never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: envy


SM: Well, we have that much in common: our adult identities were formed at least in part by the ways we observed and experienced our own mothers’ identities. After she graduated high school, my mother stayed at home while taking classes at a local college, then worked for a few years, still living at home, before she was married. I don’t have all the information on what she did for the nine years she was married to my father before I was born, but afterward, she was a full-time wife and mother. She responded “housewife” when asked to identify her career on official forms. For as long as I can remember, I felt depressed by that. I sensed (imagined?) her depression and boredom. Later on, her rage and despair became even more obvious (imagined?) to me. I swore I would never get married—my parents have been married forty-four years and counting—or take on any dependents. I left home and became financially independent a few days after I graduated college.

My fear of becoming the woman I perceived as my mother—trapped, frustrated, helpless, enraged—is what has impelled me to make most of the major decisions of my life. Then again, an older woman friend said to me—offhand, but it became indelible—“She’s probably happier than you think.”

It fascinates me that so many women continue to choose motherhood. Does this mean I want to remain a child myself?

Do mothers perceive women without children as, essentially, children themselves?

RZ: I will speak for myself. I think that when I think of women who are not mothers I both fear and pity them. I feel threatened and confused. I am fascinated by and ashamed of these feelings. They probably have more to do with ambivalence about my choices then with theirs.

Is this because, despite feeling that I would never trade places with women without children, I worry that I am throwing my life away? I worry that the hours and hours of child care and domestic child-related tasks I do day after day and year after year are a waste of my time?

SM: What’s the threat? As for the confusion, I guess I feel confused about what people do if they aren’t workaholics, but then I think, well, they run marathons and go on trips and play softball and have healthy, well-rounded, rewarding lives. And they have children.

RZ: Making art sometimes feels highly indulgent and narcissistic. So does having children. At the same time, making art and having children sometimes seem to me like the only valuable things to do. I feel confused about what gives nonmothers’ lives meaning. Is that terrible? Condescending? It’s hard to admit that I wonder about this. The tone and attitude remind me of how fundamentalist Christians talk to me when trying to tell me “the good news.”

SM: Making art can often be indulgent and narcissistic, but if one is doing it right, the ego doesn’t necessarily participate.

I understand your position, I think—I can’t imagine calling my life meaningful without as much time for silent contemplation as I have. It’s hard to imagine fitting parenting into the life I’ve devised, and which seems like the only way I can remain alive and sane. Yet I know there must exist a deep fulfillment in being a parent.

RZ: I have this idea that if I didn’t have children I would read a million esoteric books, and I would become so smart and interesting. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve “wasted” my education. Once, a friend of my father jokingly said to me, “oh, you went to Yale to get your M-R-S,” I wanted to slap him. In dark moments I fear it’s partly true.

I obviously want things both ways. I feel defined by my role as a mother and wife and am grateful for the ways these identifications give my life a sense of purpose. At the same time I intermittently feel a festering restlessness, a self-loathing for what I’ve become: mother of three living on the Upper West Side. A good girl.

There are all sort of contradictions for me: becoming a mother made me a feminist but being a mother means I spend a lot of my time doing menial domestic tasks. I’m not sure how my mothering—the daily aspects of caring for my children—fits into my ideas about feminism. I hate the way motherhood seems to separate me from women who don’t have children, and I hate the way motherhood separates mothers according to the choices they make about birthing, nursing, economics, parenting philosophies, working, etc. At the same time I feel that motherhood brings me into a crucially important and sustaining sisterhood with other women, especially other mothers.

SM: It amazes me that a mother would think my life is not fulfilling. I truly appreciate and admire your courage in admitting that.

My psychiatrist tells me that many mentally retarded people report internal fulfillment. Did you feel unfulfilled before you had a child? Is having a child what led to fulfillment? Do you think anything else could have led there?

RZ: For a long time I believed that the world was divided up into two groups: mothers and nonmothers. I had friends in the second group but more and more they seemed foreign or even burdensome to me and I disliked the way I imagined I seemed to them. Becoming a mother awakened in me a strong interest in feminism, but to be honest, for several years this interest was pretty much confined to feminist issues that concerned mothers.

SM: Yes. I tend to prefer the company of people who share my values. It’s convenient not to have to defend oneself. I remember being challenged by a woman who asked me if a yearlong university fellowship required that I live on campus. When I told her it did, she railed that it wasn’t fair, that she had a husband and a daughter upstate and couldn’t leave home, and that she wanted the fellowship, too. I couldn’t believe this woman—how could she not see that I had made sacrifices in order to be able to accept the gift of such a fellowship, that I had no house, no partner, no child, no health insurance? That the fellowship existed to help people like me, writers who had chosen writing over the comforts of family, writers who actually needed money and a place to live? It infuriated me that this woman’s sense of entitlement blinded her to this. She took for granted the comforts she’d chosen.

the flurry

It sounds as if you’re already dealing with your feelings in many productive ways, and they just haven’t delivered results. Yet.

That doesn’t mean they won’t. It can take time for the dividends of your choices to become clear to you. For one, I think they’re being obscured by the newness of this phase of life for your peers — and the fact that each is traditionally launched with a party. When you’re in the flurry of weddings, showers, housewarmings, etc. — and it is typically a flurry — you’re seeing many people who are at the height of their joy with these milestones.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, just realistic — some of these marriages will unravel; some of these houses will be money pits; some of these kids will be difficult and wear out their parents, who will love them nonetheless but who will give up a lot of other valued things to make it all work. The highs and comforts inherent in marriage/house/kiddos are real and significant, but so are the lows, and the mehs.

And this will become steadily more apparent to you as your friends and family get beyond the cake-and-gifts phase, and celebration mode gives way to the rigors of daily life. (If we had showers and receptions for singleton milestones instead, would the jealousy jump sides? Discuss.)

This will happen, possibly, as your “new/fun” activities and travels evolve into deeper commitments and pleasures.

the mean reds

It’s not just my eyesight that’s declining in middle age, it seems to also be my desire for close friends.

Over the years I was lucky enough to have some great friendships, but for one reason or another, they ended, and I no longer miss those particular women and have adapted to life without that kind of closeness. I’ve met some great NoMos lately and am happy to hang out, but I no longer have expectations. Whatever will be will be. I have some armor up, but that feels like a hard-earned and necessary survival tactic.

One of the things I do miss is the opportunity to share my WTF moments. It takes close, trusted friends for that. A WTF moment, in my book, is when someone gets something (a job, a financial windfall, a partner, another child, etc.) seemingly randomly and/or unjustly. It’s one of those moments that throws everything you’ve thought or been taught into doubt and makes you think life is truly unfair and/or random and/or meaningless.

The older I get, the more I realize that life is indeed often unfair, random, and meaningless, so I have less need to discuss those moments of surprise, and of course I realize that you can never really know what is going on in someone else’s life and all you can do is concentrate on your own journey. I don’t think, however, that it’s catty to want to discuss those things, as, at bottom, it can feel like the meaning of life has been thrown into question.

I put some of my WTF moments in this blog now, but they are entirely watered down and absent of detail, as I’m still paranoid that something I write could get back to someone, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. My intention is not to be mean, but to grapple with meaning.


Janine says:
May 5, 2012 at 6:29 AM
I, too, have divorce envy, due to the frequently obscene payouts they get once it’s done and dusted! It’s true – you have to admit, financially they come out laughing most of the time. Those of us struggling can only envy that.

It is a perplexing thing, that the three-time divorcee is congratulated. I think it’s the whole notion of popularity – men in general tend to aim for the most in-demand female in the school, at the party, in the office, on the internet dating site. It’s something that never seems to change as they age. I used to get so tired of dates whining about single mums and women with “baggage” that I would proudly tell them I was never married and unemcumbered, until I realised it was turning any serious prospects off. Meanwhile I’d see women with the most complicated lives win hearts time and time again. Thank God I no longer date. Can’t please the pricks no matter what.

Many times – particularly as I’m hurtling towards 50 – I lament the fact that I was cherished and adored for such a brief period in my life (the rest biding their time), and may never be again, but then I think hard back to that time and the reasons why I left him. I knew I couldn’t have sustained that relationship – and probably ANY relationship.

So when all this gets me down, I look at the downside of all those divorces – going through divorce is like going through death, so they say. I see these sad, broken souls who never get over their spouse leaving them – consumed for years by bitterness and angst, engaged in diobolical family court battles. There’s one I know who leaves multiple daily cries for help and vicious threats to his ex on Facebook. SEVEN YEARS ON. And they call US tragic?

All those guys I met who were emotionally unavailable cos they still had it bad for their ex. Surely the same applies to women, although women do tend to leave men a lot more often. Why? Well for the reason you alluded to – women tend to marry regardless of whether or not they truly love the guy, just for the sake of being married. You can only keep that charade up for so long before going bonkers – just ask me. At least I stopped short of getting a ring on my finger, and you know what? I really, really respect myself for that.

So, when confronted with this kind of lunacy, I suggest you counter with these very arguments. Yes, we may get lonely maybe once a month, briefly, but I’d much prefer that to some prolonged living hell arising from a messy divorce. And let’s face it – we all know it isn’t always “amicable”. It was genuinely traumatic, and they also have to deal with a loss of status. You should see all the guys in my apartment tower downsizing from their mansions to a one-bedroom “bachelor pad”. How crushed, how small, they feel. For me, I’m delighted with my flat and couldn’t be happier with the size of it. Life goes on merrily, even if I don’t have that special someone to holler at.

So I’ve decided not to have divorce envy. I’ll just think of all those embarrassing divorcees, like Kim Kardashian, enjoy the peace and quiet, and count my blessings.

the noneventful life

Although I feel like I’ve just gone through (and sometimes still experience) the unacknowledged grief of never getting married or having kids, I’m realizing that, at middle-age, almost nobody’s life is a bed of roses. I’ve been hearing my co-worker’s stories lately– tales of ugly divorces, and disabled spouses, and dying parents. In comparison my life sometimes now seems like a cakewalk, although I still don’t know who I would call if I were in a real emergency.

I’ve also witnessed some unlikely marriages crumble. A woman I knew years ago who had a drug problem and who always struck me as supremely self-centered got married within a very brief window of time in her thirties and had two beautiful kids. She just got divorced and is already engaged to and moving in with a new dude, a man who will be bringing his own children into the new home. On one hand the speed with which she re-partnered is impressive; on the other, my intuition tells me that she is barging ahead with no thoughts for anyone but herself, and her kids will suffer.

Another acquaintance struggles with a disability, had an early divorce, remarried in her late thirties and had a child, experienced the death of her child and a divorce during the child’s illness, and within a year had a new fiancee and baby. Wow, is my thought. I can barely handle getting to a job and the gym and finding time to go on a date.

I know several women who have remained youthful and in shape, who have decent jobs, who are mature and sane and easy to get along with, and who have little to no baggage in terms of kids and ex-spouses, and yet year after year drifts by with nothing but brief dates and disappearing acts on the romantic front.

It’s all so odd.

the why factor

the deal

You were married when you started in the Pixies, and you were credited as Mrs. John Murphy. Do you ever regret not having that simple, domestic suburban life?

Why do you torture me? [Pretends to weep] Yes, I’m lonely. Yes, I’m single. And yes, I’m childless. What more do you want? Yeah, of course. But I can’t do anything about it. I was married briefly to a nice guy, but he wouldn’t quit dating. Awkward.

But you bounced back — you were in relationships after that.

Not a whole lot. I was busy. I read this article on a plane, in, like, Newsweek, about women breaking through the glass ceiling in business. It was an editorial where she was saying, “I have regrets, and one is that I waited so long and I’m now childless.” It reminds me of a Roy Lichtenstein shirt: “Oh my God, I forgot to have a baby!” Well, I was in my early 30s when I read this, and I thought, “Note to self: Got it. Won’t let that happen.” And here I am.

Was it hard to slow down?

No, I felt like I was available. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I look like a guy — it’s true! You know, they like girly-girl people, for real, and I can’t — I’m just like, whatever, friend zone is cool.

Does that bother you? Looking back, would you have done anything different?

It used to. Now it’s just too damn late. But in the late ’90s, it was really bothering me. I was using a lot of drugs. You know, I think I was available, but maybe I wasn’t. Obviously. But I’m really jealous that guys making the same career decisions I made find themselves with children running around their house and a woman making them dinner: “Honey, no, you go work. You’re an artist, that’s what you do. You’re a poet.” Sometimes I think I need a wife.


One afternoon I went out on the river in a bad state. I was tired and worried about the surgery, and I had spent an hour the evening before immersed in a toxic pastime: Googling old boyfriends and pondering the road not taken. Thanks to the new world of knowing too much about anyone you ever met, this was hardly a revelatory activity, but that night I stumbled upon new data about two different men I had loved.

The first was a recent wedding announcement, the other an acknowledgment to a spouse in a book published years earlier. Both instances suggested the kind of wife I had never been and probably never could have been: both painted tableaux, at least in my mind, of flawless dinner parties and social hobnobbing and renovated barns in Greenwich or the like. I was lying on the couch in the living room when I read these tidbits, wearing gym shorts with my hair in a ponytail. Shiloh and Tula were lounging nearby; I was having leftover chicken and watching reruns of Nurse Jackie. Here was the life I created, and whatever it was, it was not a flawless dinner party waiting to happen.

The next day, while I was rowing, I let my mind run free. This was an old and treacherous internal tape: I had forgotten to marry and have kids; I often preferred canine company to human; I would die sad and alone. Such was my recitation of despair, pulled out time to time like an ill-shaped sweater you can’t bring yourself to give away.

— Gail Caldwell, New Life, No Instructions, p. 43

comfortably numb

I had to do some stressful work-related traveling this week, but the upshot was that I got to meet some colleagues at my level, which was quite helpful. They confirmed some of the reasons I’d been hesitant to take a job like this: it’s lonely being the boss, you have to deal with a lot of politics, you’re always “on,” everyone wants something from you, etc.

I’d also been hesitant to relocate to an outlying area in order to move up; I predicted it might be an easier life, but I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself away from the urban center.

Yet here I am. I wouldn’t want to go back to my former life in L.A. necessarily, and it’s probably a good thing I’m pushing myself careerwise. I also certainly appreciate the financial security (not enough to change my life in any major way, but enough to put fears about retirement to rest, if I can stick it out for a good amount of time). But, given that I think it’s wise to keep some emotional distance from the job and to find passions elsewhere, I don’t know what I’m about or what excites me anymore. I’m once again thinking that the only feasible answer to my predicament is to get involved in a relationship, but at the same time I’m resentful that seems to be the only answer and further annoyed that it’s so damn difficult to find one.

Some of my older colleagues this week spoke about their exotic travels with their spouses and couple friends. Couple friends? What a concept! I haven’t heard from my couple friends in ages. And I can’t seem to work up much excitement for travel anymore since I’d have to go alone.

In the middle of my work travels, my old friend posted a happy, smiling picture of herself at home with the two gorgeous children she gave birth to in her early forties.

I read recently that children in orphanages stop feeling pain because nobody comes to their aid when they get hurt. I’m feeling less and less myself these days.


A common experience among women posting to the online bulletin board was a sense of isolation from the “fertile world” and the feeling that they were somehow “different” to other women. Many women talked about how not having children of their own meant that they were forever “on the outside looking in” on their peers becoming mothers and raising families. The knowledge that they would never be admitted into this “mum’s club” evoked a range of strong negative emotions in members of the online community. Emotions commonly expressed in the postings included intense feelings of grief and anguish at the loss of their opportunity to become biological parents, as well as anger that this role had been denied to them.

“I constantly feel like an outsider in this world. Wherever I go or whatever I do, I feel like the odd one out. I work in a female dominated environment with either younger girls having babies or the older women becoming grandparents. There are always happy family photos being passed around, so I do feel ‘different’ to everyone else.”

Several women also described how being unable to conceive a child of their own, appeared to have changed their outlook on life in general, which served to further separate them from other women around them. For example:

“One of the things I find hardest to deal with is people with a child talking about the next or one planning their first as if they are going to order one and the universe will deliver, at particular age gap, what sex they want and that be most convenient after their holiday so they can enjoy a drink!! But the reason it bothers me so much is that I’ve had to learn that life isn’t like that when it appears others don’t have that lesson taught. It can make me feel singled out for some hardship and it’s so unfair.”

Hearing about other people’s pregnancies appeared to be a particularly painful experience for women in the online community and served as a poignant reminder that they were unable to conceive themselves. For many women, receiving news that a friend, colleague or family member was pregnant resulted in a mixture of joy, despair and feelings of jealousy. Such news often prompted members to access the online community, in order to vent their frustration and express these conflicting emotions to people who could empathize with their experiences. In this context, the online community served as a unique environment in which women could alleviate their sense of isolation and connect with other women in similar situations.

“I went over to see a friend yesterday to ‘mourn’ the breakup of my relationship and she announced that she is pregnant. I wouldn’t wish this feeling of isolation and hopelessness on anyone, especially a close friend but it felt like a kick in the gut non-the-less….”

Some women also described feelings of distress when they heard stories in the media about motherhood or attended family gatherings, where there were young children present. These experiences heightened their feeling of being “the odd one out” and once again brought home the realization that they would never experience motherhood.

“TV personalities seem to get pregnant at the drop of a hat or they have fertility treatment and it just seems to work first time for them. Reading these stories makes me really upset and angry”.

To protect themselves against reminders of their infertility and feeling like an outsider in social situations, several women reported avoiding certain family gatherings or cutting themselves off from friends who were pregnant or had children. Although this coping strategy was effective in avoiding painful feelings in the short-term, in the long-term it appeared to create a vicious cycle with members feeling more isolated and alienated from society as time went by:

“I have had an in built safety mechanism for years in which I distance myself from any friends/work colleagues/family of child bearing age, hence I was left with very few friends of my own age and have gradually felt more and more isolated.”

“I always dreaded family gatherings and made excuses not to go because i hated feeling like the odd one out whilst everyone around me had children or were expecting them. I tried to protect myself because i found it all too painful but at the same time i have found the feeling of isolation really painful and difficult too”.