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Women Who Are Comfortably Single at Midlife

The importance of defining yourself by what you do have, not what you don’t.

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I’ve never liked the word “unmarried.” I don’t like “never married,” either. As a lifelong single woman, I don’t like to define myself in terms of what I am not. My life is about who I am—what I do, who I care about, what I care about, how I think, and what I aspire to.

The popular stories of our time do not make it easy for single people to define themselves without referring to marriage. And they make it especially challenging for single women with no kids to discuss their lives without mentioning motherhood or family.

The dominant narrative assumes a particular timeline for our adult lives: By a certain age, we marry, and then we have kids. It is considered common sense that people live that way. What is remarkable is that this way of thinking still has such power when it's such a long way off from how people really do live. In the U.S., for example, fewer than 20 percent of all households are comprised of married parents and their kids. There are more households consisting of just one person living alone. And there are many people who live with friends, or with relatives other than a spouse or kids, or with friends and relatives.

How, then, do single women talk about their lives? Do they define themselves in terms of what they are not, or do they defy the party line about what constitutes a “normal” adult life and describe their lives more affirmatively, in terms of who and what they are? Or are both threads intertwined?

A Study of Midlife Single Women

Jennifer A. Moore and H. Lorraine Radtke were especially interested in single women at early midlife, ages 35 through 44. By that age, women are already considered to be behind schedule in finding a spouse and starting a family, and it is becoming increasingly improbable that they will do so.

For their study, published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2015, they talked in depth to 12 women from Western Canada who were born between 1965 and 1975, had been single all their lives, had not lived with a romantic partner in the last five years, and were not mothers. The women do not constitute a representative sample; they were recruited informally. All were heterosexual, White (or European and indigenous), and relatively well-educated (they had at least a high-school education). The results, then, are more suggestive than definitive. Still, the study offers some insights into how some single women think about their lives.

Each interview began with the open-ended question, “Can you tell me something about your life as a single woman?”

If you are a single woman, think about how you would answer that question. (The same question could be asked of single men, so I hope you will think about your answer, too.)

The Transformation From “I’m Deficient” to “I’m Doing Fine”

The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that all the participants related their own lives to the standard story of midlife. They all noted, at some point, that they were not married or did not have kids. For example, one woman said that her life did not follow the “traditional path,” which in the rural community where she lived meant marrying in your early 20s and having kids by your late 20s. Another said, “I’ve never even had a boyfriend.” All of them allowed for the possibility that a spouse or children could be in their future.

The problem with describing yourself in terms of what you do not have is that it can make your life seem deficient. It's a story that can seem to imply that you have not gotten to something you should have accomplished by now.

More encouragingly, all 12 women also described themselves in positive ways, as comfortably single at midlife. Some of them told “before and after” stories in which their single status was a source of pain when they were younger, but now their life has been transformed, and they are living their single lives more fully and more joyfully.

One woman, for example, said that when she was younger, she never even considered buying a house. Now she wants a home of her own, and she went back to school so she will qualify for a job that pays well. Another said she has arranged her life the way she wants it, right down to the small things, such as having some wine and cheese at the end of a long day, rather than waiting to have a spouse to do such things.

How the Prevailing Narratives Try to Push Single Women Around, and How the Women Resist

You say you are happy, but are you normal?

Women who say they are happily single and do not want children are not living the lives they are “supposed to” live. They are at risk of having their femininity or normality questioned. The authors saw indications that the women were aware of those threats and sometimes tried to defend themselves against them. For example, a woman who said that she is not interested in having kids added that she loves kids and that “my friends will attest, I’m fabulous with kids.”

You only have two choices.

According to the stories we most often hear about adult life, we only have limited choices about how to live. The authors noted that all 12 women saw “being single or partnered as the only two alternatives in a woman’s life.” Think about that for a moment. What’s missing? What are the other alternatives?

I hate to admit this, but I had to think about it. Then when I read the authors’ discussion, I realized why: They suggested that “alternatives to marriage and family have always been available” and include, for example, friendship, intentional communities, and “the sisterhood of the convent.” The implication seems to be that to them (or their research participants), single means that you are a lone individual, on your own.

I’ve never thought of single life that way. Surely it can be, including for those who want it to be. But research has amply demonstrated that single people are, in important ways, more connected to other people than coupled or married people are. They do more to maintain ties to friends, siblings, parents, co-workers, and neighbors.

Words like “alone” and “unattached” get used as synonyms for “single.” They shouldn’t be. Most single people are not alone, and some married people are very much alone, in cold or uncommunicative marriages. Single people are often deeply attached to the important people in their life, while marriage is no guarantee of a genuine attachment to another person.

I spent several years studying the innovative ways that people are redefining home and family in the 21st century, and single people are often on the vanguard of that movement. They are not just thinking in boundary-busting ways; they are also going out there and creating new ways of living that are not dependent on having a spouse and children. Then sometimes the people who are married with children follow along, realizing that they, too, would like to think about family in less limiting ways, or that they, too, covet some alone time and a space of their own.

It’s all on you.

The authors noted that single women sometimes seemed to see themselves as “lone actors individually responsible for their lives.” That left them at risk for “being blamed for not achieving a ‘good life.’”

I’d take that a step further. I wish the single women (and the authors) had acknowledged the structural barriers that make things harder for single people. These include, for example, policies that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. (There are more than 1,000 of them in the U.S.; I don’t know about Canada.) They also include all the goods and services that cost less per person for couples than for individuals, and all the informal practices that make single people feel marginalized, such as social events at which guests are all expected to be coupled.

It’s all downhill from here.

Social scientists have long been preoccupied with marriage and parenting, so most of the previous research on women’s midlife experiences has been about married mothers. One way of thinking about midlife among such women has been “as a period of decline and developing awareness that one has reached the midpoint in life when the problems associated with aging are beginning.” Those problems include isolation and “the loss of beauty, youth, sexuality, health.”

In what strikes me as a very promising finding, not even one of the 12 single women in the study mentioned any concerns with any of those issues.

In Conclusion

Lifelong single women with no children who are hovering around age 40 know that they are up against other people’s expectations and judgments. Sometimes they try to defend themselves, saying things like, “I don’t want kids, but I’m really great with them." Sometimes they acknowledge that when they were younger, it bothered them that they were single. But their lives are different now. They are living their lives more fully, rather than putting their dreams on hold. They have their eyes on future prizes, such as better jobs and home ownership, and are doing what it takes to attain them. And they are not whining that it is all downhill now that they are no longer in their youth.

[A personal note: I live very close to the California mudslides. I’m safe, and so is my home. As I write this on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, I have been without internet, TV, landline, snail mail, deliveries, or access to roads I could take to access the internet somewhere else for days. I just now got access to the internet and have been able to post this, but I’m not sure if the service will be reliable going forward. I mention this in case you have been trying to contact me and have not gotten a response. I feel fortunate to be safe at a time when others nearby have perished, or their homes have been destroyed. But it is heartbreaking to think of what others are going through.]