never married, over forty, a little bitter

after thoughts

It’s been easy enough to find people here to go to a movie with, or play tennis with, or catch a show with. When it has come to real needs, however, I’ve found little in the way of substantive assistance. Needs such as:

I need help moving.
I need help finding a job.
I need to vent feelings of confusion, sadness, and anger.

I’m very happy with this upcoming job opportunity but now suffering some of the emotional fall-out– stress, anger over things not working out here, sadness. Last week I invited two of my more empathetic (and older) friends to lunch, telling them only that it looked like I’d be moving again for a job and I wanted to see them and to try out this restaurant before I left town.

We got to lunch today and they spent much of the first hour discussing their recent vacations with their kids. My brain is overwhelmed with thorny logistical issues at the moment, but I put those aside and tried to listen with interest. Eventually one of them said, “So what date are you leaving?” I answered with a short description of my new job, a brief bit on recent positions I had lost out on here that factored into my decision to leave, and some of the logistical challenges I was facing as far as a moving date. I immediately felt that I was saying too much and needed to keep it short and sweet– that there was little interest or comfort with real expressions of sadness or frustration. The man expressed again that he felt I hadn’t given it enough of a shot here (he got his job through a tight connection); the woman simply said it sounded like I made the right decision. End of discussion.

Turns out childlessness is not the only taboo subject in town.

ranty women

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know.” Those are the opening lines of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. The novel is about a single woman, Nora, who hasn’t fulfilled her dreams of being an artist and having children. Nora’s plight is complicated when she befriends a woman who has done both.

The book explores deeper themes about what it means to sacrifice everything for one’s art and the inner life of a person whose dreams have been thwarted in relation to external realities. Part of that inner life, says Messud, is anger and she has long been interested in how anger manifests itself in the form of a rant.

“As a reader since very early I have found myself drawn to rants,” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was in my senior year of high school when I read Notes From Underground by Dostoyevksy and it was an exhilarating discovery. I hadn’t known up until that moment that fiction could be like that. Fiction could say these things, could be unseemly, could be unsettling and distressing in that particular way, that immediate and urgent way. And in the many years since I have read and loved a number of ranting narrators, and it struck me eventually that they were all men and that I didn’t know of a book in which a woman expressed her anger and I thought perhaps I should write one.”

the wilderness

I’ve written this before, but the forties must be the loneliest time of life to be single and childless.

Hints of this future state begin appearing in one’s thirties, as friends pair off and procreate; that’s a common point for baby panic to set in.

But I am here to say that the forties are when one can feel truly on one’s own. This move has hammered that home to me. My friends here have children or partners (or both), and they are all working, so I talk to and/or see them once every few weeks. I’m sure they could help out in small ways, but overall, I’m on my own.

Ditto with my friends in L.A.; even the ones who are childless and single are scattered too far and wide to easily assist.

The thing I miss most, outside of actual physical assistance, is having someone I can vent to about the stress I am under trying to pull off this move and get started on the job in one month’s time. It’s brought me to my knees again, and having an ear would certainly help.


Or perhaps the book is more nuanced than I suspect:

Nora Eldridge, a US primary school teacher, is single and 37 when her story begins and has also grasped that 37 is an age of reckoning: ‘The time at which you have to acknowledge that your life has a horizon… that you will never be president, or a millionaire, and if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way.’

Eldridge has other cultural touchstones: an artist in her spare time, she is making a miniature version of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, while she is also possessed by the Chekhov short story The Black Monk. Her name, too, is a clear reference to Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, while the novel’s title, The Woman Upstairs, could be read as a riff on the Victorian cultural obsession with the mad woman in the attic.

In other words, Messud has written a novel not just about a single childless woman in her late thirties, but how women who live alone, or who are trapped by their domestic lives, have been represented – and thus further trapped – throughout history. Nora, bright, educated, and stingingly self aware, is alert to this too.

bunny boilers

A book entitled The Woman Upstairs was on a bunch of year end “best of” lists. I haven’t read the book myself, but the plot synopsis makes me uneasy, and this essay confirms my suspicions:

Like, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.

What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood.


Irrational, unpredictable — even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.


When I posted that I was weary in preface to Glahn’s post – saying “I grow weary of metaphors in church that always deal with parenting or marriage. I grow weary of hearing other women define the pinnacle of female identity as motherhood. I grow weary . . . perhaps I am jealous, but I do not think so. Instead I think I am living the life God has given me to live, and it is right for me to do so. Sandra Glahn reminded me of that today.” – a friend, a man I admire, suggested that I might be denying the fulfillment that some women get from mothering. I started to cry.