Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some TV commercial or facebook post extolling the virtues of being different. Just the other day I saw an ad for some damn thing, I don’t remember what, where these cool, rebellious people leave a stuffy party and go outside to dance in the rain. Golly, that’s sure stickin’ it to the man. I’ll quickly pass over the obvious irony inherent in asserting to a large audience how important it is to be unique, in part because if I started sneering, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite given the subject of this post. The truth is that no matter how cool it is to think of yourself as unique, the really unique people of the world are laughed at, joked about, teased, and otherwise not seen as desirable for emulation. And don’t think you’re different in this regard; you’ve done it too, edged away from someone marginal, distanced yourself from a fringe element, felt anything from discomfort to outright hostility toward someone who does things in a way that just doesn’t seem right—because it’s not the way you do things, nor anyone you know, and you can’t understand for the life of you why they’d want to do it that way, so clearly there must be something wrong with them.
Want a for instance? Picture this: you’ve just met someone and found out that they are nearly 50 and have never been married. What’s your reaction? Regardless of how you answer that, you probably will have a reaction—because not ever getting married is still, to this day, not mainstream. And, like many things that make a person truly different, this is not one that appeals to a lot of people, for good reason. The thing about being different is that in a conformist culture—and most cultures by definition have a degree of conformity—difference comes with a price.
I chuckle when former students of mine lament “still” being single at 25 or 30. At the same time, I’m not going to tell them they’re better off this way. It is not an easy thing, being alone. For all that we like to think that America is a country of independent individualists, we’ve still got some pretty wide streaks of conformism. Don’t believe me? Tell me, when was the last time you ate in a restaurant alone? I’m not talking fast food or Starbucks; I’m talking about a nice, sit-down, cloth-napkin-in-your-lap dinner, with at least two courses and an adult beverage, and done by choice, not because you were on a business trip and didn’t have anyone to eat with but because you were dying for ratatouille or rack of lamb and didn’t feel up to cooking it yourself. There is no reason why eating dinner absolutely must be a social activity any more than reading a book should be; while you can certainly enjoy talking about the food or the book after you’re done, the activity itself need not involve others. And yet most people are horrified at the idea of eating out alone—or going on vacation alone, going to the movies alone, going anywhere alone. Even staying home alone is something we have to hide or else talk about with jokey pathos—as in, boo hoo, what a loser I am, eating cereal in front of the TV on a Friday night, ha ha ha.
Even if you don’t care what people think about you for being alone, there are still practical matters that make singleness tough. There are things a single person, male or female but especially female, probably shouldn’t do alone. I don’t run alone at night, even in “safe” neighborhoods, and while I’ve traveled solo a lot, there are parts of the world where I wouldn’t want to be by myself—and parts where I would be forbidden to be by myself. And of course there’s the loneliness. Yes, we all know a person can be lonely in any situation, in a crowd, in a family, in a relationship, but when you’re alone, your choices are more limited. If you’re in a crowd, family, or relationship and you want to be alone, you can usually find a way. If you’re alone and feeling lonely, it’s a lot harder to find intimacy other than the fleeting, largely illusory type.
So given how sucky singleness can be, why did I wait? Why am I nearly 50 and about to be married for the first and I’d like to believe only time?
Obviously singleness isn’t always sucky, not in the least. We all know the benefits because, if we’ve spent any amount of time being single, people have told us—we have told ourselves—how great it is. The independence! The freedom! The sense of empowerment that comes from making your own decisions and being your own boss! Yeah, all that, sure, but there are some significant logistical factors to keep in mind as well. First off, I never wanted children, which made getting married far less of an imperative. I like kids well enough, but I always thought I’d be a little like the Laura Brown character in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours: someone who loves her kids, certainly, and enjoys spending time with them, but gets infinitely greater enjoyment from being alone reading a book. If you know how The Hours ends, you’ll understand why I say I don’t want to be a mother because I don’t want to mess up anyone’s life but my own.
I always felt my own mother was kind of like this, and I don’t mean that as a complaint. Up until I turned 10, my mother was a stay-at-home mom of the blue-ribbon, first-class variety. Crafts, baked goods, beaming smiles at everything my sister and I did, the works. And yet even as a child I had the sense that there was a part of her holding back, something that distanced itself from us and our father. Eventually that held-back part went front-and-center; she started a business, threw herself into it, worked days, nights, weekends, holidays. Sometimes I felt sorry for myself because she didn’t go to my crappy piano recital or wasn’t there to console me when I didn’t get asked to the prom, but right or wrong, she decided she wanted something in life that was hers. That had a huge influence on me, and for most of my adult life I focused on making that life mine.
There are other reasons why I waited. I come from a family long on wanderlust and short on rootedness. We were never part of a close circle of friends and relatives, weren’t members of a church, didn’t participate in community activities, barely celebrated the holidays, pretty much did our own thing at all times. As such, it was very hard for me to do what a lot of girls still do and picture my dream wedding. Who in the world would be there? I remembering hearing someone talk about a “small” wedding of “only” a hundred or so guests. I couldn’t even think of a dozen people I’d invite. Because I didn’t go through that period where everyone around me was getting married and I felt compelled to follow suit, there was no real nuptial timeline for me, no clock ticking, no deadline looming after which point I would be deemed a sorry old maid (or else a closet lesbian, which people still believe even today, as if being a lesbian were something shameful that I would cover up by wasting time pretending to crush on assholes).
Because I never married or had kids, I was able to do a lot of things I couldn’t have done otherwise. This is not to say that I think my life was better this way—or worse. Is it better to get married or get a PhD? To travel the world or raise a child? That’s a pointless question. Neither is better or worse than the other; if you’re fortunate and determined, they are options you can choose in any combination.
In the end, I think I waited partly by choice and partly by randomness. As they say, the right person didn’t come along until now, though honestly I wasn’t looking all that hard, which probably means that I myself wasn’t the right person to get married until now. Marriage is unquestionably a significant aspect of our world—witness how hard people had to fight in recent years to make this truly an option for everyone, as well as the baffling ardor with which other people fought against making it so—and because of this I can’t simply shrug and say, eh, I’m 47 and haven’t been married, so what, no biggie. It is a biggie in the sense that it does define me to a certain degree. Am I sad that this is changing? Not at all. One thing you learn being on your own for so long is to embrace new experiences. Being married may be a known thing for most people, but it’s a brave new world for me—one that, for a change, I don’t have to experience alone.