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This ain’t a romance novel

March 11, 2010

As much as I always say I want to delve into romance novels and tear them apart, I never do get the time to do it.  But there are so many places where they completely diverge from real life.  I’ve discussed the “perfect angels” cliche before, the ever-present babysitter, and the baby that sleeps through everything until it’s time to cry on cue.  But, in a way, those are more unrealistic than the deliberate avoiding of reality, and for some reason, they bother me on a writing level but not an existence level.  After all, lots of people are lazy about writing.  Lots of people use children as devices.  That makes them bad writers using bad cliches.  It doesn’t necessarily say anything more about anything but the writer.  I don’t think it necessarily says anything about the genre–although I may change my mind at any point, if I start buying into the idea that romances glorify the RAISING of children as much as everything that leads up to them.  If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

But let’s get back to the deliberate avoiding of reality.  Specifically, single parenting in romances.  I’m going to speak generally here; I’ll hit the topic again most likely when I start any recaps where the books have that as a main theme.  Let’s not even discuss the whole “raising your sister’s/brother’s/friend’s/whoever’s children” books, because they’re not going to count here, and I will explain why in a moment.  Also, let’s not discuss the underlying idea that even though you have a perfect angel (or two), who sleeps a surprising amount and only cries on cue, and that ever-present babysitter willing to take that angel at moment’s notice, that you NEED a man to complete your concept of Family, or that I have only to date read one book with a child-free couple* (I LOVE YOU, JENNIFER CRUSIE).  Let’s instead discuss the avoiding of the emotional welfare of the single parent in a situation where a family member does not approve of them.

Yes, of course this is a topic dear to my heart.  If I were not discussing my life in relation to what I read, I wouldn’t be blogging, I’d be doing more research and writing journal articles.  But in a journal article, you can’t talk about your utter loathing for the romance genre and the way it twists people’s heads, and your love of it and how it makes you feel good about yourself and optimistic about relationships.  Well, you can, but again: research.  I don’t wanna research (or else I’d be finishing that project); I wanna talk about me.

I have been the legal definition of a single parent for about twelve years now.  In that time, I have dated casually and had short-term and long-term relationships.  I will be the first to admit that I don’t move slowly, and I don’t mean “I jump into bed with everyone I meet.”  Don’t misunderstand me.  What I do is try not to play any games and to communicate honestly and as openly as I can with all the natural inhibitions of insecurity.  When I was younger, I found this a rather daring trait in myself.  Now that I am older, I find it utterly practical.

The thing is, people really respond to it–and not just in relationships, but many of my friends as well.  They love knowing exactly where they stand.  When I care about someone, they generally not only know that I do, but why I do.  They love hearing what it is about them that draws me to them and, as trust builds, the ones with a strong sense of self-esteem tend to ask me for my opinion on things, because, as they always tell me, they know they can trust me to give them an honest answer.  My friends who are feeling down on themselves know that it’s not a good time to ask for my opinion; I rarely say what they want to hear.

As I said, it’s honest, and I find it’s practical too.  But when you stir in the emotions and chemicals of a new relationship, it’s a heady mix.  But if you can step aside and get some perspective and apply the practical as well, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

I think there’s a bit of that kind of practical communication inherent in romance novels–because the books are generally about communication (especially the Harlequins) and, with the characters ultimately having to be honest, you can compress time.  Character A says “I’m falling for you” after the third date; that allows Character B to feel comfortable saying the same thing, if s/he feels it too (and in this book, of course, they do)–and so they can move to the next level of the relationship/plot.  Whereas in real life, we trip over ourselves; we wait three days to call back.  We get twitchy about spending a week where we don’t see each other–is the person busy or uninterested?  But we want to prove our independence, so we say we’re unavailable for the next “couple of weeks.”  We wonder, “What does it all meannn?”

Well, that’s the part I skip, and so ultimately I tend to move to the next level faster.  If I like someone, I say so, and the practicality of it now is that it saves me time if the other person doesn’t feel the same way.  And the practical part of me knows–and acknowledges to the other person aloud–that “I like you” is really “I like the person I think you are.”  “I love you,” at first, is generally “I love the way I feel around you.”  Later, it’s “I love the person I’m pretty sure you are.”  It never really stops being that.

So.  Being both a single parent and a fast-mover/high-communicator, I am not beloved among parents of suitors.  (Let’s not even add in the whole “bisexual” thing; that’s a whole separate issue.)  They see me as co-dependent (that one was vocalized), maybe pushy, maybe desperate.  I think they’re wrong, but that’s okay.  I don’t ask them to know me immediately.  But there’s also an underlying message, a message that never gets touched in any romance novel I’ve ever read: You are dirty.  You are used goods.  Your child is physical proof of having had sex before, and not being with the child’s father means that you were incapable of making a relationship work. (This is why regular gals who “inherit” someone else’s baby/babies are exempt.  You can still pretend they’re virgins, even if they aren’t.  Also they are martyrs, but that’s another post.)

Even when parents disapprove in romance novels, it’s all very vague and general, or highly, highly specific to some ludicrous situation, like the families have some long-running feud or the heroine was in the wrong place at the wrong time in such a way that it makes her look like she did something she didn’t do.  So ridiculous.  It doesn’t ever try to get to the core of the issue.

What is the core of the issue, though?

I remember when I met my ex-boyfriend of what ended up being something like seven years.  His parents are conservative, born-again Christians.  Boy, did they not like me.  They were far too nice to say anything, of course, but the disapproval was there, in comments to my ex-boyfriend when I wasn’t around, in strained silences when I was.

It wears on you.  It makes you feel terrible about yourself.  It makes you feel like trash.  It makes you feel like how dare you make any mistakes, or be misled, when obviously other people can go out, find someone to be with, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after?

It also tears away at the idea that people can break away from the norm and be happy, because there will always be the judgment.  Judgment, even when you don’t think you deserve it, makes you feel self-conscious at the very least, and self-loathing at its worst.  I don’t think everyone will hit that extreme; I really don’t.  I hope they don’t.  But it’s there.  It’s an emotional option.

The other reality of single-parent dating is that no one’s ever going to judge your kid, if they’re decent people.  And that’s great–except it becomes a stark contrast to the judgment you’re facing yourself.  You get to stand in a room and have someone smile warmly at your kid and halfheartedly at you.  Don’t tell me that isn’t upsetting, when it happens again and again and again.

I don’t think my ex-boyfriend’s parents ever really accepted me, but there was a lot more going on there.  But at first, it was because I was a single parent.  And that made me someone that they didn’t want for their son.  They, of course, were not the only ones–it wasn’t that they are conservative, born-again Christians.  Sadly, I’ve gotten this from the mother of an ex-boyfriend who was a single parent herself.

“But they just want their kids to be happy!”  Yes, they do.  But they’re measuring one person’s experiences against their own, and judging the situation “happiest” when it’s akin to their own, and I can’t agree to that.  I may be a new generation of parent, but I try not to put relationship expectations on my child, and I do not expect that she will live out some sort of pre-written script that leads to our 40-50% divorce rate.  I hope that she will be happy; I hope that she will find her future relationships uncomplicated and satisfying.  The reality of that, of course, is that she might not, and probably will not for every relationship she has.  But if she fell in love with her high school sweetie, got married, and lived the script, I’d be as happy for her as I would be if she had many relationships that weren’t successful but ultimately found relationship happiness.  (Well, I’d be happy when she got to the “ultimately” anyway.)

I do think I could fall into the same societal traps that my exes’ parents have, although hopefully less so.  I would want to know that, if she were dating a “divorced dad” or “single dad” that she wasn’t with someone who was just looking for someone to take over the role of Mom.  Because we do, we absolutely do, have these ideas written into our societal view of relationships.  Single moms are just looking for someone to help pay the bills; single dads are looking to foist their responsibilities onto the next woman that comes along.  This is the stereotype that, unwittingly or otherwise, gets place upon me when I date.  It doesn’t help, of course, that I’ve made a conscious choice to focus on school and not work while I’m attending, so that I don’t have even less time for my daughter than I already do.  That means I live on very little money, usually grants, but now loan money.  Which makes me “poor” by definition, although I’ve only once had problems paying my bills, during a combination health issue and registration issue that kept me out of school for a semester and unable to work as well.  Maybe it won’t be so bad when I finally graduate and get back into the workforce full-time.  But for the last six years, it’s been awkward and, at times, hurtful.  I would like to think that if I found myself stepping into those traps, my own experiences would lead me to maybe still look for indicators, but never, ever assume that the suitor fit the stereotype just by being a single parent.

And I haven’t even gotten into the whole concept of the mother as “sullied”!  But really, I’m out of time; I need to wrap this up.

So next time someone writes a romance with a single parent in it, they should think first of the reality of single-parent dating and the ramifications of compressed time and fast-moving relationships in the genre.  They shouldn’t have the couple exist in a vacuum.  Yeah, it’s a scary thing to have to deal with, but it’s real.  Single parents have to deal with these stereotypes and judgments every time they get into a new relationship, whether it’s from the parents or the grandparents or even the battle that exists between being true to herself and her experiences and the romance “script.”

Oh, and the authors should ditch the “little angels,” too, but again–whole other post.

*Vampire romances don’t count, except Twilight, and also I will be the first to admit that I really, really haven’t been reading contemporary romances in a long time.  I think the fact that any book that deviates from the norm gets separated into the vague genre of “chick lit” and that’s pretty annoying.

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