No matter your accomplishments, marriage and children in our culture are considered the real achievements, and for those who remain on their own we reserve this silent decree: Something is dreadfully wrong with you. No matter how at peace you may be with being single, our society demands a reckoning for the never-marrieds.
Glynnis MacNicol, a glamorous, single, Brooklyn-based writer with a penchant for travel and a group of best friends, is about to turn 40. Because she lacks the conventional trappings of adult life — a partner and kids — she worries that the world will begin measuring her by what she doesn’t have. (About this, she’s wrong; the world’s judgment begins much sooner than 40.) To compound her concerns, she can’t help noticing that more people are exiting her orbit for marriage and babies than are entering for friendship; she feels constantly left behind.
Without a partner or a child, MacNicol wrestles with the notion that she’s “officially become the wrong answer to the question of what made a woman’s life worth living.” Another heartbreaking question crosses her mind: Is a life like hers a story worth telling? One crisis after another has punctured her ride to this milestone birthday. Her mother, contending with Parkinson’s, has transformed into a forgetful and often rage-filled stranger; her sister, newly separated from her husband, is juggling two small children and a surprise pregnancy; a close friend goes through a stillbirth; MacNicol can’t quite extricate herself from a dalliance with an unnamed celebrity.
Contemplating the uncertain situations of those around her, MacNicol considers: Maybe she did want to be alone. Then again, maybe not. When her sister gives birth to her third child, MacNicol goes to help her out. Mired in the everyday minutiae of child rearing, she experiences an electric charge from parenting, a warmth and glow. But is it what she wants? If she had a child, she’d know what she was supposed to do every day. She’d always be important to someone: “I’d never have to wonder over my own necessity or whether what I was doing was worthwhile.” Yet with a baby MacNicol would have to give up traveling on a whim and moving about as she pleases. If she doesn’t have a baby, she might feel regret, but she refuses to have a child as an insurance policy against some future remorse she may not experience.
In time, MacNicol’s biological alarm does sound, but the clock is in her head, not her body. “My life, precisely as it was — the product of good and bad decisions — began to come into focus for me. … I could see it for the first time as something I’d chosen.”
Some of her views on matrimony and parenting might strike certain readers as reductive or overly black and white. Marriage is no guarantee of happiness, and frenzied parents may roll their eyes at passages like this: “If I went home and got pregnant, an entire infrastructure would materialize around my life. I would be seen; even if I was alone I would never be alone.” But the similarly single will recognize MacNicol’s fears, beliefs and observations as undeniably true. One thing this book tries to make clear is that for married people with kids there is a language and framework in place to support and guide them, and that for those who are alone there is not.
Despite the occasional flatness of MacNicol’s prose, and some irksome references to her glitzy life, I found myself underlining sentences, and then entire passages, that resonated with me, articulating the extreme inadequacy and sense of dislocation single women of a certain age, like MacNicol — and like me — experience in moments when others are growing closer without you. For some, this book will read like an anthem to choosing the single, family-free life; for others, the story is clearly about ambivalence. To me, it’s about both.