I’ve written before about how it can be difficult for me to make room for spontaneity in my life; I am usually unable to show up somewhere at the last minute. My friends seem to expect me to be able to do so; I suppose they think I am just sitting around, staring into space. In reality, my days are planned long in advance, and dropping my plans any time a friend calls can feel like opening the door to chaos.
I now have a better understanding of why I am like this:
With recognition of their diversity, is there any one characteristic shared by most women alone? I would say there is, and I would identify that characteristic as their meticulous attention to planning. Women who are totally alone, without children, plan their lives with great attention to detail: they map out the hours of their days, setting down certain routines they do not allow themselves to break; they plan dinner parties and vacations far in advance of the event; they will almost choreograph their contacts with other people. They do all this for the very common-sense reason that they cannot take anything for granted. There is no structure that will generate things happening if they don’t make them happen, unlike the household of a woman with children, where the daily routine means a variety of expected and unexpected events– PTA meetings, skinned knees, new math lessons, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, good or bad report cards, crayoned drawings that say “I love you,” a mixture of warmth and worry.
This attention to planning is sometimes obsessive, often exhausting, but it is needed. It allows a woman to plan a European vacation over the Christmas holidays so she won’t have to sit alone in her apartment and be reminded she has no one during this, the most family-oriented of all holidays; it helps her circumvent lonely weekends when sitting around on a rainy day reading the Sunday papers isn’t enough. It is a way of providing norms and constraints on herself when there are none applied by society. In the same way, so is the fact that large numbers of women alone keep dogs, cats, parakeets, potted plants; something, anything, that demands regular attention and care. I asked one divorced woman about this, a woman with a dog and a cat in her apartment, and she added another reason: “I keep pets because they are a source of giving and receiving affection I can depend on.”
Planning is a crucial element of life not only to the ordinary woman managing to support herself on an ordinary salary, but also to women with special life structures, women who have achieved a certain degree of fame or fortune. Writer Marya Mannes has told me that without a carefully built discipline, a pattern to her life, she would be lost: “If I didn’t have my writing, and if I didn’t have an enormous zest for living– alternating of course with periods of depression like everybody has and feelings of great loneliness– I don’t know what I would do. It’s very tough to really do everything yourself, for yourself.”
–Patricia O’Brien, The Woman Alone, pp. 119-120