I WAS MIDWAY through this essay when one of my best friends from high school texted me, “Do you have a moment?”
I always have a moment for a writing distraction, so I wrote, “This sounds like big news!” and included the engagement ring emoji.
She responded with a sonogram.
I waited to be struck with womb envy, but nothing came. The only emotion I felt was jubilation for her and her boyfriend; they’re going to be great parents. Most of my friends from high school are married, having babies, or at the very least in long-term relationships. I haven’t even figured things out enough to bring a pet into my life. I am the lone woman who is still single, childless, and, for the most part, happy about it.
Sometimes, though, I crave the certainty that comes with the tried-and-true marriage-and-baby-carriage blueprint. For those of us on a more nontraditional life plan there’s a lot more ambiguity. How do we know we’re not doing this whole life thing all wrong? We’ve chosen the road less traveled, and there aren’t as many guideposts along the way, so I took a look at three books that are designed to help us see what living beyond the blueprint looks like. In Spinster, Kate Bolick puts a new spin on an old word and looks to historical women writers who have inspired her to build a life of her own. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids is a recent collection of essays curated by Meghan Daum that conclusively answers the question: Can you have it all? And in It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, Sara Eckel offers some practical advice for women working on a longer timeline for love.
Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
Men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.
— Kate Bolick, Spinster
Kate Bolick has chosen nobody and never. She is in her forties. She is child-free. And she is unwed — voluntarily. In her memoir, Spinster, Bolick dodges more than one marriage proposal. She fits the criteria for marriage material: attractive, intelligent, and from a good home. But whenever her boyfriends begin humming the wedding march, she heads the other way. She’s more interested in a life of her own. And as one wise potential mother-in-law advises, “We all love you. But I want you to know that you should only marry someone if he is the most important thing in the world to you, more important than anyone or anything else.” Bolick can see a life with this man, but she can’t see him as her all, her everything, and she walks away from the relationship. Maybe more marriages would last if this were a mandatory question before the walk to the altar.
Bolick’s own mother was a woman who managed to craft a life of her own within the confines of marriage, but she did not begin to do so until she is 34. She passed away from breast cancer at 52. Bolick was 23.
There was a sickening symmetry to her losing her first breast just as I began to wear a bra, and then exiting her adulthood at midlife, at the moment I embarked on mine, as if I were still a parasitic fetus leeching her of blood and calcium.
You are born, you grow up, you become a wife.
You delay your ambitions, you raise a family, you’re struck down by cancer at midlife.
It was resolved: I had my own aspirations to live out, but also hers.
Bolick’s book made me think of my mother. She married young, had children early, and as a consequence her life has never truly been her own. I relate to Bolick’s fear of the toll marriage and children can take on a woman’s life. For Bolick to achieve her aspirations she becomes a self-imposed spinster and turns to historical women writers she admires to show her the way: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton, all true pioneers, women who secured the freedom and range to develop lives independent of home and family a hundred years ago (even if they were technically married). While Bolick expertly tells the histories of each of these women, tracks the roles of women and work in the last century, and confronts common concerns of the modern spinster, such as avoiding the dreaded “Bag Lady” fate, it is Brennan’s words of encouragement to fellow writer Tillie Olsen that I find myself returning to over and over again:
You are all your work has. It has nobody else and never had anybody else. If you deny it hands and a voice, it will continue as it is, alive, but speechless and without hands. You know it has eyes and can see you, and you know how hopefully it watches you. But I am speaking of a soul that is timid but that longs to be known.
I’ve found that trying to make my soul “known” by writing my own memoir has left little room for much else in my life. My circle of friends has grown tighter. Where I’d once go out on a date for the story, now I’ve collected more bad date stories than I care to write, and I find there are fewer men worth my time. Brennan addresses non-writers, too. To truly craft a life of one’s own, a woman must make her own dreams and desires central to her life, she must give them hands and a voice. For Bolick this means rejecting the ring. She leads a life full of family and friends, has a career as a freelance writer — a job usually reserved for the female lead of a romantic comedy — and while she does live alone, she isn’t lonely. She says of the man she’s dating at 40: “talking with him feels like wandering through a library of books I’ve never read (and some that I have), where there’s room enough for my own thoughts to roam.” Not a bad life at all.
I wanted to lift the discussion [around the choice to not have kids] out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.
— Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
I feel like I woke up one day in my mid-twenties and all my friends had gone from dreading a positive pregnancy test to rejoicing. I can still count on one hand the number of babies I’ve ever held (often under duress). I cannot imagine holding my own baby; my mind plays this trick where instead of a real infant in my arms it substitutes my favorite doll from childhood, Soup. (The fact that I named my doll baby after a food probably tells you all you need to know about my maternal instincts.) So, I needed a collection of essays like Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids to assure me that I was not alone in my ongoing desire to be child-free. This collection, edited by Meghan Daum, is oftentimes hilarious and heartbreaking, and riddled throughout with truth. Like Daum, I found myself thinking, “Me too!” while reading these essays. (Aside from Lionel Shriver’s weird detour about white rights: “Collectively, a long-dominant population is contracting, and maybe by the time we’re minorities in our own countries, we will have rights, too — among them, at least, the right to feel a little sad.” Huh.) Many of the writers wrote about their love for children, the way their own childhoods influenced their choice, and the ways in which the life of a writer is not well suited for child-rearing, as perfectly summarized by Anna Holmes in “Mommy Fearest,”
[My mother] would deny she lost something of herself in motherhood, and, though she might concede to having felt the occasional bout of frustration, and maybe even acknowledge a relationship between child rearing and ambitions left unfulfilled, she would maintain that she had never communicated this to her children with any specificity. She’d be right; she did not. But my sister and I did not need to hear our mother acknowledge how much parenting — much of it single parenting — limited her life; we saw it every day. We understood that by devoting her life to us, she was, in some ways, giving up herself.
For Holmes, and many other women, the reality is this: “the irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.” I hear you, Holmes, biology is no friend to women. The burden to decide children or no children often falls to women, as it is our biological clocks that tick-tick-tick. (Straight men can just trade their lady friend in for a newer model if the urge to have children strikes them late in life.)
Going child-free, though, can often feel like a lonely endeavor. As Courtney Hodell puts it in her essay “Babes in the Woods,”
All the available cultural artifacts seemed to be telling us holdouts that if you were a woman, your business was having a baby, and if you didn’t, there was something wrong — with your body, meaning you couldn’t conceive, or your mind, meaning you couldn’t conceive of it. So perhaps this absence of desire in me really was pathological.
In “Maternal Instincts,” Laura Kipnis dashes this notion. She turns to family historians who say that it wasn’t until children’s value as laborers faded away that children became “priceless little treasures”:
Once they started costing more to raise than they contributed to the household economy, there had to be some justification for having them, which is when the story that having children was a big emotionally fulfilling thing first started taking hold.
Emotional fulfillment can be had without having children. Many women must be confident this is true, because as Kipnis says in her essay, “the fastest-growing segments of the female population now have either zero children or one child by age forty.” Little Timmy might find the playground a lonely place in another decade or two. Still, despite the numbers being in their favor, women have to face lots of social commentary on their choice, as Sigrid Nunez points out in “The Most Important Thing,”
That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both.
In “The Trouble with Having It All,” Pam Houston calls out the frequent sexism women face when electing not to have children,
It seems unreasonable, not to mention sexist, to suggest that because all women have the biological capacity to have children, they all should; and that those who don’t are either in denial or psychologically damaged. My score on the LSAT indicates that I have the mental capacity to be a lawyer, but I have not gotten one single letter from a stranger or anyone else telling me that I would make a really great lawyer, that the fact that I am not a lawyer must be related to some deep-seated childhood trauma, that if I would only straighten up and become a lawyer, I could pay off some unspecified debt to the world.
But still, even as this collection of essays equips us to forge forward into a child-free life, some may still be unsure, still asking, can’t you have it all? I’ve always suspected the answer to this question is no. There are too many everyday choices, to many little losses, too many arenas for remorse. As Jeanne Safer says, “there is no life without regret,” and in “Beyond Beyond Motherhood,” she explains, “women can be fulfilled with or without children, that you can most definitely have enough without having everything.” And that “is all we can get, and all we need.” There is, finally, no other way to go through life than this.
Not that any actual feminists suggested it was wrong to want a partner […]. No, it was the never-ending cultural debate about whether women’s relatively newfound independence was truly making us happy. Funny, isn’t it? Freedom is arguably our country’s most sacrosanct value — unless we’re talking about women’s liberation. Then suddenly we become cold rationalists, debating pros and cons like a Soviet-era dictator.
— Sara Eckel, It’s Not You: 27(Wrong) Reasons You’re Single
Women who don’t want to get married? Check. Women who don’t want children? Check. But wait — there’s one last major subset of the “nontraditional life” group we need to talk about: women who want marriage and children but haven’t found the right partner, yet. Right now, it’s too early for me to tell if I fall into one of the first two groups or the third. But I do know that turning 30 has triggered some sort of bizarre ovary watch. In January, a dear friend of my mother’s called to wish me a happy birthday; the convo went something like this:
Dear Friend: Happy Birthday!
Me: Thank y —
DF: So, does this mean you’re going to have a baby now?
Me: I mean, I guess being a jobless, carless grad student several states away from my family is as good a time as any to become a single mom.
DF: Oh, maybe you should wait.
Me: That’s what I was thinking.
I had to have a similar conversation with my granny when she asked me if I had ever considered settling down. I made my eyes wide with faux panic and asked her in a shaking voice, “Should I be worried no one’s proposed to me yet? Does this mean something’s wrong with me?!!” She quickly dropped the conversation and has yet to bring it up again.
When I spend time with my friends in their mid-to-late thirties, the conversation often drifts toward their fruitless search for a husband. For women who were raised on the notion that we could do anything we wanted and then went out and made it happen, love can be a sore subject. With love, unlike school or work, there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between how hard you work and the results you achieve. You can go out on a date every single night of the week and still not meet your match, while everyone has that girlfriend who puts zero effort in her appearance and somehow met her future husband while pumping gas or buying socks at JC Penney. For them I recommend It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel. Eckel’s is one of those wrote-a-modern-love-column-got-a-book-deal miracle stories that every writer dreams of. I resist calling her book an “advice” book; she’s no Steve Harvey and she isn’t prescribing any “rules” for your dating life. Instead, Eckel has collected commonsense explanations for why you’re still single in one slim volume, in the trusted voice that says, “the culture may portray older singles as losers and narcissists, but the truth is the person who ends the mediocre relationship before marriage — or who never starts it in the first place — is a true pillar of the institution.” The reason why so many single women are insecure about their status is that society dictates we check all of the boxes; otherwise, we come up short. Eckel herself admits to succumbing to this narrow definition of what a happy life looks like: “I wanted the sort of happiness that made me feel normal. I wanted romantic love, yes, but I also wanted the security and social status that surrounds it.” If it weren’t for this particular pressure, many women would be a lot less anxious about the future of their love life.
One of the best things Eckel does is dispel some of the media myths that are suffocating single women of a certain age. For instance, women don’t need to rein in their ambitions if they want to get married some day:
Actually, women with college degrees are more likely to marry than their less-educated peers — and less likely to divorce. Graduate degrees and high salaries also don’t hinder a woman’s chance of walking down the aisle. Sociologist Christine Whelan found that women aged thirty to fourty-four earning more than one hundred thousand dollars per year — are once again — more likely to be married than their lower earning cohorts.
Eckel must be as tired as I am of people telling women they need to “work on themselves” before they can find love, because she tackles that topic in the very first chapter of her book. People seem to think women are like diamonds — the flawed ones are worthless — while men can have all kinds of issues and still find love. (Remember, someone has married or been engaged to Charles Manson, Flavor Flav, and that guy from the NY Times Magazine article who has sex with horses.) After talking with marriage specialists, Eckel determines, “you can be happily married even if you never resolve your issues with your mother or your weight — a fact that becomes completely intuitive when you think of any three married people you know” — please see above list of men for examples.
Eckel, who is heavily influenced by Buddhist ideology, cautions that many people desire marriage and children to insulate them from being lonely, but loneliness is a part of the human condition. “To try to stamp out one feeling and replace it with another is to deny yourself life. It’s like saying I only want to taste sugar, never salt. I only want to see the color blue, never orange.” But she is very clear that “longing [is] not desperation and loneliness [is] not failure. […] If you feel sad sometimes, it’s not because you’re single — it’s because you’re alive.” This is an obvious statement that feels profound and provides a sense of relief, much like the rest of Eckel’s book.
What these three books make clear is that life is not one-size-fits-all. All of our lives are cut from different cloths, and all will take us into the unknown, no matter how close we follow The Plan or how far we deviate from the blueprint. So, while I celebrate my friends slipping into white wedding dresses and maternity wear, I’m content to continue wearing those same miniskirts from my twenties well into my thirties while I wait for my life to figure itself out.
Minda Honey is an MFA graduate student at the University of California, Riverside. She is writing a memoir, An Anthology of Assholes, about her time spent out West squandering her youth on the wrong men.