Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.” — Toni Morrison, Sula
In her “gender letter” on July 13, Jessica Bennett, the gender editor of The New York Times, asked a very important question about the types of celebrations women have.
“An ode to old maids everywhere” brought forth a wellspring of emotion I’m pretty sure a lot of women have experienced to some degree. Bennett, a 36-year-old woman who is not married and does not have children*, celebrated the publishing of her book, turning it into a “feminist wedding” of sorts. As I continued reading, a familiar and bitter taste filled my mouth because I could relate to her.
The article and the commentary contained in it boil down to one fundamental understanding: there is no gifting guide or celebration that is of as much importance as my wedding registry. At the end of the day, there are those who would be more elated by my marriage and childbearing abilities than they would be by any professional goals I can attain.
Why is there an apparent, yet unspoken, hierarchy of celebrations we are socialised to appreciate above others? Why do we have to convince ourselves and others around us of our contentedness when there is no man or child in our lives? So what if you have a PhD in robotics, have published your first book or have gone on your first overseas solo holiday: Do you have an engagement ring on your finger?
As more of my peers take the leap into parenthood and marriage, my voice is breaking, trying to explain that I’m fine — but not too much, lest it appear the lady doth protest too much.
Many women — whether 30 is on a distant horizon or is bearing down on them — find out, quite reluctantly, that the world is structured for coupled people. Each of us reaches that crossroads where you are finding your footing professionally but on the heels of that is a cloying, uninvited feeling of lack. To borrow from Toni Morrison’s Sula, it is a secondhand lack, a missing limb on a body that appears whole. There is a pressure to find my “other half” because there’s no way I can be happy and lead a full life without these accoutrements of being a “real” woman or the semblance of a happy one.
With this is a haste to match, hatch and dispatch before it’s too late because there are only so many bridesmaid’s dresses one can wear before the invitations stop altogether. But at what cost?
My beauty will fade, my hips will soften and men will avoid me, or so we’re directly or indirectly told.
What I have achieved professionally is not a permission slip to “finally” have a husband, children and the outward appearance of a fulfilling life. This is the life I have chosen for myself, warts and all. The things I have worked hard for are not an aside in my quest to get a man. They are a necessary and celebration-worthy part of who I am because there is more to my life than taking a name or recognising my own nose in another’s face.
There is more to a woman’s identity than whether or not she’s partnered or has a child. Surely there are other milestones women can celebrate that are not a bridal shower, hen or push party? There’s nothing wrong with these events but why are they the only ones of great importance?
Imagine if, like Bennett, women created their own “feminist wedding” — celebrating milestones like buying your first car, realising an entrepreneurial dream, renting your first apartment or buying your first home. These are milestones worthy of celebration and yet, when some women attain them, somewhere in the congratulations is a question about when they’re going to finally “settle down”.
What is more important at any time in a woman’s life is knowledge of self, not a half-baked idea of what womanhood is in relation to sleeping next to a warm body or a baby on her hip. A want instead of a need for companionship is a far healthier pursuit: I want to live, not show how much of a “good” life I have, even if it appears lonely to the outside world. That, at least, would be a “loneliness” of my own and of my own making, not the one dictated by other people.
Our traditional markers of adulthood are woefully lacking — like the woman who gingerly asks if there’ll be single men at your event. Don’t get it twisted: love is a beautiful thing — but not when it’s foisted on me to prove my worth.