“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” Gloria Steinem said in 1970, and I believed her.
But a woman without a woman? That’s like a fish without gills.
Born in the 1950s, I was an empowered, impatient girl. Thanks to Steinem et al., I grew up to be an empowered, impatient woman. I get right on it. I make things happen. I fix what’s wrong.
Bad rules? Break them. Bad war? Protest it. Bad job? Quit it. Imperfect house? Renovate it. Friendship spat? Mend it.
I’ve always maintained that the best way to know what a person really wants is to look at what she has. How many times have I told a friend that if she really wanted that career, house, relationship, she’d figure out a way to get it? “You must be ambivalent,” I’d tell her, or “Maybe you’re not ready.”
Easy for me to say; I had what I wanted. I’d followed the feminist recipe with great success. First I became the man I wanted to marry. Then I married the woman of my dreams. Until four years ago I was blissfully, passionately coupled. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t.
Now what I want is what I had. Turns out, it’s the one thing that all the empowerment in the world can’t get me.
Some people—men, women, other—are made to be single. They couple up for a minute, decide it’s not worth the hassles, drift back into singlehood.
Not me. I’m made for marriage. I’ve been married, in one way or another, to one gender or another, since I was 15 years old. At my certain age, I’m done trying to analyze or spiritualize or therapize myself out of wanting what I was built to have. As Popeye said, I yam what I yam. No ambivalence. I’m ready. Hear me roar.
So where’s my wife already?
Divorce. It took a long time to come through that dark tunnel. The shock. The grief. It took years to get used to not doubling everything good (movie tickets, steaks on the grill, heads on the pillow), and halving everything bad (bills, worries, household chores).
Finally I came back to myself, my marrying-type self. I did what there was to do. I told my friends I was looking. I looked. I posted profiles on several dating sites: cleverly worded descriptions; stylish yet casual pix.
I dated men. I didn’t like it.
I dated women. I didn’t like it.
On Match.com I met a really good woman. I loved her ambivalently for a while. Ambivalent is good enough for some people, but I’m not one of them. I’ve known great love. I’m spoiled rotten. I can’t—I won’t—settle for less.
Isn’t that what fifty years of feminism has taught us? Not to settle for less?
I’m a good writer. A good hostess, hiker, conversationalist. A really good friend. But here's what I’m best at. I’m a gifted wife.
I cook. I bake. I grow fruit and herbs and flowers and turn them into jeweled jars of jam.
I can make my girl so glad it’s her birthday, she’ll wish she had two of them.
I’ll give her two of them.
I have lingerie, good lingerie, and I know how to use it.
I can lie my lover back and make her laugh and cry and hum. I can let her lie me back.
Bring home the bacon? Check. Fry it up in the pan? Yes. The only thing that makes me happier than nest-feathering is sharing my—our—feathered nest, sinking deep into that downy den for a lost weekend, a lost week, a found life.
If I couldn’t write, my talent for writing would be wasted. I’d be wasted.
Imagine the torment, if writing required me to find a woman to do it with. If writing required me to sidle up to a bar or be match-made by friends or, goddess help me, offer myself up on OK Stupid and Hinder. I’d be forced to spend my days “walking on my knees,” as Mary Oliver wrote, “for a hundred miles through the desert,” looking for the person who would enable me to do what I was put here to do. To be whole. To be fully who I am.
Imagine this, then. Every night that I don’t make dinner for my lover; every night that I sleep alone, every morning that I don’t bring my sweetheart breakfast in bed, my greatest talents and my greatest desires are being wasted. I’m being wasted.
Epic female-empowerment fail: I can’t do a goddamn thing about it.
“We have to step up as women and take the lead.”—Beyoncé
As mentioned, I make use of my birthright. I do what the bawdy boys do. I prowl parties, conferences, farmers’ markets like the sexual predator I’ve become, reducing each human I encounter to a potential mate. I scour my screen, push myself out of my self-feathered den, walk the world on Red Alert so as not to miss a glance, a wink, a sign.
Friends advise me that the harder I try to find my missing person, the less likely I am to succeed.
Friends advise me that the search for my princess will involve kissing a lot of frogs.
My married friends, that is.
It isn’t just me. “It’s been six years since I’ve been kissed,” says my friend Carla, a beautiful, bodacious 55-year-old novelist. “Being as desperate as I am for someone to marry goes against everything I believe in. But not looking means I’ll never find him.”
“It’s too degrading, the dating thing,” says 63-year-old Hannah, whose husband of 20 years died last year. “The only more degrading thing is being single when I want so much not to be.”
Amy, a brilliant staff writer at a prestigious magazine, is 42, never married, always wanting to be. She travels the world to report her stories, trolling Tinder everywhere she goes. “I’ve probably been on a hundred dates in the past year,” Amy says. “And not one of them has even come close.” She shakes her pretty head. “Not even close.”
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” —Nora Ephron
My theory of powerful women—that if we aren’t happy with what we have, we can and should go out and get ourselves what we want—has a hole in it now. I feel that hole in the region of my heart.
I can fix my garbage disposal, my holey sweaters, my manuscripts. But I can’t—I don’t want to—fix my desire to be married. Nor can I fix my inability to find the person I want to be married to.
Even Beyoncé couldn’t just step up, take the lead, and materialize her Jay Z. That kind of match takes magic, the sweet song of angels’ harps. "It's the stuff that dreams are made of," as Carly Simon sang in her homage to the "slow steady fire" of lifelong marriage. My hard-earned, hard-edged feminist politics can’t make this greatest of my dreams come true. As the author of my own narrative, the heroine of my own life, that powerlessness rankles. Where, exactly, is the freedom of choice in that?