
posted by parkerjackson at 8:05 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't let your view of yourself as feminist, independent, etc. keep you from admitting to yourself that you might want marriage and children.

I actually don't think your "dark place" is full of ridiculous questions -- I actually think those are very reasonable questions to ask and very real scenarios. The thing is, both paths could end poorly -- you could marry and end up divorcing in 10 years with bratty kids who eventually abandon you or you could not marry and end up feeling lonely as others drift into marriage and kids. The point of saying that isn't to make you feel bad, just to emphasize that you have no way of knowing how things will turn out and that you should weigh all the potential possibilities and remember that both paths have good and bad points.

Your views will evolve as your life does. Stay open to that and in tune with yourself.
posted by unannihilated at 8:15 PM on July 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

I also come from a Very Traditional family, but am unnurturing, nondomestic, and childfree. I did get engaged at one point so I could get married before my dad died, but didn't go through with it. (Note: this is not a good reason to get engaged before people have worked out their shit.)

Of COURSE you feel socially obligated to have a husband and children. How could you not? The entire world reiterates this to us constantly. The social pressure of "Get married and have a baby RIGHT NOW" drops on your head the second you graduate from college and never lets up until you've hit menopause. 99% of the population probably will do this. Yes, you will feel freaky and weird that you have not, especially as you get older and people rub it into you more. There's no denying this.

And yeah, you might very well Change Your Mind and wake up at 40 or 45 and suddenly want a husband and baby. Much as I hate to say it, all us single/childfree types have this fear for a reason, because some people have done it. I don't know why or how it happens, but we're always gonna have that threat of mind-changing hanging over our heads.

The question really is, with all this pressure on you, you have to figure out what you want for you, regardless of what the world wants for you and what would make your family so happy. And you have to figure that out for yourself right now, at this age. And every year thereafter at the age you are now. Rule out, as best you can, the pressures of what everyone else wants for you. Picture yourself in the traditional life you've never wanted, and see if you find it any more appealing than you ever did. Rehash this every year if you must, or whenever you start having The Pressure bearing down on you to conform like everyone else.

But above all else? Don't do things you don't want now because you might want them later. Don't have a kid you don't want now because of the threat of "you'll want kids later." Don't get married now when you don't want to get married--get married when the both of you want to actually do it, even if it's in 20 years from now. Be sure you want what you want RIGHT NOW before you make a decision. Because if you make a decision "for the future" when you don't want it now, you're doing it out of fear and threats and your heart won't be in it. And in the case of having a kid, that's...not good.

You can only really operate on how you feel now.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:18 PM on July 6, 2010 [9 favorites]

Ok, well, here goes: I have both a marriage and a child.

I could easily see myself being just as happy with this person w/out a marriage. It's a legal protection/convenience (which, if things go long term, you will eventually have to consider things like power of attorney and inheritance rights, as you get older if you don't marry) and that's pretty much it. Divorce is not so hard that it would keep me here if I were unhappy. And to tell you the truth, I often fantasize about separate would certainly end most all disputes over who cleans up what, and I like my space.

As for the child, well, I was never in doubt that I wanted at least one. And it still has kicked my butt while also being rewarding. And he's not a kid with any real special needs or challenges, he's actually very good natured, but my god, it's hard work. For both of us. If I had to do it again, I would, but I'd try to save up more money to get a babysitter more often.

Almost all our friends are childless, and that does get hard sometimes; possibly some of the pressure you are feeling is that it's harder to stay part of your friends' lives when kids come along because they take up so much time and mental space, and it is harder. But not impossible if everyone's willing to work at it.

So, do what you want. I promise you that those who do it "perfectly" on the outside are having some kind of problems, eventually, because everyone does.

The cool thing about getting older is that you realize that everyone changes; people who live the perfect "normal" life will end up walking away from it and starting over, and people who start out radical settle into a happy domesticity and everything in between happens too. Eventually, it will not matter at all how well you followed the approved template or didn't.
posted by emjaybee at 9:06 PM on July 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

My "husband" and I are not legally married. We may or may not bother to do it legally. We go back and forth. We're very clear on the part where we imagine our lives to be together. I am more strongly anti-marriage than he is, but the full force of my objection is more to the wedding than to marriage as a concept (uh, since we agree that we already have a marriage.)

We haven't decided on whether we're having a kid. I go through phases on how I feel about it personally, but even in our late-mid-thirties, I'm not feeling much pressure. A lot of our friends are having their first baby in their early forties, and we're very strongly pro-adoption as a parenting choice as well.

I'm really comfortable with the choices we've made and our ability to say "hey, I know I always said that I felt strongly about X but I've been having thoughts about Y, can we talk about that a little so that I can wrap my head around it?"

When it comes to other people (parents, friends) getting weird about shifts in your perspective or goals, well, pfft. Roll your eyes unembarrassedly and point out that you're still doing what you damn well please.
posted by desuetude at 9:55 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another perspective. A friend was dating someone for many years (8?) and they (jointly) did not believe in marriage, thought it was a piece of paper. When they broke up, she realized that he had basically been feeding her a bunch of crap about marriage so he didn't have to marry her and could get his way in big and little ways. Not sure that getting married would have fixed it, but saying "I don't want a piece of paper" was, in her case, YMMV, etc. etc., a way of keeping her from some pretty heartfelt desires. I wish I could say that she found someone, but she was looking for a long while and didn't find anyone, and now is learning to enjoy singlehood. (And doing a pretty great job at that.)

I would say, based on this example, that you should really carefully analyze whether or not marriage is just a piece of paper TO YOU. maybe it's not. Maybe you really do want it and it's not just "society". If so, then maybe you can have the marriage if not the kids and the picket fence. Or just the kids and the fence. Or just the fence. Whatever works for you. But definitely think about it.
posted by metametababe at 10:06 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Are Boyfriend and I just going to be boyfriend and girlfriend forever?"
is that a problem? you say you're happy with that relationship now. when you become unhappy with it, then you seek change. you don't HAVE to be married to have a loving, committed relationship. marriage is not the be all and end all of relationships, even though everyone wants you to think it is. if it was, 50% of couples wouldn't be getting divorced. if your relationship works for you, then it is fine.

"Why don't we want to get married? Shouldn't we WANT to marry the crap out of each other?"
aside from the fact that you aren't currently living together, what would getting married get you that you don't already have (besides some given legal standings, tax standings, etc. of which are legitimate reasons to get married, if that's what you decide. it's not really about love, you know)? it's "society" telling you you should want to get married. and your mother. it's the 21st century. you don't have to get married i f you don't want to.

"What if I decide I DO want to get married and he doesn't and I've just wasted years of my young life just like my mom said?"
uh, no, you haven't. you've been building your careering and your independent financial standing and figuring out who you are as an individual so that you can best decide on a future partner and not just marry the first schmoe who proposes or who knocks you up. that's certainly not a waste of your life. what is this, the 40s?

"What if I'm 40 and husbandless and childless and alone while all my friends live their family-filled lives?"
you don't need a husband or a freaking child to have a fulfilled life. why the fuck to people continue to perpetuate that lie? i am so sick of it! you can still have friends even if they have kids. you can still lead a fulfilling life even if you are not married or even if you didn't spawn. you develop relationships with people besides your husband and your kid even if you do have them--so obviously you're going to have relationships even if you're "alone". you can surround yourself with people you love and who love you, even if they're not "family."
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:46 PM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm nearly 60. I knew a long time ago that I wanted to be "child-free". I have no family (they have all died) and I live with my s.o. without "benefit" of marriage. I have never been happier than I am right now. I have the luxury of learning to oil paint and I take it very seriously. It is not just a "hobby" --it is honestly my job. I have never felt more engaged with life than now. I love children --but I have never felt cut out to be a parent. Some people realize this and make the correct decision of having children to those who are very interested in it. There are moments when I think about being "all alone" and that does give me pause. Somehow, I think I could manage it, because many people do and I am of average intelligence and I have show fortitude in the past.
Truthfully, I think of "everyone" as my family. I hope that doesn't sound cliche. My own family was difficult..I have a senior friend who seems more family to me than any of my blood relatives did. Point does not have to be related by blood to make a contribution to another's life. On the contrary, the non-blood relative can light up your life to the max. I always know that there are zillions of little people who would love for me to read to them if I ever want to volunteer. I may do that one day, or get involved with art for children. If you don't have a burning desire to reproduce..don't do it.
posted by naplesyellow at 1:05 AM on July 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

Re being husbandless and childless and eaten by cats: I too worried vaguely about the long-term wisdom of remaining in single blessedness until I read this report on the UK which says, among other things, "Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, with nearly half of all older people (45%) considering the television as their main form of company."

These are people from a very marriage-minded generation who put all their eggs into that basket and are now lonely and friendless all the same. Marriage alone is no guarantee.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:25 AM on July 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I tend to believe that "fulfillment" comes about when one knows one is doing "good."

Yeah, what does that mean, goodness?

I don't think you can really lay it out in an outline or anything, and it will depend on the individual, but I think your intuition is your primary asset in determining goodness.

In so far as you feel you are doing good in the world (and for yourself too...because after all, you are part of this world) that is fulfillment. Perhaps it will involving helping others who already exist, or helping raise a generation that doesn't yet exist, or both.

If you feel you can do a great job raising future humans, in a way that is beneficial to the world, them, and yourself, I'd say GO FOR IT! We need good parents.

If don't quite feel the call to have kids, and are ambivalent, I'd say keep living your life. Strive to do good for the world (which of course easier said than done!) We need people who can help solve problems. Even in the smallest acts: I believe if you do them in the genuine spirit of caring for others, you will find fulfillment.

I'm not sure how fulfillment is found otherwise.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:26 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

"What if I'm 40 and husbandless and childless and alone while all my friends live their family-filled lives?"

Well, I'm 40, have no kids or husband, and alone is not a word that could apply to my life. My boyfriend and I intend to go right on being boyfriend and girlfriend, and we love it that way. But even outside of my relationship, I've got friends and family that are so good to me. All you need is to be kind and open and understanding to the people in your life, and you'll never be alone, you'll be a part of every family that you know.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:32 AM on July 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Women --and well, men too-- get socialized with all kinds of crazy gender nonsense about what they should want and how they should behave, and I sympathize with you trying to tease apart your own desires from what you've been told: I have found that pretty tough too. I was told my entire life that one day I would wake up wanting children -- I never did, not for a single minute. But I had a hard time trusting my own instincts; I worried that the people around me might be correct. Turned out they were not.

I asked a therapist once if there was any truth to the notion that women who don't have children later regret their decision -- she said that in her thirty-year career, she had never once met a woman for whom that was true. She said that in her experience, some women regret having kids, but she had never known anyone childless-by-choice who regretted their choice -- presumably, she said, because they'd had it regularly challenged by the culture around them, and therefore had had to give the issue lots of thought. I would expect the same general principle holds true for people who choose not to marry, etc.

I recommend that as a general rule, whenever you're torn between two paths, you default to the less-conventional. I do this, and it's worked really well (plus it short-cuts agonizing, yay). My premise is that the culture pushes us towards orthodoxy and that by introducing a small, systematic counter-balance, you're likely to get closer to what you personally, individually, really want.

FWIW, if I think about my own life, I do regret a few of the more-conventional gender choices I've made, but I have never once regretted taking a less-conventional path. Also FWIW, I think that unconventional people get more so, and happier and more comfortable about it, with age. I think that's particularly true for women, as we start to shake off the effects of our early socialization.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 3:01 AM on July 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

When my childless (by choice) self turned 40, I sat down with my husband of 17 years and we drew up a list of things we wanted to accomplish in the next 5 years: travel, work toward early retirement, travel, plan a sideline business, travel, etc. Note there was no mention of children or anything to do with them as we assumed the time for kids was passed.

About a month later we found out we were pregnant. That was 2 kids ago. That list now mocks me, but in a good-natured way.

SO you can plan not to have kids, and life intervenes. You can plan to have kids, and life offers another route. We often aren't in as much control of the trajectory of our lives as we think we are.

I can relate to your "dark place". I had questions like that, too. They seemed to get more prominent the older I got. Maybe that's why I drew up that list. As for you, it's more than OK to be unconventional and make your own route. But you also have to give yourself permission to want traditional things, too. Don't be unaware of the subtle condescension of those choices these days.
posted by anemone at 4:24 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I will never want an engagement ring, or a surprise, elaborate proposal. I would not want a traditional wedding ceremony if I were to wed. Call it feminist, independent, marriage-phobic, weird, whatever you will."

I don't think this is weird. I think the wedding industry wants you to think it's weird, because that sells flowers and dresses. Plenty of successful, monetarily-secure couples make a mutual decision to get engaged; shop for the ring together or skip it entirely; and get married at the courthouse on Friday two weeks later and then go meet some friends for Italian food.

In my experience, the difference between women who were happy with their decisions, wedding-wise (or not-getting-married-but-staying-long-term-partnered-wise), were the ones who made their own decisions and didn't worry about what they "should" or "shouldn't" want, whether they were being told to want a big frothy meringue dress or whether they were being told to want power suits -- with the caveat that they were adequately mature to know their own minds and understood they were making a decision about a party (not about getting to be a princess! ooooh!). Lots of people like to say, "Everyone I know who had a fancy wedding got divorced!" or "Everyone I know who did a quickie at the courthouse wishes they'd done more!" That's frequently insecurity about the speaker's own choice. I've been to weddings done for $100,000 (!!!!) and for $40, both resulting in equally successful marriages, both very joyful occasions. So for the wedding itself, keep in mind that what you're talking about is a PARTY. The marriage ceremony itself is not that expensive no matter how you do it. You're just fussing over what kind of PARTY to throw afterwards.

"And, what the hell is the source of those stupid emotions anyway?"

That marriage and family, done well by loving people, are Good Things ... and that it's very, very difficult to do them well, and mature people know that, and that ANY choices you make about your life are going to require compromise. I don't know if it's the "have it all" mythos of the modern woman, or if it's just that compromising about one's own life is inherently a difficult thing, but the sooner you (really, deeply) accept that life involves some compromises, the calmer you'll be about these things. I got married pretty young (24), and that cut off the chance to do a lot of things I thought I'd spend my 20s doing, like finding a job abroad, because now we were negotiating two careers instead of one, and two sets of dreams instead of just mine. But it opened up a lot of other opportunities as well. In your 20s and 30s you start having to make choices that will prune back your future options in some areas of your life, while opening up your options in others. You will either eventually choose to have kids, thus cutting off leisure time, travel, spending money, etc., for two decades, or you will choose to let your fertility run out, thus cutting off the possibility of (biological) kids. But either way, you will be cutting off some choices and opening up others.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 AM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

For hundreds--no, thousands--of years, a woman's entire place in western society depended on whether she was married. For the past few decades, this has absolutely become somewhat eroded, but we don't live in 1984 where all our stories and archetypes have been scrubbed clean to conform with the new ways. Since we were kids, we have been inundated with messages subtle and less subtle about how getting married is the be-all-end-all in every girl's life. We went to elementary school and heard "you can be whatever you want to be!" and watched movies about Disney princesses when we got home. We went to college and graduate school to build fulfilling careers, and we go to the supermarket and see tabloids that excitedly announce every female celebrity's baby bump or new marriage, not, say, her new movie or her new production company or her new line of clothing at walmart.

Yes, it is now possible to never get married and never have children and also not be shunned, but in our society, it is still seen as an "alternative" choice, especially for women. In our common parlance, old men who never marry are elderly bachelors; old women who never marry are old maids.

I guess what I'm saying is that there is still a lot of societal pressure to get married and have kids, and societal pressure is a strong thing. It's also what kept me from doing a cartwheel in the street this morning.

I am somewhat like you and somewhat unlike you in this aspect (as you know, since we know each other. Hi!) Like you, I do well in long-term relationships and am very monogamous. Unlike you, I probably do want to get married--though now I'm looking at this and wondering why that is--though in my "dark moments" I worry that nobody will ever marry me because I tend to go for more unconventional, and sometimes even nutty, boys that more often than not tend to be the type who never want get married to anyone, rather than the sports-loving, car-driving, suburb-friendly pleated-khaki-pants wearing pre-dads.

I talked to my friend Gus on the phone for a long time last night and he told me something that resonated with me and kind of relates to this. He said that he read an article somewhere, awhile ago, that was on the topic of illusion of control--that basically, we control a lot less than we think we do. And he said that after reading that article, he decided that we can choose to believe that things will work out the way they are supposed to, or that everything is complete chaos, and the difference between these two beliefs changes nothing except one's internal state. "What is supposed to happen, will happen," he told me. I replied with "Yes, but it's backwards--what happened ends up as 'what was supposed to happen' because it is what happened." But from the perspective of having control over more than about 10% of it, it's mostly the same.
posted by millipede at 6:41 AM on July 7, 2010 [7 favorites]

(I just realized that at the end of your post you asked for advice from 'other women,' but I already had this typed so I'm running with it. Hopefully a guy's thoughts can help)

I was concerned about marriage for years as well. I didn't want to do something just because 'someone else told me I should.' I was suspicious that others who strongly desired marriage were just doing what their parents told them they should. I liked being mobile and able to pick up an visit friends whenever, and I considered my ability to move for a job at any time to be an advantage in my career. In my mind, these things were important and opposed to settling down.

But I eventually realized that I was being pulled in the opposite direction as you - I had absorbed the message that people who want marriage too much are mindlessly following the pack instead of making their own decisions. Growing up I didn't feel very connected with the very traditional people in my town, and then I went to a very career-minded school where people looking for life partners were considered odd. I absorbed that message well, but I eventually realized that I - like most people - want a balance of freedom, career, and the stability of a home life.

So be on the lookout that your current attitude isn't also something you absorbed - it's true that the 'marriage is good' message in society is very present, but the 'marriage is for drones' message is very strong in some circles, such as the ones I'm part of. You may find that you're like most people and want a balance of your current life and a more domestic married life. You don't have to feel like you're giving up or following the crowd - marriage is a tradition because in some ways it works well.

Also, I think it can be time-sensitive. I definitely feel less wanderlust / 'let's do something exciting tonight!' than I used to.
posted by Tehhund at 7:01 AM on July 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I sometimes feel the same as you. I am in a long term relationship, we actually moved out of the country together and are getting ready to do yet another country change at the end of this summer. So, pretty committed. At first, when we started going out and very quickly moved in together, I was sure as I'd always been I did not want to get married. He didn't have an opinion about it as strong as mine, but we both agree that marriage, signing the paper, having the party isn't really important, and as we don't need to do it, we won't. Not so much that we're against it - we have been to close friends' weddings, and I think it's great if that's what makes them happy. Some of our friends are in long term, committed relationships and aren't married either. So there's no peer pressure, and not much family pressure either, other than perhaps our Grandmothers once a year saying they'd love to see us getting married. Children, that's another subject, but also a much more complex one, I think.

So, about marriage: I find that if I'm truly honest with myself, I tend to feel like I do after all want to get married when I am feeling less secure, less interesting, less self-assured or a little less like I really really believe everything is fine between us and we have a really great shot at making it together. Which is to say, when I am feeling a bit less like myself. That's when I most want the romantic moment, however unconventional, because I would never ever do the huge party with the big white dress or anything close to that. But the swearing love for each other, and that we'll make it work through thick and thin and for better or for worse and all that kind of thing, that's what I want. Then, after day-dreaming about it a bit, I remember I know the marriage part will make no true difference, and that I'm sure even if we were married, I'd still have those moments and I'd still feel that same way sometimes. And then when I feel better again, I know that what I really believe is that if we do get married one day, it'll be due to practical reasons which are helped or resolved because we have a signed contract with each other.

Kids, that's a different one. I think I want them, but I'm not 100% sure, and as I'm now in my early 30's, I'm starting to feel the pressure of having to decide, having to plan my life for it and all that. But I really don't feel that relates to marriage at all, actually.
posted by neblina_matinal at 8:16 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also honestly struggle with this.

Unlike you, I do live with my boyfriend. We're explicitly very, very committed to each other. I don't feel like I want to get married and some of the people we admire greatly aren't married to each other, but are very committed. We share goals and plans and have savings accounts and are about to sign paperwork giving each other power of attorney. We're both on the lease, we have given each other health insurance when our jobs allowed, we are a couple just as much as our friends who have the piece of paper. Neither of us want kids. Both of us are in similar places in our lives. We've talked about marriage when friends have said, "So, when are you two kids going to settle down" or something like that but it's generally understood that we're fine where we are and things are good and I'm not sure I WANT that, the huge cultural expectation that will come along with "being married".

I was married when I was very very young and it ended very quickly (and badly), and I saw how all of that - stuff- just gets in the way of the actual relationship. Parents behave differently, friends behave differently, life behaves differently - and not for good, as far as I'm concerned.

Also, as more and more states in the US show their true colors, we also have objections to exercising a right that not everyone in this country is allowed to - kind of like "we don't want to get married until everyone who wants to can get married."

That doesn't stop me from wanting to "be married" which is a huge fiction, I know. I don't want a huge proposal and I could buy myself a diamond ring if I wanted it but I grew up watching "Breakfast At Tiffany's" with my mom on the late movie too many times. I am almost 50 and have a lot of cultural baggage. Sometimes it makes me very sad, and then I get angry that this is what a grown woman is still pining for because of advertising and bad movies.

That hasn't stopped me from being truthfully, 100% happy at friends' unions.

Then there is the part of me that likes the idea of standing up in front of our friends and saying, "We love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together". There is something very powerful in that, I believe. Not to mention that we would throw the greatest party you had ever attended with the greatest music you had ever heard. (I like to think that we might do this some day, actually, kind of an 'un-wedding'.)
posted by micawber at 8:20 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Social pressure and institutions are clearly distracting. So, let's separate marriage from the institution, and imagine you and your partner create a private ritual with just you two, where you exchange vows to be with each other till death. Such an act shows that the two of you are committed to having permanent, significant relations with each other.

If both of you don't want that, then aren't you saying you're okay with your relationship being temporary? Again, I'm not talking about marriage, I'm talking about making a vow to be permanent. You can love someone enormously, and not want to be permanently connected to that person. Is that the kind of love you have? Is that the kind of love you want?
posted by philosophistry at 8:22 AM on July 7, 2010

I entirely recognize the ridiculousness of each of the above "what if?" statements.

Those aren't ridiculous. Some of them may be a bit premature (if you don't want to do something right now, then don't - you'll change as you get older, and you might want to reconsider), but they are all 100% legitimate questions to ask yourself about what you want. It sounds to me like you just aren't sure what you want - or you wouldn't have posted the question.

The biological clock is minimized and pooh-poohed a lot, but it's real. There will come a time when you'll no longer have the option to have biological children, if you decide you want them. Worth taking into account.

Some people do feel unfulfilled and lonely in middle age and old age, and sometimes it's because they didn't pursue what they really wanted.

I understand that marriage and children won't necessarily bring me total fulfillment, and yet I fear being unfulfilled down the line without those things.

I'd call this a realistic view. Marriage (or long-term partnership) and children are choices that won't necessarily bring you (or anyone) total fulfillment. The fairy-tale version of marriage is, as you know, nonexistent and rather silly. On the other hand, long-term partnership and family are still really valuable in their own more realistic way to many people.

My honest read of your question doesn't sound like someone who's happy with her current picture of the future. Of course you could (will?) have a fantastic life if you're creative, interested in the world, socially active, etc. No problem there - you will always be able to craft a wonderful life for yourself. What it sounds like to me is that there is a part of you that would really like to be involved in family life. It's OK to acknowledge that part of you, and determine how important it is to you. If you decide it's important, you will be able to create a family life for yourself that does fit your values and beliefs. If not, you won't feel so conflicted.

But life is always a series of choices, and we all have roads not taken. If you decide to have a family, you will also be conscious of the road not taken of what your life would otherwise have been. Living with this mystery and ambiguity is just part of maturing.
posted by Miko at 9:07 AM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Don't let your view of yourself as feminist, independent, etc. keep you from admitting to yourself that you might want marriage and children.

...and definitely this. There is nothing feminism that precludes any kind of relationship you want to have - including parenting and marriage.
posted by Miko at 9:42 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of the most honest questions I have ever read. And I can identify with you in a lot of ways. Part of my ambivalence toward marriage was the idea of not needing it, and part was not wanting to end up like my parents. In your case, that means gender roles and traditionalism. In my case, it was divorce and the idea that marriage wasn't really that good a thing. (And for a friend of mine, she didn't want to get married because she was essentially rebelling against what her parents wanted for her. Not saying that's you, just an example.)

My epiphany came when I was having my widowed grandmother visit me. I realized that she pretty much bounces all over the country visiting her kids and grandkids. Her marriage wasn't ideal, and that can happen. But she had all these people in her life because she had kids. And that's what I wanted. (And such a thing can be achieved in many different ways, I just chose to do it the traditional way.)

If you don't want to ever get married, that's totally fine. But you can change your mind at any point. I don't go to the same church I did in my 20's; I changed my mind. I'm not a vegetarian any more, either. You don't have to hold yourself to convictions you no longer have.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2010

One small thing to add: Sometimes the pressure of having a partner who is totally on board with what you initially want (no marriage, no kids) can wear away at your ability to recognize your changing feelings about things. Just give yourself permission to experience possible changes in your desires and priorities if that is what happens, and permission to discuss those changes with your partner. If you never change your mind, great. But if you do, you want to be able to be true to those feelings. One more thing: I'd be a little wary of explaining away possible changes as "biological imperative," etc. If you are like me, you may feel tempted to use those words to deny difficult and boat-rocking questions about your previous desires. Good luck whatever you choose!
posted by wondershrew with a helping of potato salad at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2010

Please don't go having children just out of fear of regretting it later. Have children if you desire them deeply.
posted by uauage at 1:03 PM on July 7, 2010

out of fear of regretting it later. Have children if you desire them deeply.

I'm honestly not sure there's a big difference here. "Fear of regretting it" can be flipped on the positive side as "desire to have the experience." Ultimately, if you regretted not doing it, that would mean that you had desired it.

Looking around at all of my friends who are parents, I can say that not all of them could be characterized as people who desired children "deeply." They were people who were interested in the experience of becoming parents and felt they would be happy to invest in and give love to a child. Sometimes they planned this opportunity, in more than a coupleof cases it was a surprise. That's not the same thing as being "baby-obsessed" or feeling as though you must have a deep, driven feeling pushing you inevitably toward parenthood. That doesn't describe everybody's experience.

If what you mean is "only have children if you can love and care for them ably and sincerely," then I agree. But a "deep desire" for children is not, I would say, a precondition for becoming a parent.
posted by Miko at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, "fear of regretting it" can also mean, "I don't feel the desire for this, I don't understand why anyone does, but everyone swears up and down to me that X is The Best Thing EVER EVER EVER and I will be sorry if I don't do it. What if they're right? There's more of them than there are me..."

Uh, would you rather be the child of parents who wanted you, or not? Yes, any old fool can not bother with birth control and become a parent in the most technical sense of the word, but I tend to think that everyone would be better off if the kid was wanted before birth, rather than had because everyone else swore up and down you'd want one later, and that may or may not change.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:36 PM on July 7, 2010

When we were sorting through this, I found Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple to be a really great resource. It has a lot of tools for sifting through all the issues tied to this question and for seeing all the options you have. It considers different kinds of living arrangements, children or not, wedding or not, marriage or not, what to call each other, how to strengthen the relationship and survive the bumpiness of life, how to relate to each other's families, and how to deal with people's reactions to your choices on all of the previous issues.

You may also want to check out the Alternatives to Marriage project which the authors of Unmarried to Each Other are involved with, and which has a lot of interesting resources.

For me, I had the following mix:
  • A nagging feeling that we were still a temporary couple if we were 'just' boyfriend/girlfriend even though we owned a place together. A desire to signal to my partner that I really wanted him, for keeps.
  • A desire to give my best shot at 'til death do us part', but not vetoing splitting up if that was best
  • A desire for the legal protections marriage offers
  • A feeling that in our context (Toronto), people would better understand what I really meant if I said "husband" instead of "boyfriend". If we lived in Québec, conjoint would have been fine by me. Toronto doesn't happen to have the same culture. I felt that girlfriends and boyfriends are not assumed to be permanent, so it seemed that people would misunderstand me.
  • Monogamy
  • We already owned a place together
  • We're a boy-girl couple
  • No desire for a wedding
  • No desire for the dress or the ring
  • Strong resistance to any religious elements of wedding or marriage
  • Resistance to changing my name; resistance to children necessarily not sharing my 'maiden' name
  • No desire for the traditional gender roles.
He had a different mix, and it required about a year of conversations (which sometimes looked more like fights) for us to figure it out. We ended up with this:
  • Eloped at our condo for $300 with a non-religious officiant and 2 friends as witnesses. No other attendees, and we only told people about it afterwards. Photos with the cats were mandatory. There was no reception, I didn't change my name, we don't have wedding rings. We might later, or we might get tattoos, or we might not do anything. I wore a dress I already owned. He wore a nice shirt and jeans. We also got married on February 29th, so we only have an anniversary every 4 years, which makes us laugh.
  • Nothing about our relationship changed.
  • We reviewed the federal and provincial marriage laws and were happy with the arrangements, so opted out of a prenup.
  • He refers to me as his 'better half' and I refer to him as my 'partner'. We use the husband/wife terms when things are more formal but not much otherwise. We also like to refer to it as a 'best friends with benefits' situation. :)
That might not be your mix, and it might not be the solution that fits you. Consider how you feel about each element and discuss it until you find something that clicks. Even if you do become legally married, you certainly don't need to do it in a traditional way. You can have a different marriage performance the same way that you can have a different gender performance, if it helps to think of it that way. I think it helped that I was working with a lot of gay men while we were discussing it, because it helped me break out of the traditional context and separate out what was really bothering me and what I really wanted.

Good luck, and congratulations on having found your own best friend with benefits!
posted by heatherann at 5:21 PM on July 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Kids are really cool. Have kids. Some people seem to not have that urge, but some do. It sounds like you do. So, have kids, or you'll regret it later. Parenting is a very natural thing to do.

Marriage, on the other hand, who needs it? Marriage is not a natural thing to do.
posted by TheOtherSide at 5:31 AM on July 8, 2010

Warning: guy.

Study after study shows childless couples are happier than those with children. Studies show that couples with children are happier with less children. And couples that have children are happier with their lives when their children have left the nest.

I doubt you'll find many couples with children that will admit that. That's not surprising, you do the best with what you have.

My point is not to refrain from having children. For many people I'm sure they make their lives complete. But for many, life is just as good, if not better, without. So make sure its what you want, and not what you think society believes will make you complete.

I just think 'kids are really cool. have kids' is naive and silly and dangerous. There's enough kids that aren't wanted or taken care of. Make sure you want kids to be a large part of your life, because if you have them, they will be. There is NOTHING wrong with deciding you're happy with your life an unwilling to raise kids. Don't believe the hype.
posted by Dennis Murphy at 7:37 PM on July 11, 2010

I am taking a class now where I brought a similar issue up to my professor. She told me a story about how, after she had her second child, she went around asking people when they knew they were done having children. People told her that they just sort of knew. She ended up having another one and knew after that.

I think in some of these instances you know.
And not knowing is maybe the answer. If you don't know whether you will want children or marriage later, maybe that's the answer that you will? Not as if that doesn't make it all the more confusing...

I have gone back and forth myself about this issue. For awhile in my early 20s, I really wanted a child and not a husband. I couldn't tell you any more why I thought that way. Now in my late 20s, I generally feel as if I want a husband (or a solid partner of some sort), but I have spent enough time with children now to know that I might not be able to do that. I like giving them back to their parents. I see my friends having kids and the way that it swallows their lives and I don't think that's for me. It is certainly a worthwhile thing to have your life taken over like that, don't get me wrong. I just don't think that I'm that person. People tell me "Oh, you're great with kids. You should be a mom." But what do people know?

Don't let Other People tell you what you should be doing, how you should be doing it, or when. Don't let Other People tell you that "someday you'll want _____" because that might not be true. My mother told me growing up that I'd probably be a Republican and that sure as hell isn't true. My friends seem to think that I'll want x, y, and z that they're doing, but I wouldn't be in any of their relationships or situations because I'm not them (and I mean that as non-offensively as possible).

So do what you feel is right and what you Know. You know?
posted by itsacover at 7:43 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as the marriage question goes, I'd like to add three things:

1. marriage is a financial commitment, where two people will be linked materially, at least according to most U.S. laws (assuming, that's where you are.)

Call me unromantic, but I don't feel you should ever get married to someone who is lousy with money.

If this guy isn't financially responsible, the "do I want to marry this guy" question will be has answered itself for you already, at least in my book.

Harsh, I know!

2. Unmarried women usually get looked down upon and chided more than unmarried men. I HATE THIS STUPID STIGMA. Be prepared to endure a lot more social stigma from being unmarried than he does. Whenever I hear guys saying how lame marriage is, well, good for principle and all, but it's really self-serving because they reap most of the benefits of being unmarried. This is not so true for women.

3. I feel you should not be with a guy who utterly refuses to get married. DO be with a guy who will be at least, willing to get married (even if you choose not to do it, as long as you live). Why? Because you are on the fence about it. If you change your mind in the future, you will have invested a chunk of time in someone who won't change his mind.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:06 PM on July 12, 2010

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