Confessions of an SJF

May 9, 2009

11 min read


I may lack a husband and children, but that's no reason for self-pity.

Click here to read an update on Diane and her dating experiences.

In the August 25, 2003 issue of Newsweek magazine, a 42-year-old single Jewish woman declared that her unmarried state was her "Jewish Mother's Worst Nightmare." She wrote that her marital prospects are considered a lost cause by the Jewish world, and that her parents have given up on her. A Jewish single woman responds.

In my school years, I never wanted to marry. Growing up, the girls who married young were either without any better idea of what to do with their time, or pregnant. When I informed a college boy friend that I planned to spend a year in Europe after graduation, he stopped me cold when he asked how he fit into my plans -- I truly hadn't given him any thought as I planned my future. The relationship was over within the week, and I spent my precious year abroad.

At my college graduation, as honors were being bestowed, I remember remarking scornfully to my father that for some girls, getting married would be their biggest achievement. In law school, female students who married fellow male students and never practiced were seen as having betrayed all women, even the whole generation, by having taken the place of a student who could have really used the education. We had to persuade interviewers that we really intended to have careers, not just work until we got married -- that big dead end to the lives of less educated women. To stop working after marrying would again be selling out the women's movement, and betraying ourselves, and we never considered it.

Marriage itself was an unappealing prospect. As Katharine Graham of the Washington Post described the early years of her marriage in her autobiography Personal History, "I was expected to perform all the pulling and hauling… Gradually I became the drudge and, what's more, accepted my role as a kind of second-class citizen. I think this definition of roles deepened as time went on and I became increasingly unsure of myself."

The next crop of women was determined that this would never happen to us, and we ensured our safety by avoiding marriage until we were sure we could still be fully ourselves in a marriage. Marriage was not in itself a goal. I remember coming home for a holiday visit to an argument between my parents. I took my mother, then married about 24 years, into the bathroom and coolly advised her, "Just divorce him, it's a community property state." (Happily, she ignored me, and is now married 47 years.)

At my recent college reunion, one woman declared her biggest accomplishment had been "not marrying the wrong man."

I know I am not alone in having harbored this view of marriage -- and particularly the inevitably imperfect marriage -- as some kind of failure. At my recent college reunion, one woman declared her biggest accomplishment had been "not marrying the wrong man." The sheer volume of older Jewish singles proves that marriage has been at best a lower priority. Moreover, the practical pressures to marry did not exist for us -- we could easily support ourselves, and we gained identities and status from work. In our 20s, "I'm a lawyer" gained one far more status than "I'm a housewife." When I once cried to a girl friend about being single in my 20s, she reassured me by saying that with my profession, education, and financial freedom, "Every woman in America wants to be you."

This broad cultural phenomenon has had consequences. Marriage became one of a menu of options, to be chosen only if it was the most inviting choice for the moment. Some women chose not to marry. Many others did not make this choice knowingly, but made decisions which led inevitably to prolonged singlehood. When at 30 I variously turned down the opportunity to work in Hong Kong, and to travel as a standup comic, I did so thinking that I would have trouble meeting Jewish men in these venues -- but I kept my reason secret.

The Newsweek author says Jewish people act like getting married is a greater accomplishment than developing the polio vaccine. Perhaps it has become so. My college friends used to say, "Anybody can get married." Ironically, for a very accomplished generation, getting married and staying married have proved more elusive than many other achievements.

Not getting married is an enormous loss to us. It's not just skipping a party -- a wedding is a "simcha," a joyful occasion, a door which then opens doors to more joyful events in the future, including the birth of children and grandchildren. In the moment of nuptials, the couple's future generations are anticipated. There are few moments in a Jewish person's life that contain more possibility. Of course, such moments are celebrated by an entire community, as everyone anticipates the happiness and new worlds ahead.

One popular single woman television character recently observed that she had spent a small fortune on shower, wedding, housewarming, and baby gifts for a friend, with nothing flowing the other way. If single life has milestones, they are harder to identify, and not so openly celebrated.

Despite understanding the cultural phenomenon and its effects, I nevertheless find myself facing older singlehood head on. Regardless of how I felt in my 20s, I now very much want to marry and have a family. Quietly, we all assumed we would marry eventually, that an appropriate, smart, industrious and kind man would appear, be devoted to us, and beg us to marry, and we would acquiesce. In that regard, there are already things I mourn. I am sad that my husband will never know me as a young woman. I watch my young neighbor's energy with her little ones and wonder if I will have her strength when, God willing, I have my own little ones to raise. But I also recognize that the joys of married life and family may still be ahead for me, and understand that my job is to be happy with what I have now, and to become prepared for what lies ahead.

When things at work are slow, and then pick up, one often wishes one had used the "down" time to catch up on life projects. I think of being single this way -- "down time" to invest in myself, my family, my community and the rest of my life. From a hopeful perspective, I exercise regularly, viewing myself as "in training" for the likely project of having children in my 40s, just as marathoners train to improve their stamina. I am learning the things I'll need to run a household. I am devoted to my community; hopefully, when it's my turn to chase children, I'll have friends to lean on.

I am not my own mother's worst nightmare, nor the Jewish world's.

The Newsweek author does not feel she is appreciated for who she is or what she does. But, I wonder if she is perhaps, in the end, living her own worst nightmare, rather than her parents'.

I am not my own mother's worst nightmare, nor the Jewish world's. The vast sea of older singles is a community problem, a challenge which requires more attention, more compassion, and more optimism than it receives; it disturbs many people, and of course it affects me personally. But the Jewish world has many problems, and the Almighty has the power to solve them. I want to be part of the solution.

My own mother's worst nightmare would be somewhat different. It would involve me being an evildoer, an angry person, an unhappy person, fiscally or socially irresponsible, self-destructive, isolated. If I were a wife and mother, but sat around the house watching TV all day, she would not consider me a great success as a person.

My parents have two daughters, one who married at 23 and one who is yet single. We give our parents nachas in different ways. When my sister had her first son (and my parents' first grandson), I often joked that I had become invisible, transformed from their accomplished daughter into "the baby's aunt." But then I meet someone my father has golfed with, and learn that he has spent 18 holes and lunch thereafter bragging about me and my many accomplishments. My parents are proud that I spend time with quality people and that I have a generous spirit. Married or not, we live most of our lives on our own merits, not our marital status. And unless you have ten children, simply "having kids" is not really an accomplishment unless you suffered infertility first.

Yes, there are moments when one is most aware of what one does not have -- in my case, a husband and children. This lack can lead to self-pity. I recall years ago I had a household accident that required stitches. In family lore, this incident is laughingly referred to as "the day the house bit me." A single career woman, I elevated my bleeding leg wound, dressed it myself, and had my secretary drive me to the urgent care facility. Being single added another layer of anxiety to the injury -- but that anxiety was added by me, and a dear friend set me straight. When I suggested to a friend that had I been married, my husband would have taken care of everything, or my children could have helped me, she laughed out loud. "On the contrary," she chortled, "on top of being injured and having a mess, I would have also been angry that I could not track my husband down, or that he could not leave work, or that my children tracked the blood all over the house and doubled the mess!" As far as Jewish mothers, my own Jewish mother was proud that I remembered my basic first aid training and that I kept a cool head in an emergency. There was no tsk-ing about poor Diane, all alone -- from anyone but me. I too fall victim to self-pity, but unlike the Newsweek writer, I won't blame my family for the pain I inflict on myself.

Any woman who is actively involved in the Jewish world without finding her husband, and who chooses not to be bitter, demonstrates greatness.

In a lecture I attended on great Jewish women through history, a student commented that there were plenty of Biblical women who demonstrated greatness, but few role models today. The teacher responded that any woman who is actively involved in the Jewish world without finding her husband, and who chooses not to be bitter, demonstrates greatness. I think of this often when I'm tempted to feel sorry for myself. It is a big test to be single, but it is one we should strive to pass, not lament.

My mother recently inherited the grand sum of $1700 from a childless aunt. To this news, I responded cheerfully to my father, "You can start my marriage fund!"

"There's already money for that," he smiled. They are on my side, in this. The person I most need on my side is me, it turns out.

I'm holding out hope for God's blessing. In the prayer I say, along with traditional women of every age who are looking for a spouse, written by the Shla HaKadosh, I ask God to please find "the right husband for me at the right time."

I have many friends who are older than I am, who married in their 40s and have multiple healthy children, some born even into their early 50s. I wouldn't recommend this as a strategy, but it sure looks like a joyful fallback plan! Many of our forefathers married late in life, and many of our foremothers bore children late in life.

Yes, I'm not married, and I'd like to be. I'd like to be somebody's wife and someone's mother. I still believe that I am somebody's dream girl! But in the meantime, I sure hope I'm not anybody's nightmare.

Click here to read an update on Diane and her dating experiences.

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