Ward, Donna. She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2020.
Married women without children feel like square pegs in a round world. Now consider those women who have never married, who are single for life, who are that dreaded word, spinsters. As they age, there is no one ahead of them, behind them, or beside them. That’s the subject of Australian author Donna Ward’s book She I Dare Not Name.
Reading this book, I broke all my rules, turning down corners, underlining sentences, and making notes in the margins because she tells so well a story most people don’t know or understand.
Even friends and family come to wrong assumptions about people who never marry or have children: “She doesn’t want a husband or kids.” “There must be something wrong with her.” “She must be gay.” “Lucky her. She’s free to do whatever she wants.” Ward wanted the usual things. It just didn’t happen. Every relationship turned sour, and now she’s in her 60s, single and childless. As so many of us have experienced, her friends moved on to marriage and children, then grandchildren, so she’s often alone. Sound familiar? It sure does to me as a childless widow, but at least I have that validation that I was married.
Most of us are guilty of misunderstanding. I have to admit that when I meet men my age who have never married, I immediately think something’s wrong with them. Of course, I think the same thing if they have been divorced more than once. But that’s not really fair. Maybe they just never had the chance.
Ward and others, male or female, who have never married could be called Childless by Unmarriage. How does this happen? It just does. There’s no guarantee we’re all going to find a partner. I think it’s a miracle that any two people get together and love each other for a lifetime. And yet people assume, until you tell them otherwise, that everyone has a partner and everyone has kids.
“I am suffocated by other people’s impression of my life. I am wizened from explaining myself,” Ward writes. (p. 285)
“I did not choose against children, or against coupling. I do not despise marriage. I did not choose career over marriage. I do not think loneliness within marriage is better or worse than mine. The lack of a partner is not evidence that I want to be alone. Thank you for asking. I am not a lesbian. The lack of children is not evidence that I don’t want, or do not know how to be around, babies, children, teenagers. . . .” She goes on, trying to debunk all the misunderstandings.
Ward is very honest about the challenges of being a single in a world set up for couples and families. Who is her backup when she falls ill or needs care in old age? Who cares about her in that way families do? This quote from p. 307 really struck me:
“It seems a human right, as basic as the right to breathe, that everyone has at least one person dedicated to them, a person who would be so distracted by grief they might not survive their loved one’s passing, yet here I am, personless in this world.”
Yes, personless. Oh my God, that’s it.
I have read that part of the reason one feels lonely is that humans traditionally lived in groups to protect each other. Alone, we feel vulnerable, out in the cold while the rest of society is warm and safe by the fire.
Now, before you call me on it, I know you can have children on your own. In the U.S., 40 percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers. But we don’t know how many of those women are choosing to parent without a partner via adoption or sperm donor. Ward never wanted children outside of marriage. Most commenters here have also said they don’t want to do it alone.
I know several people who have never married and never had children. They seem to have good lives, but as Ward points out, we don’t know what it’s really like. Maybe some of you are also lifelong singles. Do you mourn the lack of a mate and children or are you happy with your life? Do you feel like the odd one at every gathering? Would you/have you considered parenting alone? For those who do have partners, what do you think about this? Please comment.
I highly recommend Ward’s book and the many other books she names in her bibliography. Ones I have starred to read include:
Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After by Bella Depaulo.
The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick.
8 thoughts on “No Spouse, No Children–What It’s Really Like”
As a person who was unhappily married for a length of time, I would have gladly been single again. The constant stress, embarrassment and disappointment I experienced easily outweighed anything I gained during that time in my life.
I constantly pined for a different life. I daydreamed about the different lives I could have had. Maybe I could have married that person from London and be living an exciting dual citizenship situation. Or I could have found love on a vacation (think Hallmark movie style “meet cutes”). Or the UPS man. Or the cute guy working with the road crew. Anyone really.
When it was really bad, I would imagine quiet nights on my own – forever. “I wouldn’t even need a boyfriend,” I promised God. “Just get me out of whatever this is.” God eventually gave me what I wanted, but it was rough. On the other side of it, I can appreciate the beauty of all that pain. I’m lucky. Now.
I guess in all those moments, even the really hard ones, I had the confidence that I could easily remarry. I was young enough, pretty enough, social enough, nice enough that I figured it would all work out. For those who have always been single, and those with challenges, it maybe wouldn’t seem so hopeful.
These days, if I were to lose my husband, I would truly mourn him. I’d probably be okay with staying single. I’m financially sound and mostly where I want to be in my life. While I would miss the company and the comforts of having a good man around, I would be okay. But then again, I’m a young-looking and young feeling 40-something with zero attachments. I still feel like I’d have enough to offer another significant relationship. So all of this is easy enough for me to predict.
Not sure what I’m saying, but I suspect that not all woman feel this hopeful or cavalier. I have a high level of respect for those who get through life without that “someone.” They have a lot of grit and a level of self-reliance that I’m sure I don’t have.
Thank you for this article and your comments. I agreed with everything you said, we are a growing group of women and deserve a voice, support and to share our stories. The only thing I didn’t like reading is the “at least I had that validation” part, at the start of the article, referencing your marriage. I’m not sure what that was intended to mean; we don’t need marriage to be validated. And isn’t this the main point? If a man chooses not to or doesn’t for any reason marry, he is not seen as not validated as a person. So why are women?
You’re right. We don’t need marriage for validation, but in the eyes of society, it ticks off one of the boxes for what they consider “normal.”
As Jody Day says it is a disenfranchised grief. We have no right to complain. It is really so hard that one can come to understand people who have married just not to be alone, although I just could do not that because I would have needed to fall in love . . . .
I know. I’m betting more people than we know married just because they didn’t want to be alone.
What hurts me, is seeing people stay in abusive relationships, without trying to get out of the relationship. I know how, for some people, it may be life threatening to leave a relationship, so this should be done tactfully and with the appropriate level of professional assistance. Take care all you ladies and gentlemen out there and follow your natural compass.
Coming to this post a bit late. Being older, single, and childless is everything stated above in this blog. And at the same time, it isn’t. While it’s crucial at first to name in the most articulate way every aspect of our grief (“I’m personless”), at the same time I eventually have to dispute that thought and all others like it. The thought “I’m personless,” no matter how true it is, is a damaging thought that cannot possibly serve me in any way, except to process my grief and for a limited time only. As a long-term insight, it is incredibly destructive. And it’s been a late-life realization for me to see that I just can’t entertain such thoughts on a long term basis without their doing permanent damage to my identity and ability to move forward. On the other hand, this book is extremely helpful to educate those coupled, those who marginalize and fail at inclusion. This book wakes some people up to their privilege.
Jen, thank you for this. As a widow with no kids, I could call myself “personless,” too, but that’s not totally true and it is damaging to think that way. You are so right.