From the ages of approximately 5-25, I desperately wanted a pony for my birthday.
This is a partial lie. My legs got too long for ponies by the time I hit eighth grade. But amending “pony” for “Andalusian/Lusitano/Percheron-cross/Arabian-cross wunder-horse” sounds a little pretentious. The point here is that I never got a pony. My loving parents briefly considered it sometime in my teen years, as I’d been riding for years and was making a pitched argument that a horse in the backyard could really quite possibly eliminate the need for mowing, but it never panned out.
From the ages of 25-35, I desperately wanted to not be marking a coming-up-on-middle-age milestone as an unmarried single lady. Spoiler alert: this hasn’t panned out either.
The pressure is somewhat societal, but mostly self-applied. When I was 25, I looked down the narrow vision I had for the next ten years of my life and thought, “And now I shall settle down.” During that birthday, I was making a career change from acting to seminary for the sake of stability. I thought it was just a matter of time before I’d be putting down roots: a parish, a solid career as a pastor, a house, a husband, hopefully kids, definitely a garden. I thought I’d be learning how to balance ministry and motherhood. I thought all of this would just fall into place, and it just…didn’t.
I turned 30 while living with my parents, waiting for a first call that wasn’t yet in sight. When they sang me “Happy Birthday” over a chocolate cupcake I burst into tears, because oh my gosh, I was THIRTY and JOBLESS and LIVING WITH MY PARENTS and STUDENT LOANS ARE VERY REAL. What happened to that stability that was supposed to emerge as I committed to making Responsible Life Choices (TM)? Friends from colleges and seminary and high school were getting married and starting to have kids, and I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t happening for me.
I received my first call a few months later, and that took care of the living-at-home-jobless piece, phew! But every birthday since then has held an echo of that 30th birthday, marking another year gone by where I still didn’t have the partner, the kids, the roots that I was waiting for.
In these years there have been other nights when I’ve burst into tears. (Happily, there have also been other chocolate cupcakes.) In addition, there’s been online dating, and casual dating, and serious relationships, and therapy, and a lot of growth and learning. And there’s also been the dawning understanding that waiting hasn’t served me well. Turns out that focusing on the absence of something you really want in your life doesn’t make you particularly happy. Whodathunkit?
Here’s the thing about single that I’ve spent five years wrapping my brain around: it has nothing to do with whether or not I deserve a relationship.
Here, I wrote it again with a second-person pronoun in case that helps: being single has nothing to do with whether or not you deserve to have a relationship.
Have trouble believing me? Here’s a short list of people who have been married:
Being in a relationship has nothing to do with whether you’re emotionally available, or spiritually mature, or have enough self-esteem, or have self-differentiated from your family of origin, or don’t have a job, or don’t have the right job, or work too much, or have enough dating experience, or have too much dating experience, or even with whether you’re “trying” hard enough to “get out there.” (Being in a GOOD relationship involves some of those things, but the divorce rate suggests that a substantial number of relationships aren’t particularly good.)
But believing that unwilling singleness is not a reflection on your personal character is hard to do, mostly because there’s a pervasive cultural myth that marriage is a matter of merit. It’s lurking beneath the surface in comments like, “I don’t understand why you’re still single,” and “You’re such a great person, I’m sure you’ll find someone someday.”
Look: if I could EARN my way into marriage through emotional maturity, personal integrity, or sheer effort, then I’d have done it. The reason I’m single is simple: I haven’t met someone with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, who wants to do the same with me. This is in spite of having dated some wonderful people who worked with me to build relationships predicated on honest communication, compassion, mutual respect, and love. Building a great relationship with a partner is hard but amazing work, and I love doing it…but also, the combination of personality and shared values I look for in a partner is rare and therefore hard to find.
I spent this year reckoning with the thought that maybe I never will. At first the idea emerged as a horrible mental ghost that came and haunted me at 3AM when I was tossing and turning and wondering about all my life choices. But somehow, over the months, it started to feel…liberating.
One of my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, frames it in a less terminal way: “Assume that you will meet the person who want to marry in ten years, but not before then. What would you start doing differently?”
Well…I’d stop waiting.
I’d stop nurturing the belief that my life won’t really start until I have a husband and maybe kids, or that their absence is something I will regret for the rest of my life.
I’d start dreaming anew about what God is calling me to be and do in the world. I’d open my eyes to see the places where that picture overlaps with the life I’m currently living, and where it doesn’t. I’d be freer to own the difference between the things in life I’ve chosen because they lend themselves to the picture of marriage and children, and the things that match up with EVERYTHING ELSE about who I am and want to be in this life. And it turns out that there’s actually quite a lot of “everything else” that’s in me.
If you’re reading this and you’re married and/or have children, I think that’s wonderful, and it comes with great gifts and no lesser challenges. I’m not denigrating marriage here–that would be terribly hypocritical. It’s still something I hope I have someday. But at the ripe age of 35, I’m finally working my way around to the thought of what my life can be if I stop waiting for it to begin.
This birthday, I booked myself an overnight stay at a beach town and invited a friend to come with me. We lounged on the beach and ate oysters and ice cream and watched the Democratic National Convention. I came home to find that the gift I’d picked for myself had arrived: a two-person tent, big enough for me and my dog. I’m making a list of the places we should go. I had two Zoom calls on my birthday: one with a scholar whom I hope might become a mentor as I seek to start doing more writing; the other with my parents. They sang me “Happy Birthday.” I did not burst into tears.
The best gift I got this birthday is the ability to let go of the gift I’ve been waiting to receive for years. I don’t have a pony. I don’t have a husband. I don’t have kids. But I think it’s going to be alright.
I’mma gonna be honest: I don’t fully trust the gift yet. Part of me is still expecting the 3AM ghost to come around with all their terrifying what-if-iness. But in the absence of continually disappointed hope, there’s something I can see more easily now: there’s so much about the life I’m living now that is so very good, and there’s so much room for it to grow and change.
And that makes me happy.
4 Replies to “On 35 years as a single lady”
I just turned 35 this year and I have been really struggling with exactly this — especially as a progressive, fat, clergywoman in rural Nebraska, where I am infinitely more likely to choke to death on a corncob or drown in the sea of red than find a husband. I have wanted to get married and have kids for as long as I can remember, but something about being 35 is forcing me to consider seriously for the first time the reality that those things might not happen for me. I’m still struggling not to feel devastated by that.
Oh boy, do I feel this. Tbh, I think feeling devastated is part of the process–it doesn’t have to be the end of it, but it’s very real and it takes a tremendous amount of emotional energy to process it.
My therapist used this article to offer me the term “ambiguous grief,” which I found really helpful in naming my experience. Maybe it will do the same for you?
In any case, know that I hear you, and you’re not isolated in this experience. I pray that God gives you the strength to wrestle this devastation to the ground and make it bless you.
I believe I said ‘Oh god, I love you Val!’ out loud to my phone when I read this. Because, you know, living alone in a pandemic, you start talking to things like they are people…
I had a complete breakdown about this last year when I turned 35. I have minor ones about it every year or so, but last year was a big one. So I started working harder on that whole not waiting thing. And I definitely got a better handle on it, but then we got locked down and who knows when this is ending. And it was like the universe (or god, or whom or whatsoever you choose) was saying, ‘ha! you think you’ve worked this out, TRY NOW!’ because the universe thinks it’s pretty hysterical.
Anyway. It’s a process. One that I am not always the best at. And this year has made it a more challenging one. But I appreciate you writing this, especially because the world needs more real talk about what being a single 30+ woman is like and how it doesn’t make us freaks. And I know right where you are. (I have often done the ‘look at all these people who are married that prove it is not my enormous flaws that are preventing me finding a partner!) So thank you, and I miss you, and I love you!
Kate! I swore I responded to this, but I must have imagined it! Oh friend, I miss you and love you too, and am so grateful you still read this ol’ thing!
The universe’s sense of humor is terrifying, and I DO. NOT. GET. IT. sometimes. Though the fly on Pence’s head during the debate was admittedly quite good.
I hope you’re finding some solid ground to stand on in the midst of this pandemic. It’s a long-ass journey, and we’re all tired already, but the end of it is coming one way or another.