The Joy of Being Alone
And the tragedy of heterosexuality
Back in June, I wrote about the “Subversive Joy of Being a Single Mother.” Since I published it, it is one of my most popular and most controversial newsletters. It inspired a lot of “unsubscribes” but still more “subscribes.” One commenter left the community after asking why I was so hostile to marriage. “Marriage,” I replied, “is hostile to me.” Recently, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about community building and children and loneliness. So, I thought I’d write a follow-up. I think it’s important to note that even if the system works for you, that doesn’t mean it’s a good system. That no one is owed marriage or children. And that our own company is good.
A couple of weeks ago, while my children were on vacation with their dad. I received an invite to a party hosted by some friends. I didn’t go. I wanted to be alone. I spent the evening walking the dogs, listening to podcasts, and reading a book. I cooked myself a large plate of pasta and took it to my bed with a glass of wine and fell asleep. It was the perfect night. And I was all alone. It’s significant to say this because I’m an extrovert. I love being around people. And for most of my life, I haven’t been alone.
I am one of eight children. I grew up surrounded by people. Then, I went to college and lived in dorms. And then, I got married. And then, I had children.
I didn’t live on my own until one month before I turned 35. I ended my 12-year marriage and moved out into a one-and-a-half-story house in a small cul-de-sac near an elementary school. It was a bigger house than we needed, but the only one in my budget that I could find. On the days when my children were with their father, I found myself desperately alone. I’d lie on the living room floor, crying, completely confused about what to do with my time without anyone to care for. There were no meals to make. No one begging me to watch a movie or play a game. No screen time to monitor. No fights to adjudicate. I was the only one I had to entertain and I didn’t know how to do it. I got on Bumble and went on dates. I begged friends to go out with me. I started doing stand-up and reading books in bars — anything so that I wouldn’t be alone.
Women are taught that being alone is the worst thing that can happen to them. In June of 1986, Newsweek ran the now-infamous story that asserted a woman over 40 was more likely to die in a terrorist attack than get married. The study the article was based on has been disproven and Newsweek eventually retracted the article. But, as Jessica Yellin wrote in The New York Times in 2006, “For a lot of women, the retraction doesn’t matter. The article seems to have lodged itself permanently in the national psyche.”
So much of our culture depicts young girls dreaming about their wedding. But every middle-aged woman I know dreams about living in a commune.
Writing in 2016, Meg Garber wrote about the article in the Atlantic, concluding that, for many women, heterosexual marriage is the goal. Dying alone is worse than terrorism. “That helps to explain why later editions of the Sex and the City franchise—the films—found Carrie reversing her declarations of satisfied singledom to marry her boyfriend,” Garber writes. “And why the Bachelor franchise has been going strong for 20 years. And why the marriage plot still underscores so many of 2016’s rom-coms. Marriage, still, despite it all, is the goal—whether it’s declared or implied. All those ‘I’m single and happy about it’ essays talk about empowerment, but their underlying message is decidedly less liberating: Not being married, they suggest, by the time you’re supposed to have been married, requires an explanation.”
Everything in our culture is designed to convince women that being alone is the worst thing they can be.
Recently, a man on Twitter went viral for arguing that living a child-free life as a 40-year-old millennial was sad.
“Millennials who are very cavalier about not having children are in for a shock when they enter their 40s & realize life is only half over. What do you do at that point? Keep trying to be sexy & have fun? I expect to see a lot of sadness & confusion about what to do at that point.”
People spent the day online dunking on the tweet and rightfully so.
But the point isn’t a new one. I recently sat with a friend who told me his own fears of being alone. He still wanted children, eventually. Someone who would visit him in his old age.
We all die alone. And having children so you have a guaranteed Thanksgiving table is a terrible reason to have kids. Children make their own choices. They grow older, they don’t always outlive their parents, they make their own lives and their own friends. And sometimes they reject their families. Loneliness isn’t solved by children.
There is some research that indicates unmarried, childless women are happier than their married counterparts. Women who divorce are most certainly less likely to remarry. In America, women still do the majority of the childcare, still earn less to the male dollar, still do the majority of the household chores. All of this has gotten worse in the pandemic, where flexible work arrangements have further blurred the lines between work and home. And if it was hard to be a woman before, it feels impossible now.
It’s a problem that’s been written about ad nauseam. Instead of building a social safety net, the American system relies on women and the system of marriage to fill the gaps. So much of our culture depicts young girls dreaming about their wedding. But every middle-aged woman I know dreams about living in a commune.
I have a kind of commune. A life-sustaining group chat. We don’t live close to one another. But their friendship has fulfilled me and sustained me more than any romantic one ever has or could.
In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, sociologist Jane Ward writes that one of the tragedies of heterosexuality is the reliance on romantic partnerships to fill the void of companionship. Queer relationships, which for so long happened outside of the institution of marriage, open up the world outside the nuclear family. Breaking apart ideas of gender means breaking apart ideas of gender roles. It means seeing a world beyond binaries. Rejection from a biological family means creating a chosen family of friends and partners. Ward reverses the gaze from a straight vision of queerness to a look at heterosexuality from a queer lens.
Indeed, tremendous energy on the part of straight women continues to flow in the direction of repairing straight men, resulting in a lot of displaced disappointment and grief for which queer people (the gay or lesbian best friend) can become sounding boards and confidants. This heterofeminine grief is displaced to the extent that it remains focused on fixing relationships with individual men rather than identifying hetero norms and hetero masculinity themselves as fundamental problems. The point here is that straight people’s displaced and unmournable grief, what Judith Butler has described as ‘heterosexual melancholy,’ sometimes feels from the queer point of view, like too heavy an emotional burden to bear.
Through this lens, it’s a stifling, uninspired life. One with the same drudgery and same forced rituals. But there are other options. Other ways of loving. Other ways of living and being. It doesn’t have to be this way.
This isn’t a new idea. For as long as there has been marriage, there have been people rejecting it as a form of societal organization. Many of the early suffragists rejected the heterosexual relationships served on a platter and wrote about it. Lucy Stone. Simone de Beauvoir. Shulamith Firestone. bell hooks. So many current feminists do too.
Ward quotes a 1967 hippie credo: “Leave society as you have known it. Leave it utterly. Blow the mind of every straight person you can reach. Turn them on, if not to drugs, then to beauty, love, honesty, fun.”
Society does seem to be changing. The average age of marriage is rising. The birth rate is decreasing. Movies for children and books for adults are beginning to center friendships and family instead of romantic love. These changes have been happening gradually. And we can tell because of the severe backlash.
I don’t think it’s insignificant that as women continue to choose marriage later in life and choose not to have children, Republicans successfully overturned a woman’s right to an abortion. I don’t think it’s insignificant that even as airlines and banks and restaurants got bailouts during the pandemic, women, who were just a few years ago asking for affordable childcare, are now just begging for the right to make their own healthcare choices. I don’t think it’s insignificant that states like Florida, Iowa, and so many others are investing a lot of time and effort into banning books and other materials that show children another way to live and be outside of heterosexual norms.
It shows how poorly we’ve built our society, that women saying, “Nah, I’m okay without kids or a spouse” can undermine it so completely. It’s telling that anyone living a life outside of the binary inspires so much fear.
Even if your solution is not to entirely blow up your life, seeking and finding solitude is a gift. And not in the, you have to love yourself to find love kind of a way. But you just have to love yourself. I sometimes wonder if I could survive the loss or rejection of one of my children. It’s a selfish thought. But I think about it because I want to have a core self, something that can withstand loss and change. None of us is owed a relationship or marriage or the devotion of our children. I’m not advocating living in the woods alone. But I am advocating building yourself a community beyond the nuclear one.
Like everyone, I’ve had some dark pandemic days, full of loneliness and dread. And helplessness and fear. But it’s made me question what kind of life I really want. Working with my therapist, I made a plan — to build a community of friends, people who could have dinner with me, lunch with me, go sing karaoke with me. People I could talk to about work and my kids. In essence, build my own kind of romantic relationship, but with my community. It’s a work in progress. But I’ve found myself, even in a time of profound anxiety, choosing to spend time with myself. In fact, I really enjoy my company.
I loved this Bloomberg look at how hard it is to be a woman. Two of my favorite writers who write about singleness are Glynnis MacNicol and Nichole Perkins. And Rebecca Woolf’s new memoir, All of This, is a powerful and honest book about death (and divorce), and being alone, and even rebuilding your world. And a person who is part of my community is Anne Helen Petersen. I think a lot about her writing about how she shows up for the children of her friends. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been trying to be more intentional about bringing my children around my friends and breaking down some of the age barriers of community.
And I just don’t know where to put this. But apparently, letting women vote decreased child mortality.