No Spouse, No Children–What It’s Really Like

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.   

What about those who are childless by un-marriage?

When I heard that MelanieNotkin, author of Savvy Auntie, was about to publish a new book called Otherhood (Seal Press, 2014),  I rushed to buy a copy. I was sure this book about women who never had children because they never married would be fascinating. But the book let me down.
Otherhood started well, but I found it hard to identify with the women Notkin was writing about. Her study of unmarried childless women is pretty much limited to attractive, successful women in their 30s and 40s living in New York City. They go to clubs, date a lot, and meet at swanky places to complain about the guys they date. It’s very Sex and the City. I love that show, and I sympathize with Notkin and her fabulous friends, but she leaves a world of never-married people out of the story. Where are the women who are shy, fat, disabled, poor, uneducated, ugly, awkward, or living in small towns without a lot of eligible men? Where are the people who haven’t had a date in decades, if ever?
Notkin is childless and so are most of her friends. They talk about their options as they approach 40 and beyond. Some are freezing their eggs. Some are considering getting pregnant with donor eggs. They debate over whether they should have a child on their own. All of these options are so expensive most of us can’t afford them, especially without husbands to share the cost. With all the new ways to get pregnant, Notkin says she sometimes she feels guilty for not wanting to have a baby by herself. Is that becoming the new norm, single parenthood? The latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics show that in 40 percent of American births, the mothers are not married. So people are definitely having babies without husbands, but as Notkin notes, it’s not easy.
And then there are those who almost get married but break up over the having-kids issue. I get comments here all the time about couples who break up or are considering it because one of them is waffling about children. In fact, this morning I received a comment from a woman whose husband has left her because she can’t have children with him. I want to turn into my mother and shout “What’s wrong with these people?”
I’m alone now, but I have been married twice. I have known love and companionship and step-children. I really feel for those people who wanted the whole happy ending and never had a chance at it. And I am certain most of them are not living Sex-and-the-City lives drinking cosmopolitans with their girlfriends and complaining about the latest celebrity or Wall Street mogul they dated.
Otherhood is well-written and entertaining, but it only tells a small portion of the story. What do you think about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts on childlessness by way of never finding the right partner.