Escape fantasies: thoughts on living alone

First a confession: A couple weeks ago I was driving back from Trader Joe’s when I pulled over to the side of the road two blocks from home.  There was a bag of lettuce sitting in the passenger seat.  Caroline was home with Jay and Wally.  I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker, which I’d grabbed from the mailbox on my way to the car, and commenced to reading about the goings on at Davos.  After a long day I wasn’t quite ready to rejoin the family fray.

Recently I wrote about “priming effects”—the ways in which Caroline and I influence each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally.  When I reflected on my roadside detour, it occurred to me that maybe I’d been primed to want to spend some time alone by the book Going Solo, which I’d recently reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor.

Going Solo was written by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and it details “the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal” of living alone in America.  Today, 28 percent of all American households are single people living alone – or “singletons” as Klinenberg dubs them – which, is more than triple the rate of fifty years ago. As Klinenberg writes, “People who live alone … are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational home, and the roommate or group home.”

In Going Solo Klinenberg uses interviews to sketch what solo living looks like for people at different stages in life: 20-somethings, middle-aged people who divorced or never married, and the elderly whose partners have died.  The interviews are engrossing and reminded me all over again why I love good ethnography so much.

I won’t get too into the interviews here (my review has more detail and I’d certainly recommend reading the book which isn’t too long and reads quickly).  But I will quote from one of Klinenberg’s subjects, a 52-year-old Manhattan singleton named Charlotte who maybe was in the back of my mind as I pulled to the side of the road. “When you live alone, there’s no compromising,” she said.  “I do everything I feel like doing.  And it is totally self-indulgent.  It’s just all about you…I don’t think I want to tend to a living thing ever again.”

I spend a good number of hours each day tending to two living things.  And for the most part I don’t find myself yearning for more time alone than I have.  I get five mostly quiet hours to myself each morning when the boys are with their nanny, I get an hour in the late-afternoon to run, and I get 15 minutes at the end of each day while waiting in bed as Caroline goes downstairs to dream-feed Wally.  It’s this last little block of alone time that I enjoy the most: the day, done, and a few quiet minutes to myself before lights out.

That said, I still struggle sometimes with the more general need that arises as part of a family: the need to compromise when making major life choices.  The other night Caroline and I were watching an early episode of Breaking Bad in which the main character, Walt, argues with his wife after revealing to her that he has advanced lung cancer.  Walt wants to opt-out of treatment altogether, saying that he wants to feel as good as he can during whatever time he has left.  His wife responds by saying that Walt owes it not only to himself, but also to her and to their son to do everything he can to beat the disease.

As Caroline and I watched this together I found myself identifying strongly with Walt.  It seemed to me that at this most personal and pivotal moment in his life, he should get to decide for himself how he lives and dies.  Caroline had a different take.  She thought that as a husband and a father, Walt had obligations to other people, and that the choice was not entirely his own to make.

So it’s hard for me sometimes to accept that compromise in the context of a family means more than meeting halfway on the type of milk we buy (I’d opt for 2%, Caroline would prefer skim):  It also means compromising on more fundamental issues, too, like how many kids you have, or where you live, or how much time each partner devotes to his or her career.

Of course it helps when both partners in a marriage and all parties in a family share common views about what’s important in life.  But no alignment is ever perfect.  A few months ago Caroline and I spent an evening talking about our “escape fantasies”—the lives we’d choose for ourselves if all of a sudden we didn’t have any family obligations.  Caroline imagined she might move to Manhattan and rent a small apartment.  I said I’d abscond to the Himalayas.  So, our underlying dispositions are different even as we meet on the common ground of family life in suburban Ann Arbor.

I’ve written previously about how I value the friction that comes from being a part of a family.  Getting married and having kids means adding friction and giving up complete freedom of choice in exchange for the opportunity to share in some of the most meaningful relationships one can have in a life.

I’d take that trade nine ways to Sunday, even as I have moments like the other week when I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: embracing boredom