Why are you still single?
“Imagine my surprise” is my first response to this seemingly innocent but breathtakingly rude question. I say ‘first’ because I’ve learned to keep an escalation list of answers. Despite unwavering hope that a wry reply will end the questioning, 9 out of 10 times, the inquisitioner chuckles, and follows up.
“No, really, why?”
On to stock answer number two-- my personal favorite: “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?” Although my father doesn’t find this retort amusing, practically everyone else does. Once again, however, laughter doesn’t cure this pain in the...
“No, seriously, why?”
Sort of serious are answers number three and four: “Not for lack of offers” and “I never wanted to get divorced.” I called off a wedding, went diamond-ring shopping three times and had other close encounters of the third-finger-left-hand kind.
The thing is, deciding not to marry him isn’t the same as deciding not to marry. Like most never-married women over 40, I did not make that decision. Still haven’t. And still, the questions persist.
The truth is, I don’t know why and I’ve asked myself more often than everyone else, added together. Here is all I can come up with: Math.
There are 30 million single women aged 40 and beyond in the US versus 20 million single men. The numbers don’t lie. Or judge.
But before we start on the arithmetic of the unmarried, a bit of history. Women born in the 1960s don’t feel like we should be labeled Boomers or rated Gen X. We are more like, Transition Women. We came of age in the glow of feminist victories-- but before the male populace adjusted.
We graduated from college in droves, then tip-toed through the broken glass in corporate America.
For the first time ever, we were in a fair fight for jobs and promotions.
With the men we were also supposed to marry.
They didn’t like it much. Or us.
I remember observing, circa 1988, that men all claim they want a smart, independent woman until they get one. Then they want her secretary.
The aftershocks of the seismic shifts in business, laws and rules are showing up in statistics today, as compared to even 10 years ago. For example, and also for the first time in history, one in five women over 40 have never been married.
Most of us feel terrible about it. And none of us have secretaries.
That said, I am generally one of the happiest people I know. When I have routine troubles, I phone a friend. Not for help. I figure shit out on my own, thank you very much. I call to hear her problems and then I hang up singing, because compared to my married friends, my life is a song.
Still, even when you love being a household of one, women are defined by the number two. Life isn’t half what we expected. We expected to be half a couple. Worse yet, everyone else expected it of us as well and they happily hone in and highlight our flaws.
I spent thousands of dollars and a couple of decades running to therapists after every break-up, “what’s wrong with me what’s wrong with me” including one doctor who asked, “What is wrong with you?”
That might be shocking until you realize 9 of 10 researchers try to prove that I am less happy, healthy and productive than my married peers.
Well, maybe social scientists should just follow the money. It’s more than a little distressing to know it’s going to cost me at least $500,000 more than a wedded woman just to live (silver lining-- researchers also try to show single people die sooner).
Where are we single women going to come up with half a million dollars? Where’s the Prince with a paycheck we were promised? Where’s the Man With A Plan and The Money you told us would take care of us? Where is the Hero Husband for whom we calculate our behavior, looks and figures?
Ratios and fractions are hard enough but when you are facing 40, or looking back on it, being single is more like life-long division. We have to split our psyches between loving the solo lifestyle, and simultaneously rejecting it as inferior to coupling.
The brain of a single woman functions surprisingly well given such duo-ling personalities.
One side (the right side, of course) of my brain knows I deserve the best. The other half says I’m too picky.
Without a Plus One, I am both invisible and a spectacle at weddings and other couples-first capers.
I work hard because I am the only person paying my bills-- which makes me too independent or intimidating.
If I say I’m happy, I must be kidding myself.
If I say I’m not happy, I’m desperate, or pathetic, or getting what I deserve for not putting a priority on love and marriage.
If I put a priority on love and marriage, I am desperate and pathetic.
Most women like me are smart. My cohort made good choices. The hitch for we halves is that making good choices about reproduction means we don’t have that longed-for child . Making good choices about bad relationships means we didn’t get divorced but somehow, subtracting a spouse adds up while never having one doesn’t.
A boss from my past once told me, “You look like you’re divorced.” I think he meant it as a compliment.
So here we are, alone but not lonely. We are living on the divide between hope and grief, in record numbers and without role models. There’s no made for TV movie about our lives, at least none that ends happily. There is a boy for every girl in the media and in the country’s collective consciousness. Subtract the love story from a woman’s story, and it’s all struggle.
Except it’s not. Despite the societal-induced dissociative identity disorder, despite being reduced to caricatures and being shamed for being a deviation away from standard, single women thrive. We make connections. We build communities. We own homes, we have meaningful work, loving friends and families.
We are even thinner than our married mates, 9 pounds on average.
At some point, we got it: life waits for no man. The two word problem – I do – remains unsolved but everything counts, every experience, every single day.
Just like math.