June 24, 2004
Pariah or Trendy?
I was born into a world of one-size-fits-all lifestyles: either I'd marry and have children or be a subject of gossip and humiliation.
In 1970, just before the women's movement came into full swing, I married. At 20 I was a child, struggling to make a marriage work and separate from my Holocaust survivor parents. Education, career and independence hadn't figured into my upbringing, but I often daydreamed about what my life would've been like if I'd had choices. My husband also questioned our traditional life and eventually we parted. At 27, I was terrified when my fantasies became a viable reality. But as I got my footing, I exploded into the new world of choice, greater opportunities for women, more tolerance for divorce and a growing awareness that happiness wasn't about fulfilling my parents' dreams. My late 20s through my 30s were an exciting time as I developed from a blurry image into a vibrant, four-color photograph.
Fast forward to 2004. I'm still single. Not immune from the expectations of family, society and my own biological and emotional pulls, I've moved in and out of deep longings to marry, have children or become a single parent. I've also experienced being single with no children as a liberating license to focus on me in a way my childhood hadn't allowed.
A generation ago I might have been seen as a pariah. Now it appears that I'm part of a trend. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, 43 percent of all Americans 18 and older are single. Since 1980, there's been a 13 percent increase in the number of single adults, and that number isn't expected to decline.
The reasons are numerous. Economic freedom of women has created large numbers of women in no rush to marry. Men, long socialized to look to women to care for them, have the conveniences of technology to help them care for themselves in the most basic ways. In addition, with nearly one out of two marriages ending in divorce, the age of first-time marriages has risen. Longer life spans have created a large number of adults who live long after the death of a spouse, or whose marriages end after 20 or 30 years. Many will marry again, while others will remain single. And then there are those who might be like me, who later in life find themselves and discover a stunning release from external expectations.
The fact that activist and author Gloria Steinem waited until she was 66 to marry should prove that single adults are vital, intelligent and responsible. But as a society -- we're not there yet -- single people still get a hard time of it.
Karen Gail Lewis, a Maryland-based pscyhotherapist and author of "With or Without a Man" (Bull Publishing, 2000), blames this on what she terms, "the cultural trance." Simply put, while statistics tell us otherwise, we have a deeply ingrained belief that only marriage will make us whole.
Colorado-based Daphne Rose Kingma, psychotherapist and author of "The Future of Love" (Doubleday, 1998), says this idea comes from our collective unconscious. We know that marriage isn't working for many of us, but our unconscious is like a warehouse of primal needs and beliefs, hearkening back to a time when men and women needed each other for survival.
In the Jewish community where marriage and family are so highly valued, the single, happy adult is a relatively new concept. As it takes hold, what will become of the stereotypical Jewish parents, worrying about their child being single at 30 or 40 or 50? Especially when it turns out that this child isn't commitment-phobic, selfish or in some other way damaged.
On the contrary, the correct adjective might be lucky. Not to be unmarried necessarily, but to be living at a time when there are so many choices.
So, here I am, living out my life in a way I hadn't expected: Single, 53, not apologizing.
Sandra Hurtes is a Brooklyn-based writer whose essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Forward and other publications.