Whether by choice or unfulfilled expectations, single ladies entering middle age are on the rise. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women 40-44 years old who never married jumped from 11.8% in 2000 to 16.1% in 2018. At the same time, new research from UK behavioral scientist, Paul Dolan, finds women who remain unmarried and childless are the happiest subgroup of people and are most likely to live the longest. Could stepping away from the traditional norms of a spouse and kids be a key ingredient to living your best life?
The answer, say the six women I’ve interviewed, sheds light on a more complex narrative than what a statistic may reveal. Most didn’t choose to be a family of one—it’s just how their lives played out. A miscarriage at 40, two divorces, a broken engagement and seven marriage proposals are the fabric of their combined personal history.
Some mourned—others did not— the children and husbands that were never meant to be, made peace as their biological clocks wound down, and then moved on, embracing the independence of a single lifestyle. “There is no question, once I opened the door into my 50’s, I did feel free of the grief,” says Melanie Notkin, a leading expert on this growing demographic she calls PANK (Professional Aunts No Kids). Maternal love is showered on nieces, nephews, friends’ children and pets who provide unbridled joy without the responsibilities that come with raising a child. Most say their greatest satisfaction is the strong bonds forged among longtime friends and family who are also their support system if help is needed. All except for one hope to fall in love again and share the rest of their life with a significant other.
No matter the path taken to get to this point, these women’s stories share a common thread: they radiate contentment and fulfillment achieved through accepting the life in front of you and creating new dreams for what lies ahead.
…on the childhood dream of a life that included marriage and children…
Sonja Lilljeberg | 43, Intuitive Healer, Massage Therapist, Reiki Master, based in Denver
Out of all of my girlfriends, I was the only one that did not include having to have a husband in my life plan. I don’t know if I ever wanted children. I got married at 29. I don’t regret getting married, but 2 ½ years later we were divorced. I loved my husband, but I wasn’t in love with him. My life was completely different than his and it wasn’t meant to be a good partnership. I would like to have a life partner. If that entails getting married, yes. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.
Joy Williams | Gen X’er, Health & Wellness Entrepreneur, based in Harlem
When I was 16, I wanted to have my tubes tied and adopt. I never particularly wanted to be pregnant! I still think I’m going to get married, but it’s not like I have somebody lined up. So no, I didn’t really mourn it. I’ve been having a good life.
Melanie Notkin | 50, Founder & Author: Savvy Auntie & Otherhood, based in New York
When I was young, I pictured my life married with twin girls. In my early 20’s I even inquired about maternity benefits at my first job. It was an expectation… With any kind of grief, it begins to subside as the years go on and you begin to let go. And that letting go gives you the sense of freedom to look at life differently and to not look at life in the context of what you are missing, but in the context of what you can take advantage of. It’s not the life I expected, but when I began to be able to appreciate it, I realized it’s a life beyond my expectations. I wrote two books. I’ve done things with my life I have never dreamed of. The reality is magnificent.
Amanda | 53, Lawyer, based in London *(didn’t want surname disclosed)
I always wanted children. Until I hit my early ‘40’s, a last ditch attempt. I always wanted to get married. I got engaged to the guy I was dating at the time. He didn’t want children and I did. It was very hard. I thought he’d change his mind about having children. Ultimately, I thought it’s best not to go ahead with it. My boyfriend after the one that proposed didn’t want kids, but he didn’t mind if I accidentally got pregnant. I kept hoping I might. At this stage I was 45. After I broke up with him, I knew there was no chance. I never wanted to do the IVF route on my own. It became a relief. I stopped looking for the father of my children and just got on with having fun. I felt a sense of freedom once it was too late to have children. I could start living freely.
Ghana Wilson | 55, Consultant to Revolt Hip Hop Summit, President at Green Gigz, based in New York
I used to go through magazines and cut out pictures of men and put them with me. I would write a story about my life with these men that included children, the car we would have, the house we would live in and the vacations we would take. As I got older, went to college and joined the workforce, I put it off. I was dating but it became less and less of a priority for me. Around my mid-to-late thirties I started to think about children. I became hyper-focused. I ended up getting pregnant at 40. I didn’t know I had fibroids and that caused a miscarriage. I’m good at compartmentalizing. I had a miscarriage and myomectomy back to back. I grieved and realized this might not be my path. Then, embraced I can be free to deal with my niece and nephews and parent them in a way. I’m happy with that.
Linda Rodin | 71, Entrepreneur, based in New York
I wasn’t dreaming about it when I was young at all. It never occurred to me that was the next step. Things are pretty good the way they are.
Letting go gives you the sense of freedom to look at life differently and to not look at life in the context of what you are missing, but in the context of what you can take advantage of.
…on how society values single, childless women over 40…
Sonja: It’s less for me than it would have been in my mother’s generation. But, I will go to dinner at a restaurant and they’ll ask, ‘Table for one?’ And I’ll say, ‘yes.’ Then they’ll seat me at the bar. I don’t always want to sit at the bar. Sometimes I actually want to sit at a table. Same if you want to go to the theater and get a single ticket. Sometimes it’s harder to get a single ticket than it is to buy two. Everything is sold in pairs.
Joy: I think some people have an unconscious bias. Early on in my career, people wanted to make concessions for those who had children. When people don’t have children, you can feel the extra burden. I think we should make concessions for everybody. ‘I should be the one who stays late every time because you have kids? No, I can stay late sometimes, and you can stay late sometimes. I might not have kids, but I have something to do.’ And, when people want to talk about children, they sometimes seem apologetic. They think it’s a delicate subject, and it hasn’t been for me. Since they value having kids so much… the fact that you don’t… there must be something wrong…
Melanie: Nobody sees men making a choice between paying the rent, falling in love, getting married and having children. Somehow for women we’re still living in that early pre-second wave feminist idea that career women are outliers. It must be they are too high achieving. That must be what’s wrong with them. Today even married mothers work. The other thing is we call women who remain childless into their 30’s, the term the U.S. Census Bureau uses is “delay.” Women delay childbirth because they got an education. Women graduate college at 22. They aren’t really delaying. Men aren’t exactly standing on the street holding signs and saying, “Please marry me, I want to be a dad.” We keep forgetting that men are a part of this and they are enjoying their own independence and want to marry later.
Amanda: I do feel people look down on me. Not everybody, but a lot of people still do and it’s a real shock when it happens. London is a big city and you would think it’s perfectly normal. I always have to explain it. When I was in Dubai last month, a woman said to me, “You’re too pretty to be single.” I thought it was quite flattering, but also people think if you’re single it must be that no one wants you. I’m perfectly confident.
Ghana: It was bad about ten years ago because, at that point, people still think, “You still have time.” I was mentoring at-risk youths and some of them were 12, 13, 14 and had kids. They would say: “Well, you’re not a mother so why would I listen to anything that you’re saying?” And I’m like, ‘I’m not a mother because I made a choice. That’s a huge life altering choice that will inform everything that you do.’
Since I only have to worry about myself, I can take leaps of faith. And I've done that several times in my career.
…on the freedom of being a family of one …
Sonja: I’m getting ready to move and I can do that without having to worry about moving my family–what does a school look like for my kids, etc. It’s just me packing up my car and going. It’s empowering. I can be selfish, that’s probably the best way to put it.
Joy: I’m not forced to do something just because someone else thinks it makes sense.
Amanda: It’s great knowing I can go anywhere at the drop of a hat (as long as I can find someone to watch the dog).
Ghana: It’s made me take more risks. I only have to worry about myself so I can take leaps of faith and I’ve done that several times in my career. If I fail, I just have to pick myself up. I recognize that I probably would not be able to explore that if I had children.
Linda: Having not had that other lifestyle, I don’t have anything to compare it to. It never occurred to me how lucky I am that I’m doing really well. I’m doing styling and if I want to do something else I’ll segue into that. I can wake up and say, ‘what am I going to do today?’ I have 150 plants in my apartment. My independence is cut off not by kids, but by plants and a dog. I am able to be generous with my family and friends, and I also donate to many causes that I feel passionate about, the less fortunate who need our help.
…and the challenges…
Sonja: Finding people who have the time that I have to go out and do things that I want to do when I want to do them. I’m a homebody and an introvert, so it’s really easy for me to spend too much time at home.
Joy: If I’m having a financial challenge, it’s 100% me. I live with my sister and niece, but we are not financially supporting one another. They pay a portion of the rent. There’s no partner to say, you can make more or I can make more. Major decisions are directed by me as opposed to deciding from a family perspective. Some days I’m like, this would be so much easier if someone else were involved.
Ghana: Figuring out how to do everything for yourself. It’s the little things–like my showerhead needs to be changed and it has needed to be changed for two months. If I had someone, that would be on their honey-to-do-list. I’ve missed three dentist appointments. Not having someone to remind you and to help prioritize is one of the biggest challenges. When I’m in a relationship, I’ve noticed, my partner takes some of that off my hands. Also wanting to cuddle with somebody, wanting to share some of my experiences, and have someone to travel with…
Linda: To support oneself. I’ve never had a rich father or a rich husband. I’ve been supporting myself since I was 17.
It's up to us to make choices that will make us happy. Those choices can even be our attitude in the moment - how we choose to move on from expectations that didn't manifest and keep going.
…and advice …
Sonja: Don’t get married just because you feel like you should get married. You’re going to regret that way more than if you stay single.
Joy: You can have a great life in any situation. You have to be thankful in it, whatever is happening. Taking the right attitude on how you can enjoy the life that you have, and what you can do to live the life that you want. Also, live a life outside of yourself where you’re in service to others.
Melanie: Happiness is a choice and it’s up to us to make choices that will make ourselves happy. Those choices can be our attitude in the moment, how we choose to move on from expectations that didn’t manifest and keep going. Keep in motion.
Amanda: Don’t get a complex about it. It’s quite easy to. Get over that. Don’t feel you should have to justify it. Keep confident. Keep your friends. That’s the most important thing in the world. Choose them wisely. Before I was 30, I thought, ‘If I’m not married by the time I’m 30, my life will be over.’ I wasn’t married at 30. Wasn’t married at 40. I would say to my young self that the worst has happened. But, it’s actually pretty great.
Ghana: You have to be comfortable with being alone. Being alone and being lonely are two different things. Being alone is a physical state and being lonely is an emotional state. I have been lonely, and I know loneliness can lead to despair. When I find myself getting lonely, I will pour myself into something that gives me purpose and helps someone else. I find that the loneliness goes away because I feel enriched.
Linda: Follow your own passions. Follow what you find interesting. Get a dog. Read. And stay curious.
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