Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Mean Macarena

I've been reading the work of Bella DePaulo, a psychologist who researches "singlism" (the negative stereotyping of single people) and I came upon a really good essay by Kay Trimberger.

Trimberger is the author of The New Single Woman (2006) (which I haven't actually read, I suspect because I'm busy being that woman), and her essay is entitled "Single Women over Forty Create the Good Life."

FYI, if you read that last sentence and thought, "Oh, okay, HERE WE GO.  More depressed and lonely women trying to claim they're 'happy,'" then you are participating in what DePaulo labels "singlism."

Because actually, research shows that there are quite a few happy single women over forty who are living the good life.  We get no airtime or media attention, of course, but we're out there.

I think in many ways, I was always lucky.  My mom and dad never "expected" me to get married: if it happened, great, if not, great.  My mom used to say, "There's more than one way of being happy.  I'd rather die knowing that you'll always be single than see you married to a bum who can't hold down a job or who cheats on you and treats you badly.  Faced with that option, you're much better off being single."

I also met a great person when I was in graduate school.  Her name was Helen, and she was in her mid-70's.  She and I became friends and stayed in touch for the next 15 or so years, until her death in 2006.  She had been married, but divorced--as she put it, "back in the day when you weren't supposed to do that."

When I met her, she had stopped heading to Colorado to ski in the winter because she had "recently hurt her knee."  She was about 75 years old.  She would still drive to Maine to visit friends in the summer, and she built furniture and taught woodworking.  She had a lathe in her garage.  She donated to a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and she gardened.

She had traveled the world.  She read prolifically and she loved classical music.  She owned her own home, which she had purchased with a friend some years before.  When her friend died, she bought out the friend's heirs and owned the home herself.

She took care of family members in poor health, and helped friends in good health.

Throughout my 20's, I always said, "When I grow up, I want to be like Helen."  She was a model of a single woman--an elderly single woman--who wasn't bitter or alone or bored or unhappy.

She eventually moved into a retirement community, and I used to drop by for dinner about once a month.   One night, a 20-something-year-old waiter gestured to me and asked Helen, "Is this your granddaughter?" and Helen said, "Oh, no, she's a friend."

The waiter turned to me and said, "I'll have you know, your friend dances a mean macarena."

Turns out, there had been a talent show the night before, and Helen had danced the macarena for everyone.

As the years passed, Helen faced some health issues.  She broke her hip at one point, and had to have major surgery on her thumb at another, and she had had breast cancer years earlier, long before I met her.  What always impressed me was, she was never caught off-guard by any of these things.  She took them all in stride.  She had clearly thought about the life she wanted to make for herself and decided how it could unfold calmly and happily.

In fact, Helen had implemented what Trimberger identifies as the "Six Pillars of a Satisfying Single Life."
  1. She had made a home for herself.  It isn't about whether you rent or you buy, it's about what you create with the space you occupy.  Many women defer finding "a home" because they think that this is what they're supposed to "get" when they get married.  So they're always kind of... ready to go elsewhere.  Keeping things portable.  Unwilling to "settle down" in a space that isn't shared with "the One."  They see the decision to call a place "home" (again, not legally, but emotionally) as an admission of defeat.  It isn't. Follow the advice of May Sarton in her collection of essays by the same name: "Plant dreaming deep."
  2. She had had a fulfilling job.  Helen was retired when I met her, obviously, but she still spoke fondly of the years that she had worked full-time.  But--and this is key--she wasn't a workaholic.  Too often, employers and co-workers have no qualms about dumping an unequal burden of the workload on their single coworkers or employees, because really, what else could single people possibly have to do all day but work?  Set limits on your workload and the demands on your time early and often.
  3. She created networks of friends and family.  Helen knew a lot of people and she was always open to meeting new people and making new friends (like myself). 
  4. She developed a community for herself.  When Helen moved into the retirement community, she reluctantly agreed to run for the Board of Trustees.  She was soon elected President of the Board.  She chuckled privately about the fact that she had "beat out some old man who used to be the CEO of a major airline.  He wasn't happy.  He couldn't believe he'd lost to a woman."
  5. She had connections to younger people.  When I first met her, Helen lived in a house that was surrounded by off-campus student housing (although it hadn't necessarily been that way when she first bought her home).  Helen always said she liked the change in the neighborhood, actually: she said it "kept her young."  She didn't mind living in the midst of people in their late teens.
  6. She had accepted her sexuality.  Helen and I never really talked a lot about this, but she used to comment that she didn't quite know what people were thinking sometimes.  She said, "I understand sex, I've enjoyed it myself quite a few times, but really... it isn't the most important thing in the world and in some cases, it's really just a bad idea."   As a divorcee in a generation when women didn't get divorced, she had had to parry a lot of very unwelcome offers when she was younger, and I think it helped her to see through some of the... what was really going on.  She said, "Men tended to think that once a woman had been married, well, she couldn't go back to not getting any, so she was... hot to trot, let's say.  You wondered whether these guys had ever looked in a mirror, the way they flattered themselves."  She also said that the wives or girlfriends of cheaters always knew what was going on, and that they would always blame the other woman.  She said, "My wife just doesn't understand me.  What a crock.  The two of them have been playing that little game for years and they understand each other quite well, actually.  It's something you want no part of, my dear."
As Trimberger points out, once she began disseminating her research findings, many married women chimed in to say that they needed these pillars in their lives as well.

Because really, if you look at each of the "pillars," they apply equally well to anyone, whether married or single, male or female.  They're applicable to anyone who is looking to have an active, engaged, and fulfilling life.

Most happily married people will tell you that they too have all of the things Trimberger identifies.

The key to happiness is not the sheer fact of marriage, but the way in which we live our lives in conjunction with others.

And yet, in the media, in Hollywood and practically everywhere you look,  marriage itself and the myth of "finding the One"(what DePaulo will call "matrimania") is presented as conferring automatic happiness.

It doesn't: the astronomically high divorce rate in the US testifies to that.

There really is more than one path to happiness, and even more importantly, there isn't just one kind of happiness to be found in life itself.

I think of what another mentor of mine once said: "Don't ever get so fixed on looking at one path that you can't see all of the other paths that are open in front of you.  Some of them may end up taking you exactly where you want to go, and some of them may end up taking you somewhere even better than you could have imagined."

Have the courage to dance a mean macarena.


  1. How nice to discover this. Helen sounds great and do so you!

    --Bella DePaulo

  2. Thank you so much! I'm a great admirer of your work.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."