never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: friendships

the terminator

Regardless of the myriad reasons for a life without children, many have experienced one common silent battle; feeling abandoned by friends who became immersed in motherhood. Some say they woke up one day, often in their mid to late 30s, and realised 20-year friendships have been put on the back burner because their friends had little time or, in some cases, too little inclination for a social life that didn’t revolve around their young family or other mothers.

Voicing these concerns publicly is somewhat of a taboo; there’s plenty of media discourse and blogs about how to balance motherhood with work, the struggles of women who seek to become parents through IVF and the dilemmas faced by women who are full-time mothers. And celebrity motherhood is fetishised in tabloid tales of the baby-making exploits of Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie’s frantic rate of adoption, and speculation over Jennifer Aniston’s “agony” at her childless status.

But admitting to feeling marginalised by friends for having not propagated the species is akin to outing yourself as a Miss Haversham figure surrounded by cats and knitting needles.

Fiona, a 37-year-old who never wanted children, says motherhood has been a “friendship terminator” for her.

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the guarded

After many years of observation and experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to succeed in a job like mine is to be cool and reserved. Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to find an ally at work with whom I can share gallows humor, but the higher I go, the more difficult that becomes. Instead I spend a good portion of my energy at work trying to suppress my personality, thoughts, and emotions, even while handling one impossible situation after another. When I slip and let my personality through, I often feel like I’ve made a mistake.

It’s only when I come home from work, shut the door, and am alone that it feels safe to let my hair down. Although I try to retain some openness to “meeting someone,” I can no longer imagine throwing myself into the brutality of the dating market on top of dealing with this job. If it happens, it will have to be serendipitous. Same with friendships. Children have finally come to represent additional conflict and stress at a time in my life when I crave less of those things.

Last weekend I spent almost an entire day at home reading through a stack of brilliant books, and I was delirious with happiness. Few things make me as happy anymore.

Some people may lose heart with trying for connection after their first brush with loss or disappointment; others bounce back time after time. I think I’ve finally reached my personal tipping point. I’m making peace with the idea that the coming years will be about building the nest egg that will allow me to retire to a frugal and solitary but free life filled with good books and, possibly, a dog.

Soon I will do the thing I vowed not to do in that I will sit down with paper, pen, and my various financial statements to figure out when that day might come. It will probably take at least eight years, maybe more. I will continue to schedule in points of light in my calendar, but underneath it all I will be moving steadily toward that goal.


We can find relationships that can serve us and that are good for us,” she explained. “We don’t have to stay in something if it’s not the right relationship. If something doesn’t work you don’t stay there and I think Carly knows that for herself.

“She leaves the relationship as soon as she finds out he’s married, she doesn’t try to get him to explain to her why he did it or say that he was going to leave his wife [Leslie Mann] for her.

“She just really owned it and said I have to get out of here and says the same thing to her [Leslie’s character] – you can’t change this person.”

“She is self-possessed and she knows what’s good for her,” Cameron added. “I think it’s important that that’s reflected.”

Neither does she have a fixed opinion on motherhood. “I’ve never said never to anything in life. If I wanted kids, at any point in life, I would have them. But I’m certain that if at any point I wanted a child, that child would find its way into my life, whether through adoption, or through being in a relationship with somebody who has a child. I can’t see the future, but one thing I do know is that I’m not childless. I have a ton of children in my life. I can have a kid any second, if I want. All my friends would be like, ‘Sure, come and get them,’” she says with a laugh.

“I also, by the way, have a lot of girl friends who don’t have children. It’s not like I’m the spinster who didn’t have a child. I just didn’t do that in life, and I’m OK with that. I know the choices I made. I know why I made them. I’m very much a person who lives in the moment. When you come from where I do, there are so many ways my life could have gone.”


Written from 2005 – when Heti was 28 – through to 2012, the book explores the messiness, self-consciousness and doubts of young women who have been told the world offers them unprecedented opportunities, but find themselves working as unpaid interns, living in grimy bedsits and dating loser men.


RZ: I was a writer and teacher before I was a mother but so much of my mental and physical energy is spent in my role of mother. Am I more a mother than a writer now? I’m not sure. I don’t think I can really separate them enough to measure them against each other.

It is interesting that despite our many similarities, we don’t know each other very well. Over the years our paths have crossed from time to time, but we’ve never become friends. Is it because I have children and you don’t?

I know that I’ve made assumptions about you, about the kind of nonmom you are.

I’ve always imagined that you went to parties and stayed out late and slept with various handsome men (and maybe women too) and had beautiful clothes that were not machine washable and that your body functioned in ways that did not surprise, alarm or amaze you. I felt sure that you went to sleep late, woke up late, and read the newspaper at breakfast. Your apartment, as I pictured it, was quiet and peaceful but not very tidy. Your life was your own. Your read books voraciously but were sometimes lonely. You traveled and went to writer’s colonies and applied for fellowships and teaching jobs that might require you to move to other states or countries for a few months. Your mother worried that you weren’t married and you told her that her alarm was antiquated and sexist.

SM: I think we both made assumptions about each other based on the popular stereotypes associated with New York women. I certainly did. I thought your life consisted of reading banal storybooks, making instant oatmeal, and doing laundry. I couldn’t imagine how that would feel fulfilling. I considered an obviously complex and evolved person but went straight to the stereotype, which is basically a failure of my imagination.

You’ve read my memoir now, so you know that my life and my relationship to my body are not as you describe above.

I don’t know if the severe limits on my life have been greater or lesser in degree, or similar or different in type, to the limits on your life, a mother’s life.

RZ: I agree that most assumptions about mothers and nonmothers are erroneous.

For example, a few months ago I sent a YouTube link to a movie I made about my son’s home birth out to everyone on my email list. I was surprised when you responded. I had assumed you wouldn’t be interested in my movie. I thought you might find it overly sentimental or possibly disgusting. But you said it inspired you. How? Why?

SM: “Inspires” as in fills me with breath and hope, as in somehow both increases and decreases the mysteries surrounding motherhood and birth.

During a high school internship program at a local teaching hospital, with a teenager’s total assurance that I would be a doctor when I grew up, I watched a vaginal birth and came close to fainting. The attending doctor had to take care of me while the mother was in labor. It was almost funny. So I was surprised by how clean and simple the birth process seemed in your movie.

I am genuinely interested in the lives of mothers inasmuch as I am interested in the lives of people in general, but I’m separately fascinated by some mothers’ apparent conviction that nonmothers are shallow, that mothers suffer and feel more deeply than nonmothers. It seems as if these mothers want to shun me because I’m not a member of their sorority—hell, I didn’t even show up to rush.

RZ: I’ve never thought that you or nonmothers in general are “shallow” but clearly I’ve made a lot of other uncomplimentary or idealized assumptions. Perhaps I should have spent more time thinking about what you and I have in common or about what I have lost in the years in which I signed on so completely to the world of mothers and the idea that we are different from nonmothers. How does such a perception affect women? What can we do to change things?

SM: The problem with sustaining the dichotomy between mothers and nonmothers, of course, is that in doing so we weaken all women against the reigning culture of men.

James Baldwin is supposed to have said at Berkeley, that no white man, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with him. Well, no man, no matter what color, would want to trade places with me.

RZ: Maybe because I’m trying to justify my own path or maybe because I truly feel this way—I don’t know—but I’ve spent my whole life assuming that (to bring it back to James Baldwin) no mother, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with a nonmother. So I’m back to the dichotomy.

SM: I find it hard to understand that feeling.

RZ: Obviously I’m exaggerating. Some women do not want to be mothers. Women have abortions or give children up for adoption or responsibly avoid pregnancy, but by and large, despite the fact that motherhood is not physically, logistically, financially or socially supported, most women do become mothers at some point even if they don’t choose a particular pregnancy or child.

Is this because of a cultural message that motherhood is the ultimate goal for women? Why do so many women become mothers?

And how can I discuss my feeling of having chosen the “right” way, the only path that makes sense to me without being offensive? Motherhood, it seems to me, is both extremely difficult but also and ultimately, the greatest privilege. I guess I fear nonmothers’ scorn and envy when I say these things.

SM: It is hard for me to understand mothers who assume I envy them, or who assume that motherhood is my goal.

But the problem here is that the dialectic of mother versus nonmother isn’t a perfect one. Every mother has also been a nonmother, so only they know the difference. Nonmothers simply can’t have this perspective.

It’s generalizing an individual belief—that my, or anyone’s, experience of womanhood should be considered the ultimate experience for all women—that’s the problem.

RZ: I can see how my assumption that motherhood is (or should be) your (or anyone’s) ultimate goal would be offensive and problematic. I need to think about what’s led me to embrace such an essentialist view of womanhood.

SM: My friend J., the mother of a severely disabled child, finds the mother/nonmother dialectic deeply problematic. She knows that not all mothers are in the same boat.

I find that dialectic problematic, too, because I know that not all nonmothers are in the same boat.

There’s a vast difference between the life of a committed artist and the life of a person who gets paid to take orders forty hours a week and spends the rest of the time entertaining herself.

There are very many ways to live a nonfulfilling life. I have found several. But from where I’m standing, plenty of mothers seem to have found them, too.

What I want to know is: what do thoughtful and insightful mothers know that I can’t know?

RZ: So much of being a mother is learning to tolerate discomfort. There is an athleticism to motherhood, a kind of torture-victim’s resolve. Nursing a child is like a spiritual practice, a meditative disciple, a consecrated patience. I imagine I might feel this way about yoga if I had time to do yoga. Also, I would give up my life for my children but not for my husband and not for my parents and not for my friends….

SM: That might be it — the essential difference between us. I don’t know anyone I’d die for. That is a fascinating dialectic

the lady luck

A peer friend of mine married around the age of thirty-nine, after several long-term relationships and years in the dating wilderness. The man she married was among her circle of college friends. He was a widower; otherwise, I’m sure he would have been married with children at that point.

After some fertility struggles, they went on to have two children. He’s a professor, so although money is somewhat tight, he is able to stay home with the kids several days a week.

I was still dating from thirty-nine to forty-one, but I either didn’t feel the situation was right or the man I was dating didn’t, and so I became childless-not-by-choice.

It really seems that were it not for them encountering some lucky breaks, I’d have a couple of friends in my same situation.

difficult stages

Lately I’ve been enjoying my time alone immensely, a big change to how I was feeling a year ago, but I suppose at some point it might get old. Friendships are going to be a slow build, though.

“The three easiest stages in life to make friends are high school, college and motherhood because the common interests are so evident,” says Jennifer Freed, PhD, a marriage and family counselor in Santa Barbara, CA, who’s facilitated friendship groups for decades. At other times, there may not be an overt reason to connect.

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 inactive

From age 32-40 I was actively looking for a partner. I did a lot of online dating and dissected my romantic travails with my friends. A few would get annoyed with me, saying they didn’t want all our conversations to be about dating, but I think my behavior was pretty normal for my age, as 32-40 is the home stretch for creating a certain kind of family.

I get that annoyance now though, as I no longer consider myself actively looking. I’m open and hopeful but no longer go to events or places solely to meet men, and I no longer do online dating. My immediate goals do not revolve around marriage and children. Occasionally I now find myself bored with conversations about dating, but I try not to show it.

People are where they are and feel what they feel. Sometimes a romantic relationship is the top priority, and no amount of shaming is going to change that.

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.