So yesterday I went out to lunch with a couple of lawyers from my office, both women about my age. We started talking about another woman in our firm, who is a few years older than we are and a partner. This partner is highly respected in our firm and in the legal community at large. My husband once had a case against her and came home muttering about how this woman is a "helluva" lawyer. She is very smart and very intense. And a large part of her success is due to the very long hours she works. She is in the office late every night and all day every Saturday without fail. She also volunteers a ton o' time to numerous charitable organizations. There is no doubt that this woman has worked her ass off for everything she has achieved, but she also clearly loves the practice of law and the causes to which she has dedicated herself. She happens to be unmarried.
One of my friends at lunch was contrasting Woman Partner's work habits with her own, noting that she is not as driven as Woman Partner. My friend then commented in passing, "Of course, I don't wanna wind up dying alone with my cats."
OK, I know this was just an off hand comment. I also know that the comment reflects my friend's worry about her own single status. But this pity for highly successful single women that I hear all too often in our culture -- and all too often from women themselves -- drives me nutso. We see it on Sex and the City, in posts by Opinionistas (whom I otherwise adore), or entire books by Maureen "I wish feminism were a dating service" Dowd.
Lest you think that it is all too easy for me to opine from my Smug Married perch, I should point out that it is quite likely that I myself will die alone (with my dogs though, not cats). I have no siblings, no reproductive plans on the horizon, and there is a darn good chance that I will outlive my husband by a significant number of years. I am quite prepared to live for many years as an elderly lady with absolutely no family. And I am not worried about it. Because all the choices I have made-- from my dedication to my career, to my choice of a mate, to my possibly permanent postponement of having kids -- are choices I have made gladly with my eyes wide open. These are choices in which I find great meaning and value, and I firmly believe that I will look back on my life with no regrets even if I do meet my end alone and forgotten.
I find the possibility of looking back and realizing that I didn't live up to my potential or didn't live life to the fullest far more horrifying than merely being single. I don't think that our workaholic woman partner has much to worry about in this regard: she is taking the opportunity she has for a full, exciting, and valuable legal and charitable career and running with it as fast and as far as she can go. I don't know what her feelings really are about the course of her life, but if she's smart, she is worrying about what she can control rather than about the things she can't. We can't really control whether we meet a person with whom we want to spend the rest of our lives and who wants to spend the rest of his or her life with us. If such a relationship happens to work out -- great, that's icing on the cake-- but it shouldn't be how we define whether we are fulfilled or pathetic.
And, of course, the other piece of this is that we very rarely, if ever, hear the same kind of "tsk, tsk-ing," with regard to successful single men. This may be because we accept that single men aren't bound by the dreaded "biological clock," and that men are considered valued dating prospects until far older than women. I believe this also due to the fact that we still see independence and achievement as desirable for men, whereas we still, even perhaps subconsciously, tend to define women in terms of their relationships to others (wife-and-mother).
I think probably every human being on the planet struggles with loneliness at one time or another. And I certainly don't want to fault anyone who wishes to meet the right person and marry. But I wish more women would resist the societal expectation that it's somehow MORE important for them or their female peers to get married than for the successful single male partner down the hall. And women should also resist the notion that we are fools for pouring our energies into accomplishing things rather than going on a manhunt. I want to hear less whinging from Maureen Dowd and more women saying, "SCREW it. I'll be a single workaholic and proud of it if I wanna be."
CODA: As I was writing this I realized that the most famous movie scene of someone dying alone with his cats involves a man -- Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in Godfather III. I cry like a baby every time I see that scene. Of course, it was his life of crime (which, paradoxically, he had embraced for the sake of his family) that caused Michael Corleone to wind up alone. This is a tadsy bit different than the warnings women have to put up with about how they will have to live as lonely old women just for being too successful.