Women over 40 who are single and child-free and living a full and fulfilling life might as well not exist, according to pop culture. Depictions of them are few and far between, as Glynnis MacNicol discovered when she went looking for stories that reflected her life, so she decided to write her own. Her new memoir "No One Tells You This" — published with her selfie for a cover image, a power move if I've ever seen one — is a witty, insightful and at times emotionally raw chronicle of the year she turned 40 and rejected the pressures, subtle and direct, that her life should feel incomplete, or that her story wasn't a story because it wasn't following a woman's expected path.
Throughout the book, MacNicol shows all of the ways in which her freedom makes her not superfluous, as our culture's tired clichés would have us all believe — "Single women on the screen are almost always inept or selfish," she writes — but rather indispensable to her family and friends, as her mother's health declines, her sister and her business partner have babies, and her tight-knit group of friends' lives change for better and worse, too.
The same freedom that helps her be highly present in her loved ones' lives also allows her to take international travel writing assignments, spend a month on a ranch in Wyoming, and take herself out to dinner alone whenever she damn well pleases.
MacNicol recently returned home to New York from a multi-state road trip book tour with friend Jo Piazza, author of the new novel "Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win," which took them from Asheville, NC, to St. Paul, MN. When they stopped in Louisville, KY, last week, I moderated a discussion between the two authors and the audience at Carmichael's Bookstore about women's ambition, freedom and power. Earlier this week, MacNicol and I picked that conversation back up over the phone.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Overall, what were your impressions from your road trip across America through bookstores?
The big takeaway is, I think, how eager women are to have this conversation. I think the assumption on the part of Simon & Schuster — it was a logical one — was that the audience for this book would be single women in their 40s, since that's primarily the subject matter of the book. In reality, the audience for this, and certainly the women who are showing up to our readings — and some men too, there were definitely men that came — is really across the board. I'm getting 20-year-olds all the way up to 70-year-olds and, I think, a lot of married women with children. There just seems to be a hunger to talk about how we navigate power and freedom and our value in the world and what life looks like outside of the prescribed narrative that we've all, for many reasons, internalized growing up, because how could you not have. So, it's been really fascinating to see how many people [the book] appeals to.
Tell me about the men who come to the events and who read your book. What are some of their responses?
So, I have to say almost exclusively — and this includes the article [for the New York Times, "I’m in My 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?"] that I wrote just before the book came out, which sort of went a little viral — is that almost all responses have been good. Which, as a person who covered Fox News and Glenn Beck as a full time job, was certainly not something I was prepared for. I really thought, you're going to be in for the "you are being selfish, you have a responsibility to have children, yada yada yada" [responses], and I've only gotten a handful of those emails. Literally of 100, I have gotten maybe like three that said that. One [said] "I feel sorry for you, you should really go and read" — is it Jordan Peterson, is that the guy . . ?
That's the guy, yes.
It’s weird, I should know because I am Canadian and he is Canadian — also shocking — but I only have one of those emails.
One guy sent me a really lovely note — he is in his 40s, he’s a father of two and has been married for five or seven years — he just said, “We're all getting to this age and we're all struggling. That's what our lives are supposed to look like, and we are all struggling with this question of, where do we go next and what does that look like? So thank you for articulating it.” I thought that was fascinating. In the world, I do not think that white married men with children are the ones struggling. They are not on top of my list. But I do think it speaks a little bit to the moment we're in, and the confusion men are feeling about how to navigate through this moment.
I get a lot of emails from people, from men like, "Is this why my girlfriend doesn't want to get married?" Or, "Is this why my girlfriend is thinking like this?" Like I’ve opened a keyhole and men are peering through, trying to figure out if this is what's actually going on inside of women’s heads.
So, that's been interesting. People you wouldn't expect are seeing themselves in the story of a single 40-year-old childless woman, who traditionally is the exact character we've been taught to pity in most stories.
And your story is absolutely not a pity party. I think there is something thrilling, or maybe freeing, for people to read that, even if their own story doesn't track very closely with yours. There's still a freedom in hearing and saying, what if you threw out the expectations that you thought were supposed to define your life, and you turned out OK?
Right, and we're actually able to lead a fulfilling life. I think some of the headlines [about the book] distill it down to jokes like, “She's single, childless, 40 — and she's happy!”
You'll never guess what happens next!
I know, can you believe it? I think "happy" is such a tricky word. It's such a limited, sort of silly word. I think what I really wanted to say in the book was that I was leading a fulfilling life. It is fully fleshed out in those amazing ways and difficult ways, just like anyone else's. That was really important for me to get across, because the way we value women's lives — and this is true I think for most women — is very lopsided and limited and narrow.
I imagine that's part of the appeal, too. Trying to give value to all the relationships in my life, to all the activities, might be freeing for women in very different circumstances than mine. I think married women with children, I think mothers, are given a very limited range of what they can feel good about in their lives, seriously. That might be part of the reason it seems to be resonating.
One of the things that really struck me about your book is the strong through-line of relationships — not just your closeness with your family, but then also the closeness with your group of female friends that is portrayed as strong and solid and has a longevity to it. I think that that's something that we're also still trying to figure out how to talk about, women's friendships when you're all adults but you're no longer necessarily following along the exact same track with one another.
There a story that went viral recently about a woman who uninvited one of her friends, a bridesmaid, from her bridal party. The implication was that they were just in really different places in their lives. It did strike me that that was a story where both of the women had maybe diverged from the idea that the other one had of each other, right?
How do you support each other through these different life events when the culture says a bridesmaid is this, a very specific kind of person, a standard that is written by, I don't know, a committee in a glossy magazine conference room somewhere?
The reaction seemed to be that the bride was being terrible and selfish, but I actually read her email [to the bridesmaid] and I was like, I would have been happy to receive an email from a friend of mine releasing me from the responsibility of being in a bridal party. I would have been like, “Great, I am so glad that we could both agree.”
To the larger point, at almost every reading, I've had young women come up to me — and it truly breaks my heart — asking how do I get friends like the ones that you have. I truly feel like I wrote about these friendships — not in hindsight, because they are all still very much thriving, and an important part of my life — but I was ready to look back and take into consideration all the ups and downs. And what I say is, these friendships are a lot like marriages. There are many moments where I wanted to kill everybody . . . things were really, really shitty, and you just get through them.
I think — and maybe that story of the bridesmaids and her friend ties into this — we still have a language about female friendship that I think originates from the time when women got married very young. Marriage was the primary relationship and everything else was just second fiddle to that. And these days, with all of us getting married later, our friendships are our primary relationships for maybe a decade or two of your adult life. We — and again, I think this is true of most things in women's lives these days — don't have a language that fully expresses the complications of that, or the meaning or the importance.
And one thing I struggled with — and I've had this conversation with women at readings too, more in an encouraging way, when I say "you'll get through it" — is the grief of having friends leave your life, and not ever feeling resentful or angry, but this sense of when someone gets married or moves away, your entire life can be up-ended and you have no control over it. That's the thing I think is so difficult — the lack of control. And then the lack of language around recognizing how difficult it is.
I talked about that a little bit [in the book] when one of my best friends gets married. I'm so happy, but also there has to be some way to recognize what we're losing, or what's permanently changing here, in a way that feels respectful to how important it was to both of us. I always think that no longer should it be the father walking the daughter down the aisle, it should be the best friend, because that's who's really giving [someone] up, that's where the shift is going to be most felt. Most of us have been out of our parents’ houses for many, many years before we get married.
You know, when I was at my mother's funeral, all of friends would have come if I’d asked them. But the step of having to ask feels like maybe we shouldn't have to have that anymore. That it's just [recognized as] an obligation, the same way a husband would show up.
I really wanted to try and articulate . . . that this is really difficult. Not [ask], how do we fix this? I think it's really tough to not have these things recognized, to feel like you're not allowed to express your struggles. It's hard, and can lead to a lot of bitterness, I think, which is terrible and not helpful or enjoyable for anyone.
Women's emotions are still so heavily scrutinized and criticized by the culture at large. Are you too needy? Did she go crazy when . . . etcetera. Instead of asking, is she grieving the loss of a person who might have served as her primary person in her life at this point? That happens often, also, as we get older and some friends have kids and some don't. There's a whole cottage industry of writing about how to be a better friend to your friend who's had a kid, and conversely how to hang onto your childless friends when you're a new mom. What if we all talked to each other like we're people? Women, they're people!
Just people. [Laughs.] Talking about friends getting married, I found that it was hard to talk about without people assuming that I was jealous. For some women with children, there's a sense of competition over, my life is so hard and you don't recognize that. There is a scene in the book where I talk about someone sending me an email [saying], “Remember, for those of us with kids, we can't all just go to brunch when we want.” I was coming out of [caring for] my mother and covered in my sister's kid's spit-up . . . these [are] assumptions about other people's lives.
I feel like I'm constantly pointing this out, but I think it's helpful for all of us to remember that women only recently have had the ability to make decisions about what they want their life to look like, and prior to that our lives were dependent on, financially and legally dependent on, the decisions our husbands were making.
So this sense of competition, or the idea that women are not on each other's side, is not so surprising when you take the big picture of how we were forced to function for such a long time. If your financial security was based on finding the most financially secure husband, then it's not surprising that you'd feel in competition with all the other women. Women [now] have the ability to attain financial security on their own terms and that relieves us of the idea that men are a prize. I'm pretty sure that's why some men are reacting badly at the moment. Maybe it would nice to still be a prize.
There's also still so many competing messages out there. On one hand, we're living in the epoch of the single woman, as Rebecca Traister in "All the Single Ladies" points out. On the other hand, our cultural obsessions in this moment include "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." Ariana Grande's in love with Pete Davidson and we care so much. And the British royal family — who's getting married, who's having babies.
It's an interesting time to be a woman charting her own course in life right now because we know perhaps intellectually that everything is available to us, but also, who's getting the rose? Who's getting married and having a baby?
I've never seen "The Bachelor," I should confess that I don't I have a TV so I have never actually watched reality TV, although I saw on Twitter that there was something about polyamory or non-monogamy. I get these things in the periphery. But also, it's not like we have any examples to point to that don't end in marriage or baby. Part of writing this book was just trying to create one narrative about a woman that didn't end with a wedding or a child, because I really couldn't find any that I could point to easily.
We all know that it doesn't always end like this, but we have no examples, and so if we can't start creating ones that feel relevant or successful, we're going to continue to compete for the rose, or whatever the thing is.
So far, the reaction [from Hollywood] I have been getting, or I have been hearing from people involved in that, is that they love this story so much but that they don’t see a hook. I think that's so fascinating because of course, what's the hook? We all understand the hook for women. Men get a hook of riding off into the sunset on their horse by themselves or whatever.
We all understand what a satisfying ending is. I'm sure someone has made this point before, but the word for orgasm in French translates to little death. I always think the endings we attach to women's lives are little deaths. We look at marriage as the solution, we look at babies as the solution, and of course everyone who's been married and has a child knows that that's just like walking through another door to another equally far complicated life. We view those things as — done, nothing else happens to this person from here on out.
When Newsday reviewed the book, [the reviewer] said, “Something will happen to Glynnis MacNicol." I read the review and I was like, “I hope this something doesn’t happen on this flight.” But also, what a thing to say? Don’t worry, something will still happen.
We've had thousands of years of conditioning on what a story is: a story either ends in a bloodbath or a marriage, with children implied. I feel like that’s such a huge literary obstacle for us to overcome. But at the same time, we are fully equipped to do so.
It benefits too from that idea of marriage as the solution, or that having a baby should be the best thing that happens to you. It has been, until recently; these were the only options for women. And who benefits from that are men. This is the thing you should want more than anything else: Have women ever really benefited from either of those choices? I’m not such a deeply cynical person that I suggest all marriages are doomed to fail or be a painful experience, because life is complicated, obviously, or that motherhood isn't incredibly satisfying and joyful, because it obviously is for many people. But in the large scheme of things, particularly pre-birth control, I'm guessing that there's a lot of women, less than 100 years ago, who would look at my life and cut off limbs to be able to have it.
Talking about it like that makes it sounds like women who are married today or have children have no agency in their own lives, and that's 100 percent not what I'm saying. I do think when we talk about narratives around our lives, beguiling narratives that suggest or allude to marriage or children as a solution, it's very problematic. And who is that solution for? Because I’m fairly certain it’s not the women.
And the template for the successful woman now, the goalpost has moved to the Ivanka Trump level of you need to be heading your own company — and you can work in the White House! — but at the same time you also have to make sure if you're over 30 that you also have a husband and you have at least one beautiful beaming child —
Perfectly blown out hair.
Yes, exactly. You have to look perfect all the time too. And then write a book about how other women can be perfect like you. The idea that maybe women can just look at the options in front of us and choose a path the way that men have done for centuries is still radical.
Any grown up will say that we don't really see this reflected culturally — there's no perfect road to happiness. And so my wording is, I think, I’m surprised in the book that I was enjoying myself, because there seems to be this assumption that I I couldn't possibly be enjoying any aspect of my life.
Happiness or contentment or fulfillment — if you don't look at it as a prize to win then there's really nothing that capitalism can sell you to make you want to buy it. Which leads me to the next thing I wanted to talk about which is traveling solo and dining solo. They are some great travel narratives in your book as well and also some great scenes of dining alone. I Googled "solo travel women," just to see what the algorithm would serve me, and what the algorithm served me were companies that would let me purchase a spot on a group tour so that I wouldn't have to travel alone.
I didn't search for “woman doesn't want to travel alone,” or anything that would say that I'm looking for a solution here, right? On the on the flip side to that, the internet has pages and pages of thinkpieces — even on our site — about what it's like to eat alone in public, or how should restaurants treat solo diners, how should people think about eating alone? It's seen as such a taboo: “Oh, table for one? Just one today?”
It strikes me as completely bizarre that there's a huge difference in eating in public by yourself, even though people eat in private by themselves all the time. That made me to wonder: what are the things women are allowed to do alone in public, without inviting some sort of commentary or being looked at as a problem to solve?
I can’t believe there are stories like that. I always say when asked about eating alone that I've lived in New York City for my entire adult life, where eating alone, culturally, is considered a constitutional right. And that goes all the way back to when I first moved here, I literally never thought twice about eating by myself. What I am aware of, when I go to certain places, is that the servers sometimes won’t come over, or give me two menus without thinking about it, or something like that, and then I think, oh, this could be a shameful experience for someone eating by themselves, if the assumption is that they should be with someone else. Whereas I think of eating alone as how I reward myself. After a job well done, my treat to myself is to go and have dinner, sit at the bar. That I think is truly one of those things that is the result of being in a large city because when I'm in Paris, I do the same thing.
Certainly in the 19th century, women couldn’t be out without chaperones. I think that probably went, I would guess, straight through to the 20th century, and probably some shifts around that happened during one or both of the wars, most definitely during the Second World War when women were a major force in the workplace and experienced a level of independence.
I saw the prostitution exhibit in Paris a few years ago. There was a Van Gogh painting of a woman sitting alone at a bistro having a drink, and the caption said it would be obvious to anyone in that time looking at this painting that this woman was a prostitute, because there would be no way a woman could be out by herself having a drink in Paris in 1890, alone, unless she was a prostitute.
The idea of women on their own is so fraught. The original title of my book was “Good Driving." It's a line from "Thelma and Louise," which is a movie I love. I love road trips, although obviously that one ends with them driving themselves off a cliff which, metaphorically, works on so many levels, too.
I liked the literal idea of women in the driver's seat because, even in our language around women in the driver's seat it's like, “Oh, she's a woman driver.” That's an insult. And just metaphorically, the idea of women navigating their own lives is something we're deeply uncomfortable with. I joke, sort of, in the opening of the book, when I take myself out to a motel, and empty motel in the Rockaways, and I think, what’s the most famous cultural reference for a woman on the road by herself checking into a motel alone? It's "Psycho."
There's something about a woman in the shower alone that is ingrained into our heads, that scene is so famous. Women are either being chased or on the run when we talk about them driving alone.
Somebody at one of the readings said to me, “Whenever I travel alone, my parents fear for my safety, does that happen to you?” I said, you see that the benefit of turning 40 is that you fall off the radar of stories about women in peril, because nobody cares anymore. So I don't feel susceptible to those. But certainly all through my 20s and 30s in New York, I joke about this in the book, I would go without any oversight. This is before cell phones, you'd talk to your parents like once every three months. l used to gauge my behavior mentally, I used to think, “If this goes bad and I end up on the front page of the New York Post tomorrow morning, am I going to be the stupid girl?” Because of course that was the narrative: you can’t possibly be out on your own doing something without — we all think about this when we leave the house — without risking some sort of terrible thing happening to us.
This is all a hangover from centuries of women not being able to leave home on their own, essentially. There's so many reasons for that, but I think primarily it's that we'd like to keep women in their place. Right?
The phrase “Lock Her Up” — I've said this before, but the chant “Lock Her Up” at the rallies for the president, is, two years later I think, no longer about Hillary Clinton. I think we are experiencing a larger phenomenon of a lot of women doing what they want and this is unnerving to a lot of men who are used to having a lot of power. When we say “Lock Her Up” I think we're talking about the her in the broader sense, the cultural her.
So, just to take it back to when you asked me about traveling alone. We attach, culturally, a lot of shame to women on their own as if there's something wrong with you. Because you are by yourself, it means somebody doesn't want you, nobody wants you. Again, who benefits from that thinking?
I think that's a hard thing to overcome, and that's what women are struggling with right now. The sense of, if I'm out there on my own, it means there's something wrong with me. And certainly during my 30s when I traveled by myself, I think that was oftentimes in the back of my head. And I joke these days, “You have to pay me to travel with me.” I now enjoy traveling by myself so much. You really have to convince me you're not going to be a drag on me.
Again, there was something very freeing about turning 40. On the one hand culturally, we don't recognize women past a certain age, and I would like to change that. But on the other hand, when you're completely untethered from all these narratives, it’s a relief in many ways.
So what do we need to keep doing culturally in order to keep pushing against the bounds of these weird hangovers from centuries of oppression, now that we do in theory at least, and legally, have the right to decide to live however the hell we want to live? What is it going to take for it not to be seen as weird for a 25-year-old woman to be living at the same level of self-emancipation as a single childless 45-year-old woman, both of whom can be having the time of their lives?
I think — and of course, I'm a writer, you're a writer — I think the solution to everything is storytelling.
I was reading an old profile of ["Sex and the City" author] Candace Bushnell from 1991 — pre-television show, pre-book even — and there’s some stuff that would still be relevant now about single women in New York. And I thought that was interesting, nearly 25 years later and we're still saying the same things. But I think [we need to] demand — and this of course is for all people that are not white, male — demand stories that reflect the truth of our lives, writing about them, putting them out there, but also demanding that they are reflected back to us.
Look at Jennifer Aniston. A multi-millionaire, she's had the most successful career, she's healthy and she's still doing cover stories where she says she's happy, and why don't they believe her? It's like, for fuck's sake, what does this woman have to do?
So, the only solution I think about this is that we have to come up with cultural narratives that we can all point to that feel accurate. The easiest, quickest way to do that is a movie, a television series, a book.
I think, no matter how many women you know experiencing the same thing, you all feel like the lone voice in the crowd. And we need a joint version of this that we can all point to the same way we point to certain "Sex and the City" episodes, for better or worse. That was a cultural moment that allowed us to say, “Yes, this is how we're living to some degree,” and there needs to be a successful cultural reflection of how we're living now.
There’s a cultural wasteland between age 40 and age 60 for women in storytelling, and I don't quite know why, because that's when we're at our most powerful and most interesting. Why this is the last stand of stories we're not telling? Because it's a quarter of our lives.
Someone asked me the other day if I could suggest a movie that sort of aligns with what I was talking about. The only one I can ever think of is "An Unmarried Woman" with Jill Clayburgh from 1978. I think her character is supposed to be like 39. And she has a teenage daughter, because she got married in college. Her husband has an affair and she's suddenly flushed out into the world on our own, but it doesn't end there. It ends with her walking down the sidewalk in Soho, carrying a big painting on her own, and I've always loved it. There’s a chapter title of my book, “'Balls,' said the Queen,” which is the line from that movie, where she looks in the mirror and she goes, “Balls, said the queen. If I had them, I might be king.”
Decades later — an entire woman later —
It’s an entire woman later.
I'm marking time like that now, just to let you know.
Why did we follow up "Sex and the City" with "Girls"? I like "Girls" for a number of reasons, but still we're going backwards.
There's also "Broad City," though, which I think is maybe the inheritor.
I love that the primary relationship in that show is between Abbi and Ilana. To me that's what makes it the natural heir.
I want a show that’s for women who are 42, and one is in the thick of the marriage compromise, which is where many women are at that age. One is in the process of divorce. One’s never gotten married. One of them divorces their husband and gets married to a woman, which you’re seeing more and more frequently.
That's the show I want to see. I don't understand why we can't have it.
The only way that they managed to make a show like that so far is to incarcerate them all in a women's prison.
Exactly. I want "Orange is the New Black," but not in prison.