I am 39 and have never been married. That isn't so unusual these days, but I have never been engaged, lived with anyone, or had a long-term committed relationship. Now that is unusual. It's not that I don't like men or am adamant that there is no way I will ever marry. Many men have been part of my life, both as friends and as lovers, but after a while we each seem to go our own way.
Historically, women married for security, which really meant money. Men married for companionship, in the form of sex. Now that women can earn their own livings, and men and women can acceptably have sex outside of marriage, many people have full lives without being married.
As a child I knew I wanted to live on my own when I grew up. I remember being about 8 years old and walking around antique stores on Manhattan's Upper West Side with my mother. She said, "When you get married and have to furnish—." I protested, "I am never getting married!" I don't think she believed me then. But when I was 35 and bought a house, my mother gave me the money my late grandmother (her mother) left her grandchildren for "when they got married" or as my mother added, "when they buy a house." So I guess she is (reluctantly) getting used to it.
As a child I saw the long, stable marriages of my parents and other relatives, and it was enough to make me rebel. In 45 years of marriage my father has never boiled an egg or written a check. My mother thinks nothing of his waking her up from a nap to make a phone call for him. In reaction to this I resolved to be self-reliant. I was going to be "something" in a way the married women I saw were not.
Generations of women have, since childhood, assumed that husbands and children would be the focus of their lives. I, as a child, did the reverse. At 14, when I thought about what I would be doing in 25 years, I assumed I would be single but, more importantly, would be the youngest and first woman partner in a major New York City law firm. But, just as many women have found that marriage and children does not guarantee the life they expected, I have found that getting a first rate education, working hard and remaining single does not automatically bring the career you always expected.
My big surprise has been on the career side.Having children may well make a career more difficult, but staying single for the sake of your job does not always bring the "success" you expected; I am sure the University of Chicago Business School considers me a failure. For most of the jobs I have had, I have worked at a level where my women colleagues had families. What I enjoy about being single, which I never even thought about as a child, is the life I am able to make for myself outside of work.
I now live in downtown Washington D.C., in a vibrant neighborhood with restaurants, theatres, and about the worst public school system in the country. Because I am childless, I do not have to move to a suburb to chase a good school system. And I have the financial flexibility to change jobs or cities when a new opportunity arises, although Washington, D.C. seems to have become my home base. Wanting a change, I moved out to San Francisco for a job in a different field. When I sunk into a mid life crisis, I returned to graduate school full time at Georgia Tech in Atlanta for an M.S. in engineering and returned refreshed and invigorated. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to do all this with a husband and/or children to bring along.
In 1991 I was featured in a Newhouse News service article as a representative of the millions of Americans who live alone. I spoke about how friends had brought over chicken soup when I had 103-degree fever. That same group of friends has helped me through the corporate layoffs, trans-continental moves, and a horrible job with inept colleagues and an awful boss. I have helped several of them through cancer diagnoses and treatment, and aging parents.
Being single does not mean that one is alone; living alone does not mean that one is lonely.
Nevertheless, if you're single in a society geared to couples, you have to keep your sense of humor. My late grandmother wanted me to call her collect "because you don't have a husband to support you," even after I received my MBA. I could exhaust my word limit for this article with tales of the funny, silly and sometimes downright insulting things people said to me during the three years I ran the singles' group at the largest reform synagogue in Washington, D.C. The Jewish community laments the high intermarriage and low fertility rate of people like me; instead of welcoming us and respecting our accomplishments, it tends to treat us like children.
Being single grows on you. You find your own rhythm and start to like it. You can spend, invest or give away money as you wish, change cities or careers, or simply sleep late if you want to. You can stay late at work without worrying or leave a party when you have had enough. You buy a ticket for one for the shows, concerts, festivals and trips that fit your interests and enjoy them immensely.
It is only with the arrival of my five-year old nephew and three-year old twin nieces that "Aunt Debby" has felt how wonderful family can be. Does that make me want to have children of my own? Sometimes it certainly does.
Little ones are great, but since I have the financial, community and emotional resources to raise children on my own, I see marriage or the lack of it as an issue that can be separated from having children.
If I could "have my way," I would have my nieces and nephew living around the corner, and a dozen or so men close by and scattered throughout the world, with whom I would share my life as I go on living it. Because as much as I like the train ride up to New York to visit my sister and her children, "Aunt Debby" likes the ride back to DC, back home to my own house, friends and community. Back home to myself.
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