I wrote a guest blog post for someone a while back about being single (I’m something of an expert), and was surprised at the people who read it and commented. Some were single people themselves, and appreciated reading something of their own perspective. Others were not, and appreciated the insight into this particular life.
Since then I’ve had a fair number of other thoughts on my mind on this issue, and the first blog experience made me aware that there is perhaps a need for these things to be written down and shared. I’ve begun drafting this post many times in my head, but it’s a topic that brings up too many difficult emotions – both mine and other people’s – to be written about easily. Over the past while however, I’ve watched several close friends struggle more and more with this life, and it’s primarily for them that I want this expressed.
I write from within a church context, and believe that this is perhaps a more difficult and painful place to be single (especially as a woman in your mid-thirties) than the wider world. The celebration and championing of marriage and nuclear family life is a good thing in itself, but few of its proponents probably realise just how exclusionary and hurtful this can be to people who are in many cases faithful, generous and active members of their communities. The intentional exclusion of single people (especially women) from leadership in many supposedly progressive churches seals the deal: the only voices heard are those of married people, and the message is up in lights that without a spouse you cannot be a full adult, a full member of the community. I could write much more about the frankly unbiblical stance of many church leaders and teachers to this (and the single state in general), but perhaps another time.
What I had in mind to write about today was the day to day stuff, the many small and big ways in which being single is hard, that others may be completely unaware of. I’m not talking about the transient singleness of one’s twenties and perhaps early thirties, when few of one’s friends have settled down or started families, and everyone is still finding their place in life. I’m talking about being an adult, with a home with plumbing that goes wrong and a car that breaks down, with ageing parents and one’s own gradual health issues, with the need to plan for the future without a second person to help make decisions or save money, and the awareness that in all of this, doing it alone might be a permanent thing. I’m talking about being unmarried and un-partnered when almost none of your friends are, and when opening Facebook reveals not engagements or excited pregnancy announcements, but pictures of gap-toothed six-year-olds on their first day at big school.
I have no intention of asking for pity here, but I would like to demand your respect. Because those of us who have lived most of our adult lives as single people have had to learn how to do our own taxes, fix our leaky houses and deal with misogynistic mechanics by ourselves. We arrive at social events on our own, attend frightening doctor’s appointments on our own, and when we come home from a terrible day at work and have a meltdown, we also clean ourselves up on our own.
Yes, we have friends, and those of us who are lucky, family too who care for us and can be applied to for help with all these things. But we have to ask for it, often from people who need no such help from us, and we have to be prepared to be turned down. We have to be OK with a steady shift downwards on the priority lists of our nearest and dearest, and willing to have our most awkward, painful or pressing needs disregarded because children and spouse (naturally and correctly) come first. Pouring one’s heart out to a friend over a cup of tea is no longer what it was even a few years ago: you have to be OK with holding that thought, no matter what it is, at a second’s notice because a two-year-old needs a snack. You have to be OK with only half an ear for your deepest concerns, and the humiliating knowledge that the person to whom the ear belongs now shares those things with their spouse, and not you.
It takes a kind of grown-up-ness about which married people may have no idea, to accept all of these things with grace. To put other people’s marriages and families first when those things may never be yours, and to accept painfully if unintentionally dismissive and thoughtless behaviour from the people you are closest to. And to do all this without being permitted to express any of this hurt, because marriage and children are wonderful things, and we really are happy for the friends to whom they happen. We are not to complain as our support system is steadily eroded, as each friend pairing up or giving birth translates into the loss of that friendship to ourselves – if not completely, at least in the greater part of its substance.
And along with this, to deal with the increasingly likely loss of the life we might have wanted. Kate Hurley, who has written by far the best stuff I have read about all of this, calls this disenfranchised grief: the loss of spouse and children not in person, but as potential, as hopes and expectations. Some days I’ve wanted to blurt out in some inappropriate social setting, I’ve just found out I can’t have children. And as the combination of shock, sympathy and confusion wraps the faces of my onlookers, to explain: yes. It seems that I can’t conceive without a second party, and even if I could, apparently children need feeding and school fees which I cannot in any universe afford on my own, alongside the childcare I’d have to pay for to allow me to work. I’ve often thought, as yet another mind-blowingly insensitive complaint about the hassles of offspring fills the conversation, that the speaker would think twice if I was married and unable to have children.
But unfortunately, very few people know how to deal when one communicates something like this. Perhaps they feel guilty, or don’t want to imagine their own lives in our situation. Most commonly it is brushed off: oh but you’ve still got time! Lots of women have children in their forties. My friend x just got engaged and she’s two years older than you are (don’t even get me started on the crappy pseudo-theological responses). How do I explain how unhelpful, how inappropriate that is? Do you think I haven’t hoped, haven’t considered those options, heard those same stories? And yet, as time passes, it is absolutely necessary for me to accept that this may be how things will be, and that loss is real, and might be what I am grieving. I don’t need you to cheer me up. I need you to say, sh%t, that is really horrible and painful and difficult. And grieve with me.
No, we don’t want your pity. We want your respect, and also your consideration, in between sick children and toilet training and school fees. We want your grace, when we are grumpy or seem unsympathetic about your child’s teething issues, or cry inappropriately in public places. We want you to get over your own discomfort over our awkward single state, and include us in your dinner parties anyway, and remember to ask us about our lives too, even though we can’t join in the conversations about childbirth or in-laws. We want you to give us credit for our guts and self-control and resourcefulness, for our social skills, which have to be so much better than yours need be, and for the grace we give you, unnoticed and all the time. We want you to be understanding if we choose not to come to your baby showers, and for the love of God, to leave the humiliating bouquet-tossing ritual out of your weddings, and not lump us all together at one awkward odd-ones-out table.
It feels scary to post this, because it is raw and extremely personal. I’m afraid that it will offend people I love, who are amazing friends and family to me in spite of all these things. I’m afraid that it will be interpreted as overly negative, bitter and self-pitying. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I think it needs to be out there, for the sake of everyone else in this particular boat, and all the people who love them.
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”