never married, over forty, a little bitter

Month: June, 2014


Some interesting experiences this week.

I attended an event where I met a woman from Portland who has been living in Los Angeles for about three years. I’d guess she is in her thirties. She isn’t crazy about her job, she just broke up with her boyfriend and dreads reentering the L.A. dating scene, she feels like she barely sees her friends because they all live far from her, and she has no family here. She’s considering moving to an area of the country where she has family but fears she’ll miss the stellar music acts she enjoys seeing in L.A. easily and cheaply.

I told her what she is going through is perfectly normal, and I just went through it. She was visibly relieved, as was I to be reminded again that the pluses and minuses of living in a city this size are experienced by all of us transplants.

I met a man at this same event who got his degree just a couple of years before me but is now head of a huge organization. He’s gay and has a partner. It made me wonder that if I hadn’t spent a great deal of my twenties and thirties distracted and depressed by the idea that I should be getting married and having kids, as well as not taking my career seriously because I assumed I eventually would do so, I’d be in his position now. He methodically climbed the ladder while I questioned my career and choices and journeyed down several blind alleys. Yet I don’t regret my forays into living abroad, other career paths, and the private sector. I would probably always wonder if I hadn’t travelled those paths.

Finally, when I first started writing this blog I mentioned my envy of a woman I know, someone who got a pricey arts education, dropped out of working in the field after a year because she didn’t like the politics, married a man from a wealthy family and had several children, and then after decades of not working got written up for some artwork she’d done in a studio in her house. I think it’s pretty common for women who’ve been supporting themselves for decades to feel irked by the dilettantism of wealthy wives. At that point in particular I felt like I’d been toiling in the understaffed, unappreciated trenches for far too long.

Recently this woman’s artwork came up again, and this time I was able to shrug it off. So she’s dabbling and putting some pieces in shows like a million other artists. I could do the same but have little incentive to do so, as I already earn a living and have derived self-esteem from having a career and supporting myself. When I do creative projects, they are just for my enjoyment. I don’t need to sell anything, and I don’t have anything more to prove.

behind the walls

My biggest lesson from access into the Mommy Club is this: Being a mother does not make you automatically connect with another person. I’ve found the same holds true for infertility. It just might give you something to talk about for a few minutes or a few get-togethers. We are more complex and interesting than our children. Or lack of them. I choose to instead consider that we are all part of the Human Club. And for that, there is no special admittance required.


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”

the scrubbing

“Celebrities are the perfect vehicle because they are working women, but also very much shaped by feminist stereotypes,” she explained. Drawing from the work of Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels and their book “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women,” she explained that unlike the rest of us, celebrities can achieve superwomen status, they can look great and work hard and be good moms who cook excellent chicken. Of course, the large network of people they rely upon to achieve such feats are often scrubbed from their public image and all we are all left with are “poster figures for this post-feminist ideology, a perfect antidote to the masculinized working women” that are so commonplace.


We tend to frolic a little in each other’s company; we get such enjoyment out of seeing things together and talking about them and exchanging news and gossip and just being together a bit in the old way.

— Gabrielle Selz, Unstill Life, p. 327

I love this sentiment, although the woman who wrote it was divorced from and unable to ever successfully reunite with the the man to whom she was writing.

With kids off the table, I have a hard time imagining another reason to pair up with someone besides the tendency to “frolic a little in each other’s company.”

the anarchist

This biography seems more at ease with the contradictions between an unsocialised, self-protective, independent self, and the highly gregarious metropolitan journalist and partygoer. LeFanu quotes one of Macaulay’s better poems, on the clash between a desire to run amok and run free, and the middle-aged, responsible performance that we all grow into: “I might forget the world’s a place / Where I must run a strenuous race, / And make my mark, and use my wit, / And earn my bread and do my bit. / I might forget that I am human, / An earnest, grown-up, working woman…”

That opposition between secret anarchy and public responsibility is an underlying theme of Macaulay’s novel The World My Wilderness, which had a powerful effect on me as a young reader, growing up in postwar London. Its landscape of bombed churches and derelict streets powerfully expresses Macaulay’s sense of desolation during and after the war, for herself (her own home was bombed and she lost all her books) and for Europe.

Macaulay’s memory of her free childhood in Italy is reflected in the half-wild character of the young girl, Barbary, who – sent to England to be “civilised”, for complicated family reasons – finds her true home among the ruins.


Denham sometimes dreamed of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation… It would be a very low-class, lazy, common life; it was better not to think about it while one was trying to be civilized and high-class.

— Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train, p. 58

the multi-dimensional

Eliot sometimes referred to her books as her children, and the writing of them as a form of parturition. She once wrote in a letter of the experience of completing a novel: “the sense that the work has been produced within one, like offspring, developing and growing by some force of which one’s life has served as a vehicle, and that what is left of oneself is only a poor husk.” The image of a new mother as dried out and used up is one of the few places where Eliot’s comprehension strikes me as limited. There are doubtless many new mothers who do feel this way, but it seems to me that a more typical experience might be that which combines utter exhaustion with an unprecedented sense of vitality. (Nothing has ever made me feel so alive as actually producing a new life.) Perhaps this image of being devoured or despoiled by a voracious, needy infant helps explain why Eliot did not follow a conventional course of motherhood. The way she describes it doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Eliot may have decided that she could meet the needs of only one incessantly demanding voice, and that was the voice of her inner creativity.

And yet in her fiction she was able to give expression to an entirely different experience of motherhood than the one she sketchily characterizes in that letter. As I write in my book, one of the most moving moments in “Middlemarch” occurs when Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son, is dangerously ill. Suddenly his mother, the silly, frivolous Mrs. Vincy, is catapulted from her mundane diversions into the direst fears for her firstborn. “All the deepest fibres of the mother’s memory were stirred, and the young man whose voice took a gentler tone when he spoke to her, was one with the babe whom she had loved, with a love that was new to her, before he was born,” Eliot writes. The precision and comprehension in that characterization floors me. How did she know so well, and so exactly, what that experience was like? In a few, perfectly apt words she expresses what was for me at least the most dumbfounding surprise about motherhood: the way in which becoming a mother granted me access to—forced me into—an entirely new sphere of love, care, selflessness, and terror, a dimension that I had no idea was there. From out of nowhere, I knew a love that was new to me.


In contrast, we can be reasonably sure that prehistoric human societies were non-hierarchical, egalitarian and cooperative, as are the majority of today’s hunter-gatherer societies that have survived, and that human nature still tends towards these instincts. They – and we’re not only talking homo sapiens here, but possibly also antecedents like homo erectus – are believed to have had strong ties beyond their bloodline, with individuals in a group caring for children who were not their own. Members of a society who were reproductively useless – such as women too old to bear more children – would have still been valued, as humanity was apparently not synonymous with reproduction or social status. Early art venerated the female, not male, form, and so matriarchal societies may have been common. As kinship was not the main motivation for cooperation, it meant language, technology and friendships spread within and between groups more easily. From computer modelling of social interaction, it appears that egalitarianism may be an inevitable consequence of human-level intelligence.


When the term “middle age” came into general use in the late 19th century, it was principally in a socio-economic setting. Empire and industrialisation had expanded and enriched the middle classes, and women who had finished raising children could enjoy another decade or two of vigour and relevance. Middle age was actually admired: these women were mature, worldly creatures who had, as the modern saying goes, “freedom to” as well as “freedom from”. The negative tarnish came with the mass production of the 1920s and the theories of scientific management that underpinned it, sharpening our association of youth with productivity and middle age with decreasing efficiency.