[Bella’s introduction: When Diane Torre sent me this essay, I knew immediately that I wanted to share it with Living Single readers. So many of Diane’s experiences are familiar to me. In fact, the kinds of themes Diane described were among my motivations for writing Singled Out. I also love her analogy with The Scarlet Letter of literary fame. Many thanks to Diane for sharing her experiences and insights.]
The Scarlet Letter S: Getting Branded for Being Single
Guest Post by Diane Torre
Anyone familiar with literature on singles knows that they are discriminated against in IRS rules and regulations, insurance policies, and employee benefit programs. But there is another form of discrimination against singles that is not emphasized in the literature: the insensitive and sometimes blatantly cruel comments made to singles. Just as Hester Prynne was outcast from her community and branded with the scarlet letter A, singles are often scorned in their communities. The following is my totally unscientific and non-statistical account of why, as a single, childless person, I see myself as being an outcast and labeled with the Scarlet Letter S.
I am very single. Not only am I not married; I have never been married, I don’t live with a significant other, and I am not in a relationship. I also have no children. Many women rate other women by their marital/parental status the way Major League Baseball keeps score on players’ hits or on bases. Maybe the batter hits a sacrifice fly. Maybe the batter hits the ball and gets to first base, only to be thrown out at second. Maybe the batter walks to first and makes it to second, only to be thrown out going to third or sliding home. These batters are all out, but none of them struck out. Maybe a woman has a child without being married; maybe a woman gets married, has children, and then divorces; maybe a woman marries and Mother Nature cheats her out of motherhood. But all of these women got on base: only the single, never married, childless woman is like the batter who just never hit the ball or got on base - no marriage, strike one; no relationship, strike two; no kids: strike three. She’s out - outcast from the community of “The Family.”
I have nothing against marriage or families, but don’t see them as necessary to my completeness as an individual. In my youth I always wanted to get married and have kids. But it never happened. I pursued my goals and interests believing that being myself and living my own life was the right thing to do rather than planning my life around trying to find a husband. I was always busy, devoting my time and creative energy to various projects and goals, and was never bored or lonely. I never thought my identity or value as a person was dependent on having a partner or child.
In my naiveté I believed that others felt the same way. I thought, in a work environment, members were bound by the simple fact that they worked together. It never occurred to me that being single and motherless would set me apart as an anomaly deserving of cruel comments. I’m sure you’ve thought by now that maybe I’m the object of nastiness just because I’m obnoxious, boring, rude, or miserable. That would be my feeling about myself. However, my first experience with the Scarlett Letter S indicates this is not the case.
My older brother moved to Montana in the ‘70’s, got married, and had two beautiful little girls by the time I was entering my last year of college. I knew this was the last chance I would have to spend a considerable length of time with my nieces, so I decided to go to Montana for the summer and work. My brother lived in a small town in a rural area, and I got a job in the local diner-like restaurant, where everyone knew me as my brother’s sister. The staff was small, consisting of four other female employees and the married couple who owned the restaurant. The male owner and one waitress were very nice to me, but the other women were distant and made no attempt to get to know me or include me in their conversations. I thought maybe it was because I was from the East Coast. My other reason for spending the summer in Montana was that I had met Walter a few years earlier during a visit and wanted to spend a chunk of time with him as well. He stopped by the restaurant right away when he arrived in town about two weeks after I started my job, and I introduced him to my coworkers. Their attitude toward me changed completely in no more time than it took to make that introduction. They became friendly and included me in their conversations. I was exactly the same person I was before. The only difference is that before Walter came in to visit they thought I didn’t have a boyfriend, and when he left they knew I did. No kidding.
I have reflected upon that incident many times since, when people have made demeaning comments to me concerning my single, childless status. There was one incident, however, when the hurt was so deep that the memory did not bring much comfort. I had lunch daily with a group of my co-workers in the break room. I was telling them I had asked my father to help me with some chore that I wasn’t able to do myself, which he kept putting off, and I said to him jokingly, “Well, Dad, I guess I’m just going to have to find a guy to help me with these things.” One of my coworkers responded with “He just wants you to get a life.”
Get a life. In her eyes, I didn’t have a life as a single person without a family. We work for a university. We wouldn’t have jobs if there were not life beyond the family. It clearly didn’t matter that I had put myself through both college and graduate school with an outstanding academic record and numerous awards. Nor did it matter that I had managed to buy, furnish, improve, and landscape my own home. Also irrelevant were my interests, hobbies, and other relationships. Nothing stopped the incredible hurt. I was blindsided with the thought, “Do the people I work with think I’m a freak?” I started eating my lunch in my office. That was the cruelest branding with the Scarlett Letter S, but there have been many others.
“You don’t understand, you don’t have children.” Is it possible that one person cannot understand how another feels because her experiences in life are different? Does being single and childless stunt a woman’s emotional development? We are gifted with the ability to both communicate our thoughts and feelings and comprehend what is communicated to us. As individuals influenced by numerous elements, our perceptions of course vary, but there is a basic common ground. If this weren’t the case, those in medical and social service positions could not possibly do their jobs successfully.
“She wasn’t married or anything” was said to me by a coworker of her supervisor in a previous job. The coworker was scolded for calling home to check on her son who was ill. The comment implied that the supervisor’s behavior had nothing to do with the philosophy of the time (in those days women were asked on job applications if they got menstrual cramps) or her personality. Rather, my coworker implied that her supervisor acted this way because she was single and childless. Isn’t this prejudice?
“You don’t know what it is to love until you have children.” I’m offended by that comment on a personal level and also as a Catholic. What does it say about Jesus and Mother Teresa? Can’t anyone love the way a parent loves without offspring? I know many parents who smoke cigarettes and simply cannot quit. I once had a nightmare about one of my nieces. I woke up very upset, and after a series of reassuring phone calls finally sat down for my morning tea and cigarette. I thought to myself, “What would I do if anything ever happened to her?” And then I thought, “What would she do if anything ever happened to you? She loves you so much, and here you are smoking a cigarette.” I put the cigarette out and never picked up another one. My niece is my relative, but she did not grow in my womb and she was not created out of my love with a partner. I loved her enough to stop smoking, so how could anyone say I don’t know what it is to love because I don’t have a child? There are individuals who devote their lives and financial resources to other adults, children, or animals. The love they feel for those they protect and nurture is as real for them as a parent’s love is for her offspring.
“You’d want a house even more if you had children.” I suppose the American ideal is for every child to have a backyard to play in. But how does having a child make someone want a house more? Can’t people want houses for other reasons? Maybe a cook loves to give dinner parties and backyard cookouts. Maybe a gardener wants to be able to landscape a yard and grow herbs, vegetables, or flowers. Maybe someone wants to be able to redecorate and renovate at a whim. Maybe an animal lover wants a place for pets to frolic freely or to create a wildlife retreat. And I’m sure there are families living in apartments on Fifth Avenue in New City who don’t feel compelled to live in a house. I wanted a house because it suits my lifestyle, and I don’t think I would want a house more if I had children.
“You need to live with somebody.” My office is located opposite a reception area where people congregate, often in groups, talking and laughing. So when I can’t hear during a phone call or concentrate on paperwork I close the door. But according to my married-with-kids-and-grandkids coworker, the noise would not bother me if I lived with someone.
“Take your pick.” This comment referred to a bunch of men who were working in the parking lot next to my office window. There was an excessive amount of spitting and foul language on a daily basis. Why would someone who is supposed to be my friend think I’d be better off with someone who spits and swears than nobody at all?
I’m not alone in feeling branded with the Scarlett Letter S. One episode of Sex and the City is entitled “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” Other episodes show the series’ characters feeling out of place at a wedding and at a baby shower. In the movie adaptation of “The Help,” Skeeter experiences her ”branding”: her mother wants her to get married and her friends fix her up on dates. Ironically, Skeeter seems to be the only one in town who is sensitive to the feelings of the maids.
Every lifestyle has its own challenges and rewards and one is no less difficult or fulfilling than another. Everyone has relationships based on love and mutual dependence, regardless of the filing status on their tax returns. Governments, educators, and employers all have zero tolerance policies for discrimination and slurs against others based on age, religion, race, sex, and sexual orientation, and it should be no different for the single and childless. If you wouldn’t add: “if you were white,” “if you were Christian,” or “if you were straight” to a statement you make to someone, then don’t add: “if you were married” or “if you had children” either. It’s hurtful and discriminatory. It’s not nice.
About the Guest Blogger: Diane Torre has been a financial aid professional at Yale University for 15 years. Her background is in art history and library science.
[Notes. (1) Thanks again to Diane Torre. Her experiences provide further examples of the ways in which singlism is practiced without apology or even awareness. (2) The latest elsewhere: Recognizing your single-at-heart inclinations: Does greater maturity help?]