I’m in My 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?
A few months before my 42nd birthday, I was out to dinner with friends and found myself seated next to a well-known older male writer.
I happened to be in the final stages of finishing a proposal for a memoir about being a single woman over 40 without children, and was inwardly marveling at the timing of our encounter. I was a fan of his. Perhaps he might offer some wisdom? Words of encouragement?
As drinks were delivered I sketched the outline of the story: No one had prepared me for how exhilarating life could be on my own. I was traveling all the time, doing what I wanted, when I wanted, released from the fear of the clock that had dogged me through my 30s. Conversely, no one had warned me of the ways in which it would actually be difficult; my mother had been very ill, for instance, and part of the book was about caring for her.
No sooner had I finished than the famous writer placed his glass firmly on the white tablecloth, leaned back and declared: “Glynnis MacNicol, you have a terrible life!”
Not exactly the feedback I was hoping for.
He continued: “You’re all alone in the world, and have no one to help you.” He turned to my friends, dramatically interrupting their conversation. “Do you know how terrible this woman’s life is? She’s all by herself!”
My friends managed to snort back their drinks, barely. “But I’m fine,” I protested lightheartedly, hoping to return the discussion to writing. “I’m quite enjoying myself.”
He took a disbelieving sip of his drink. “I want to help you,” he said. He then instructed our server to wrap up his untouched steak and insisted I take it home.
He thought he was being kind, I knew, but that didn’t change the fact that on an otherwise perfect spring evening in Manhattan, I again faced a dilemma I’d been struggling with since turning 40: how to counter other people’s disbelief that I, single and child-free, could possibly be enjoying my own life.
It’s a particularly frustrating Catch-22 for 21st-century ladies of a certain age. If I insisted that I really was having a great time, I was a lady who doth protest too much (men never seem to doth too much in this regard). Politely allow the assumption that I was in a pitiable state, satisfied by the fact that I knew better? That just perpetuated the problem.
I encounter this type of disbelief frequently — and nearly as often from women, although rarely expressed in such a wonderfully direct way.
A year earlier I’d mentioned to an acquaintance that I found it amusing that my married friends often expressed envy over my large new apartment — and that I live in it alone — and was gently told, “they were just being nice,” to make me feel better (I assume about the fact that I was alone). There was my best friend’s wedding, a few days after I turned 40, when, happily surrounded by my oldest, closest friends, I was assured I shouldn’t worry because “there’s still time.” (This from a guest to whom I’d just been introduced.)
Once, after telling a group at a party that I’d spent a month living in Paris, I was told that it was “nice that you can still enjoy yourself.” As if the fact that I was enjoying myself — by myself! With a baguette! In Paris! — was somehow heroic.
For a long time I did brush these remarks off. Yet another unexpected gift of my 40s: just how little concern I have for others’ opinions about me. But it’s wearing thin. And increasingly I find myself frustrated by the belief that I, a reasonably successful person by most measures, do not know my own mind.
Not long ago, a friend described my book to a group of women in their 50s and 60s. They started laughing, she told me. She asked what was so funny. “It’s just that your friend will change her mind about kids at about age 48,” they said. “And then there will be a scramble, and a sperm bank, and a tank will arrive in her living room. She’ll change her mind, that’s so clear.”
So clear! As if I didn’t understand the consequences of my decision making. I suppose this should not surprise. As a culture, we seem to thrive on judging other women, whether it’s their appearance (see every best-dressed list, ever) or what they should be allowed to do with their bodies (cast a glance at the headlines regarding the precarious future of Roe v. Wade). We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women on their own, navigating their own lives, let alone liking it.
But, truthfully, it was the laughter that cuts to the heart of my diminishing patience on this topic. My life is full of deeply meaningful relationships that go unrecognized when people tell me “not to worry.”
I have chosen not to have children, just as I have chosen to be in the lives of those around me. I am Auntie Glynnis to many — and have the framed artwork portraits of my hair and school photo magnets to prove it. I am lucky to live upstairs from my oldest friend and her children — I get to do school pickups and nap time wake-ups. I have two nephews and a niece whose lives I’m invested in. I attend birthdays, sports events and read them stories over FaceTime.
If close relationships make people happy, as research suggests, I’m lucky, and grateful, to be inundated with those. I’m, if not always the first, then the second emergency phone call for many friends (though when those happen simultaneously it can feel like I’m my own private 911 line).
I’m the confidante and sometimes the confessor, the Sunday dinner guest, the person overwhelmed with holiday invitations. I’m the emergency contact on school forms, summer camp forms, hospital forms and the school “Share Day” invite list. These forms may seem negligible, but like all paperwork attached to our major relationships, they outline a life of love and gratitude.
In the past I have joked that I have actually come closer to having it all than most. But that’s not true, either. There’s no such thing as “all.” I simply have as much and as little as any other woman I know and look forward to the day when women — single, married and otherwise — no longer need the words “husband” and “baby” to act as a special lemon juice squeezed over our lives in order to make them visible.
Though that too is changing. The other day my niece declared, “I want to be just like you, Auntie Glynnis! Single and no kids.” She’s 7, and has never needed to be convinced I have the life I want.
In the meantime, I have learned to enjoy everything I have. Including leftovers.
The morning after my fateful dinner, I removed the takeout container from my fridge, cracked an egg in a frying pan and enjoyed my extra-decadent breakfast. I suppose it’s fair to say I was having my steak and eating it too.