On Spinsterhood

In the photo it is 1986. If I am eight, then my mother and father are forty-two and forty-four, respectively. We are standing at the front of the church, at the feet of Mary’s statue, smiling into the camera, either before or after my First Communion. The dress I’m wearing is white, knee-length, with layers of ruffles and lace on the skirt. The sleeves are short and puffy, and the dress ties in a long bow behind my back. I am wearing a gold necklace, but I can’t tell what the brooch is—probably a unicorn, because they were my favorite. The dress was borrowed, but I don’t remember from whom, or why. But the veil we bought, the veil I got to keep. Its tiara is made of pearls, and in the photo the white mesh fabric runs down my back, past the short blonde hair my mother had curled that morning. The veil’s lace trimming matches the lace trimming on the dress, which I remember as being a stroke of luck, or something that had worked out. No one would know that the parts didn’t belong together.

I wasn’t allowed to play with the veil in the weeks leading up to, and in the weeks following, the ceremony. It wasn’t a toy—we didn’t want it to get dirty or to tear. I took the veil out of the box sometimes anyway, very carefully, and only when I was sure I wouldn’t get caught. I placed it on top of my head, stood in front of my bedroom mirror, and imagined the real thing. I didn’t have specifics yet, because I was still too young. As a teenager I would tear pages from magazines and keep dress ideas in a folder—strapless dresses and dresses with strappy backs, poofy dresses and short dresses. In my favorite photo, the bride wore a thin gown with clean lines. It didn’t have ruffles or overly loud adornments. Just silk, minimal lace, a long train, and no back. But at that time, the veil was enough to work with, to imagine with, to pretend with.

I practiced too. I sang the dum-dum-da-dum in my head, and stepped from one end of my room to another, holding a dried bouquet saved from someone else’s wedding. I marched, back and forth, back and forth, moving, always moving, toward my invisible groom.

“Whom to marry, and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s experience, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice,” writes Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. Bolick received criticism for the opening line to her 2015 book from critics, from so-called spinsters, arguing that such an assumption is outdated, untrue, insulting, and over-generalized. It is. But for me, the line was exactly right. Whom to marry, and when it would happen, was always the question.

In her review of Bolick’s book for the Los Angeles Review of Books Briallen Hopper writes: “I’m in my 30’s and haven’t married yet, but marriage is not in my own top five questions and hasn’t been for some time. I’m much more interested in whether I’ll write a book or have kids, and much more defined and governed by race, class, gender, and the changing climate.”

Good for you, I thought when I read that, as in you go, girl, but also as in [insert sarcasm here], [insert bitterness here]. I understand Hopper and relate to her argument in some ways. I too am soundly interested in whether I’ll write a book—my attention and energy being more focused on writing than on finding a husband. But it’s not an either/or proposition. The question of marriage is still in there, noodling away in my brain. I know that should the right gentleman come calling, my priorities are susceptible to rearrangement.

So I’m not sure I believe Hopper. I question Hopper’s statement that she is interested in whether she will have kids without at least thinking about whether she will marry. It seems like the question of who the father might be—a friend, a donor, a partner (or husband)—would creep in somehow. Marriage, she says, hasn’t been in her top five questions for some time. Some time presumes that it was at one point a more pressing question, which is the part I’m interested in—the middle part, the in-between part, the part without all the answers. I want to know if I am an outlier, or if other women also grew up under the canopy of the fairy tale, the romantic comedy, the happy ending. I want to know if other women also find themselves on the other side of that wondering: what now?

In a review for Slate, Laura Kipnis writes about Spinster’s opening line: “All this seems far too sweeping. Is marriage really the basis of female ontology in 2015? The thing that defines every last one of us?” It’s not, obviously. I know plenty of women, married and not married, who are defined in any number of ways other than their marital status—yogi, writer, mother, executive, runner, volunteer, educator. Marriage is not the thing that defines “every last one of us,” as Kipnis writes, but it’s also “far too sweeping” to say it no longer defines any of us.

The pendulum seems as though it has swung too far in the opposite direction in these reviews, and that we still aren’t being honest with ourselves. Marriage may not be the sole category by which women are defined, but is it really true that we’ve come so far that it is no longer a factor at all?

A few summers ago I ran into an ex-boyfriend from high school. As we chatted and filled in the missing years, he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was unmarried. The conversation about the last eighteen years kept coming back to this one thing, as if it did not matter what work I had done, the places I had traveled to, the friendships I had made. And it isn’t just him. The question regularly arises in normal conversation. When I meet new people the question of marriage and children inevitably comes up. Are you married? Do you have kids?The question of marriage is so much a part of my life that I find it hard to believe that other single women don’t at least come across it from time to time. Doth the ladies protest too much? Or am I projecting? Maybe I’m envious of women who don’t carry their marital status around like a weighted backpack. Maybe I’m jealous of women who don’t seem to care if they ever find someone to their liking. I wonder how much time and energy they must have. I imagine where I could be today if I hadn’t spent my twenties and early thirties focused on men. Maybe I’d be living abroad. Maybe I’d have already written a book, or two books, or three books. Maybe I’d have had the life that Bolick seems to have—a social calendar that’s full every night, rich, educated suitors around every corner, and seemingly endless cash flow. Marriage, when it will happen, and with whom it will happen, comes up far too often in my life for me to believe it never comes up for Hopper and Kipnis.

But I am not defending Bolick. I too took issue with Spinster, but not because of the opening line. I had a problem with everything that came before it (That cover! Bolick with her long legs, her high heels, her flirty smile. No frumpy dresses here! Spinsterhood is cool, sexy, a little bit shy.) and everything that followed it. For one, the “spinsters” of literary yore Bolick profiles in the book were not spinsters. A spinster, as Merriam-Webster has it, is “an unmarried woman who is past the usual age for marrying.” Edna St. Vincent Millay married, as did the others—Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick chose these women because they represented some aspect of spinsterhood that she was cultivating—they resisted marriage, they preferred to work on their art, etc. But these qualities alone do not a spinster make.

And, interspersed with the stories of these so-called spinsters is every detail of Bolick’s very active dating life. Bolick spends the pages of her book coupling with one man, and then another, and then another, so much so that the book feels more like one about how to date in New York City than one about how to be single. At the end, Bolick rides off into the sunset, so to speak, with her latest boyfriend.

One doesn’t have to be celibate and always alone to claim the title of spinster. I am not either. But in a book about women who supposedly find happiness without a partner, how can she spend her pages detailing her dating escapades, and then end with partnered happiness? Is that still the end destination? Isn’t that what Bolick is saying? I want to know what happens when there is no ending, when Mr. Right remains elusive.

What would have happened on Friends if Rachel had stayed on the plane, flown to Paris, and started her new life without Ross? What would have happened on Sex and the City if Mr. Big didn’t show up for the grand gesture in Paris, and Carrie returned to New York alone? What would have happened at the end of Spinster if Bolick set out into the world without a companion by her side?

Audiences wouldn’t be happy, I suppose. I admit that in most instances (except for a book about being a spinster) I wouldn’t be happy either. In one alternate ending for Sex and the City, Carrie is engaged to marry the Russian. In another, Big fails to commit once again. Neither of these are the happy ending that audiences (and I) wanted. I wanted to believe that all of Carrie’s struggles alone and with the wrong men meant something. I wanted to believe that it all works out in the end. Read: My struggles will mean something. Read: It will all work out in the end. If this is true then my person is still out there, and just like Rachel and Ross, Carrie and Mr. Big, Kate Bolick and whoever her beau is, me and mine will come together in the end. I too will get to live happily ever after.

The problem with this way of thinking is that I am constantly waiting for the end because that’s when my life, my story, will really begin. The end as the beginning. In this narrative, my story is dependent on his life intersecting with mine, whoever “he” is.

Rarely, it seems, does a happy ending include the portrayal of a woman or a man setting off on their own—content, at peace, “happy.” Bolick’s message seems to be, “don’t worry, you’ll find yours too,” or worse, that she’s made it, found her happy ending, found an ending, because she found someone to be with. This is an even bigger breach than most other narratives because we were falsely promised the alternative.

The thing about the women profiled in Bolick’s book is that they preferred their independence from the beginning. Neith Boyce, for instance, didn’t want to be married, but eventually surrendered to her partner’s pressure. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about her desire not to marry in an unpublished piece called “An Anchor to Windward,” as well as in her journals. She held her suitor off for two years, but finally married and had a daughter. She later divorced and spent twelve years alone before marrying again.

My independence isn’t like theirs. It wasn’t chosen. I wasn’t like the women who grew up knowing they didn’t want to marry. Maybe that’s the difference between women like me and women like Hopper and Kipnis. I was the little girl who used to practice walking down the aisle, the teenager who kept clippings of wedding dresses in a folder. I’ve made peace with my aloneness and have grown to relish it, but only because that’s how things worked out. We—Bolick’s book and I—are still avoiding the discomfort that can come with being a single woman of a certain age.

I think writers like Bolick are trying to create a space. I think they are trying to tell the rest of the world that there are different ways of making a life, and that they are just as valid. They are paving a road for the rest of us to walk down, and for the generation behind mine to follow, just as the first-wave and second-wave feminists did for me. I am appreciative of this. I am grateful that I do not have to live a life in shame the way that women before me have. I do not have to be sad and sorry for myself, because I can do anything I want. But in creating this “fabulous single girl” narrative we have created another binary.

Bolick’s book, that fucking cover, asks: why not be a spinster? Especially as Bolick presents it, it is a life full of freedom—a fabulous apartment, a line of suitors at the door, lazy days composed of whatever you want. Except it’s not, and to deny that is to deny every woman who is still fighting the stereotype. There are great things about being a spinster. I don’t ever have to check in with anyone. I go wherever I want whenever I want. I always get to pick what movie to watch, what to eat for dinner, where to go on vacation. I know people who have never been single and who don’t know how to spend weekends alone when their spouse travels, or how to navigate a new city by themselves. It is empowering to do things on my own, to know that I don’t need anyone else to feed my well-being. But if being a spinster is so great, then why don’t (most) little girls grow up wanting to be one? Why did I spend most of my life fearing and avoiding and dodging this place?

To be a spinster is also to be on the outside looking in. It is to be on display every time someone gets engaged, like an actor standing stage left. The action, the uproar is happening stage right, but someone has flicked a spotlight on and cast it over you, standing alone. To be a spinster is to wonder if you spend too much time with your parents, to say no when someone asks you to adopt another cat, to keep on replay questions about who you broke up with, when, and why. It is to constantly question what you are doing, if you are doing the right thing, if maybe you should up and move by the ocean already. To be a spinster is to be the one who always decides what is for dinner, the one who always shops for dinner, the one who always cooks dinner. It is to be the sole source of income, the sole name on the mortgage, the sole saver for retirement, the sole person in charge of pet care, car repairs, home repairs, health insurance, and filing taxes. To be a spinster is to be mistaken for someone who has a lot of free time, someone who is always free to babysit, to pet sit, to care for aging parents. To be a spinster is to constantly defend your life choices, to fight for legitimacy, to speak platitudes about loving oneself first. It is to continually wonder when the gig is up, if you are going to be alone forever, if it is time to plan accordingly. It is to suffer through the indignities of online dating, of events like “yoga speed dating,” of blind dating, of the bouquet toss at a wedding. It is to pay the penalty of the single supplement when you travel. It is to wonder if you should marry that guy, your one-time boyfriend turned fuck-buddy turned friend, because maybe it’s time to start thinking about plan B.

I think my disappointment in Spinster is of my own making. My expectations were too high. Like a woman seeking salvation in a man, I asked the book to promise what it couldn’t ever possibly deliver—a cultural shift, the dismantling of a stigma, the erasure of a fear I’ve had my entire life. I was hoping that in reading the book I would be altered, that I would suddenly feel okay. Normal even. As if there is nothing wrong with me.

I know logically that there isn’t anything wrong with me. I can give you statistics about how there are more single women of all ages today than there has ever been. I can talk about how I know dozens of them, and they are all amazing. I can give you titles of books written about this very phenomenon. But none of that changes what it feels like to be un-partnered in a culture that assumes your defectiveness.

I partially blame my fear of ending up alone on my mother and her unrelenting pity for my two single aunts, the way she was (is) always hoping they find someone. I know my mother has only wanted her sisters to be happy, but I still absorbed the unspoken message—no husband equals unhappy. I went forth into adolescence, young adulthood, and onto the path of adulthood believing this to be true. I knew that nothing would ever be settled for me until I was settled—a ring around my finger and a joint checking account. But I also blame it on the culture, on the lack of narratives for women—other than a Cathy comic, cat lady, or rigid business executive—that don’t involve marriage and kids.

But the problem of singlehood isn’t being un-partnered. It’s that I wasn’t prepared for it to actually happen, except as some kind of tragedy I had to avoid at all costs—like losing everything in a house fire or being abducted overseas. Even today, my mother will sometimes say, “You’re going to find him,” or “It’s going to happen.” My response used to be “I know,” or “I hope so.” But lately it’s usually, It might not. But also, And that’s okay.

Not everyone is guaranteed the fairy tale. That’s the truth I haven’t ever wanted to face, even as it doggedly nipped at my heels. And what bothers me so much about Bolick’s Spinster is that it never addresses this possibility. Or it does, but in a sugar-coated, everything-is-fabulous, I-don’t-need-a-man kind of way. Everything is not fabulous. But neither am I living inside the terror of a Greek tragedy. Mine is an existence like anyone else’s—married or not. I feel joy, sadness, fear, loneliness, and contentment.

The recent headlines in my local newspaper about the man who murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters shout what we rarely acknowledge—marriage isn’t always a happy ending. I know more than a handful of married people who have either cheated or are actively cheating. Even more have confessed to me their unhappiness, and their desire to leave. Which is the other thing we never talk about—the fairy tale isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It never has.

No One Tells You This, by Glynnis Macnicol feels like the antidote to the fabulous single girl narrative. The memoir tells the story of Macnicol’s 40th year. In the book, Macnicol also dates, but more sporadically and less often. Men are in the background. They are secondary to the other narratives of Macnicol’s life—caring for her aging mother and father, travel, aunthood, friendship, building a career. All of which is to say it is a more realistic picture of being 40 and single. The spotlight isn’t on men or the lack thereof, or on the dwindling chances of motherhood. There is no spotlight on any one thing. Macnicol’s life is composed of parts, and like in any life, sometimes one part takes precedence over the other.

Macnicol’s book has some of the same pitfalls as Bolick’s. At times, it too presents single life as an amazing one filled with travel and fabulous NYC apartments, which left me with questions, like, what if you don’t have a friend who works for a publishing company that can afford to send you on free trips to Iceland and France? What if you don’t have another friend who happens to own a large, beautiful, vacant apartment upstairs from their NYC home? What if you don’t have dozens of friends you’ve known most of your adult life? What if your siblings don’t double as friends?

But Macnicol still looks directly at the reality of being un-partnered in a way that Bolick didn’t—like how it feels to attend the funeral of a loved one without someone to sit with. Or how it feels to really wrestle with the question of motherhood. And instead of looking at being single as bad luck or the consequence of poor choices, Macnicol explores the possibility that being single can be an active choice for a woman the way it is for a man. She asks, “Had I always actually just preferred to be on my own and not known that was something I could be without it being something I should feel ashamed about?”

That’s my question too, now, at 40, with a few serious relationships and dozens more unserious ones behind me. I wonder, what might the last 20 years have been like had I not been so afraid of aloneness? What if I never had the idea that the place where I stand today is the worst place, and that I must do everything I can to stop myself from getting here? What if, as a little girl, I was told that being a bride was a choice I could make the same way I chose a career? What if, in my private childhood moments, I had practiced giving my speech for the Nobel Peace Prize instead of walking down the aisle?

Now that I’m here, I see that this isn’t the worst place. This is actually a pretty great place. I can breathe here. I don’t feel like I’m grasping after something the way I was in my twenties and thirties. I don’t feel like a man (or anyone else) can give me anything I can’t give myself. I am free. Almost. Except for the sad looks and pitying tones of voice that inevitably follow the question, are you married?

In her book, Macnicol describes giving the toast at her best friend’s wedding the week she turned 40, a scenario that might be fraught for any number of single women. But, she writes, it never crossed her friend’s mind that asking her to give the toast would be a big deal. “She never saw me as lacking.”

When I read this line I realized this is the narrative that has been missing my entire life—the belief that a single woman lacks nothing, that she is as whole as a married woman, or any man. All this time I’ve been taught to think there is an empty cut-out of a man by my side, like the hole a cartoon character makes when it runs through a closed door or window. But the gaping hole is not an elusive prince, offering keys to the kingdom. There is no gaping hole. I’m already in the kingdom, damn it. And I am not anyone’s cautionary tale.

I think about that girl now, eight-year-old me. I want to reach back in time and tell her that her day isn’t going to come, or that if it does that it won’t come for a long time, that it will look nothing like she’s imagining. I want to stop her, as she grows older, from chasing after men as if seeking a treasure, or something that will save her from anything, or everything. I want to tell her that even if she eventually does marry, she won’t ever wear a veil, or a white dress, or walk down an aisle. That those fantasies will no longer fit, that the idea of them will begin to feel heavy, confining, like a cage. That she will come to see the fantasies for what they are—tools of the patriarchy, another in a long list of things that exist to quiet the roar of womankind. I want to tell her what Macnicol tells a prying wedding guest after they tell Macnicol not to worry, that marriage will happen for her, that there’s still time:

“I think it’s going to be pretty great even if it doesn’t happen.”

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