This past September, on the eve of my 41st birthday, I was propositioned by a 20-year-old cowboy I barely knew. “Do you want to have sex?” he said to me, with a directness and confidence that — even though we were in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming — would do a New Yorker proud.
Standing alone in the darkness with an unfamiliar man could have been unnerving, but in this instance it was mostly amusing, even heartening. I had been living on a dude ranch for the month of August, disengaging from my life as much as possible after a year of intense highs and lows, and the entire place radiated openness, adventure, and anticipation. Even in the dark, this young man showed the swagger of all the wranglers here, men who wear their jeans exactly the way Levi must have dreamed they should be worn. And yet, despite the cinematic quality of the scene, I turned him down. (Him: “Really?”) Partly because I had to be up in two hours to drive to the airport and still hadn’t packed. But also because over the past year I’d regularly found myself a source of interest to younger men — men traveling the country on motorcycles, ex-marines, graduate students — making this encounter somewhat commonplace. I’d stopped thinking about it as some sort of anomaly, a one-off opportunity I needed to grab or forever lose the chance. I knew what I wanted, and at this moment it was not this.
Had I listened more closely to the tales of some of my unmarried women friends it might not have come as such a surprise that single life after 40 can be full and fantastic and fun. But there’s a distinct lack of celebratory role models for single women without children, and that lack creates a void where there should be stories — from a distance, the uncharted space can seem very scary, if not downright deadly. Even as our ideas about women and age slowly begin to advance, 40 remains a metaphorical guillotine, as though your birthday will descend, and boom, all the things that you value about yourself (or rather, that you have been taught are valuable) are suddenly, grotesquely hacked away and you are left shapeless and worthless, or worse, invisible. In the stories we tell ourselves about women’s lives, there exists little evidence of what life after 40 for unmarried women without children is actually like; you’d be forgiven for assuming the “now what?” that comes after no marriage, and no children, is a wasteland devoid of love and opportunity to be endured alone till death.
On one hand, this may not be entirely surprising. The single, economically independent woman is a very recent phenomenon — a woman could not even get her own credit card in this country until 1974 — and our stories are still catching up with our reality. On the other hand, the stories we do tell tend to render women beyond their child-bearing years culturally invisible. (If marriage and babies can be considered a mark of success for every woman, only the most exceptional women seem able to remain single and childless and have it counted as a triumph.)
I’m particularly aware of this as my friends walk down more recognizable paths of marriage and motherhood. Which may be why, as I left my 40th birthday behind and sallied forth into the decade ahead, I often felt like some sort of pioneer out to explore and settle new land, overwhelmed by the emptiness and total absence of road signs.
Which, I have to tell you, is pretty fucking exhilarating most of the time.
Here’s the thing that has been the most shocking and that no one prepares you for: the freedom. Women today are not taught how to deal with this kind of freedom, anymore than women of our mothers’ generation were taught to deal with their own money. We enable others’ freedom — as home keepers, child-minders — but are rarely rewarded for having our own.
Meanwhile men, or white men, have been taught nothing but. It’s the goddamn ethos of this country: Go West, be free, grow up with the country. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history can tell you, the reality of “Go West” was much different, but the iconography endures. Women, meanwhile, are taught that their value lies in their use to other people: their husbands, their children, or, barring these, society at large. (For so long, implicit in the choice not to have children has been the sense that women are obligated to justify this decision by articulating how they will then devote their lives to otherwise making the world a better place.) They are taught to want to be tied down. Entire media industries and much of the last century’s American advertising complex have been built on this premise. We are taught anything else is either a failure, or a danger; men get to adventure, women who venture out must be on the run, to their death more often than not.
However, I am now awash in a freedom I did not anticipate and I feel great, which at times has been unnerving. Am I supposed to feel this great? I possess none of the traditionally recognized keys to happiness, no husband, no children. I am alone, a state which I am supposed to have spent my life trying to avoid. There is so much around me that suggests I should be feeling otherwise that at times I second-guess my own contentment. And yet, when people ask me what I do, I’m sometimes tempted to answer “whatever I want.” This is not a boast — I have financial obligations like everyone else, and only myself to rely on for meeting them — so much as a statement of fact, and a reminder that I belong to the first generation of women for whom this can be a real truth. But it also feels like I’ve discovered some sort of secret — like, Oh my god, you guys, it’s so great over here and no one wants you to know about it.
Which is also why I bring up the men. One of the things that happens when you step off the path toward marriage and babies is you step into a much wider, more interesting world of men (or women, as has been the case for a number of friends). Of all ages.
Which is not to say it can’t also be really fucking hard to be alone, and sometimes deeply lonely in a soul-shaking sort of way. Inevitably there are the middle-of-the-nights when it is also terrifying. And sometimes it’s just plain exhausting. When you are the person free to do what you want, what you often end up doing is taking care of other people with less options. More than once in the past year I have crawled home to my empty apartment emotionally gutted and feeling like I’d been run over by a truck; thinking enviably it’d be worth it to be married just to have someone else who is obligated to deal with my family, and also cork the wine and load the dishwasher.
Fortunately, I’m old enough to know that people in marriages, and with children, feel all of these things (and how much worse is it to feel lonely in a relationship, which is something so few people talk about and so many experience) at one time or another. No matter how often we imagine marriage as the solution to women’s problem, it is simply another way of living.
It was when I was on a hike in the Bighorns this August that it occurred to me I had through an extreme combination of circumstance and deliberate choices become the very role model I’d been missing. I was out walking alone in the hills, as I did most every day for a few hours, without a phone, and only a general sense of where I was (I always told someone when I was leaving in case I got lost and didn’t make it back before dark … not a joke), dazzled by the emptiness, hoping to spot one of the coyotes I could hear howling in the early mornings, and vaguely contemplating the strangeness of my current situation. Behind me a line of horses who’d been let out into the hills for the night followed me up and over the rise and down into the valley, as if I’d been nominated their de facto leader. I’m not a person prone to Oprah-like mantras (if I have a mantra at all, it probably involves chocolate and Champagne) but at one point I looked up and thought: Whoa, I love it out here in the land of 40, unmarried, and no kids. Or, to quote Lewis and Clark upon sighting the Pacific Ocean: “O! The Joy!”