February 2020

A Birthday Cake of Societal Rebellion: Facing 40 alone

Author: Denise K. James

It’s a gray morning in January as I write this. Today I woke up late, made a cup of coffee and scrolled through an excerpt about the well-known philosopher Albert Camus on Brain Pickings, one of my favorite websites. This prompted me to pluck my tattered copy of The Myth of Sisyphus off my bookshelf and read at least half of one essay, underlining things just like I did as a college student. Next, I had a bowl of sugary kid cereal for my breakfast. Then I listened to Pink Floyd on YouTube—a “Best of” compilation.

I tell you all this because I want to illustrate to you that I, as a single woman merely weeks away from the milestone of my fortieth birthday, have absolutely no one to plan my mornings with, and, as a result, my mornings (as well as my days and nights) are devoted to suiting my own whims. Sure, I’m writing this on Saturday, and I’m not independently wealthy. I do go to an office five days a week, since someone has to pay for my cereal and internet connection. But aside from work, my agenda belongs to me alone.

Interestingly, I find that society typically acknowledges only the “cons” to my situation and not the “pros.” This comes with the fact that society believes I should be coupled up at this point in life, or at the very least, I should be dating someone seriously. Heck, even recently divorced would be more acceptable! But my situation—four decades into life, never married (never even engaged) and no children—is something that most people in my age group cannot relate to. Top all that off with the fact that I live in the South and that I’m not even actively on a dating website, in a kayaking group, or asking my married friends with that tell-tale note of desperation in my voice to set me up, and you have a layered birthday cake of societal rebellion.

It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, roughly around age 30, everyone in my inner circle was just starting to get married and also trying to figure out why I was in the midst of ditching my boyfriend at the time without any visible enthusiasm to meet another contender. In those days, my friends did try to set me up. My relatives did still ask me over holidays and on beach excursions who I had my eye on. And my mom did still have hope for grandkids. Now that I’m turning 40, all of that has largely disappeared. Once in a great while, some friend with four children will suggest that I try the latest “swipe for lifelong love” phenomenon. But, for the most part, I’ve been labeled a career woman. In fact, a little while ago, my friend Jenny texted me and asked, “What are your plans for 2020? Are you staying at your job?”

Yes, I guess if you want to, you could call me a bit selfish. But I also don’t want to make my life sound like it’s all choosing my own music, day-drinking and spending entire paychecks on massage therapy and top-shelf hair products. Though most of my married or coupled counterparts refuse to acknowledge the “cons” of their own situations, at least to me (I never hear them say how horrifically boring it is to have a husband or how they just want to gouge their eyeballs out while cooking dinner for the fam on some nights), I am well aware of the cons of being middle-aged and single. I have a hunch it’s because I’ve spent at least 15 years hearing these cons, all from well-meaning individuals who worried I’d someday have regrets. Comments such as “getting old by yourself is sort of sad,” “you’ll only have one income,” “you won’t get the marital tax benefits,” “children and family enrich your life,” and so on have certainly run rampant, and I would be lying if I said they’ve had no effect.

There are also other “cons” no one talks about as much, because they’re more difficult to discuss or are straight-up gloomy. Like walking into a church and feeling isolated because you don’t have a family—so you just stop going. Or knowing family members and acquaintances are wondering to themselves whether you’re sexually frustrated or sleeping around. Or quelling that recurring fear you’ll fall off the couch, hit your head on the coffee table and die alone in a one-bedroom apartment, discovered later by a neighbor who never knew your name.
Of course, the truth is that sad moments and irrational fears also happen to those who are experiencing life in a pair. Existence is not a 24/7 picnic for any of us, and frankly, all of us have to take it one day at a time and hope for the best.

Am I looking for love? Do I still have hope? I suppose so, but I would not say I’m desperate to find it or even proactive about it. I figure the Universe will bring me love, or it won’t, and I’ll concentrate on the things I can control—like my career, my wardrobe, and my social calendar.

Anyway, to me, the best part of love is its mystery—wondering whether it might be waiting for me around the next corner. Honestly, that’s really the reason I stay off dating sites nowadays and instead just try to speak to as many strangers as possible. Some might argue—perhaps even you, dear reader—that my way of doing things is far too passive and that I should scout love for myself more purposefully. But that would mean putting myself above the Universe and the power of the unknown.

Besides, I have so many other things to love in my life. Sometimes, I’ll find myself choked up over a beautiful flower or the stray cat that stops to let me scratch behind her ears. In those moments, I think to myself, I am not alone after all.

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