Last month, Melanie Notkin wrote a moving piece about her grief over being single and childless in her 40's (coincidentally, she's the same age as I am: 42). I read this blog post with interest and compassion. Though I've never wanted kids so I don't feel any regret about never having had any, the author's sadness is palpable in her writing, as is the grief of some of the commenters.
The blog post, and more to the point, the feelings behind it, reminded me of the intense sadness I've felt over the years as I've gotten older without a long-term, committed relationship. Though I'm sure this grief is different than that felt by people who want to be parents but see that window closing, it's still a heavy weight to bear sometimes. At the moment of this writing, this pain feels very far away. But even a month ago, it came up again in the midst of a relationship discussion with a man I like. It feels like an original wound: this yawning dark pit of suffering that I find myself in when I start to wonder why, as I put it to myself: “no man has ever wanted me that way.”
Especially for women, not having been married carries a stigma, as does being a woman who has never had children. When I lived in New Orleans for a month to write last summer, people would routinely ask me if I was married and then, when I said no, they'd ask me if I'd ever been married. When I still said no, they would inevitably say “But you're so pretty/sweet, why hasn't a woman like you ever been married?” It would have been more acceptable for me to have been divorced five times than it was for me to never have been married.
But it goes deeper than just stigma. After all, I've always done things the way I wanted to do them and not the way I was supposed to, so I really don't care if people see me as somehow damaged because I've never been married. And I don't believe that you have to be in a relationship to be significant or to lead a wonderful life. I applaud singles who are happy and productive that way. But the truth is, that though marriage as an institution has never particularly fascinated me -- I was never the teen girl who sat around planning her wedding in minute detail. Instead I used to draw floor plans for the farm/stable I would someday own -- I've always wanted a long-term committed relationship. I've wanted a life partner and have been actively looking for that person for over 20 years. Seriously: the first personals I ever used were printed in the newspaper!
In my dark moments, after breakups or after long stretches of being single with no potential mates on the horizon, seeing a happy couple will send me into a nosedive. My stomach will hurt and I'll feel a deep confusion: what is so wrong with me that no man has chosen me? It feels like a little child might feel, rejected by her caretakers for no obvious reason. A combination of confusion, despair, and shame – shame for whatever I must have done wrong , even though I don't know what that is.
I'm very familiar with the standard responses to this kind of revelation: “You can't love someone else until you love yourself” (a line of thinking I happen to disagree with, but it just so happens that I think I'm a fabulous catch, though I've not always been able to say that), “there's someone out there for everyone” (I don't believe this), “maybe you seem too desperate” (duly noted, though I've rejected more people than have rejected me) and its corollary: “Maybe you're too picky” (talk to my family about my string of fabulous loser boyfriends and then tell me that).
I'm also very good at seeing the silver lining. After all, I've never gone through the heartbreak of divorce, and as I watch a family member and a close friend dealing with that particular hell right now, I'm very grateful it's not me. I have a wonderful life and have had many amazing adventures with lovers, most of which I don't regret.
There's that one trainwreck romance I might want to go back and delete from my memory banks a lá Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I've had mainly wonderful luck. Nobody's ever cheated on me, and the trainwreck boyfriend was the only one who ever abused me. I'm friends or at least non-resentful well-wishing passing acquaintances with most of my ex-boyfriends and -lovers.
Yet I want a long-term relationship. I want someone to commit to me, and vice versa. I want to feel crazy for someone and have them feel that way for me. Let me clarify that: I want to feel crazy for a healthy person and have that person feel crazy for me. And then I want our love to mature. I want to grow with my partner, and use the relationship to help both of us evolve into our truest selves.
I'm not naïve. I don't think that “in love” feeling is real love. And I don't believe in soul mates or in The One. I believe we choose love, and then we choose, every day, to stay in that relationship even when things get difficult. I'm ready for it. Do you hear that, Universe?
The author of the piece on being single and childless has seemed to come somewhat to terms with her situation at 42. I, too, at the same age, am philosophical about the ambiguity of my love relationships most of the time, and the truth is this path has opened me up to some amazing kinds of love that I never knew existed, and to some amazing people who choose to create their own kinds of relationships rather than toe the line of socially-sanctioned couplings.
It's not that I don't feel love for men and that they don't feel it for me; it's that there's so much love it becomes hard to know what to do with it. So what am I complaining about?
I long to be half of that couple, the one you see growing older and more in love, the one you see constantly laughing and looking into each other's eyes to share a joke that they don't even have to articulate. Once in a deep depression about this issue, wondering if maybe what I craved wasn't even possible, I decided to count the number of people I knew who were in seemingly good relationships. I realized I knew more people in those situations than I knew people who were single or unhappy in their relationships. Granted, I have no idea if most relationships that seem happy really are happy, but I know for a fact that this kind of love exists. Why haven't I been able to find it?
Sometimes, when a happy and healthy relationship like that of my friends and coworkers feels very far away, I sink into a despair so deep that it doesn't seem possible to escape it. Other times, like today, sitting and writing in a freshly clean house on a gorgeous evening, knowing in my soul that I'm deeply loved, I feel supremely grateful for my path.
Still, I want the Universe to hear me: I'm ready for my partner to come now. See what you can do about that, will ya?