In my twenties and thirties, my mother was like one of those sitcom characters who asks her daughter in every conversation, “So, are you seeing anyone?” A widow now, she maintains that there’s no life outside of marriage and family for women (while at the same time occasionally saying she regretted having kids– put that in your pipe and smoke it, Freud).
I battled that whole idea in my youth but certainly a lot of it sunk in. I can’t blame all of that on my mother’s attitude, as it’s easy enough to get that message from the larger culture. So in my early decades I put a lot of energy into “finding someone” while simultaneously pursuing my own interests and dreams. It was a bit of a schizophrenic existence.
In my forties, I have to admit that, for all practical purposes, my mother is right. I don’t want to be a “whiner,” but I only have to read the eloquent posts on sites such as the Gateway Women forum to realize that strong, admirable women frequently “wobble” in the face of long-term singlehood and/or childlessness.
It’s the nonexistent path, and it does sometimes feel like one has to be superhuman to overcome the messaging. Given that I don’t want any old relationship but a generally good one, I may have to don a cape:
First… the weight of a whole tribal or family historical tradition has to be
lifted…then the influence of the individual parental, social and cultural
background has to be thrown off. The same must be done with the demands of
contemporary society at large, and finally the advantages derived from one’s
immediate social circle have to be partly or wholly sacrificed. Then all the easy
indulgences of being a Sulk or a Jerk… have to be given up. Following this, the
individual must attain personal and social control, so that all the classes of
behavior… become free choices subject only to his will. He is then ready for
game-free relationships… at this point he may be able to develop his capacities
for autonomy. In essence, this whole preparation consists of obtaining a friendly
divorce from one’s parents (and from other Parental influences) so that they may be
agreeably visited on occasion, but are no longer dominant.
Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.D. p. 182-183, “The Attainment of Autonomy”
I’m not being inquisitive, but did your mother remarry? My own mother knows many widows and she says that none of them wish to remarry despite many offers. These widows seem to be enjoying renewed freedom and one says that even though she misses her husband she doesn’t miss having to pick up after him. Another says that she loved her late husband and this made the sacrifices of marriage worthwhile. She says that none of the men who have pursued her of late compare to her late husband.
On the other hand many widowers seem to fill the gap of bereavement very quickly, often before the late beloved wife isn’t cold in the grave!
I think the only acceptable faces of singlehood in women are widowhood and second to that, divorce. In both cases the women were married. In the widow’s case the marriage ended to circumstances outside her control so she is forgiven for her single status. In the divorcee’s case it’s a bit more difficult but again, because she was married, she is given a certain leeway.
Arguably those who are hardest on widows and divorcees are married women who see their presence as a threat. Also some men think these women, like single women, are easy targets because they ought to be grateful for any sort of attention.
She’s been married a couple of times and I wish she was one of those women who was happy to be done with it.
You are right, though, I know of older divorcees and widowers who never want to get married again, or at least I’ve heard of them. Perhaps things are easier after 50 and the 40s are the worst in terms of being single… the divorces haven’t started en masse yet.
Maybe those older women just want occasional companionship but not all the burdens of being married. Just the fun. ; )
I find it helpful to remember that much of what masquerades as objective truth with respect to an individual’s worth is actually cultural. For me it is vital to keep in mind that others, in different times and places, have faced similar feelings of isolation and dislocation.
I read a review of this book when it came out and what these women faced stuck in my mind, even though I have not yet read the book:
Perhaps the biggest difference today is that if a woman is single it is presumed it is something entirely within her control and she must have made “bad choices.” It’s not just marriage; similar attitudes prevail with respect to money and social status. This is all part of the prevailing cultural myth that the individual is entirely in control. This aspect of culture can be a prison unless you gain some perspective by taking the long view.
Following on from Elle’s comments, there are many unhappily married people. We tend to focus only on the happy ones. If you want to see just how miserable some marriages are, spend a few days at the Mumsnet talk forum in the AIBU and relationships sections.
Your comment reminded me of this:
Your comment reminded me of something I read last night: “Women love getting married but hate being married”. Of course this isn’t across the board true but from reading about infidelity there is a lot of unhappiness out there.
I am unusual in that I really like having a love relationship but feel no strong pull to get or be married.
Those older women have had enough life experiences to know what is what and be free of any cultural norms.
These widows seem to be enjoying renewed freedom and one says that even though she misses her husband she doesn’t miss having to pick up after him.
A turning point in my relationship with my mother-in-law was when she bitched out her husband in front of me for not loading the dishwasher. This is a man who has provided her with a way of life beyond the wildest dreams of most people. She was working as a nurse before she married him. I pretty much despise her now for this and other transgressions.
It’s well known that women have very little use for their husbands after the age of 55 or so and a thoughtful husband will be considerate and die leaving her to spend their (his) money in peace.
Mike that is quite a blanket statement! Come on! Not all women are like that.
That must be hard to have had a mother who constantly focused on those things. I am 47. I never had a strong pull to have kids in my 20s and 30s but I admit, now I am feeling a bit sad and wish I DID have that strong pull. I wonder why I did not? I live very out of the box so I don’t get the same pressures. Family life never appealed to me. It always looked too chaotic, noisy, banal (however I never judge families, I admire them). Now I see them as different…as something that can be very special. But right now is a very difficult time. I am not sure if it’s my heart, my mind, my soul that is speaking to me or if the worry will go away but it is real. And I wish I had the desire to make a family when everyone else did…because I would’ve had one. But I did not. I wish I understood this riddle of my life.
These observations are very poignant, Starcatcher. Family CAN be very special…you can see this if you have known close families. I have known a few.
What I have known more frequently, however, is families who are not close but who masquerade as being close. And then there are the horrible families where most of the people in them don’t give a monkey’s about anyone in the family. I have an endless book of anecdotes I have gathered about this subject over decades, both from outside observation and from finding myself repeatedly having to step into the breach for a particulary desperate person facing adversity when their family had failed (“abandoned”) them. The chronically ill have been a recurring theme in my life in this regard. Yes, I am very cynical in this regard.
IME family can be a refuge but more often than not it is not. If you don’t have one there is a tendency to idealise them by focusing on the “genuinely close families.” Truth: these families relatively few in number. Knowing this however doesn’t stop me from wishing I had one.
I know how you feel. I did not get the baby fever or strong desire for kids in my 20s. Didn’t have those feelings until later 30s. Many women who do have kids at younger ages didn’t exactly plan it that way. Maybe some of them weren’t crazy about motherhood either, but it happened. I’m sure you hate this expression, but it’s not too late to adopt.I know not exactly the same…
Thanks. But I hear it’s harder to adopt at an older age. I maybe wrong but I read it somewhere. I am not sure I want to adopt. I adopt older dogs all the time and I find great joy in that. With kids? There is nothing really pushing me to adopt a child…although I think it’s a beautiful thing to do and I would welcome it if it brought love into my life and I knew I could grow to love the child.
I am doing well now. Totally enjoying the summer, the moment and joy of life. Have hardly thought about it since.
Ouch. That sentiment is hard to take for this perpetually single woman. I’m 38. I just have never found that person. People I’ve been really into weren’t into me, and vice versa. There were occasional longer things but they are the exception and did not last for different reasons. I spent my 20s and 30s lonely, sometimes deeply, and waiting and wondering around what next corner that person would be. He never came. I also have spent my 20s and 30s watching long term friends partner off, spawn, then getting to know their families and what family life is like for someone my age and my generation. That too could be deeply painful at times.
I have recently come to a place where I’m accepting I might never meet that person. I don’t give up hope but I also can’t waste anymore mental and emotional energy yearning or wondering. I don’t want to anymore. I’m accepting that I might be long term single. At the same time I cannot and will not accept that my life is pointless. If other people think that, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I refuse to believe my life is pointless, my god.
I think it is harder, very hard, to fill a single life sometimes. There are not placeholders, so to speak, to gather automatically around for dinner or vacations. But just bc it is harder or more unusual or less visible doesn’t mean a single life can’t be happy for that person. And that’s all that really matters. That’s what I’m working on.
A few years ago I found myself making a mental list of perpetually single women I really admired. During challenging or lonely times when I was looking for strength I would think about them. Madelyn Albright, Condeleeza Rice, of course that’s all I can think of now since I’ve been out of the habit, but I do think it helped me a little.
I have had much the same experience. I guess what I meant in this post is that the surrounding culture offers no life to the single, childless woman past a certain age, but perhaps one can be had if one is super-resourceful.
There is a great Gateway Women Pinterest board on childless women. I do sometimes think, though, that our culture only allows for childlessness if the woman is some sort of superstar in her career… like one can be a mother, or a superstar, or both, but neither is unacceptable, and there are a whole lot of us who fall into “neither”!
I agree re the dynamics of being super resourceful and superstars.
I’m in a funny place in my life that way. I’m naturally resourceful and certain things have required me to be super resourceful. I’ve passed all short and long term tests with flying colors. Re superstar, I’ve spent the last ten years working really really hard in a position that is deeply unhealthy but prestigious depending upon worldview. I’m just about ready to chuck all of this out the window– quit the job, cash in everything I’ve banked due to resourcefulness. I’m seriously questioning whether resourceful superstar — the current path– is going to make me happy and healthy and that’s all I want now. For a single woman with no other financial support many would say it’s stupid as all get out. But I’m tired and life is short and precious. It’s scary to consider being even more of an other — single woman of a certain age and with no job and little else. But maybe I need to go there to find something that I’m just not finding here.
I don’t know how far back you’ve read in this blog, but I did just that about a year ago (although, like you, I’m not a “superstar” in the sense of, say, a movie star or top politician- I just had a good, perhaps prestigious, job that was very stressful within a practical field). I’m glad I had that year off– it did me a world of good- but I had been hoping to downscale my life in a big way, and I found the job market to be too brutal to let me do it. That’s why I headed back to California, to a job at an even higher level than the one I had before. Feel lucky for the job now… and I don’t know the answers! It was a bit alienating to be single, childless, AND unemployed, but the break was very centering.
I totally understand and feel that need to downsize my life…. I have read a little bit back, but not the whole blog…. Ah, to things being easier.
I downsized my life (aka: narrowly averted a mental breakdown) at 36. I wasn’t economically secure at the time and immediately after had to contend with the grief of losing a parent. I hit bottom. In the support community I sought, I met my husband. Now I am on the cusp of 40 (tomorrow is my birthday) with a baby. I have no career left to speak of, but I am surviving and very grateful that I “jumped” when I did.
Anon…good for you for “jumping in” and now you have a baby. I don’t begrudge any woman that. Just wondering why you added that here. I think it only makes women who have not “jumped in” feel worse for it. Why are you here?
Hey Guys…I agree there is less of a “place” and acceptance of single women of a certain age. I think that is despicable! I think everyone should feel they matter. Having said that the only choice is to be the change we want to see. Of course, I don’t think us three can change the whole culture but do it in your life. Be kind to every woman out there who is single and/or childless. Don’t make “invisible” women who are older or who are poor or who have little social standing. Give them friendliness, support and acknowledgement when you can. Be inclusive even when they are different from you. And do this for yourself, too. Constantly reaffirm that your life matters single or not. Reaffirm for others that their life matters as well. Reaffirm that you have things to give. Reaffirm the love you have inside.
A quick thought…just a quick look at all the people who try to commit suicide should put things in perspective. Men, particularly white men, have the highest suicide rates. In other words let’s be kind and inclusive to everyone who needs it.
Kittywampus, I’m in the same situation. Never met the right one. It can leave you baffled and depressed. I also have accepted I may never meet that person. So true, you have to accept and move on. There are other issues in life to work on. If the right guy shows up, great..but no point in torturing yourself over it.
I posted as encoragement to kittywampus, who is considering a downshift at a similar age. I was reading this blog becsuse my life was very similar up until about a year amd a half ago. I am still procesing why this happens to so many of us. Those of us who luck out at the end are still affected by the many years prior.
Well said. I am still hoping I will luck out in the end and if I do, hope I never forget what I’m going through lest I lose compassion.
I guess I just wanted to pipe in: I’m looking to retool my life to move it toward health and happiness. To be clear, I am not doing it for purposes of husband hunting or kid having. Health and happiness are the objectives– not the husband and kid. And of course, just bc you have one doesn’t mean the other is true and vice versa. To me, it’s the health and happiness I’m after. What does that look like? And is it much more complicated than I’d like bc of social and cultural norms and the like? Probably. But that’s what I’m open to figuring out.
It seems like I rubbed everyone the wrong way by sharing my experience. I’ve enjoyed this blog, but it seems it is time to butt out. Best of luck to all.
Oh I like late-success stories!
I’m happy for you for your late success. Well done!
The answers to the questions asked here are oh, so simple. They are often just not what the questioner wants to hear, that’s all.
The question I would like answered is why do so many white women hate white men? What exactly have we done to attract such hostility? What drives the hate? I’m asking a serious question and I’d like a serious answer. My thoughts are that it’s (a) the frustration at not being able to get everything you want from one man and the frustration that produces, and (b) deep down you know you depend on us and are resentful.
I’ve noticed this hate as well but I think it’s a fraction of white women? I don’t know. But I certainly do not hate white men at all… I like men in general. There are many wonderful qualities in men. In fact they have been my biggest friends and supporters in life. I don’t relate to those women who constantly bag white men. I think it’s become a hobby for them a way to place their frustrations? I don’t know.
Interesting… I’d say there’s a lot more objective evidence to the reverse in our culture at the moment.
I love men, but I have been the target of overt and subtle misogyny by men, particularly in my thirties. I went through the agony of believing I would never have a family, having my career threatened and ultimately trashed due to this fear and the attendant isolation and economic challenges. I also believe our economy is rigged against women and Moms in general. I don’t know why race is relevant to this question.
I brought up “white” because Mike brought it up and because I often hear other women bagging on “white men”. For me I hear in xojane.com. How is the economy harder on women? I have women friends who are doing great (one a teacher, another in another government job). The men I work with are the ones struggling.
but I have been the target of overt and subtle misogyny by men, particularly in my thirties…..
If by misogyny you mean not getting exactly what you want exactly when you want it, I believe you. This is called competition and men have lived with it forever. I have been fired from two top level jobs for what amounted to personal reasons and in both cases I just sucked it up and soldiered on.
One criticism of feminism is that for women it’s all about gaining formerly male privileges (debatable whether they ever really existed) while retaining women’s traditional privileges and shedding women’s traditional responsibilities.
This brilliant scheme worked for quite a while as men continued to run the old program but the game is now pretty much up. As dumb as we are, many men understand now that you ladies are our bitter competitors with significant legal privileges and you should be treated as such.
I don’t know why race is relevant to this question.
According to the feminist narrative, minority men are your companions on the patriarchal plantation and white men are the whip-cracking villains preventing everybody from achieving their true potential. You know, inventing stuff. And stuff. Just ask Amanda Kijera.
The word “feminism” is so broad and over-used as to be meaningless. I am very progressive, but would never use the term without excessive qualification. Mike’s use of the term says more about him than it does about any strain of feminism. His thoughts on race and invention being the realm of white men is very disturbing.
“Disturbing” meaning that queasy feeling you get when reality conflicts with your cherished ideology.
Well, the reality is it’s a woman’s world now. Reshaped in your image. And to mix one more metaphor, will you like eating your own cooking when it’s fully baked?
“You can ignore reality but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”…..Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand is a clown. One of my barometers of idiocy is people’s opinion of Rand. By the way, she ended up pretty bitter in life.