I was raised with the imperative that I build a life for myself. What was a life? I could decide, but my family made it clear to me that my education and establishing a career the were the bedrock of anything I wanted to achieve. When I was in my teens and twenties my mother encouraged me not to focus on marriage or prioritize romance over understanding myself and creating a foundation for my life. “It’s the time for you to explore,” she said. And explore I did.
I finished college, traveled to France, launched a career as a museum educator, went to grad school for public administration, shifted my career to focus on creative business, shifted my career again to focus on tech, played in bands, spoke at SxSW several times, became fluent in French, wrote a book, moved in with a boyfriend and then a few years later broke up with him and started living alone, went to a lot of therapy, built a freelance writing portfolio, and overall became more grounded in myself and understood who I was as my mother instructed. And in my late 20s and early 30s I went to weddings. A lot of them. When I was 31 I attended eight weddings in one year, so many that I adopted a wedding uniform and started to treat traveling to weddings like going on a business trip.
So here I am solidly in my mid-30s wondering “Why ‘it’ hasn’t happened to me,” like it did for all those friends who got married. By “it” of course I mean finding that big love for my big life.
Some days I feel a sense of echoing, lonely isolation that verges on physical pain.
Kate Bolick captures exactly what I feel in her excellent book Spinster when she describes a meltdown she had at the McDowell Colony , “This, I thought, is what it means to be alone. You are solid, intact, and then, without warning, a hinge unlatches, the chimney flue swings open, the infinite freezing black night rushes in, and there is nothing to do but grope in the cold to get things right again.”
I know the right person in my life won’t make the reality of that freezing night go away, but my heart so hopes to find that someone with whom I can face it together, who will give me an extra push of encouragement and warmth, and who will help be an insulation against the subzero windchill of life.
Recent articles I have read all seem to have one thing in common: they are about single women in their 30s and 40s. Given the frequency in which these articles come out lately I start to feel like single women in their 30s and 40s in the United States are part of some kind of pandemic.
However, glancing at the titles and focuses of these articles tells their readers something important: single women (even in their 30s and 40s) are anything but monolithic. Just a sample from my own very biased selection: Where’s My Wife Already; The High Price of Being Single in America; Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, Poor Women Can’t; All the Single Ladies (Kate Bolick’s 2011 piece that inspired her book contract for Spinster); the Dear Sugar podcast series about looking for the one…
Of course I gathered a lot of these articles from personal interest and the fact that many people (across the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation) in my social networks who are sharing them are also single people in their 30s and 40s (and hence the Internet information echo chamber). Really though, nothing makes me feel like my personal angst is insignificant than realizing I am part of a larger demographic trend.
Overall, what I’ve gleaned from all the more self-reflexive toned articles is this: to feel lonely is to be human, so don’t beat yourself up about it; finding love is about luck not work; and focus on creating a “big life” for yourself and to be “that [person] you want to marry” (to paraphrase Glory Steinem and make the phrase gender non-specific). Well enough.
What I don’t hear these podcasts and articles take on is how to truly navigate the profound sense of isolation, exhaustion, anxiety and self-doubt that comes with being single. It’s a huge emotional, and physical effort, to pull myself through the world. Some days I kick myself for ever expecting, or hoping, I would have a fellow traveler along the way to make things a little easier.
Sara Eckel’s excellent book It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You Are Still Single has helped me be kinder to myself and to push away well-meaning but ultimately damaging advice about how “He didn’t deserve you,” “You need to focus on grounding yourself and the right one will come ,” “You need to envision what you want,” “Have you tried online dating?” “You need to meditate/go to yoga” and all the versions of these ad nauseam. Her writing has been a source of strength for me when things get dark.
Maris Kreizman puts a finer, more irreverent point on the terrible advice given to single women in her recent “Unlove Me: I Found Love Because I Got Lucky, Not Because I Changed Myself.” I hope reading this will refute any inclination to tell me, or any other single person, cliche and tepid pieces of advice and chase away the notion that coupled people somehow have it “figured out.” My favorite bit, about the advice to “date like it’s your job,” “Do you have a job that inspires you and brings you joy? Then delight in how wonderful your career is and enjoy it. Do you find your job to be tedious or dead-end or soul-crushing? Then why would you want to take on a whole other job that feels exactly as miserable? One terrible job is more than enough.”
Kate Bolick’s Spinster, an excellent part-memoir, part-literary history, in which she reclaims great “spinsters” and independent women throughout history has also served as a touch point for me as a navigate the road ahead. I enjoyed how she adopted women like activist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, New Yorker essayist Maeve Brennan, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay as her personal guides to help her build a full life as a single woman in her now 40s. Of course reclaiming the idea of “Spinster” has long been a central idea among my group of friends. My friend Nicole got it tattooed across her knuckles in her early 20s. My best friend (and roommate for 7 years) LJ and I made plans to live together again when we were “old spinsters” at the end of our lives.
Many of these articles focus on heterosexual, white, middle-class, educated women, which more-or-less pegs me too. I am one of those who never wanted to have my own children (I’m open to raising children with someone, maybe, but that’s another issue), so the tenure of moral panic around single motherhood and the biological clock frankly bores me. In addition, I’ve noticed the rah rah empowering articles about having and raising kids on one’s own by choice are targeted at wealthy, mostly white, women. There’s a whole other problematic moral panic around children of color raised by single mothers, as is well documented and outside the scope of this particular blog piece.
Speaking of privilege, in so many ways I feel ridiculous writing about this – from the outside I have the definition of that “big life” all these authors encourage as a way to counter feelings of isolation and loneliness. I hold a meaningful job that pays me fairly; a “room of my own” in an apartment of my own to write and build a life the way I envision it; a strong group of friends that I’ve cultivated over the years with whom I take trips, spend holidays, take about all the things large and small; time and desire to travel; the curiosity to meet new people and seek new experiences; and a creative practice I imperfectly nurture despite the stress of city and work life. I also have feminist thought and practice to keep me humble, reflective, and clear eyed.
I feel lucky. And grateful. On good days I feel grounded. But I can’t cover up the fact that I am fucking sad.
“But!” my darling friends and family say listing off my qualities, “You are smart, educated, motivated, positive [hah! Have they talked to me for more than five minutes?], friendly, healthy (except you do eat a lot of pizza), generous, a great conversationalist, an interesting person, with your own apartment…”
Sometimes I think this is perhaps exactly it: I have focused on building solid life of my own because I had to and because I wanted to. I didn’t want to obsess over marriage or finding a partner, but believed that the right partner and I would find each other if I followed my own path. Reflecting on all of this, and the outpouring of thought around single, adult women, I begin to more deeply understand sexism’s subtle perniciousness.
I think that still, in 2016, smart, well grounded women, outspoken with their own lives and careers are still intimidating to heterosexual men. Sexism (and so many other isms) still dictate our most intimate and supposedly personal choices. Especially when our culture, economy, and government policies rewards couple hood at every turn. I would like to see a cultural and policy shift around couples: stop rewarding coupling with lower tax rates, health care, and cultural attitudes that they are somehow more “evolved” and the social bedrock of our society would be a nice first step, but I didn’t set out to write a policy white paper here.
I’ve been in a few terrible relationships, made questionable choices, and learned from them. I have pushed myself to recognize my and my partners’ mistakes and shortcomings and extract myself from toxic situations, which has made me stronger and more decisive. I know when something isn’t working and when a relationship is damaging to me. I am thankful every day I live the life of my choosing instead of having to deal with the chaos, loneliness and darkness that a bad relationship brings. I’ve also dated some wonderful people who have become amazing friends. I’m oddly reverent of the calm clarity that has come with heartbreak.
However, I’m a person who wants to give and share and always imagined I’d find a partner to share with. I’ve staked my life on building community, through punk shows and zine conferences, feminist art and DIY business, tech and creative entrepreneurship. I’ve spend my waking and working hours facilitating and laying the groundwork for people to make meaningful connections that will enrich their business, creative and personal lives. And here I am, a cliche of a single career woman.
I knew that being a feminist and an outspoken woman wouldn’t endear me to many men, but those weren’t the kind of men I wanted to be with anyway. I don’t regret my choices and I certainly can’t and won’t change who I am. There’s no quick solution to the daily grind of loneliness, which sometimes feels so sharp it catches and pricks my lungs like inhaling icy air on a cold January day.
Once when spilling out these woes to my friend A., also an accomplished single lady in her 30s, she pointed out, “Nothing I can say right now and nothing you can do will make you have a boyfriend.” She’s right.
And here’s the thing: I’m not asking you to do anything.
I’m a doer and when it come to matters of the heart there is nothing to do. At the end of the day, after I’ve read all the memoirs, digested all the statistics, listened to all the advice podcasts, reflected on my privilege, identified my feminist icons, pushed myself to build my career, spent time with the friends who sustain me, gotten out there to meet new people and try new things, traveled to rad paces, made time to tell my family I love them, and focused on my own self-care I just can’t help but feel it doesn’t add up to enough to fill what is in my heart.