Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ladies in Waiting

What if I wake up someday and find myself 39 and single? I asked myself that question in a piece I wrote almost five years ago. I apologize for the melodrama in the piece. I decided not to edit it—in part because of laziness and in part because this is who I was five years ago.


I am one of the ladies-in-waiting. Who are we? We are the ones who are waiting for our Prince Charming to arrive. We are in our 30’s or 40’s, and much of what we do and much of our decision-making processes are based on the premise that we are going to get married. What social activities should I be doing? Activities where I can meet men, of course. What clothing should I wear? Clothes that will attract men! Clothes that might not find favor in the eyes of men, be it for reasons of religion, society or simple esthetics, are to be shunned. I am still living with roommates at 35? That's okay, any day now the right guy is going to come along and I will go to live with him. I have a dead-end job that does not pay much? No problem, because when I get married we will have two incomes. Besides, everyone knows that men do not want a woman who is too career-oriented. In the meantime, and to the extent each one of us allows herself before marriage, we live our lives, move forward, we dream and we wait.

We are waiting for…but we are also waiting on. Many an eligible bachelor has one or more ladies-in-waiting of his very own. These women are his close friends and take a proprietary interest in him. They will invite him for Shabbat, include him in their activities and plans, and listen to his tales of dating woes. They will not sleep with him (they are just friends), but they will provide all of the emotional support that he would normally get from a wife. Such a lady may ask herself "when is he going to awaken and open his eyes to me?" Why should he? She is already giving him everything he really needs. For his part, one cannot help but wonder: does he realize that each of these women, his friends are waiting for the day that he realize how foolish he has been and beg for her hand?

And yet, this is not as completely one-sided as it sounds. These men serve a certain purpose. While you certainly do not need a specific Prince Charming in order to be a lady-in-waiting—one can be, and many are content to wait for the mysterious, unnamed One—it does help to have a face to picture in the mind's eye. Having someone specific and concrete to wait for is somehow less frustrating than having nothing. Over the years, I myself have rarely been without a "one I yearn for"; the only thing that has changed has been the face I see in my mind’s eye when I daydream. Sadly, this sort of romantic fantasy is realized only rarely. What normally happens is that one fine day, the man meets some cute young thing ten years his junior, and his ladies-in-waiting dance at his wedding to celebrate their being replaced. (The new wife, of course, will frown on future close contact).

The first time I really considered the long-term ramifications of the role I was playing was when I went to a Shabbaton and spent a weekend in the close company of several older ladies-in-waiting. They scared me. They were in their late 30’s or early 40’s and still dressing in their comfortable loose, flowing dresses—the type of clothing that make young girls look fragile and innocent and anyone over 30 look dowdy and neglected. They were perfect companions to the men there: attentive, interested, smiling and very agreeable. Here and there two women would compete for a particular man's attentions, but it was discrete. (Heaven forbid a man think you aggressive). One woman appeared to be the lady-in-waiting of one of the men there and she put up a fierce defense of her turf. Her speech was peppered with references. Remember when we went to this place, Dan? Do you remember when we cooked that meal? I think I was allowed to speak with him once…or maybe twice. On Saturday night we all went home. I was in a state of trauma. For weeks and months afterward, I said to myself: "I will not be like those women".

But what if I am like those women? What if I wake up someday and find myself 39 and single? In some ways, this is a concept almost too bizarre to consider. Of course I will get married! From my earliest childhood, I have assumed that I would get married. Virtually all women grow up with this assumption. Marriage is the center of our existence, even before we are old enough to date. Our parents, our friends, our culture and our faith teach us to believe both in the inevitability and the necessity of marriage. Marriage will make me whole, marriage will make me a real woman, and marriage will bring me joy. Although the promises society makes are too sweeping to be considered reality, I really do believe in the institution of marriage. The whole Jewish concept of two halves of the same soul being re-connected under the chuppah, the wedding canopy, strikes me as beautiful, romantic and true. I would love to meet a nice guy and settle down. But again, what if I do not meet someone? It is a demographic fact that there are more single women than single men. It is inevitable that some of us are going to lose the dating game. What if I am one of the losers?

Fortunately, I do have positive role models. There is my friend Stephanie, who at 38, decided to have a child alone. There is my friend Gabi, who has neither husband nor children, but who has had a career full of travel all over the world. Now in her 60's, she has friends everywhere and more style than the average woman 30 years her junior.

My most important role model is my Aunt Pearl. She did it all and she did it with flair. She supported both herself and her mother, was an accountant when women were not accountants, and lived on her own when nice women did not do that. She spent weekends managing vacation ranches in the Catskills because she liked horses and spent her winters on ski vacations in Europe because she loved to ski. When I was growing up and I would see Aunt Pearl at family gatherings, she was always doing something: planning a trip, going off to her vacation house, volunteering with Hadassah or acting in community theater. She never had kids of her own, so she adopted everyone else's, and now, at 75, she is the accepted family matriarch. Aunt Pearl’s act—that of the successful career woman with diverse interests— is the one I am most likely to follow, and in fact am already following. In some ways, this is a tragic fate. People love to criticize successful single women. If I never marry, I know that I will spend the rest of my life being condemned as cold, unfeminine, selfish and self-absorbed. That is pretty rough. However, it is much better than the alternative. The alternative is to remain a lady-in-waiting and to spend my life waiting for a man to start it for me.

In the wake of that disastrous weekend and my subsequent resolution that I did not want to be one of those ladies, I made up a motto for myself to get myself going. Change your fate, and if you cannot, than change your mind. Accept your fate, whatever it is, and decide that it is not the worst. This may sound really good, but I have to admit that putting it into practice has been brutally difficult. Changing my mind is equivalent to accepting, really accepting, that I may not get married. Not just saying the words, not just crying to my girlfriends but really accepting and believing that I may spend the rest of my life alone. I may never stand under the chuppah. I may never find a man who loves me. Often I find myself stuck for months at a time. I cannot let the dream go. Then I get angry with myself, and plagued with guilt. With the bombing, I was given a second chance at life. G-d could have killed me off right then. He did not. How can I, having received such an enormous gift, then possibly choose to live my life in a way that makes me miserable? How can I not choose joy? Unfortunately, I can beat myself up for days, weeks or months, but guilt will never get me going. What finally does the trick is fear. I go back to that weekend. Do you want to be like those women? No? Then you have got to let it go.

Let it go. I will not spend my life waiting. I will not wait for a man to come and support me; I will make sure I can support myself. I will not wait for a man to buy me a house; I will save my pennies and buy one myself. I will not choose my activities based on the number of men there; I will do those things which I enjoy. I will not sit around and let my ovaries rot; I will have a child myself. Most of all, I will not hang around any man I am secretly in love with, waiting for him to wake up and want me. If I cannot let go of my romantic yearnings then I will let go of the man. If he wants my emotional support, let him marry me. That is what a wife is for. (Forget about sex—it is not about sex).

At the same time, I am aware of the pitfalls. I see myself as similar to a recovering alcoholic, who must decide each and every day not to drink, and for whom each day the decision is slightly different. My drink of choice is longing, and my decision not to drink it down is very different today at age 33, when there is still a chance that maybe something will happen, than it will be if I really never do find anyone, and age 70 finds me still alone. How will I make the decision not to be sad when I am, in some ways, a failure? How will I stay strong when faced with this truth: out of all the women in the world, I am one that no one could fall in love with? I do not know how. I can only hope that if it comes to that, I will be wiser and stronger by then.

For now, at least, slowly but surely, my mind is changing. I am not giving up but I am going on. If G-d decides, after all this time, to send me my beschert, my intended one, I will be joyful beyond words. But if not, I will also be joyous. As it is written in the wedding blessings: joy, singing, pleasure and delight. גילה, רינה, דיצה וחדווה . I can and will have these too. I am a lady waiting no longer.


Thirty-nine is now six months away. I am still single. What can I say for myself? I do not have roommates. I have a full complement of kitchen toys. I have a good job—though the truth is that I had one then, as well. While I do have the occasional obsessions about this or that What's-His-Story, for the most part, I am not waiting on anyone in particular. I live where I do and do the things I do based on what I want out of life and what I want to do—what pleases me—and not based on where I can meet men. I did consider having a child on my own, but finally decided against it. There are many reasons, but the key one is that I simply do not want children badly enough. So this is all good.

What is less good? I still get sad, at times. It would be more, but I keep the emotions in check by studiously avoiding dating sites and anything else that will force me to think about the whole issue of rejection. (Hard to tell if this should be considered healthy behavior or self-defeating).

And finally, I am (alas) one of those dowdy spinsters. No flowing dresses, but I do have lots of extra pounds.

But THAT is something I can do something about. Roxie the Diet has been making a comeback….


Anonymous said...

I am now 38.5 and have a one year old daughter. I wasn't planning on be single at this age, and the pregnancy wasn't planned, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me!

Savtadotty said...

My nephew just got married for the first time at age 48. It's rare, but you're pretty rare yourself. Just sayin'

e.e. said...

You sound to be coping well, whatever turn your life should take in the future.
About Roxie, maybe she should resurface only after the holidays. No chance with all that kneidlach, chag-related stress and bored-noshing. It'll just get you frustrated. Just my two cents.

Daughter of Cancer said...

Now I'm kinda depressed, and not cause my grandfather ran away from the hospital today (went home).

You write so beautifully, sometimes I forget.

I'm going to be in Jtown Sat night - maybe I can pop by before motzash?

MGrambush said...

Gila, I just blew through 43, still never married, No kids. I'm happy with my life, and realize it's just not condusive to casual relationships. No biggie!

Oh, and T. I'm still reading.

Ryan said...

That was a heart felt article. Though it seems like an appropriate response, not sure if avoiding the dating scene altogether is the best response.

Jack said...

Sometimes the grass is always greener.

Tzipporah said...

I don't think never getting married is the same as not being lovable. Maybe just not serendipitous?

There are certainly plenty of unlovable married people out there. I often see them in line at the grocery store, picking their noses and yelling at their kids... ;-}

Anonymous said...

Good for you Gila! The most important thing is that you create a great life for yourself -- if you meet someone to share it with, then, BONUS!! I met my husband at 39 and got married at 44, and I'm glad that I got to experience so much of life on my own terms.

RivkA with a capital A said...

This is a really well-written post. I don't think it needed editing.

It made me think. Especially about the choices to do things based on who will be there.

It is very freeing to decide to do what you want and be who you are.

That said, I hope you find your partner.

I think about these issues now, when talking to my kids. I wonder if I am doing them a disservice by talking about "when" they get married.