Confessions of a \"child man\"

I read an editorial about the “child man” phenomenon and it made me mad.

I fit those stereotypes, spending most of my 20s living in an apartment surrounded by toys, in somewhat social isolation, when I was supposed to be “growing up,” taking responsibility, (whatever those two things mean), getting married, and pumping out kids. I even had people telling me this back in that era.

Believe me, I wasn’t living this way by choice. And it wasn’t for lack of trying that I was stuck there.I did date some girls after college. Notice I call them girls–it was appropriate. The first relationship started just a few months after I graduated. For worse and for better, she became one of the most influential people in my life, and sometimes that influence still lingers even though it’s been nearly a decade since the last time we spoke to one another.

Marriage material? No way, although you couldn’t convince me of that when I was 23. If you asked me then, she had it all: reasonably good looks, sky-high intelligence, and she and I could talk for hours about any number of different things. Ask me now, and there were problems, most of which had to do with maturity: She knew everything (just ask her); she had a very difficult time accepting me for who I was, flaws and virtues; her self-righteousness got on my nerves; and perhaps most importantly, she was still in school while I’d started my career, and she couldn’t relate to the demands my employer was putting on me, or to the difficulty I was having adjusting to those demands.

She also said I had a drinking problem. Yes, at the time I was drinking more heavily than I ever had before or since, but I was having two or three drinks a week, never more than one per day, and I never drank alone. Since alcoholism runs in my family, it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to be doing, but the quantities were small enough that I wasn’t hurting anything either. I know because nothing weird happened when I stopped.

Actually, there was one other problem. At church a few months after she and I had broken up, I asked three middle-aged men what I needed to be looking for, because I didn’t know. Dwight, perhaps the wisest of the three, spoke up first. He said to look for sexual attractiveness because you’re going to look for that anyway, and for someone your family approves of because they’re going to have to interact for a very long time, and for someone you would trust to raise your children correctly if something were to happen to you.

Dwight’s advice was so concise and brilliant that neither of the other two said much of anything except that they agreed with Dwight.

Everyone else had always given me a much longer list, and what was messing me up was that this girl was tailor-made for those longer lists. But she only went one for three on Dwight’s list. My family resented the way she controlled me and didn’t let me be myself, and I totally wouldn’t trust her to raise my kids because she would homeschool them and they wouldn’t know how to deal with people–just like her.

And as for the attractiveness, let’s just say she wasn’t worth being shallow for, and leave it at that.

So Dwight set me on the right path at 23. I knew what to look for. The trouble was finding it. As far as girls my own age, there was only one who went to my church. She and I had gone to high school together. We got along fine, but it never seemed like we had much in common. There were plenty of girls in high school, but whenever 23-year-olds had tried to date my younger sister, I always looked down on them. And when I tried dating someone still in college, we had trouble relating. Wouldn’t it be worse with someone who was still in high school?

So I got a new job in St. Louis and moved there. I needed that break anyway. By that time the ex had graduated, met someone else and was all but engaged (she was in a hurry), and had left town, but Columbia still felt like it was half hers. I needed to go either to Kansas City or St. Louis, because either of those would be mine. I had more connections in St. Louis and that helped me get a job, so I landed there.

And? Well, there weren’t a lot of 23-year-old girls at my new church either. There were plenty where I worked, but they were almost all engaged or married. Those who weren’t had a lot of baggage and nothing ever happened.

So to fill up the empty apartment, I spent most of age 24 writing and publishing a book. I’d say that took a little bit of responsibility, and a lot of other things.

So I wasn’t meeting girls at church or at work. I needed to get out, right? Check out the bar scene or something! Well, wrong, because I know what kind of person you’ll probably get if you do that: someone a lot like the girl I dated when I was 28.

At 22, she was a lot younger than me. How’d she rate against Dwight’s rules? Reasonably attractive, although a slight downgrade from her predecessor. She seemed to get along fine with my family. Raising kids was the unknown. Two months in, I saw a potential problem–she was entirely too much into drinking and party living and had no interest in outgrowing it. (By then, I was down to a couple of drinks a year.) I held on for five more months, hoping that would change, and even trying to force a change. That didn’t work out so well. My friends told me I really needed to break up with her. They were right but I didn’t want to believe it just yet. It didn’t matter though, because she broke up with me first.

So there I was. Back on the market at 29.

The nice thing about 29, as opposed to 23, is that your range broadens. At that age, it’s perfectly OK to date someone 8, 9, even 10 years younger than you. And, like 23, you can date someone older than you too. Being alone again still stank, but at least at 29 I had more options than the last time around.

And this time I actually shopped around a bit. I read a book that tried to help you know in five dates or less if someone was worth pursuing and I guess it helped, but all I really needed was Dwight’s rules.

In this case, I knew about two weeks in how she’d do on #3. I got sick and missed some work. She took care of me. And all I could think was that if this was how she treated a guy she’d just met, what would she be like with her own flesh and blood? She met my family soon afterward and did fine. Mom really liked her. So that was it for rule #2. And #1 was a given, since there wouldn’t have been a second date if #1 hadn’t been OK.

So I got married at 31. I’ll be 33 when our first son is born. I guess we’ve had some ups and downs but my coworkers all complain about their wives more than I do.

If I’d done what these “man-boy” critics wanted me to do, I would have gotten married 10 years ago, wrecked my life, wrecked that girl’s life, and we would have made a really unpleasant environment for our kids. And then we would have been left with two unpleasant choices: Stay together for the kids and wreck their lives some more, or a really messy divorce and perhaps wreck her relationship with her family, who believe there’s basically no justifiable reason to divorce, ever.

I think I did the right thing by waiting. Not that I had much choice in the matter, but on some level at least I always knew what I was looking for. I suppose I could have made a mistake at 23 but even then I knew something wasn’t right, and I don’t think I would have actually gone through with it. The relationship at 28 was more of a long shot to end up becoming a bad marriage because of the alcohol. There was no point in all my hard work to avoid becoming an alcoholic if I turned around and married one.

I did the right thing for me, my wife, my son, and society. Those “man-boy” critics need to go do the right thing for society too, and just shut up.

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