Sometimes for me, being single means facing fear every day. It means looking the cultural expectations of the American Dream life trajectory straight in the eye and saying “you don’t define me.”
It means responding with kindness and presence instead of embarrassment when people make inadvertently rude comments about feeling old-maidenly at age 23, or when married friends say equally insensitive things like “you don’t know what tired/wisdom/anxiety/joy/frustration/love is, until you have kids/a husband.” Recently at a family wedding, I was standing next to my brother-in-law watching my niece play, when the photographer walked up and said “let me get a picture of you two!” Not that I don’t like my brother-in-law, but I could tell the photographer thought we were a couple, so I smiled awkwardly, and when he was done with the photo, I said “do you want to take a picture of him and his WIFE?” “OHhh, sure…” said the photographer, realizing his mistake. It’s hard to know what to do in those moments. It takes constant attention to respond out of grace instead of sadness or fear.
Part of that fear is related to really giving up on family. The obvious interpretation is the giving up of a ‘family of my own.’ But it also means giving up my birth family in some senses, because I cannot be healthy and remain a dependent child forever (at least, so my counselor tells me); and yet in so many ways I still identify and feel needs for family support, advice, and influence, especially when making larger life decisions.
Being single means accepting that those decisions will never truly matter as much to anyone else as they will to me. When it comes to what jobs I do, or where I live, or what financial choices I make, I’m the only stakeholder. And yet, making big life decisions like moving, buying a car, or career decisions in a vacuum just doesn’t seem wise. I crave investment and wisdom, perspective and assistance in a very noticeable way. Self-sufficient as I can appear at times, it’s (a bit of) an illusion. No one is totally self-sufficient, nor should they be. Just because no one is present to witness my breakdowns of helpless fury, grief, or how-can-i-get-it-all-done low points, doesn’t mean they don’t happen.
One thing I’m afraid of is fitting into the stereotype of being self-focused and selfish. The truth is, trying to stand on my own two feet does take a ton of energy. I balance work, housework, finances, househunting, lawnmowing, future-planning, traveling to family events because they’re never at the single person’s house…and so on. And while I say this, I can hear my married and parent friends laughing ruefully and unbelievingly. But I’m not joking. I realize that taking care of kids is a more than full-time job, and that part of the reason my married and parent friends are laughing has a lot to do with sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and all they really want is what I have plenty of…a few quiet moments.
But when, for example, my car breaks down, my life becomes singularly devoted to the task of getting to work, the car shop, and home. It takes up all my spare time, all my spare money, and all my spare focus.
So, am I self-focused? YES. I am. Because very few others are focused on my life in a real, practical way. People are around, and happy to have me around occasionally. But when it’s tax time, I’m in the trenches alone. No one is going to sit down (at least, unpaid) and muddle through the tax code voluntarily. When I have to decide whether I’m going to live with a roommate or pay the higher rent to live on my own, no one’s going to make that decision with as much at stake as I am.
Doing these big things alone is scary sometimes. What if I get it wrong? What if I end up bankrupt? What if I lose my job or get sick, who would help me? What if I die in my apartment on a Friday night? NO ONE WOULD FIND ME FOR AT LEAST 3 DAYS! They might wonder where I was…they might comment that I hadn’t shown up for work. but they probably wouldn’t start raising the alarm for real until Tuesday morning. You see? These are the morbid, real possibilities of singleness.
While being single certainly has its advantages, and it can look luxuriously quiet and self-focused from the outside, especially from the position of a noisy family, it still carries at least its fair share of daily fears.