“I’m not sad about any of my life. It’s so unconventional. It doesn’t look anything like I thought it would.”
I knew what was coming. My co-worker Rose was midway through her second chocolate martini and feeling loose enough at our after-work get-together to stop talking about her marriage and instead, start talking about my non-marriage.
“I don’t get it. Why haven’t you ever been married?” she asked, in a disbelieving tone.
I sighed. “You know, this is the third time you’ve asked me that. Remember? We had that whole conversation about it at the office Christmas party last year.”
Looking deeply perplexed, she sipped at her drink, not ready to drop the subject. “I just mean…you’re so attractive and you have such a great personality. How is it that you’ve never been married?”
That’s what she said. What she meant was: What’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of a freak? Couldn’t you get a man? Are you man hater? Or a lesbian? (Not that there would be anything wrong with that—and actually, it’s no longer a valid excuse to be single, now that same-sex marriage is legal).
It’s possible that I was imagining more subtext than Rose intended, and to be fair, she was not the first person who’d put me on the spot about my single status.
On a regular basis, people I meet express astonishment at my never having tied the knot, taken the plunge, walked down the aisle to what is widely assumed to be a happily ever after existence. I am expected to explain myself—to defend my life choices—often to people I’ve just met.
Well-mannered folk who would almost never consider prying into the private lives of a brand new acquaintance have no reluctance in doing so when they find out that she’s an old maid. (Yeah, I’m owning that term.)
I’ve experienced this with bosses, co-workers, a man at a class reunion whom I hadn’t seen in thirty years, dental hygienists, a stranger sitting next to me on an airplane, manicurists, and various random strangers at parties.
A polite conversation can suddenly turn awkward if I let slip that I am an old maid. (I did recently have a different experience with a hair stylist who is divorced and struggling to raise two kids with no financial help from her ex. When she found out that I’d never been married, she said, “How’d you get so lucky?” But that reaction is the exception.)
People want an explanation. A story. Something that makes you make sense to them. After all, isn’t everybody supposed to grow up and get married?
For years, I’d stammer out some cliché intended to put people at ease, like, “I never met the right guy,” or “I moved around a lot for my career.” While that may have satisfied their curiosity, it invariably made me feel worse. Why did I have to apologize for who I was? Assure others that I was normal (in most respects)?
As I grew older, people became even more inquisitive and judgmental. After all, the bloom was off the rose. Even if I came to my senses and made a determined effort to find a spouse, I had aged out of my peak mate-attracting years.
Eventually the questions took a toll on my self-esteem, causing me to question myself and my choices.
Had I made a horrible mistake by not prioritizing getting married? Did everyone else know something I didn’t know? Would I someday deeply regret not having “Mrs.” in front of my name?
Seeing one friend after another get married multiplied my doubts and made me wonder: “Is there something wrong with me?”
I’d wake up abruptly in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by a sick feeling of dread, thinking: “I FORGOT TO GET MARRIED!”
When I was young, I did assume that someday I’d get hitched and have a family. I didn’t have a clear picture of what that would look like, although I was definite about not wanting to do a lot of housework, like my mother did. (I still don’t; I pay someone to clean my house). I had no interest in cooking—another of her daily chores—and as for motherhood urges, I preferred Barbies to baby dolls.
Marriage is a wonderful institution, for many people. I have lots of friends who enjoy sharing their lives with loving spouses—and I’m happy for them—but marriage is not a good fit for everyone. Those who do not, for whatever reason, get married should not be subjected to “single shaming.”
For my part, it took the hindsight reached after decades as a singleton to realize that I’d been deeply ambivalent about matrimony all along. I saw marriage as a choice that would affect all other choices, a partnership with many benefits but one that would tie me down and limit—at least to some extent—my ability to follow my own dreams.
What I really wanted was adventure. My parents’ traditional marriage worked for them, but it didn’t appeal to me, a child of the sixties and seventies who saw new doors swinging open for women, offering us opportunities that had not been available to my mother when she was coming of age.
I wanted an interesting career—preferably something outside of the mainstream—and I knew that marriage would restrict my options. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a spy. That didn’t happen, which is just as well for America, since I can’t keep a secret. Perhaps predictably, I went in a direction that allowed a lot of communication and became a radio personality.
Had I been married, I would not have been able to advance my career by moving all around the country, bringing comedy and commentary to listeners in various states. I got to broadcast from the back of an elephant in a circus, a hot air balloon high in the sky, and a pace car making the rounds at a racetrack. I introduced bands like REO Speedwagon and The Judds at concert venues and made guest appearances on local TV shows.
Early in my career, when I’d worked my way up from teeny tiny markets to a merely small market, I got a job offer from a radio station in San Francisco. San Francisco! In one move, I could more than double my salary, which at that time kept me just above the poverty level.
Of greater importance to me was the opportunity to work with major market personalities and reach many more listeners than I ever could in Champaign, Illinois. Additionally, I could go from the Midwest to an exciting city in California.
I thought about it for a hot second, and then said, “Yes!”
I didn’t have to ask a husband if he wanted to move. If he would be able to transfer or find a new job in the Bay Area. If he would be willing to leave behind friends and family, forego the recreational softball team for which he’d played third base for so many summers, abandon the garden he’d lovingly hewed out of the wilds of the backyard.
I was able to make a major decision based solely on what I wanted to do, and it was exhilarating. With the exception of the job interview I’d flown in for, I’d never even been to San Francisco, but I was thrilled as I packed up and hit the road for a new position in an unfamiliar city.
Ironically, that job turned sour pretty quickly, for reasons that had nothing to do with its location. After a year, I left for greener pastures (okay, Chicago) just as easily as I’d headed for San Francisco. And that wasn’t my last move, by the way.
Imagine if I’d uprooted a husband, convinced him to go to the Bay Area to start a whole new life there, and then turned around in a year’s time and told him that I’d changed my mind. If he had objected to moving yet again—which would have been completely reasonable on his part – I might have been stuck indefinitely in a job I hated. I would likely have brought that bitterness home from work every day, where it would have affected my marriage.
Being single enabled me to make the career decision I needed to make at that time. Not all of my decisions have been brilliant; I haven’t always had a lot of money, but what I do have is mine to do with as I wish, as is my time. Whatever actions I take or choices I make are done without having to consult with, negotiate with or ask permission from anybody, and I enjoy the hell out of that.
I go where I want to go on vacations, sleep in late when I feel like it and commit to time-consuming projects that appeal to me. I act in plays and sing in a band. I’ve run half marathons, traveled through Europe, and worked as a personal assistant to a movie star. My annual Halloween costume party is legendary.
I’m constantly learning new things; my current efforts include speaking Italian, playing the bass guitar, and sewing.
The point is: I spend my free time doing what I love to do, without having to accommodate someone else’s wants, needs, or schedule.
Married women, of course, get a lot done as well, but their accomplishments are not shadowed by the big “but,” as in, “She climbed Mt. Everest and discovered a new solar system, but she never found the right guy. How sad.” An old maid could find a cure for cancer, figure out a way to reverse climate change in a week, and invent high heels that felt like cushy slippers but at her funeral, people would still whisper, “She never married,” as if that canceled everything else out.
What’s interesting about this is that as a society, our ideas about marriage and family have undergone profound changes in recent decades.
Biracial couples who might have raised eyebrows some time ago are commonplace now and are regularly featured in TV commercials. Same-sex marriages are being accepted—or at least tolerated—to a greater extent now. It may have taken Aunt Vivian awhile to accept the fact that her niece Carolyn will be exchanging vows with someone named Diane, but Viv wouldn’t think of missing the wedding.
But what about people who don’t get married to anyone? Now that’s radical.
Why would someone want to go through life uncoupled? After all, being single past a certain age means being lonely and miserable, right? In a society that relentlessly promotes coupledom as the normal and only desirable way for adults to live, that negative perception about single women (in particular) persists.
That negativity eventually got to me. I became convinced that I was the last unmarried woman over forty (ok, over fifty) on the planet, and that I had made a big mistake in taking the road less traveled. I couldn’t reconcile the happy, busy, friend-filled life I had with the perceptions of other people. That they were people who didn’t know me well didn’t seem to matter.
My friends loved and accepted me for who and how I am. Why wasn’t that enough?
Like everyone who feels alienated, I found myself looking for my tribe.
I discovered that there are plenty of “old maids” out there who are living their lives fully and enthusiastically, despite the annoying questions and side eye glances that come their way. Many are still open to the idea of marriage but they are not waiting for it, not keeping their dreams on hold until the perfect partner comes along. They are complete, just as they are.
Many of them (okay, many of us) thoroughly enjoy the freedom and autonomy that go along with being single.
It’s a tribe that’s growing in size. The percentage of single people in the U.S. is greater than ever before, with single men and women making up 47.6 percent of households in 2016, according to U.S. census data. More singletons were women: 53.2 percent compared with 46.8 percent who were men.
It took me awhile, but I reached the point where I no longer summon up clichés to explain myself to people who can’t think beyond the conventional. I’ve realized that it’s not my responsibility to reassure them that I’m normal. I am normal. I’m just not married.