Childless and Single at 40 — and Free
There‘s an expectation that the only ‘right’ way for a woman to be is to be partnered and have kids. It’s time to change that
When my first marriage ended and I spent several years as a single woman in my mid- to late-20s, contentedly dating but not meeting any kind of man I’d want to partner with — OK, it was Miami in the ’80 so maybe it was a Miami thing — I remember thinking, well, I just may end up being single all my life.
So of course I end up meeting someone when I was 29 and marrying him when I was 32. Two kids followed, and I guess I had what I always assumed I’d have — a husband and kids. But what if that didn’t happen? What if I actually did end up being alone?
Of course, I am alone — now. That marriage, my second, ended as did a few post-divorce relationships, but, hey, at least I got my kids. Isn’t that enough?
Maybe that’s all we gals want anyway — kids, partner be damned.
I thought about that as I’ve been reading about No One Tells You This, journalist Glynnis MacNicol’s just-released memoir. In it, MacNicol details how she — like I — assumed that she’d have a partner and at least one child at some point (for her it was by age 40, but I don’t remember having an age deadline). After all, that’s the romantic script we’ve been fed, and one that Savvy Auntie founder Melanie Notkin addressed a few years ago in her book, Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness.
A push toward amatonormativity
But ending up with a hubby and kids is becoming harder and harder for many young professional women because — pick your reason — there’s a shortage of marriageable men, women want more from marriage, women are too picky, men don’t want to commit, women are giving men cheap sex, and, well, you get the drift.
Even though there are so many ways to live and be nowadays, we still have an expectation that the only right way to be — especially if you’re a woman — is to be partnered and have kids. Despite the spate of books in recent years that celebrate the single life — from Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own to Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation to Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone — there still seems to be the belief that everyone aspires to a romantic relationship or should, what philosopher Elizabeth Brake calls amatonormativity. It’s harmful to those on a different path, even if they aren’t consciously choosing that path.
That’s certainly MacNicol’s case. She expected to have a partner and kids by 40. She wanted that life. And yet.
As she writes:
It sometimes felt as though so many of the things a single, childless woman on the eve of her forties is supposed to be most fearful of never having attained — the right guy, the happy marriage, the babies, the not-dying-alone — had been lined up for my inspection and then, one by one, unveiled to reveal the worst-case scenario. It wasn’t that I was missing out on happy endings; there were no happy endings! Still, it was a truth universally acknowledged — gleaned from stacks of literature, countless movies, and decades of magazine purchases I’d made — that by age forty I was supposed to have a certain kind of life, one that, whatever else it might involve, included a partner and babies. Having acquired neither of these, it was nearly impossible, no matter how smart, educated, or lucky I was, not to conclude that I had officially become the wrong answer to the question of what made a woman’s life worth living. If this story wasn’t going to end with a marriage or a child, what then? Could it even be called a story?
It has been interesting to read reviews of her book. Because the reviews tell us as much about how we talk about single women and our choices as the societal messages to couple up and reproduce do.
“By sharing her story in No One Tells You This,” writes Book Page, “MacNicol gives implicit permission for other women to embrace the lives they’ve chosen. Or the lives that have chosen them, as the case may be.”
Permission? Do women need permission to embrace our lives? Do men need permission, because I haven’t heard a lot of “you go, guy” when it comes to the choices they’re making, including the desire to be unattached. Actually, there’s still a lot of judgment for men who wish to be unattached (see “men don’t want to commit” listed above).
Kirkus Reviews offers a slightly different but similar narrative: “Unapologetic in her embrace of the ups and downs of the improvised solo life, MacNicol offers a refreshing view of the possibilities — and pitfalls — personal freedom can offer modern women.”
Unapologetic? Do women need to apologize for embracing freedom over coupledom and motherhood?
No, we don’t. And yet, as MacNichol notes in an essay in the Cut, this is a new way for thinking for today’s young women:
Here’s the thing that has been the most shocking and that no one prepares you for: the freedom. Women today are not taught how to deal with this kind of freedom, anymore than women of our mothers’ generation were taught to deal with their own money. We enable others’ freedom — as home keepers, child-minders — but are rarely rewarded for having our own.
Not a message from childhood
That freedom is exactly what we “women of a certain age” relish, especially those of us who are divorced. And you bet we have been talking about it; I guess we didn’t find a way to make that message resonate with younger women — or they didn’t see us as role models of how to embrace solo living as a woman of any age. (We also know, as she discovers, that without a biological clock ticking anymore, men become a source of sexual pleasure.) But, true; that’s something we didn’t necessarily grow up with since childhood. And yet boys — then and now — get a different message, one that doesn’t value them for their relationship status.
Which is why I love what MacNichol eventually comes to realize — “No matter how often we imagine marriage as the solution to women’s problem, it is simply another way of living.”
Marriage is great, being single is great, having kids is great, being childfree is great — all of the ways of living and loving and creating family are great. Sometimes. And then sometimes they suck. And that’s OK.
When you think about it, people actually tell you — us — this, and a lot more. Whether we choose to listen and see how it might play out in our own lives is another thing. Still, if you have young daughters, be careful how you talk to them about love and don’t forget to tell them about the joys of freedom — their own.
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Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com