To “All the Single ladies..”

If you only ever read one essay on being single, this should be it:

‘All My Friends Are Getting Married and Leaving Me Behind!’

Photo: Vicki Jauron/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

Thanks for all the lovely advice to single people over the years; it’s been meaningful. More than being upset about being perpetually single, though, I just feel left out.

I’m 32, and at this point, all but three of my friends have either gotten married or engaged, and six of my friends are now pregnant. I’ve been single most of my adult life, and while it really bugs me sometimes, most of the time I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished on my own, the things I’ve learned, and the life I’ve built for myself. I may not have had sex in two years, but I created a life of my own in a big city, I’ve traveled, I’ve met a hundred men through online dating or setups, I have a condo, a career, and great friends.

But as more of those friends get attached or preggo, I feel like I’m missing out on those big life milestones that everyone else is reaching. I feel left behind, like things are changing in big ways for my friends and I’m just standing here, single as always. They’ll have less and less time for me, which is natural — they have other things to worry about now! — but I’ll have the same amount of time for them. They don’t often ask me about dating anymore; I don’t get plus-one invitations to weddings; it’s as if they’ve given up on me, and I’m here, stagnant, in the same place I’ve always been for the past decade.

How can I not feel left behind when everyone around me is moving forward?

Same As Always

Dear Same As Always,

I almost never say this, but: It’ll be worse than you think. I live in a huge city where I have old friends I’ve known for over two decades, along with a mob of new friends, and I see all of them much less frequently than I’d like. One friend I’ve known for more than 25 years has a baby and a toddler; now she mostly sees other people with small kids. She calls me from the car. We have lunch every other month. It sucks. Another friend remarried and moved across town and disappeared for two years. She’s back now, thankfully. Another friend had some kids, weathered some bad times, got divorced, and dropped out of touch completely.

The point is, it doesn’t take not getting preggo or having kiddos to feel left out. Okay, I’m sorry, but do you hear how terrible these cutesy terms sound? Not only are they infantilizing, cloying words, but they almost always signal a person’s discomfort with the matter at hand. And take note: People who walk the Earth sounding like Ned Flanders from The Simpsonsare dark creatures desperately trying to mold reality into something sweeter and more adorable than is appropriate or necessary or even helpful. And it’s frankly disrespectful to the real grace that lives and breathes in every cell of the real, imperfect world to walk right up to every sad face and paint a smiley face over it. It’s like trying to force the entire crazy, wild universe into something as small and simple as a game of Candy Land.

And speaking of using reductive, oversimplified language that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation: You say that your friends are moving forward without you. But this isn’t a board game. They haven’t moved ahead several spaces just by getting married or having kids. The fact that so many people believe that procreating is like landing on a space with a magic gumdrop that sends you closer to the finish line reflects just how deeply fucking juvenile and asinine our culture can be.

So don’t demean yourself by using the wrong language or telling the wrong story about your life. Women do this so often because our culture always tells inaccurate, reductive stories about us. You’re doing the same thing every time you say (or think, or believe) that being single means getting left behind. People don’t invite you to weddings with plus ones when they’re in their 30s because their parents aren’t paying for everything now, and they don’t want to spend $100 a plate to have a stranger at their wedding. Unjust or not, that has nothing to do with anyone giving up on you. It’s time to change your language and your mind-set.

I do understand this feeling all too well, to be clear. I went to ten weddings the year I turned 32. It takes work not to feel a little panicky about your life when you spend all your time (and money) flying places to celebrate something you’re not sure you want or will ever have. And by the way, if you secretly want to get married and have kids and that’s part of the problem here, then look closely at that. You can’t have the life you want if you’re not honest with yourself. Figure out what you want and pursue it with all of your heart.

Regardless of what you end up doing with your life, you have to reject this image of you, all alone, left in the dust. You also have to recognize that no one is lonelier than recently married people or brand-new parents. I still remember the feeling I had, right before I got married, realizing that I was going to spend my entire life with one MAN. I mean, come on, WHO WOULD CHOOSE SUCH A THING? It was madness. Where were my girlfriends and why couldn’t they move in with me? I think this state of panic explains why some women go batshit over bridesmaids and bachelorette parties. They are legit freaking the fuck out about being stuck with a dude all alone forever and ever, and they want to crawl into some communal lady world filled with flaming tequila shots and rhinestone crowns, where no one says things like “Calm down, you’re not making sense” or “Hang on, I have to take a piss.”

So stand up for your friendships, even as you recognize that everything changes all the time and it’s mostly beyond your control. Fighting this battle over plus-one invitations is probably not the best call, since the last thing any bride needs is her friend taking a valiant stand against the policies of a party she can barely afford to throw in the first place. Once the honeymoon is over, though, be assertive about how much the friendship means to you. Tell your friends you want to meet their babies early, show up with food, make yourself a favorite aunt straight out of the gate, if that’s what you want. Be realistic, but speak up. You are not some lonely single beggar. You are still a good, close friend who matters. It’s bullshit that some married people act like their new lives demand that they enter a world of couples and babies and leave all of their oldest friends out of the loop. Don’t allow yourself, passively, to be treated that way. (And if you’re a newlywed or new parent, don’t behave that way.)

That said, I probably fought too hard for some of my friendships, trying to make sure that nothing would ever change when change was inevitable. I romanticized old friendships that were no longer working. I threw big parties that included kids and parents and single people that mostly added up to a big, please-everyone-all-the-time-themed nightmare. I forced things. I tried way too hard. I threw myself into new friendships prematurely. I expected very different friends to befriend each other. I expected unwieldy groups of people to get along. I’ve pushed and nudged my friends. I’ve also raged and sulked and felt left behind.

I hope you’re starting to understand how hard it can be, because having great friends and not feeling neglected takes a fuckload of toil and trouble as an adult. You need to know that. You need to know how to stay open to making new friends at all times, and you need to know how to forgive your old friends, and you also need to know when to give up and walk away. You need to learn how not to expect too much from every single friend. You need to learn how to allow people to have a bad night or even a busy year. You need to know how to ask for exactly what you want and you need to hear people clearly when they say “I just can’t manage that” or “I’ll try.” But you also need to hear when they say, in their own ways, “I’m not sure you’re worth it to me.” You need to check in with yourself and ask “Is it worth it to me?”

And even if you reframe your language, you’ll still feel left out occasionally. WE ALL DO. Having friends as an adult is nothing like having friends in your 20s. Plus, people can be so fucking careless these days. It blows my mind, honestly. I wish I could prepare you for that part. It’s hard, when you’re sensitive, single or not single, kids or no kids, to prepare for the many disappointments ahead, friendship-wise.

My personal opinion is that people don’t take adult friendships seriously enough. So the very best advice I can give you on the friendship front is to be a loyal, true friend to others and to make sure that when you find a good, steady, true friend, you hold that person very close and tell them often how much you appreciate them. That kind of person is rare and precious.

But there’s a bigger picture here, beyond friendship: You have to cultivate an interior life that you enjoy. I know that sounds a little bit odd in this context. But sometimes people who get really hung up on friends tend to be people who really don’t want to face their truest desires or make themselves happy at a deeper level. I’ve always defined myself as someone who faces herself, almost relentlessly so. But I didn’t have a clear sense of how to squeeze some happiness and solitary satisfaction out of my day until pretty recently, because I had a bad habit of looking for something to MAKE ME FEEL BETTER QUICKLY instead. Sometimes it was a person. Sometimes it was social media. I thought I was just trying to connect. But I wasn’t. I was needy, and I was feeding my own neediness. I felt a little desperate. I wanted salvation. I didn’t want to do the work to pull myself out of a bad state of mind.

This is partially a problem of identity and language. Remember what I mentioned earlier about how women are prone to using defeated or cloying language to describe themselves and their stories without realizing it? Just as you’re telling this story about how your friends have already given up on you, new mothers often define themselves as lumpy and neutered and invisible. Our culture tells mothers that they are sacred yet irrelevant. Our desires and opinions don’t matter. We live to serve. Soon, we have trouble imagining why anyone would want to know us. And then we start acting like WE DESERVE TO BE IGNORED.

You’ll see this happen to your friends who have kids. And I want you to notice how your “left behind” story has a lot in common with their “dopey unimportant mom” story. You don’t have to accept these stories! And you don’t have to be doing the same things with your life to see the similarities between your experiences as women. No matter what you’re going through, there are threads that link you together. You need to talk about this stuff, because it never fucking ends. At every single stage of their lives, women are told that they’re a pathetic joke and they’re doing it wrong — all of it. We have to resist the temptation to internalize those voices constantly.

It’s up to us, privately and communally, to define ourselves the way we want to be defined. And I don’t think the answer is shouting I’M DIFFERENT, I’M A COOL MOM GODDAMN IT! or I’M REALLY FUCKING HAPPY SINGLE! Unless you’re not feeling defensive and you truly mean it, of course. But to me, when you know your culture is garbage but you feel really good, you don’t shout about your identity. And you definitely don’t define your identity around “mom” or “single” just because you happen to be a woman. I’ve never thought the word “mom” did justice to either the energy and focus and intense love involved in parenting OR the full sum of who I am as a human being. I doubt the word “single,” which our culture uses to remind women constantly that SOMETHING IMPORTANT IS MISSING, does justice to the full scope of your desires and beliefs as a person.

But you don’t have to correct how other people see you. You only have to correct how you see yourself. The second I stopped apologizing for myself and started to cultivate my own private interests and desires, things that had nothing to do with what other people approved of or found impressive, I became so much more relaxed, and I was encountered in a new way by the people who know me. I assert myself more now. I bring up ideas with friends because I realize I really like talking about ideas the most. I don’t just try to please other people and fit into the cracks of their lives anymore.

You have to redefine what “moving forward” might look like to you. Merely mating and procreating is not necessarily moving forward. Merely being single and childless is not stagnant. Figure out what feels like forward motion to you (and you alone!) and embrace it and own it and savor it with all of your heart. You are the author of this story. Throw that sugary, simplistic board game out the window, and learn to respect the grace that lives and breathes in every cell of this real, heartbreaking, imperfect world.

Polly

ASK POLLY

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