In recent essays, Rachel Lu, Angela Miceli, Ana Samuel, and Elizabeth Corey have grappled with how women can manage the competing demands of career and family. This is indeed a thorny problem, and one that is much discussed. However, there is another problem faced by women today: how do I live as a single woman?
Declining marriage rates among millenials are a matter of some unease in the conservative policy world, as can be seen in W. Bradford Wilcox’s recent article. This trend may be partly due to an increasing imbalance in the number of marriageable men and women at all levels of society. For example, women have attended and graduated from college at higher rates than men for some years now, and in 2010 women receiving doctoral degrees outnumbered men for the first time.
The overall cultural sense is that women are gaining and men are falling behind, as Hanna Rosin argues in The End of Men. Women regularly take to the internet either to bemoan the lack of marriageable men or to tut-tut at women who weren’t smart enough to marry early (see Princeton Mom and Camille Paglia). Furthermore, as described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, the state of marriage among the non-college-educated is even more dire than among the college-educated, so these women probably would not have found a spouse even if they had decided not to pursue higher education.
Conservatives don’t know what to do with single women in these circumstances, other than to counsel patience and expect them to marry eventually. In the less-charitable corners of the conservative world, there is an implicit embrace of what Rachel Lu calls the “Tolstoyan ideal” of the wife and mother. This attitude implies that women who do not wholeheartedly embrace maternity as their primary role deserve to wind up sad and alone.
Neither the Tolstoyan ideal nor the Princeton-and-Paglia approach gets it right. As Lu notes, many women desire to develop intellectually and career-wise, and these aspirations are legitimate. Thus, many women find the Tolstoyan ideal unsatisfying. There are doubtless parts of society that ignore or are hostile to women’s aspirations to be wives and mothers. There are certainly women who ignore the fact that they have a small window of time in which to marry and have children and choose to focus solely on their career. But neither of these paradigms describes the majority of conservative and religious women, or even American society as a whole. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, need to find better ways of relating to the single women in their midst.
In my experience, most conservative and religious women who pursued higher education wanted to marry and have children; they were not deliberately avoiding marriage. Most expected to find a husband in college, and if not there, then at church, or perhaps in graduate school—or, in the worst-case scenario, through online dating. Many did. Many did not. But it is unfair to criticize those who did not, when the two populations where they are most likely to find a spouse are either evenly divided between men and women or, in the case of churches and some colleges, are heavily female.
It also would be difficult for women not to be acutely aware of the finite number of their fertile years. The “biological clock” is a cultural touchstone for a reason. Sitcoms targeted at young women, such as The Mindy Project and New Girl, feature characters who realize they are running out of fertile years and panic; The Wall Street Journal features stories on freezing your eggs until you find Mr. Right; and fertility clinics run ads on radio stations. If you don’t realize that you have a finite amount of time to bear children, you probably live in a cave. The problem for conservative and religious women is simply that there aren’t enough husbands to be had.
Why have I spent so much time discussing the quandary faced by women? There are two reasons. First, individuals, families, churches, and the conservative movement need to face the likelihood that a significant number of educated, single women will remain single. There simply are not enough marriageable men compared to marriageable women at any level of society. Men may make a comeback, and I hope they do. But any such comeback will come too late to help women who are currently aged 20-40.
Second, because of this likelihood, we need to start addressing what it means to live as a single woman in our society. I urge my fellow single women and all who care about us not to view the prospect of a single life with despair. Even if it is not the life we would have chosen for ourselves, it is still a good life and frees us from many conflicts experienced by married women.
The Goods of the Single Life
Remaining unmarried, even if it is less your decision than a decision made for you by circumstances, can be beneficial. Just because all goods are good doesn’t mean you can pursue them all. You have to prioritize them. Not marrying frees us to pursue at least three goods: the good of religion, the good of knowledge (and career, which is sometimes related to knowledge), and the good of friendship. We can see all of these goods actualized in the great religious communities of the Middle Ages and in figures such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Hildegard von Bingen.
This is particularly true for women, on whom the blessing and duty of childbearing and rearing fall most heavily. Marriage can be a path to holiness, but so can the single life. St. Paul himself writes that it is easier for a single person to focus on the affairs of God, because he does not have to worry about his spouse. (Admittedly, it also easier for the single person to focus on himself.) The honored place given to virginity is one of the treasures of the Catholic Church, and is reflected in the lives of many saints. But Protestants should realize that their own history is filled with people who eschewed marriage for the greater glory of God, such as the missionaries Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael.
For those of us who lead more humdrum lives than do saints and missionaries, freedom from the duties of family life can permit us to spend more time developing our relationship with God and serving the church. It also frees us from falling into the trap of relying on a husband to fulfill our deepest needs. Only God can do that, and when we are single, we are faced with that reality. There is no hiding behind a marriage. There is only God.
The single life also allows women to pursue their intellectual development (and thereby the good of knowledge) more vigorously. I am not urging women to choose career over family, as I am assuming that external circumstances have already made that choice. But as evidenced by the essays referenced above, that does not mean it is not in some way a blessing not to face the conflict between children and career. Fewer family responsibilities give women more time to pursue excellence in their careers, which is both good in itself and beneficial to society.
Lastly, the single life allows us to pursue the good of friendship—in fact, it almost requires that we pursue the good of friendship more intentionally than many married people do. In a society organized around the nuclear family, it can be lonely to be a single person. Joining a religious order is one possibility, of course, but many women are not called to join religious orders.
The Need for Community
In this way, the situation faced by single women is somewhat similar to that experienced by Christians with same-sex attractions who are committed to the Christian teaching on chastity. Aaron Taylor writes, “For many gay Christians I know, their primary experience of the Cross is loneliness.” Without minimizing any isolation gay and lesbian people may feel because of others’ attitude toward their sexual orientation, many straight Christian women who are destined to remain single can probably relate. Loneliness isn’t good for anyone—humans are meant to live in community—so we need to find ways to develop friendships and live in a community as single women.
There are obviously many ways of pursuing this good. For example, because we are not responsible for a husband and children, we are better able to respond to the needs of aging parents. This is an expression of love and friendship both to our parents and to our siblings, who may be torn between their responsibility to their children and their responsibility to their parents. As Eve Tushnet writes, single people also have more flexibility to be present for friends and others in need. The love that we single women would have poured into our relationships with our husbands and children isn’t gone—we simply direct it toward different people.
The good of friendship is also a challenge to churches, families, and friends. Single people need to be integrated into churches and not made to feel as though they aren’t really part of the church until they’re married. For example, at the Baptist church in which I grew up, there was the college Sunday School group and the young marrieds Sunday School group. If you had the ill luck not to marry before graduating from college, you languished in the college group or simply stopped going. Churches must address these issues and recognize that singleness, especially for women, is probably here to stay.
Families and friends should also intentionally integrate single friends into their lives. Simply because someone didn’t marry doesn’t mean they don’t still need family connections. It’s so easy and natural to marry and then socialize almost exclusively with married friends. But try to integrate your single relatives and friends into your family life. We still need somewhere to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially after our parents die. Instead of reflexively naming your siblings as your children’s godparents, consider naming one of your friends. Choosing a friend who is devoted to God and will be devoted to your child expands the number of people who will help develop your child’s faith, and the number of adults on whom the child can rely.
In no way do I mean to denigrate marriage or blithely dismiss women’s desire for marriage and children. By and large, the women of whom I write want to marry. Most of them would probably say they have a vocation to marriage. But people have free will, and actualizing the vocation to marriage depends on someone else’s choice to do the same. As Edith Stein observed:
Today many are called to remain unmarried whose nature and inclinations had seemed to destine them for the other way. . . . [T]he call of God, which may be made as clear by external circumstances as by the inclination of the heart, should be accepted neither rebelliously nor resignedly, but with willing co-operation.
There is no reason to waste one’s life agonizing over whether or not one will marry. An unfulfilled vocation is painful, but a fulfilled vocation brings its own sorrows. Life is both sorrowful and joyful regardless of one’s state in life.
For many women, the realization that they will never marry, or at least will not marry in time to have children, will be painful. I write to remind them that life is still good, to encourage those who love them to make a place for them in our communities, and to help them remember that God’s plans for us are often different from—and better than—our own.
Carissa Mulder is a lawyer in Washington, DC.