The historical and cultural assumption about single women is that they are unhappy, lonely and pining for a spouse. The portrait of the single woman as a misfit and someone to be pitied does not reflect the experience of every single woman. It is a tired myth and stereotype, which must be contested with experiential alternative perspectives. From my own experience, I know that a single, satisfied and well-adjusted life is possible.
Women are socialised from an early age to expect to be married and to become mothers. While these qualities are not harmful in themselves, to make them a measure of a person’s worth is not only wrong, it diminishes the aspiration to full personhood of women. When marriage, childbearing and nurturing a family are touted as the measure of womanhood (therefore personhood), it distorts one’s inner journey towards realising all we can be in God. Being single as a 50+ woman has earned me the right to put my experience forward as a valid alternative to the myth that the single life is unavoidably lonely and sad. I do not agonise about being single. I, thankfully, also have never had a desire to have children, even though I have many children who call me mother and grandmother too. Saying I do not agonise about marriage is not the same thing as saying I do not have a need for companionship. However, do companions need to be spouses? I have many rich relationships that I receive as a gift without any exclusive claim to any of them, but they are not less rich and cherished. This should not discount the experience a single woman who lives in hope of finding a spouse one day. I believe a person can be happy in the life they have while still hoping for a different life in the future. Nevertheless, to say that all single women fall into that one category is erroneous.
After living abroad for a number of years, I met an old friend who asked me if I was married. When I said I was not, she instantly retorted, ‘What a waste of womanhood.’ I was in my mid-thirties at the time. By then I had figured that motherhood was not meant for me. When she spoke about her own life, my friend ended with the words, ‘My marriage is not a happy one, but at least I have children.’ The cultural expectation to have children seemed to trump the need for companionship in this case. A woman who has been married many years and has raised three lovely children to adulthood recently said how she would swap her life with mine if she could. It was such a loaded and abrupt statement that there was no scope to unpack it. These anecdotes dispel the notion that the married life is happier than the single life. It is equally fallacious to claim that the single life is happier than married life. We therefore need to learn to evaluate life against deeper foundational principles to avoid essentialist views of people and their experiences. Single people cannot be captured in a single representation. There are many categories of singles – the never-married single, divorced-single, widowed-single, marry-later-in-life single and even the married-single (whose marriage is in name only). The individual stories of each category are even more varied, discounting the notion that single women’s experience is singular (pun intended). I am single not for lack of opportunity and willing suitors. Neither have I consciously decided not to marry. If I had been in love with the institution of marriage and if childbearing was a priority, I would have married and had a family several times over, if the offers I have received are anything to go by. As I have grown older and learnt to analyse the myths and stereotypes that I was raised with, I have realised that God gives me a genuine choice whether or not to marry. Whereas the early (uncritical) Christian view made me think that it was God’s will for me to marry, I now realise that God’s supreme will for my life is to live a faithful and devoted life. That is the greatest way towards a fulfilled life. My story is undergirded by my Christian faith. I benefitted from writing reflection papers during my theological training in the areas of relationships, sexuality and marriage & family. I cannot point to a particular book that guided me into the views I hold. Reading widely and open conversations with different people have helped me not to feel confined. My life journey and experiences have determined the path I have taken and that choices I have made along the way, including staying single. They arise out of the richness of what has been a blessed and fulfilled life. I have had many enriching opportunities for study, travel and encounter diverse cultures, which have shaped me. For my particular story, my single status is a benefit, not a liability. I am also blessed to have a very small close-knit family and my single status is not an issue. They lovingly hold me on open palms; they offer me up to my life-work and lovingly receive me, and they value the unique life-experiences I bring to the family. Working as a pastor and counsellor, I often come across self-defeating outcomes in people who pin their hopes on only finding fulfilment in the ‘other’. Women expecting ‘the one’ to complete them and longing to have children, as an extension of themselves miss the blessing of cultivating their own personhood. Any person who wants to grow into her/his own must commit to the inner journey towards fullness and fulfilment. This conversation is not possible if we alienate the experiences of married and single people from each other. We need to begin at the level of our humanity, not our marital status.
To be alive is to feel an existential loneliness, no matter if we are coupled or single. Community is important, that is where we draw strength, and remember that we are part of something bigger, and it puts our issues into perspective. There is wisdom in what Anton Chekhov said, "If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry." Thinking to be married is never to have to feel lonely, cannot be further from the truth. Therefore, when people say single people are especially lonely at weddings, during Valentine’s Day and other family-centred gatherings like church, we must interrogate that claim. It is an over-simplification of marriage (or any form of coupling) and singleness itself. Singles’ experiences are varied. There are those who want more than anything to be in relationships, those who are happiest on their own and anything in between. We need to appreciate the mystery and complexity of the human experience. Fitting into a (cultural or peer-pressure) mould without reflection short-changes women of rich experiences and narrows their choices. My view is that being single is not better or worse than being married; it is different. The question should not just be, 'Why are you single?' It should also be, 'Why are you in a relationship/married?'
We need to transcend the biased view that paired existence is the default ultimate goal in order to open up space for engagement beyond the tired myths and stereotypes. I hope as society evolves everyone will feel free to live without judgment and limiting myths and stereotypical expectations.
Rev. Kuzipa Nalwamba, PhD