I recently tried to schedule a ladies’ night with three single friends, and it quickly became one of those endless email threads that looped and circled for weeks. Amy has voice lessons on Monday. Angela is ziplining on Saturday. Jen is headed to Vermont to study with a Buddhist master, but she’ll be back a week from Thursday…oh, but that’s the night Amy ushers at the local theater! Play rehearsals, sailing clubs, volunteer work, art openings—these are the things that fill my single friends’ calendars. They’re busy working on the town board, serving meals at the local soup kitchen, and hiking by themselves through the Arizona desert.
My married friends are busy too; making time with them more often involves working around their kids’ school activities or dinners with other couples. They do cool nonfamily-related stuff as well—organizing benefits for Darfur, reporting stories on surfers and jazz musicians—but when you live in a house full of people you love (some of whom depend on you for their survival) there is naturally less incentive to take tango lessons or learn to scuba dive.
In other words, my friends—all roughly the same age, all grown-up professionals—are at different life stages. My married friends are at the place where women over 30 are generally expected to be—doing the work-family juggle, Sundays with the in-laws. My single friends, on the other hand, are exploring fairly new and unchartered terrain—the life of single adults who, while open to the right romantic relationship, can manage beautifully on their own.
But please: Don’t call them fabulous. My unmarried friends are smart, interesting women who are engaged in life. There’s no need to wrap them in a feather boa.
We still don’t really know how to talk about single women in our culture. In decades past, they were lonely spinsters, quietly languishing in their studio apartments. Later, they became hollow careerists who paid too high a price for their ambition. Then, sometime in the late 1990s, society awakened to the fact that actually a lot of unmarried women were having a pretty great time and were in no rush to marry now or maybe ever. This was a vast improvement over the old models, but it too quickly descended into caricature—the boozy party girl, the intellectual lightweight whose brainwork mostly revolved around dating rules and snaring those designer boots at 40% off.
In a 2011 Atlantic essay, Kate Bolick did a nice job of presenting a more accurate and nuanced portrait of today’s single women, describing mature, independent professionals who, either by choice or circumstance, happened to not be married. But she also attributed the growing ranks of unmarried women to a rather grim cause—the lack of marriage-worthy men—explaining that women’s educational and economic gains are creating a “new scarcity” of male peers.
I see this trend in a far more positive light—women are delaying and forgoing marriage because they can. In generations past, the 28-year-old who walked away from a stable-but-uninspired relationship was putting not just her happiness but also her very survival at risk. But now that women no longer have to depend on men for financial support, we are enjoying a historically unprecedented luxury: to hold out for the right relationship, or to not have one at all.
What was once a state defined in the negative—unmarried—now has become a life choice that gives women power: to own your own home, to navigate foreign countries alone, to have a child on your own. The power to leave a mediocre relationship, to freeze your eggs, to ignore the societal pressure—still very present—to just get married already.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy to be single. While the “fabulous” conceit depicts the single life as a breezy carnival ride, living on your own in our very couple-centric culture is actually quite a lot of work. Couples have the luxury of dividing household expenses and chores—from choosing a retirement plan to knowing when it’s time to clean the rain gutters—singles, on the other hand, manage the whole operation on their own. Sure it’s nice to have the freedom to make life decisions — should I move to Santa Fe for that job? Do I want to live in a city high-rise or a suburban bungalow? — without compromise. But it’s also quite daunting to do so without the consult of a partner, to bear the full weight of each decision. Even more challenging is dealing with the perpetual sense that you have to explain “why” you’re single to – well, just about anyone: your uncle, your parents’ friends, your cab driver, your dentist.
Single women are often reluctant to admit the challenges of living alone for fear they will be slapped with darker adjectives—“desperate,” “pathetic.”
But all of these stereotypes are misleading. The single life isn’t a prison sentence nor is it a cocktail party. It is simply a life—a life with responsibilities and rewards, good days and bad ones, successes and failures. It’s marching into your boss’s office and demanding to be paid what your married male co-worker earns because dammit you need the money. It’s counseling your niece on issues she’s not quite comfortable talking about with her mom. It’s selling your house and moving to South America because why not? It’s asking a man for a date and he says yes. It’s asking a man for a date and he says no.
Most of all, it’s a rich and varied life with many opportunities to build strength and character. Married people love to boast that marriage is “work”—as if they were raising barns or tilling soil—so why should singles feel embarrassed if living on your own can be quite a bit more work?
It’s work that has deep value. I was single for most of my adult life—I met my husband at 39—and I experienced the usual rewards and frustrations of living on my own. There were glorious times—late-night dinners with the girls, solo hikes through the high plains of Wyoming—and there was also a lot of heartbreak, loneliness, and self-doubt. But what I failed to appreciate was how even the difficult times—maybe especially the difficult times—made me the woman I am today.
You build strength when you gracefully make small talk with your ex and his pregnant wife while seated next to them at a wedding. When you figure out how to fix the leaky faucet in the upstairs bathroom. When you refuse to let the car salesman intimidate you. When you tell a man “I’m sorry, but this isn’t clicking for me” and when a man says it to you.
Mostly, you gain strength when you learn to listen to your own voice and live life on your own terms. There is so much out there that tells single women there’s something wrong with them. But there is so much right with single women today, and I’m not just talking about how great they look in stilettos or rocking their careers. Sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian found that single sisters aren’t just doing it for themselves, they’re also essential players in their communities. In an article in the journal Contexts, they wrote that single women attend more political meetings, sign more petitions and raise more money for political causes than married women do; and single men and women spend more time taking care of parents, siblings and friends than their married peers.
And like my busy friends, singles just get out of the house more. In Going Solo, sociologist Eric Klinenberg notes that singles spend more time at public events, have more friends and take more art and music classes.
I’m not saying single people are better than married people—that’s silly. I’m saying that it’s time we start treating the single experience with the respect it deserves. Because what is perhaps most impressive about single women today is their ability to build rich, meaningful lives without any sort of blueprint. It takes courage to stay true to yourself when so many voices are telling you to follow a more conventional path. It takes mental agility to hold two ideas in your head at once: Yes, I would like to meet someone someday; yes, I am fine right now as I am.
Maybe I sound a bit highfalutin. Maybe you’re thinking well gee this sure is flattering but I’m not quite the self-actualized goddess you describe. Because actually I got pretty upset when my boyfriend broke up with me, and quite honestly my heart sinks every time I get a baby-shower invitation. I have a good life, but I still feel lonely sometimes.
So did I. This brings me to the other problem that we have when we talk about single women. In an earnest attempt to address the ragingly unfair clichés of the past, we often portray singles as superhuman, as ultra-confident heroines who never get wistful at weddings or nervous on dates. The trouble is, this leaves the impression that the only way to be a respectable unattached woman is to be impervious to love. Spend a night self-medicating in front of the television, feel a moment’s reluctance to be the “shower secretary” cataloging the bride’s gifts, have a life that is does not include foreign travel or extreme sports, and it’s easy to feel that there is yet-another standard you haven’t quite measured up to.
That’s how I often felt, anyway. Yes, my single-woman resume was dotted with some glamorous experiences—an artist residency in Montana, a journalism assignment in Thailand. But my typical day as a single woman involved working at a computer, going to the gym, cooking dinner, cleaning up after dinner, watching television, reading. This, by the way, is also a description of my typical day as a married woman.
But now that I’m married, I’m allowed to be boring. In fact, I can kind of brag about it. “I fell asleep at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.” “I didn’t do anything for Valentine’s Day.” “I’d love to see that band, but they go on way past my bedtime.” “I think I’m going to buy a Polar Fleece vest.” I have made all of these statements without embarrassment since joining the ranks of the happily unfabulous.
Now I can be an ordinary woman just puttering along. When I was single, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that was not okay, that I was not enough.
I was wrong of course. I never had to be amazing. I only had to be me—a very flawed woman staying true to her heart.
Instead of calling the contemporary single woman “fabulous,” let’s see her for who she really is: a person. She’s your neighbor, your lawyer and your fellow soccer mom. She’s the woman next door who snowblows your front sidewalk without asking, the aunt riding roller coasters with her niece and nephew, the stranger in the Loehmann’s dressing room saying “that’s a good color on you.” She just fell in love, and she just got her heart broken. She just got a promotion, and she just got laid off. She’s savoring the still of a Sunday morning alone, and she’s wondering if anyone wants to meet for brunch.
She’s not fabulous—she’s much, much more than that.