The first time I ever heard the phrase “it must be nice,” in relation to my life, I didn’t know how to respond.
I took a cake decorating class when I first moved to suburban Long Island years ago. It seems everything people say about it being hard to make new friends as an adult is true. And sitting at a table with women of various ages, focusing more on what the instructor was saying about the proper way to shape a fondant leaf, was my attempt at starting up friendships.
“Ugh, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house today,” groaned one frazzled-looking brunette in her mid-thirties. “My kid threw up on me while I was watching TV this afternoon and I missed my whole show cleaning up. I finished folding the new load of laundry just in time to make it to class.”
As I quietly piped a rose onto my cake, another tired mom piped in. “Honestly, it’s why I’m taking this class—for something to do so I can leave by myself,” she said plaintively. “I’m home all day with the kids, too, so otherwise, I don’t get a break.”
“Me, neither,” joined in a third woman in her forties. “The second my husband got home from work, I just took off. I can’t stand to look at his face anymore. Like, make your own dinner. I’ve been working, then doing shit for you and the kids up until the minute I had to go.”
Noticing my silence, the first asked, “How about you? What’d you do before you got here?”
Caught off-guard and having had a great day, I answered unthinkingly. “Oh, it was such a beautiful day today that I went for a run after work. Gotta love when you have that extra half hour of daylight this time of year, right?” I asked with a smile, finally lifting my head for eye contact.
You could hear a pin drop in the silence as three pairs of eyes stared agog at me.
“How did you have time? Don’t you have any kids?” One blurted out, bewildered.
“Nope,” I answered.
“Well, you really should,” the woman that needed a break sniffed reproachfully, “because you don’t really know what love is until you do. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s the most rewarding, fulfilling experience.” The other ladies nodded synchronously as she challenged, “Why don’t you?”
“We’ve just never wanted kids,” I said weakly, “and we like to travel. My husband travels a lot for work, too, so it just wouldn’t work out …” I trailed off, unwilling to make up any other meek excuses for a decision that shouldn’t have to be defended.
After all, I couldn’t be honest. I couldn’t cite a lifelong lack of interest in mommyhood, a crushing terror over the whole “beautiful” concept of pregnancy and childbirth, my focus on my career, our enjoyment of our life and its more flexible finances… oh, and overpopulation, for good measure.
“You make it work,” said the one that hated her husband, now smug as more nods went around the table.
I squirmed uncomfortably. “I dunno; it’s just not something we want to do.”
The shift in the dynamic was nearly tangible as the three ladies locked eyes then turned daggers at me. A slight pause, then the brunette said in an icy tone, “It must be nice to live life just for yourself.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. Why was I now a lesser level of woman, unworthy of even a greeting, because I didn’t make the same choices that they would complain about every session? Why was my prioritization of my health, my enjoyment of a sunny spring day, grounds for immediate societal dismissal?
I felt guilt. Was I wrong for wanting to live my life for me instead of a mini-me? For wanting my body of work to be my legacy versus a body born of my body? For prioritizing time for self-care, meal-prep, and volunteering over the time they spent taking care of children? Was I then even allowed to feel overwhelmed and tired ever since my life seemed comparatively simple next to those of parents? I mean, we’ve all seen the memes that make that answer an apparent “no.”
Then there was the shame. Was I selfish for building a future with my husband alone? Loving our date nights and getaways, knowing they could be as impromptu as our jobs allowed?
And so I said nothing, and was relieved when the course ended.
This incident was seven years ago.
Since then, I’ve heard it a lot as I’ve gotten older. But the tone in which the line’s delivered hasn’t always been the same. Although resentment, anger and judgment do make their appearances, sometimes it’s simply tinged with wistful envy. Or exhaustion. Or curiosity for details to fuel vicarious daydreams. And sometimes, it’s a genuine sentiment.
I’ve since realized that how they say it is a reflection of the speaker—not me. The only thing that I can control is how I respond to it, which powerfully impacts how I feel about it.
In much the same way that women in this patriarchal society have a hard time accepting compliments, we also have a hard time ignoring subtext. We make excuses to negate praise because humility is a desirable “feminine” trait (“Oh, I’m not pretty; it’s the make-up!”). We compete, tearing down to climb up (“Can you believe what she did at the last company party?”). We read into things and place more value in nuance than in language at face value—like when we’re told “it must be nice.”
Because when you design your own life through uninfluenced decisions, free of obligations imposed by societal and cultural norms, expectations, and bullshit comparisons, it can be really, really nice.
So the next time, I will smile with sincerity, grace and thanks and say, “You know what? You’re right. It is.”