02 May 2017

The Good and Bad of Societal Family Expectations

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Barb Goffman

"So, are you married yet?"

Those five words from an old friend's husband set my teeth on edge more than a decade ago, when I was in my early thirties. They still bother me. Not because they make me feel like a bit of a failure in such an important aspect of life (as they did then), but because they represent what still seems to be a ridiculous societal expectation. You grow up, you get married. And if you don't, you're incomplete; there must be something wrong with you.

Indeed, my own mother had this perspective. To her dying day, she believed I was unhappy. I had to be, she reasoned, because I wasn't married. Nothing I said or did to show I was happy by myself made any difference. To her, a woman couldn't be happy if she doesn't have a husband.

Well, on behalf of all my single friends, I say poppycock. (If you know me at all, you know I actually used an expletive instead of poppycock. But I wrote poppycock because this is a family blog. (Did you see what I did there?))

In fact, I'll wager that not having a husband has been good for me, at least creatively. Imagine how much less writing I would get done if I had a husband and children to care for and spend time with. I can barely manage giving my dog enough attention.

Of course, it's possible that having a husband and children would inspire more stories. Thinking back to old boyfriends, there was the one who liked to interrupt me; the one who spent money like he made it in the basement; the one who liked to blame the victim. Yes, being stuck in close quarters with any of them could have inspired a lot of murder mysteries. Or at least murders. Sure, then I'd go to prison, but think of all the writing time I'd have.

Not that I need a husband to come up with murder stories. I have parents, two brothers, and a sister, so I've got more than enough history to delve for creative inspiration. Indeed I've written a large number of stories involving killing or maiming members of your family. My sister has accused me  several times of creating sister characters with her in mind and has said that she doesn't want to get on my bad side. (Too late! Kidding! Maybe.)

And family can also have a broad definition. I'm sure many people have friends they aren't related to but whom they think of as family. And when you care about someone so much, they can end up inspiring ire (either because of something they did or something done to them). Indeed in my newest short story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, my main character, Myra, thinks of her boss of forty years, Douglas, as her little brother. And when pushed, she decides that it's time she teaches her little brother a lesson in humility. It's the family thing to do, to help make him a better person.

So, am I married yet? Nope. But that doesn't matter. I have more than enough friends and family to inspire my writing. Maybe I'll go kill off another one today. On paper, of course.


  1. (innocently) What about your other sister?

  2. How strange that a man asked if you were married yet. Most guys go to great lengths to avoid the M-word. Of course a lot of jerks should avoid the big M altogether! No wonder you didn't marry.

  3. I think I was the only one of his wife's friends who wasn't married. It seemed he was asking, what was I waiting for? As if it was something I was supposed to do, so get on with it, lady. Or (putting a nicer spin on it) perhaps he thought he needed to make small talk but didn't have anything to say to me, so he asked a question that he thought was safe, since most people get married. Thought the word YET (are you married YET?) sure had expectations built into it.

  4. An amusing and insightful piece as always!

  5. And if you were married, but childless, people ask if you have kids yet!


  6. Barb, those who've been married, then divorced or widowed, receive more invasive questions. Instead of, "Are you married yet?" people ask, "WHY haven't you remarried?" My answer (and I'm in my seventies) is, "I haven't finished checking out all the applicants yet." Enjoyed your take on the situation.

  7. Great post, Barb.

    How about your brothers? (Rolls eyes to ceiling)

    Yeah, men get it, too, but nowhere near as often. In my case, I'm the youngest male on my side of the family and the pressure to "carry on the family name" was insane...especially if you knew my family. Most of us have post-grad degrees in sociopathy.

    Most of the heat banked when my daughter was born and people assumed there would be other kids. She was pretty much perfect, so we quit when we were ahead.

    It's amazing to me how much of our family thinking seems to be mired in the early eighteen hundreds and inheritance laws and entails and all the rest of it. Believe me, nobody will want to inherit the condo when I go.

    So many great literary works rest on family dynamics and dysfunction...Oedipus, The Glass Menagerie, Long Day's Journey, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels, Dickens, Tolstoy. Maybe family dysfunction is the force that bands us together.

    As Billie Holiday said, "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do."

  8. Great post, Barb, great perspectives--and coincidentally, I just read your story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" late last night. Fun story! Congrats again, as always!

  9. When I taught social-business etiquette at the college post-grad level, this was one of the biggy lessons: never ask if someone is married or has children. Instead, ask something like: "Anything new with your family?" That gives the person in question a chance to say what they feel comfortable saying. They can talk about nieces and nephews, close family members, dogs, pigs, whatever. The power is in their court.

    One day, I should make that course into an online course. Enjoyed your post today, Barb.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. I seem to have struck a nerve, based on the comments here and on my Facebook page. As Mary said, people also get asked if they have had children yet (that word yet is especially terrible) or if they are STILL married. What the heck kind of question is that?

    Fran, I laughed out loud about your "applicants." LOVE that.

    Steve, yes, I think family dysfunction may be the one thing that everyone has in common, no matter their race, socio-economic status, age, political affiliation, or any other differences. That's certainly been true in my fiction. I'm reminded of a scene in "Little Miss Sunshine," when the family is traveling in the VW bus and they get pulled over and the father yells, "Everyone just pretend to be normal."

    Art, thanks again for letting me know you liked "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" YAY!

    And Mel, OMG, you definitely should turn that into an online course. Everyone knows someone who needs it. You could be a gazillionairre.

  11. Great post, Barb! I'm the oldest of three girls & both my sisters were married before I was. Some conversations were even more awkward than you might imagine, especially since I had a child when I was single & raised her alone. I didn't meet the man I later married until my daughter was 18 & away at college.

    And, yeah, I'm related to quite a few potential fictional murder victims!

  12. Elizabeth, I feel your pain. One of my nieces is married and another engaged. I'm glad I'm not waiting for Mr. Right, because I think I'd be upset if I were, being so behind the ball, so to speak.

  13. I don’t know if men hear this question more than women, but we get it a LOT, always from women (which surprised me when yours came from a man). Most often I say it’s because of my child… me… who hasn’t grown up yet.

    For a long time I said I believe in marriage– I really do– which is why I shouldn’t be married.

    P.S. I'm not sure it's safe to be related to Elizabeth.

  14. Or maybe it isn't safe for Elizabeth to be related to some of the ppl in her family! Even though they're crazy or at least heading that way, I love all of them.

  15. I had the opposite from my mother.As much as she truly liked my husband, she and my sister tried everything to keep me from getting married...I won't go into details right now, bu one of the things said by my sister was, when she heard that Joe wanted to get married on Christmas Eve was," WHEN, (not IF) you get divorced, you'll be depressed every Christmas" My aunt, who was the only one who traveled to my wedding, (I went to the state where my fiance was living) gave me the only thing resembling support: "You are entitled to make your own mistakes."
    That was 34 1/2 years ago and I can honestly say, it's not been an easy road, as much as I love him and my family. I never experienced true independence,and I am not sure I would have given it up. I admire any woman who has a grasp of who she is and makes her own choices. No matter how much 'say' I have had,I have made (and still make) many decisions based on others' needs, before my own.
    Did you see me at Malice? I rest my case.
    Enjoy your life!

  16. Oh, Tonette. What a sad story. I'm sorry.

  17. My brother is 21 months younger than I am. At his wedding I met his wife's grandmother for the first time. And she said, "You must be the spinster older sister." I was 22 at the time. (Yes, it was Richmond, VA but still...)

    Rob was the only one of the three of us who married.Our sister was gay and had a tumultuous relationship with a long-time partner. I never married but have lived with my best friend for nearly 20 years in a relationship that his mother does not understand. (My parents are dead but I think they might get it.)

    It's not the way I thought I'd end up but it's the way I want it. And now that I'm a woman of a certain age, no one asks me any more about my marital intentions. Which is how it should be.

    Thanks for sharing--I have been there my sister.

  18. "His spinster older sister." Wow. Just wow. I'm glad you have ended up happy with your life, Katherine. That's really all that matters.

  19. Sorry this comment is so late, Barb--I'm still madly trying to catch up after Malice. Enjoyed your post. Probably, we could all point to examples of tactless things family members have said, ranging from "When are you going to get married?" to "When are you two finally going to have a baby?" to one of my personal favorites, "Now that you're engaged, why are you still planning to go to graduate school? What's the point?" I suppose we should be charitable and believe family members say such things because of their sincere if misguided affection for us. At least, we can hope that's the reason.

  20. You're so charitable, Bonnie. I remember a relative once trying to stick up for me (when my mother was complaining that I was making a huge mistake planning to become a reporter), saying that I should be allowed to choose whatever profession I wanted; after all, I'd only be doing it for a couple of years anyway, until I got married and started having babies.


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