A couple months ago, I decided to finally heed the advice of all the advertisements and refinance my mortgage. While going through that process, I received an e-mail at one point asking me to confirm that my title details were accurate. Those details were my name followed by “A SINGLE WOMAN.” I forwarded the e-mail to a friend and asked, “Do they really need to put it in all-caps like that? I mean, why not just add the adjective ‘SAD’ before ‘SINGLE’ to really drive it home?” I was joking, of course, but only partially. While the all-caps did make it more judgmental and accusatory than it actually was, there is still a kind of negative association attached to “a single woman” that has nothing to do with capital letters.
I am a single woman. I am not married and I have no children. I have no romantic partner in the background to give the impression that at least some sort of official coupledom is imminent. These are facts, and yet as I’ve made my way through my 30s and am now about to enter my 40s, these facts have often felt at worst like a stigma, and at best like something vaguely off about me that I need to explain or justify. Obviously, there’s the whole historical/sociological tradition of women not being recognized as entities in their own right, which manifested itself in certain linguistic double standards (single women were “old maids” and “spinsters” while men are simply “bachelors”) and which some people are still building academic careers on in colleges across the country. But I’m not really concerned with the lingering sexism in some of the assumptions about women and marriage. I’m more interested in the tension that exists for all people—women and men—who remain single well into adulthood if not their entire lives and exist as a kind of strange and generally unrecognized (if not marginalized) minority.
I didn’t set out in life intending to be single. Growing up, I always assumed that of course I’d get married and have kids. But somehow, in spite of the fact that my mother gave me a copy of How to Find the Love of Your Life when I was in my early twenties and I read at least three chapters of it, I haven’t ever even come close to marrying. This outcome would have been shocking to me 10 years ago, and I understand and appreciate that most people who comment on my lack of husband and children do so out of kindness and caring, not judgment. The most typical sentiment I hear from others on this topic is surprise that I’m not married, usually followed by some kind of statement implying that I’m a great catch and/or would be a great wife and/or great mother. I’m genuinely touched by the compliment people are paying me in these statements, but I always feel a little bit depressed by them as well, because they imply that something is wrong with or deficient about my current state. That things are not as they should be.
I recognize that there are beautiful, enriching, soul-deepening experiences that I am missing out on not being married or having children, and there are times I’ve really mourned the loss of those experiences and imagine I still will from time to time in the years to come. But I’ve also begun to realize that some of the negativity attached to singleness is disproportionate, if not flat-out wrong, and a reflection of a distorted world view—one that views marriage and family as a superior and more fulfilling life option than being single. What’s particularly troubling to me since I am a Christian is that this seems to be even more true in the Christian community than in the rest of the world. In fact, “Christian” values and “family” values have become synonymous in many venues, and even in churches where they’re not (like my own), much of the culture and language still revolves around marriage and family. I love my church and find the people there to be some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and respectful people I’ve ever met. No one has ever overtly said anything to make me feel uncomfortable or ‘lesser’ about being single, and yet the large majority of analogies and anecdotes shared in sermons involve marriage and parenting. Obviously, there’s a natural fit since marriage is supposed to be a picture of Christ and the church, and God as our father and us as his children is a frequent biblical motif. Plus, all of our pastoral staff are married and have families, so it makes sense that they would draw from their own lives. Most of the time, this doesn’t bother me. But every once in awhile I wonder, what about those of us who don’t have spouses or children? How do we fit into these analogies and anecdotes? Does my church value singleness as much as it values the states of marriage and parenthood? I can’t help but question this when my church addresses its correspondence to me as “The Lo Family” and prays for children to find a godly spouse during the baby dedications.
In all the churches I’ve been part of throughout my life, singles and singleness have rarely been mentioned or addressed. When they have, it’s often been in reference to the passage in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul says it’s better to be single than to be married. Yet when (usually married) Christians reference this and address “all you singles out there,” instead of being compelling and inspiring, it tends to feel like a vaguely insulting consolation prize—the ugly girl being told she has a good personality. The Bible might say singleness is better, but based on church culture, it’s clear no one actually believes this. The other favorite is to talk about the “gift of singleness,” which has always managed to come across as the kind of gift someone leaves on your front doorstep before ringing the bell and running away. It’s certainly never come across as a desired state or a valid alternative to being married. Unless, of course, you are planning to be a missionary. Then singleness is all good and makes perfect sense.
But what about those of us who are not missionaries? What about those of us who are no longer waiting (like we were in our 20s) for the right one to come along? As encouraging as they’re trying to be, those who tell us that the right one could still be ‘out there’ (kind of like extra-terrestrial life) or that we can always adopt are perpetuating the idea that all singles are in some kind of incomplete state that a spouse and/or children would rectify. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I think this primary and unifying identity in Christ also trumps the distinction of single and married. To lift up singles and include them and their experiences in conversations about life and faith as naturally as those who have spouses and children, to deconstruct some of the false hierarchy and distinction between those who are single and those who are married, would be far more scriptural and Christian than praying for them to find The One. I also think it would be extremely encouraging, both to those who are single and feeling deficient or left out AND to those who are married and discouraged that having a spouse and children hasn’t lived up to the shining ideal it was supposed to be. They are simply different versions of being human and being a Christian.
Both states have positives and negatives. Both single people and married people experience longing and struggle. Neither state is capable of fulfilling us completely or of giving us a meaningful life—only the one who created us can do that. Perhaps a place to start in all of this is to remind each other of these truths and to even affirm some of the positives of singleness as a community of people. Not in a way that tries to make singleness superior to marriage (that would just be the same problem in reverse) or in a way that dismisses the sense of loss many single people experience, but in a way that demonstrates to those currently single and those who will grow up to be single that it’s not a sub-par state. That God’s favor and blessing on their lives has not been withheld in some way but pours out as freely to them as it does to those who have families.
I would say that I’m actively happy and content with my life about 75% of the time. That seems like a pretty good percentage. Part of what makes me happy is that I frequently have long blocks of uninterrupted time that I can devote to reading and writing. I can plan trips to Europe and run out to see a movie completely spur-of-the-moment. Being single, I’ve also had the time and energy to emotionally invest in the thousands of students I’ve taught over the past 17 years in a much deeper and more generous way than I could have if I’d had my own family. I can also call up my teenage nieces and happily listen to them talk about their lives for an hour or more, something I doubt I’d do if I had daughters of my own. One of the things that makes me happiest is having great conversations with friends, then coming home and being by myself. I like that balance of meaningful human connection and then the quiet and the chance to process and be completely myself without having to adapt to anyone else’s mood or personality.
I like being able to write a ridiculously long blog entry.
I still shy away from the notion of being “gifted with singleness.” With all its associations, it sounds so narrow and anemic and permanent. Who knows what the future will bring? I could still end up married. Maybe even with a family. But I no longer see that as a better life than the one I am currently living. What makes my life anything is that I am made in the image of God, and he lives in me and through me. That’s the gift that matters, whatever state I’m in.