Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How to Remain Single and Childless

Click here for the journal that just published this essay.

Fall in love early; fifteen is not too soon. If you can, fall in love with an older man, a senior if you are a freshman for instance, and make sure that he’s already in love with another girl who snatches him back when she finds out about you, so that your heart begins to develop calluses at an early age. Cry every day for six months after he dumps you. This is a good time to have your first run-in with the law: take your parents’ car, roll down the windows, crank your Van Halen tape, and drive recklessly down the back roads of your town until you are pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of a broken heart. This will also serve to prime your parents for future romantic transgressions.

Vow to never fall in love again.

During whatever is left of your high school career, channel your energy into having serial boyfriends. Establish a two-month relationship limit and stick to it. This will make you fit in with your peers, who are behaving similarly, and will please your parents, who need to know that the first relationship that ended badly did not scar you for life. In college, continue this pattern, but only until your junior year, when you will have to buckle down and focus more on your studies in order to obtain a degree. The degree is important, for if you are to remain single, you’ll have to support yourself.

Sometime between the ages of 20 and 22, against your better judgment, fall in love again, but this time fall in love with an even older man, preferably old enough to be your father, biologically. We will not call this a mistake. We’ll call it a learning challenge. Continue to behave like a 20-year-old: go to the bars with your girlfriends, flirt outrageously when you’re out with them, join a city-league volleyball team and consistently arrive on your older boyfriend’s doorstep drunk, with sand in your hair, at three o’clock in the morning. Run to your parents when your boyfriend scolds you for this misbehavior, and eventually move in with him when he insists that it would in be your own best interest. You think it would be, too.

Live with him for as long as it takes to ingrain in your memory how difficult it is to co-habitate with a man. At the same time, keep in close contact with your girlfriends, all of whom will be dating younger men within your age range, so that you are constantly aware of the fun you are missing out on. Take your boyfriend home as often as you can, preferably to weddings and baptisms, so that you can begin to train your family to accept your choices. Pretend not to notice that he has more in common with your parents than with you. Entertain thoughts of having children with this man; you know that he wants them, and you think that you might, too. Envision being forty and pushing your husband in his wheelchair to your child’s high school graduation. Remember all the stories that you’ve heard about your great-aunt who married a forty-year-old when she was sixteen and ended up taking care of him until she was eighty because he wouldn’t die. Be sure to tell your parents that you’re considering having children with your boyfriend so that you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away, so that no doubt remains concerning their disappointment in you.

When it’s time, go ahead and let the honest truth in. This will be difficult because so far you’ve been trying very hard to act as if all of this were normal. Begin to dislike not being mistaken for your boyfriend’s daughter on vacations that you take; you want other people to recognize, as you do, that something is out of sync here. Don’t fail to notice that you have more in common with his teen-aged nieces and nephews than with him. Pay particular attention to the age-related physical attributes of your boyfriend that escaped you before: hair in the ears, thick toenails, wrinkles around the eyes. Let this bother you, even though you know it’s not fair. Lie in bed with him while he sleeps and compare the skin on your arm to the skin on his arm. Eventually, revert to your old bad ways and pick up being twenty where you left off, even though you’re older than that now. When he suggests that perhaps it’s time for you to either stop misbehaving or move out, choose the latter and leave him immediately. And when he attempts to reconcile—and he will, because he knows just as well as you do that you’re young and still learning—make sure that you listen good and hard to yourself say, “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” This will become your motto from now on. Notice that you are a cocktail waitress lying on the floor of your unfurnished, one-room apartment when you speak these words for the first time.

Move far away, the farther the better, so that all your friends and family will believe you when you say that you are putting the past behind you and starting over. Get a good job that pays well; you do have the degree for it. Begin to cultivate a close circle of friends; this won’t be difficult because people recognize you as open-minded, responsible, yet slightly risqué. Besides, you’re beginning to have a cache of good stories to tell, and most people haven’t lived as much as you have.

Continue dating. Avoid upscale, trendy bars and all cultural events; the men you will meet there might be well-educated and financially secure, and you don’t want that. Instead, frequent neighborhood dive bars where you will meet construction workers and truckers, men with whom you share a love of beer, well-stocked juke boxes, and nine-ball. Become a regular, a familiar face, so that no one blinks an eye when you once again climb on stage to play the cowbell with the band: you are the cowbell girl. When you tire of that scene, become a regular at a local coffeehouse, and get to know the guitarist who plays there every Tuesday and Friday evening. You’ll like him: he has long hair, torn jeans, and enough money to buy new sound equipment, but not quite enough to move out of his parents’ home, not just yet. Eventually you will discover that he is talented, charming, within your age range, and a compatible sexual partner. For these reasons and no others, allow him to move in with you.

Learn to appreciate his quirky sense of humor—when he behaves like an ape at the mall, believe him when he says he was only pretending for the children. Don’t think twice about the increase in your grocery and utility bills—your new roommate regularly slips you fives and tens, and the immediacy of cash is enough to make it seem like he’s actually paying his share. Help him haul his guitars and speakers from gig to gig. Drive him yourself when his car breaks down. Hang out alone in the bars and coffee shops where he plays, and pretend not to notice when he takes phone numbers from other women; after all, that’s just part of the show. Call your parents and all of your siblings to let them know that you’re finally learning how to compromise, to give a little. You’re even thinking of getting married.

Listen intently when your new partner speaks of future recording contracts, of breaking into “the big time.” Be happy for him when he gets out-of-town gigs, and lend him your car when he goes to them. Make sure that you fill the tank for him before he leaves, because you know as well as he does that he won’t get paid until after the gig. Familiarize yourself with the city bus routes and schedules because he has your car now more than you do. Don’t pay attention to your friends when they suggest that he might be using you; they’re just jealous because, while they’re dating boring lawyers and architects, you’re dating an artist. Think about how talented your children will be.

After six months of this, slowly--but with increasing regularity--begin to wonder if this man is ever going to get a real job. When he complains that you are not being supportive enough, try not to raise your eyebrows and make choking noises—it’ll only make things worse. During your bus rides to and from work, remember that you’re breaking your two-month rule. Finally, listen to your mother when she calls to say for the umpteenth time that he is not “the man for you.” While you wait for him to come home on that last night, chant your motto: “I can’t maintain a relationship. I’m just not cut out for it.” Note that you are listening to your old Van Halen tapes and drinking cheap beer at the time. When your man arrives, run to the car and make sure that the gas tank is on empty, as usual. Then ask him to move out.

We’ll call that learning challenge number two.

How old are you now? Twenty five? Take a good look around: most of your girlfriends are still single, going to the bars, dating freely, living it up. What were you thinking living with that guy? It’s high time for you to re-connect with your old crowd, get back into the swing of things. And now that your musician has moved out, you have more money to spend on your own social life. You don’t want to fall into your old bad habits, though—you’ve played your last cowbell. You decide that while you need to get out and start having a life, you don’t want to call attention to yourself, lest new strange men recognize you for the learning-challenged individual that you are. So you decide to become a lurker.

You’ve seen them before, the people who are able to go out to bars, to parties, and hang back in the shadows. They’re the ones who stand quietly on the sidelines, in the background, watching everyone else engage freely in conversation and festivity. While they are sometimes in the company of another lurker of the same sex—a lurking friend—they usually lurk by themselves. You respect these people, because they seem at ease, and they have the confidence it takes to stand alone in a crowd without appearing out of place.

You begin to lurk.

You are a self-conscious lurker at first; you don’t know what to do with your hands, and by definition you can’t chat up those around you. You begin to drink more than you ever have, which keeps your hands busy, and gives you something to do while you’re lurking. Soon enough you’re lurking comfortably, on a regular basis, at one particular establishment. You begin to notice another lurker who frequents the same bar you do; one night you decide to buy him a drink. He ends up buying you three more and soon enough you have tossed off your lurking clothes: you are chatting freely and engaging in much festivity. Back at your apartment that night with him in tow, you toss off your real clothes. This sets the stage for learning challenge number three.

You’ve never been involved with a man quite as irresistible as this one. Even better than that, his first language isn’t English like yours is, so while he revels in your quick wit and helpful grammar suggestions, you revel in his accent and exotic good-looks. Having met as lurkers, you have much in common: you both like to be alone, you both have your guards up, and neither of you are ready to make any kind of commitment whatsoever. These similarities work quickly to solidify your relationship, and before you know what’s hit you, you are in love once again.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

After several months, maybe six, begin to envision marriage with this man. After all, you’re practically living with him already, and the cards and letters and phone numbers that you occasionally find from other women seem old, from a former life he led. Even though none of your friends think he’s “your type,” call your mother regularly and tell her that this time, you think you may just have found “the one.” Don’t tell her that what’s best about your relationship with him is the sex, though; she is a hopeful woman and still believes that you are a virgin.

Think about how attractive your children will be.

One night, when he’s working late and you’re at the house alone doing your laundry and his, listen intently to the female voice that leaves a message on his answering machine, thanking him for the roses and the “fun time.” You’ll want to pick up the receiver and talk to rose woman, but rules are rules: you don’t answer the phone at his place. Instead, drink a bottle of wine and ransack his bedroom looking for evidence of transgression. When he finally gets home, drunk with lipstick on his collar, lay with him in bed until he passes out, then sneak outside and ransack his car. There, on the front seat, you will find a slip of paper with a woman’s name and phone number on it. You know this can’t be rose woman, because obviously she was not with him tonight. Steal this piece of evidence, but don’t talk about it, especially not with your friends: it will only serve to reinforce their negativity.

Continue to date this recovering lurker; just like recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, he is prone to relapses, and you understand. You know he’s been out lurking, and you know very well what can happen: that’s how you met him, after all. Give him another chance. One night, when he’s been out with his friends and you’ve been at your apartment—where, incidentally, you’ve been spending more and more nights alone—get to thinking. Drink a bottle of wine and nurture your sixth sense. After a few hours of restless sleep, give in. Get up and get dressed, and sit at your kitchen table playing solitaire until it’s light out; no use in conducting a commando mission when you can’t see anything. Drive to his house and notice the strange truck parked out front. When you walk to the door, look through the front window and notice the purse sitting on the kitchen table. Use your key to get in, and notice the clothing and beer bottles strewn across the living room, leading into the bedroom. Step quietly into the bedroom and try not to hurt the nice lady when you pull out the top dresser drawer and toss it onto the bed, directly over the spot where her skin must definitely be touching your boyfriend’s under the sheets.

They’re awake now, and you have to leave. Before you go, reach inside the bathroom and yank the medicine chest off the wall. This won’t be difficult; it was rickety in the first place. Stop in the kitchen to find scissors and methodically cut her blazer—there it is, hanging on the back of a chair—in half. Struggle mightily when he tackles you from behind, and try not to get cut too badly as you both roll around in the broken glass from the lamp you threw at him in your attempt to fend him off. He says he’s going to call the cops, so now you really have to go. Once you’re in your car, back over his mailbox before driving away.

There has never been a better time to have your second run-in with the law. Indeed, it’s long overdue. Drive home quickly so as not to miss the police when they arrive. He has sent them to scare you. You are duly scared—after all, you started it. Luckily, your one black eye, the scrape on your cheek and the blood running down your ankle into your sneaker all help to convince the officers that you’ve been punished enough, and it’s not like anybody wants to press charges. They leave you with a warning: stay away from him.

You take them up on their suggestion; in fact, you decide it’s high time to get out of town. After you call in sick to work and get your ankle stitched up down at the ER, hop a flight home, back to your parents’ house halfway across the country. Hole up there for a week, maybe two—take as long as you need to catch your breath. Attempt to bask in all the attention you receive from the continual stream of family members who come by to see you: your sisters, your brother, all of their kids, your grandmother. The neighbor lady is a nurse and she’ll take your stitches out for you, so no problem there. At one point, be sure to tell your parents that you’ve learned your lesson, that all that bad business is behind you now, so you can see their faces fall, their hands flutter, their eyes look away.

They hardly know you anymore.

When you’re all healed up and your sense of responsibility has kicked back in, catch a flight back and return to work. Pretend that you’re fine, just fine—eventually, you really will be. Learning challenge number three under your belt, you’re that much closer to your ultimate goal: to remain single and childless, remember? Repeat your motto every time you step out your front door.

And start to smoke. You’re going to need it from now on.

By this time, your friends are worried about you. You’ve been spending a lot of time alone, and they think you need to get out more. You agree, but since they all have boyfriends or husbands, they are mostly unavailable to accompany you as you begin to develop a social life without the relapsed lurking man. Accept all of their offers to meet available men in group situations, and be agreeable when your friends set you up on blind dates: it is imperative for you to at least appear receptive to new romantic relationships, especially since your mother now calls you every other night without exception to check on your progress in this area. You’ve never lied to her before, and you don’t want to start now.

Only accept dates with non-smokers, and if you start to enjoy their company, smoke regularly in their presence.

Buy your first house all by yourself.

After a longish period of time, perhaps when you’re approaching your twenty-ninth year and your friends have run out of non-smoking men to fix you up with, decide that the best way to both attain your goal and to appear normal is to date someone who has the least likelihood of desiring children or marriage: begin to date a much-older man. Don’t worry, he’ll come along: your friend will fix you up with him because, she says, you have so much in common outside of the age difference. As opposed to the older man you dated when you were twenty, this man—learning challenge number four—should not simply be close to your parents’ age: he should be their age.

In the best-case scenario, this man will be a powerhouse of success. He should be gainfully employed, a politician on the state level or an Olympic coach, so that you have the opportunity to see him on television when he’s out of town. His children, all girls, will be your age or older, an attribute you appreciate since he probably won’t be interested in having any more kids. Allow him to wine you and dine you—you’re living large now. Hang on his arm at ritzy parties, accept all gifts without hesitation. You’ve never been treated so well.

Travel with him. Listen to his stories—his are even better than yours. Humor him by shopping for Jeep Cherokees with built-in baby seats; he says he’s always wanted a boy, but you know that he must certainly be kidding. Fall into the habit of spending more time at his house than at your own; he has a pool, a fireplace, a gym, and his own movie theater. You have a microwave. Tell his children when they call that yes, you’re taking good care of their father, and yes, he’s taking his medication.

Even though you’re beginning to have less and less in common with your own friends—most of whom are now getting married and having babies—keep in touch with them, for you will need reassurance every so often that your new relationship is indeed promising. Try not to argue with them when they all tell you that actually, this one seems to make the most sense for you, that they’ve always known you’d end up with an intelligent, hard-working man. After a few months, call your parents and break the news gently: you’re dating a senior citizen. It will take them several months to accept the idea, but eventually they will admit that they only want you to be safe and happy, and if this is what it takes, so be it. Besides, your mother has seen him on TV, and he strikes her as a trustworthy sort. Handsome, too.

Just about the time that you’re starting to feel comfortable, when you’ve reached the point where you can efficiently maintain two households and you rarely think about younger men, hardly ever, your own particular man—this one who is generous, kind-hearted, and sincere--will sit you down on his leather couch, pour you a glass of vintage merlot from his wine cellar, take your hand in his, and reveal that he has a big surprise for you. Before he can tell you what it is, though, he needs to know if you love him.

Of course you don’t, though you wish that you did. And, though you are mostly a truthful person and not prone to lying, you don’t want to appear rude. To complicate matters, you are curious by nature, and you want to know what the surprise is. You feel that if there was ever a situation in which lying was acceptable, this is the one. So, you lie.

The surprise? He’s moving to Africa and he wants you to come along! If he’s a politician, he will have accepted an ambassadorship to a large but struggling third-world nation. If he’s an Olympic coach, one of the world powers is jealous that he has coached the U.S. team to first place, and they have offered him a position he can’t refuse. In either case, he wants you by his side as he forges ahead into this last great adventure.

Be careful.


Tell him you’ll think about it.

Spend several nights in a row at your own place. Call all of your friends to see what they think. They will be supportive but of no real help because, while none of them have even come close to being in your position, it sure sounds like fun to them. Test the waters: call your parents and tell them you’re moving overseas. Fill in the long silences by telling them about all the fascinating people you’ll meet, the wonderful new life you’ll lead, all the great opportunities that will suddenly open up for you. Tell them they can come and visit you. Wouldn’t they like that?

Eventually, be honest with yourself—yes, it’s time for that again. Just like before, this will be hard, but even more difficult this time because you lied, and you know that you shouldn’t have. Tell the man—who, again, has treated you better than any other man ever has--that, although you appreciate his invitation, you simply can’t go. You don’t want to go to Africa. You want to stay here. Alone.

Continue to watch CNN so you can keeps tabs on him.

Repeat your motto.

You’re over thirty now. You haven’t been back to visit your family in awhile, and you’re missing out on seeing your nieces and nephews grow up. Join a frequent flier club to take full advantage of your miles, and go home regularly. Tape a picture of yourself to each of your siblings’ refrigerators so that their children will know who you are. Put a picture of yourself in a nice frame and give it to your parents, so they’ll know too.

Try not to recognize the curve of your own chin when your six month old nephew smiles at you, or wonder at how, while his eyes are still blue, all the rest of the kids have your color. Tell your mother, when she gets out your baby book to show you how much your five year old niece looks like you at that age, that sure, okay, you see the resemblance. Correct the two year old each time he comes careening around the corner, wraps his arms around your leg, and calls you “mom”—his recurring habit of mistaken identity when you’re there. Breathe deeply into his hair when he sits on your lap.

Breathe deeply.

Think to yourself that these children could be yours, and try to be glad that they’re not.

Click here. Listen.


  1. Dear Kate:

    What a beautifully written, tragic post.
    Congratulations on being published - that's quite an honor.

    I wish I had the words to say what I'd like to say, but I don't.
    I'm extremely moved.

  2. This Thanksgiving I will continue to be thankful for the most happiness a woman could ask for, my children.

  3. :-) Kate, every single man I've ever been involved with has been younger than me. My current/only husband, for instance, is a full 10 years younger.

    Wonder what THAT says?!


  4. No truth is as painful as the lies we learn to live with.

  5. supersupersuper

    thank you for sharing a story that so rarely gets told.

  6. Sadly, there are all too many ways to remain single and childless, most not as dramatic as this, but just as effective. You can do it just by hanging on to one man for way too long. Our culture has failed badly when it comes to teaching us -- when we are young and most need to know -- about mating, loving, and planning to have children.

  7. I was very moved by that post. Thank you for sharing, I believe your life is on a great path now-- according to your profile.