UPDATE: This essay was published on xojane. New title: “I’m 40, Single, Childless and Completely OK” Woo Hoo!
“When you come back, you better be married!”
Those were the last words I heard as I hurried out of the hotel banquet hall near the end of the Smyrna High School Class of 1989 10-year reunion. I knew I should have skipped the surreal experience of revisiting those four years of trauma and insecurity ten years and, for many, 10-plus pounds later. But revisit them I did, spending a Saturday night eating a bland dinner in a bland banquet hall, mingling with people I barely knew or hadn’t spoken to in ten years, listening to tales of perfect families, perfect jobs and perfectly big houses while I explained my career as a music journalist and my life in the “big city” – Nashville.
Vicki, a last-chair saxophonist in the marching band, who started calling herself Victoria after high school and is, of course, married—happily married—didn’t approve of the fact that I was single and had no children at age 28. She demanded that I change this for the 15-year reunion, which I had no intention of attending.
Now, as the 25-year anniversary approaches, I have not married and I have no children.
Vicki would be pissed.
I expected to remain child-free, as that is the route I chose. My biological clock came without a battery, so that deep innate longing to carry a child one or more times never materialized. As a young girl, I played along with my friends who liked to imagine what they would name their future son or daughter. “Maybe Chyna,” I said, if it was a girl. If I had a boy, “Oh, I dunno. Maybe Cecil.” No girl seriously considering motherhood would name her poor kid Cecil. I picked names out of thin air, or from teen magazines, because I never fully believed that I would have a child to name.
As I entered my teens, I waited for that maternal instinct to gestate, but it never did. My future planning involved college, a career, and ideally, a mate. I continued to monitor my soul for the baby urge: after college? Nope. Approaching 30? Nada. Nearing 40? Still nothing. When I turned 40 and retreated into myself for a serious (and seriously depressing) life assessment, I questioned whether I made the right decision, especially after a fresh wave of baby showers and pregnancy announcements from friends and acquaintances. My heart ached during those events, but not with regret. It ached with joy for my friends’ happiness and with empathy for lives that will never be the same, but in the best way.
Through all of those years, and through dozens of breakups, first dates and flings, I always intended to marry. In and after college, I longed to find my “soul mate,” someone who would complete me and make all of my problems go away. Eventually, I grew to understand that I am complete all on my own without a man, and that only I am responsible for my own happiness. So I let go of the soul mate ideal and kept heart and mind open for that “special someone” that I can be as comfortable and relaxed around as if I were by myself. Someone who loves and accepts me quirks and all. Someone who inspires me to be a better person. When I’m feeling especially introverted, I think that a loving next-door neighbor would be enough.
I’ve had a couple of close calls, but no home runs yet. I also have a well-devised list of excuses to explain my poor batting average. I focused intensely on my career in my 20s and 30s, and the long hours left me no time for relationship. Actually, I became a workaholic and almost an alcoholic because one of my close calls fell down an elevator shaft and died when I was 24. The experience shattered my trust in just about everything for many years, and I was especially afraid of intimate relationships. For years, I ran like a startled deer from “good” emotionally available men and globbed on like a glue stick to self-absorbed, commitment-phobe jerks (usually musicians).
In my mid ‘30s, a few years after arriving to San Francisco, I met my person, someone that I was as comfortable and relaxed around as if I were by myself. Someone who inspired me to be a better person. We stayed together for four good years, but when the rubber met the road and we had an honest talk about our relationship and marriage, he wasn’t willing to go there. Either he wasn’t willing to go there with me, or he wasn’t capable of the intimacy required for the journey. So away I went, after a long, painful departure. We parted ways amicably, and he continues to inspire me to be a better person, even though he’s no longer my person.
After that split, I found myself 40 and single. As David Byrne asks, “how did I get here?” I spent the better part of my 40th year mulling over this question. Holy matrimony happens for all sorts of people, regardless of education, race, background or common sense. Why did the Love Boat pass me by? Am I too flawed to board?
I made myself miserable for many months, wallowing over my failed, inadequate life and presumably unlovable personality. I browsed through my shelves of self-help books, but soon lost interest and sought out a novel. I jumped into online dating and jumped out two months later. Too creepy. The artist-teacher from Petaluma that stood me up because he got lost because he doesn’t drive on the freeway gave me an easy excuse to cancel my virtual matchmaker membership.
I must have gotten sick of myself in the midst of that self-pity party, because somewhere along the way, the worry eased. I stopped dwelling on my stagnant job and lack of relationship. Both of those things can change, with willingness and action. A friend and mentor reminded me of a process called Emotional Freedom Techniques, a healing method that combines “tapping” certain meridian points with such statements as, “Even though I have this [insert problem here], I deeply and completely accept myself.” I hadn’t accepted myself as a single woman. I resisted, I searched, I belittled myself for what I thought I lacked and told myself I was inadequate. Well that got me nowhere.
So I started to focus on what’s going right: I am extremely healthy. I’m an athlete that competes for Team USA in the duathlon for Christsakes. I can outride or run women (and some men!) 20 years younger than me. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors, I have some good friends and solid social networks through my various athletic clubs. I love my family. I love my cat, Soleil, to pieces. I have a reliable car. I have no debt, decent benefits and can save for my retirement. I’m not allergic to or on any medications. I have time to write.
The more I focused on the positives, the negatives moved to my mind’s backburner. “I can’t stand my job I’m miserable I am going to crack any day now” became “It’s not a stimulating job, but I’m still okay.” I can also accept my single status, regardless of what other people think. I’m not defective, I’m not a weirdo (not all the time), but I have had obstacles to relationship bliss that I have worked through and that wisened me into the person I am today. Living solo, I can walk around my apartment half-dressed, eat my lunch standing up, and spend Saturday night with my notebook instead of worrying about planning an outing or a meal that he would enjoy. I like date night, but I like time with my notebook too. I can accept that this is a notebook phase.
I am grateful to live in Oakland, Calif., the heart of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, where I’m not considered odd for having never married. Had I stayed in Smyrna, Tennessee, I am certain I would be quizzed daily on “Why aren’t you married?” “What’s wrong with you?”
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me Vicki, not one single thing.