Divorce has an upside and living a neat and tidy existence is dull, not to mention impossible, says Katie Roiphe
Katie Roiphe upsets people. The New York-based journalist writes things that make people spit their cornflakes across the breakfast table. There is an aspect of this which is deliberate – Roiphe wants to provoke debate. She’s also become used to the hullaballoo that greets her work (it’s been happening since her first book about date rape was published back in 1994) and she knows that it’s a necessary part of what she does. “If I wrote a book and people didn’t have any kind of reaction to it I’d be startled,” she says. “I once read that someone called me an uncomfortablist and I think that is a really good description because I am attracted to subjects that make people uncomfortable.”
In her latest collection of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives, she has done it again. The book ranges across topics from Mad Men to Hillary Clinton, the squeamishness of contemporary male novelists about sex to the novels of Jane Austen. Nothing, though, has riled people more than her thoughts about contemporary family life, more specifically the unintended upsides of divorce and the seldom discussed downsides of striving for a life that is as neat and tidy as a short back and sides. Her argument is that we’ve all grown so obsessed with being healthy and balanced, giving our children the perfect start to life, including, of course, working at keeping our relationships together to do this, we’ve become, frankly, a little dull.
“I wrote the book out of the impulse that the current notion of how to live a healthy, sensible, enlightened life is a little narrow and restrictive,” Roiphe says in a voice that sounds surprisingly girlish given that she is 44 and it’s 9:30am on a Sunday morning. “I am trying to argue, not that we should go back to 1964 when people were smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and drinking three glasses of wine at lunch, but just to say maybe there’s a little bit that we can learn from those former periods.”
What Roiphe objects to is the “cultural preoccupation with healthiness above all else”.
Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to fads about childrearing – our obsession with organic diets and educational toys, extra-curricular activities and constant stimulation. You can see why cages have been rattled.
“That sense of trying to create this perfect environment is well intentioned,” she says, “but it also has its repressive side because people who are divorced or single mothers or those who are outside of this perfect environment are particularly stigmatised.
What Roiphe wants to celebrate is “messiness as a value, a good thing, a lost and interesting way of life”.
Much of what Roiphe has written is based on personal experience. The judgments she faced when she divorced the father of her first child, Violet. The disapproval she was met with when she decided to have a second child, Leo, as a single parent. Drawing a comparison to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scandalous heroine in The Scarlet Letter, Roiphe writes, “The single mother traipsing up the subway steps in heels with her Maclaren is not as many worlds away as you would think from Hester Prynne.”
For Roiphe, arguments about organic milk and hothousing seem to be about our children’s wellbeing but beneath that, there exists a different agenda.
“We have an obsession with leading a healthy balanced life and there is a latent moralism in those terms that does make people who do things outside of what is considered healthy or balanced feel like they are somehow inadequate,” she says. “I do think those notions do contain a kind of new conservativism so even though it might be really liberal, tolerant people trying to live these healthy lives behind these concepts is an old-fashioned conservative morality.”
I tell Roiphe that I’ve been trying to think of the person who might be the apotheosis of the neat and tidy life. Again and again, I come up with Gwyneth Paltrow and her online lifestyle guide, Goop. Who epitomises the super-organised, spotlessly clean, macrobiotically nourished version of parenthood more than an A-list movie star and her yoga-loving rock star husband? And yet, do people really believe that the Paltrow/Martin existence is real? I mean, if we do then how do you explain the heartfelt glee that greeted the photographs which emerged of Chris Martin scoffing a packet of Wotsits?
“It is a fantasy,” Roiphe says, laughing. “I just wonder at the drabness of our fantasy. Why is it that? Why do we get so caught up in these ideas which are so silly and unappealing? Why do we accept that it’s shocking that someone is giving their baby non-organic milk? Why are we subscribing to that?”
Of course, in these financially straitened times, discussion of organic or non-organic might seem moot for hard-up families trying to manage the weekly budget. The notion of actively choosing mess might seem perverse when a relationship breakdown or changed financial circumstances may thrust entirely unwanted mess upon us. Roiphe has certainly been criticised for writing without adequate self awareness of her own privilege, as a member of the New York literati, a professor at New York University, who lives in chic Brooklyn. It’s a criticism she rejects straightforwardly, noting that it has more to do with trying to silence those who speak uncomfortable truths, often women, than anything else.
“I feel that I’m pretty clear about where I’m writing from,” she says. “I don’t think that you need to be of the exact same social background as somebody to get something out of their book.”
And when you come right down to it, Roiphe in her celebration of what messiness can bring us, is arguing for more acceptance, not less, more tolerance of breaking from the plan, perhaps even chucking the plan out altogether, accepting that life’s just not really like that for many of us anyway.
“I think it’s about having more imagination about the possibilities,” she says. “Some of that is just about tolerating and having more acceptance for the way that people already live and then it’s about looking a little more critically at some of these ways of living that we just accept. I guess I’m interested in questioning what the good life is and should be.”
As a project, I can think of few things more worthwhile.
In Praise of Messy Lives (Canongate, £12.99) is out now.