Single. Estranged. Childless/child-free. No one word sums up my experience living as an adult woman without being in relationship with my family of origin, a romantic partner and without having had a child. It is a formless, unutterable identity that consumes me and yet I nearly never give it voice, mostly because I’ve allowed it to cause me shame. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I explore some possible answers to the question my title posed.
An Orphan to be Pitied
What does a woman without family feel? In my case, lots of loneliness and longing. Desire and rejection. It is hard to fully articulate the bittersweet tang of watching others for whom I care start new relationships and give birth. I wouldn’t call my feelings jealousy in most cases, as I also often feel contentment on the path on which I’m walking, but I do experience sadness mixed in with the joy.
At times, I’ve received pity as a response when I’ve shared my identity. Usually followed by a rush to wish things would be healed with my family or that I’d find love. I think I’ve internalized a deep bucket of shame around this way of being in the world, one to which scoops are only added when people pity me. Not only do I experience shame, but I also distance myself from my own wishes for family. If I don’t “want” it, it won’t hurt not to have it.
People are often surprised at the ease with which I interact with children, perhaps mistaking my lack of energy towards producing or procuring one of my own through adoption as a lack of desire. In truth, I think I’ve simply given up on love stories and tiny toes. I’ve failed repeatedly when it comes to familying and it’s failed me. I believe the only rational responses to defeat, once one acknowledges its existence, are to try again after altering some variable, or to come into a place of acceptance of it. Right now I am noticing and being with my failure, rather than trying to turn it into a success.
A Witch to be Feared
Being too different, being too loud, not following the rules enough. These are the charges often hurled at women society sees as “witches.” Women whose eccentrics show a smidge too much of their own defined sense of being. As I’ve begun to move from young into middle adulthood, this is the place I find myself sitting more and more. I am no longer only a shy teen with downcast eyes waiting for someone to notice her, I am also a warrior singing her call regardless of who approves.
I cannot tell how much this impulse comes from within me and how much it is projected on to me by others, but I sense a woman alone after a certain age somehow appears more threatening. All the caretaking roles I “should” be fulfilling are going unanswered. There isn’t an easy shelf on which to place me of mother, devoted daughter or wife. My oddity feels like a cloak in which I wrap myself to hide but by which I instead end up revealing more than I intended.
A Spinster to be Discarded
As I age, I anticipate moving into the role of the old maid if I stay unfamilied. As such, I will eventually be in a place of needing instead of giving. Can I endure coming physical frailty without acquiescing or diminishing? Our society expects those who are old to silence their cries. What if I do not behave this way?
Several books I’ve read lately, including Belonging and The Body is Not an Apology, allude to the question of whether we have worth if we are unable to contribute anything of value to others. I struggle with this query from both sides, as I anticipate judgment of my failure to caretake my abusive, aging parents, and as I must also face changes in how others perceive me as I get older. Shame again takes hold. I feel a frequent need to apologize to my wizened crone self for my family failure, and to gift her an offering of my sovereignty as a person, won at a terrible price.
A Person to be Humanized
The themes I’ve identified—abandonment, eccentricity and worth—are by no means limited to individuals who fall into my particular demographic. Rather, I think nearly everyone who has an honest and deep relationship with themselves could connect to aspects of them. I so often feel apart from being a “regular human” when in fact I am a part of being a regular human. That is who I think a woman without family is; she is simply one blend of pigment in the rainbow of the human heart. She has every right to exist, to voice, and to move the world as best she can.