I knew at age five that I didn’t want to get married and have children, and I’ve never seriously questioned that decision. (And I’m now about to turn 40.) I knew then that it was unusual, but reading E. Kay Trimberger’s The New Single Woman I came to understand why many people, Americans in particular, find it not just odd, but extraordinary.
She asks: “Is it possible to be a single woman in one’s fifties with a full life and a lot of joy?” My answer, “Well of course; you’re at least as likely to be happy than if you are married or, at least as likely, going through a divorce.” Yet, as Trimberger points out, the general answer is: “Not if you listen to the cultural messages beamed at us…. Only in an intimate couple will we find emotional satisfaction, sexual fulfillment, companionship, security and spiritual meaning.” (I’d added, from everything I’ve read and seen: “particularly in America”. These pressures also exist in Britain and the UK, but being societies generally less keen to enforce conformity, they are not as strong.)
Trimberger, by profession a sociologist (she’s professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University), over a decade from 1994 followed the progress of a group of 46 middle-class, largely professional women, some white, some African American, some Latina, to explore how their personal and professional lives developed through their thirties, forties and fifties. Her initial finding was that “almost all of the women, even those in their fifties, whether heterosexual, lesbian or bisexual, still hoped to find the ‘right one’.”
In part seeking answers for her own life — she’s a never-married woman who adopted a child on her own at age 40 — Trimberger seeks to identify the steps, emotional and practical, they needed to take to become “happy”. She eventually arrives at six key points that she believes single women need:
1. A home “that nurtures her, whether she lives by herself or with other people”.
2. Work that is satisfying, allows her to be economincally autonomous, and that also provides “a psychological identity but is not her whole life”.
3. Satisfaction with her sexuality, whatever that means.
4. Some connection with the next generation – family relationships, volunteering, proteges or similar.
5. A network of family and friends “that provides companionship and people they can rely on in times of trouble”.
6. A community built around that friendship network.
Yet looking objectively at this list, it is clear that this is not just a list for single women, but for all women, and men. Trimberger says:
When we embark on adulthood, few of us really know where we will end up. Given that, it is important for single women in their twenties, thirties and forties more consciously to pursue these goals. Whether they hope to couple or not, this is the route to a richer life and one with more options later on. Conversely, to focus primarily on finding a partner while other parts of life are neglected is a recipe for unhappiness.
That list also addresses one of the biggest fears Trimberger’s subjects identify, as a successful African American woman she calls Lanette says, even though she’s already made financial arrangements:
Whenever I pick up the paper at Christmas-time and see a story about an older woman who has no relatives, who needs a couple of hundred bucks so that her lights don’t get turned off, I say to my mother, ‘That’s my fear. I’ll be eighty-five years old and all my family and friends will have passed on, and because I have not partnered myself, I’ll end up here’.
My reaction to this is that most women will end up this way anyway; even if partnered, and happily partnered, the mortality statistics mean that most women will end up on their own. And while some children might be in a position to take a large role in these circumstances, many will not be able, or will not want, to do so.
But Trimberger is resolutely focused not on comparisons, but on the strategies her subjects attempt to use to deal with this and other concerns. And she has hugely reassuring tales from two of her subjects, both of whom died of breast cancer during the decade. Yet they died not alone, but within large friendship networks, which looked after both their practical and emotional needs. The account of Diane is particularly inspiring:
She told me that she preferred to rely on friends rather than family members. Although her daughter had moved back in with her, Diane wanted her to have her own life. Diane’s mother was eighty-six, and her sister and cousins lived several hours away. Diane shared her fears more intimately with her friends, for she felt that they could handle her illness more objectively and philosophically. Family members got too upset and made dealing with the cancer more difficult for her.
Yet, as Trimberger points out, much needs to change in the framework of society to facilitate such networks of care.
Hospitals … often admit only immediate family members (which, in progressive institutions now include domestic partners) to intensive care units and the rooms of those who are seriously ill or dying. … Workplace bereavement policies do not include paid time off to attend the funeral of a friend. Even the most progressive family leave policies provide time off only for the care of family members … Public policies that help build networks of care will improve the life of all adults.
The fact is that societies are returning to more historically normal levels of childlessness and “singleness”. The New Single Woman points out that in 1950, 20 percent of women aged 40-45 were childless; the 2002 figure of 18 percent is heading in the same direction. Trimberger quotes a psychological survey which says motherhood is no longer “necessarily central to the development of women’s sense of her adult self”. Yet of course what is needed is to find alternative adult selves, as women in earlier ages did. In the end, Trimberger concludes, in the words of one of her subjects: “The art is in making the choice you can live with.”
This book offers, through practical examples and advice, a framework for doing just that. Trimberger’s case studies are from one social class, and one nation, which does limit its scope. (For many women with low-incomes, financial constraints ensure daily survival is the most choice that they have.) But there’s still something here for anyone, particularly any woman, who wants to address the question: “How can I have a good life?”