I was reminded by a reader the other day that sometimes there are no words of comfort for a woman who wants to get married and have children and who is afraid, increasingly afraid, that this will never happen.
It's a humbling moment. I'm a tough-minded woman with not a lot of patience for little dreamy-dreams about what men should be like--mostly because I spent precious years spinning little dreamy-dreams about what men should be like--but at real authentic grief I bow my head.
I feel terrible. I wish I could wave a wand and bring back the era when twenty-something Catholic men packed the churches, clever young curates organized dances in the parish halls, and the vast majority of Catholic girls who went to them were courted with thrilling confidence and brought to the altar within a year or two of their parish dance appearance.
Of course, in Edinburgh this would mean bringing back some unpleasant stuff too, like anti-Catholic preachers on the Mound inciting gangs of Protestants to beat up Catholic boys on their way to or from school or Mass.
And it would also mean women who weren't snapped up by 25 (25!) feeling, and possibly being, "on the shelf." There are Single ladies in my parish who were young in the heady days of parish dances, and yet they never married. Why not? Did they not want to? Were they never courted? Do I dare to ask? No, I most definitely do not.
The one comfort I can hold out to Single women dreading (or over) 40 is that men's reluctance to marry means that a lot of Single men are over 40, too. And they do not necessarily want children anyway. They get that women want children, but often they themselves are not that fussed about it. There are lonely men who, at the end of the day, just want a pretty companion to take care of who will also take care of them.
However, the existence of elderly, never-married Single ladies in my parish points to the possibility that some of my readers may never, ever get married. You could be 19, you could be 35, you could be 52. Maybe you will get married, and maybe you will not. And if not, maybe you will conclude that this was for the best, or at least get so wrapped up in your Single life that it doesn't matter. But, to be honest, I don't know how it feels to feel like that all the time. Two years after my revelation that it didn't matter, followed by bouts of feeling that it did, I met Benedict Ambrose and got married.
So I feel settled, which is to say, I think know the way from here. I know what my surname is going to be, and I know where I'm going to live, and I know who my relations are, and I know what is rational to hope for, and I know what is rational to fear. I know the boundaries proscribed by society for married-lady behaviour, and when I chat with young men, the young men think "nice old bird" not "cougar." (At least, I hope that's what they think.) I have one heck of a lot of married lady privilege. I can't deny that. It's real.
I wish I could somehow bottle married lady privilege and sell it to you instead of books. First, I'd make millions of pounds, and second, you'd all feel confident and fulfilled and get on with your days. You wouldn't feel like you "needed a man"; when you have one (married lady privilege) you don't feel like you need one, if you see what I mean. (By the way, it is perfectly normal to feel like you need a man when you don't have one. It isn't funny or shameful or backward or, for that matter, praiseworthy. It's just normal.)
However, I cannot bottle it, so instead I will suggest that there are other things besides marriage to build your life on. First and foremost, there is your relationship with God. Yes, I know this is a Catholic cliché, and now you want to kill me. However, God is the Alpha and Omega, and paradoxically though men will keep telling you He isn't real, He is the Real. Not to get all Plato on you, but compared to God, all this is cobwebs. God is not a hobby or an extension of you. God is not your ethnic identity or Someone you pray to because you're that kind of girl. God is God, and all being is derived from He who is Being. Seek Him out--not with flowery words, but as you would seek out a favourite author or patron. Read His works; write fan mail.
Dear Sir, I hope you don't mind me writing in my state of déshabille, but I must express my thanks for Your work on my behalf. I can barely express the depth of my gratitude for the parents You have given me and my brothers and sisters, and more recently my husband, sister-in-law and my nephews and niece. Although I probably have only $260 in my bank account, I must be one of the richest women I know. Meanwhile, because of your great generosity to me, I feel confident that You will not be offended if I beg a favour on behalf of my readers who most anxiously hope to marry....
Secondly, there is your career/trade. I put this before family because some of you don't have families, and families can be shaky things to build your lives around, if only because your parents and brothers and sisters eventually grow old and die. Your skills, however, your way of making your living or of making, will die only with you. My parish includes a widower who still teaches music at the age of 90. Does he "have to"? No. But he still teaches all the same, taking a youthful enjoyment in his students' progress. If time after work hangs heavily on your hands, may I recommend you take a course that will enrich the skills you already have? I know one Single woman, a French teacher, who is constantly working on her language skills in a variety of interesting and social ways.
Third, there is art. I suggested this once to a grieving Single, and she snorted, which made me realize she wasn't perhaps as big a fan of that particular art form as I thought. If you fall in love with, say, jazz, you will always have jazz to explore and enjoy. There will always be new recordings to buy, or old recordings to discover, and live jazz in the nearest big city, and even jazz dancers to watch or to join. You will meet other people in love with jazz, and you will enjoy these people solely because they are willing to talk about jazz and nod enthusiastically when you talk about jazz. If you have developed the habit of thinking of men only as potential husbands, this may shake you out of it. Someone who cares as much as you do about something truly good, like music or oil paintings or ballet, is a potential friend and ally.
Fourth, there are friends and allies. This is a tricky one, for some people are just not very good at making friends. There are a variety of reasons for this, including timidity, boorishness and presumption. Judging with how much familiarity to treat a person can be pretty exhausting, I admit. On the one hand, you don't want to seem standoffish. On the other hand, you don't want them to think you are needy. The trick is not to be needy, which is why I put career and art first.
Fifth, there might be a cause. I am the proud foreign godmother of Dzielne Niewasty, an association of Polish women founded by Father Paweł Drobot and Alicja Jewuła. Alicja is a Single woman who was called by Father Drobot to the cause of Polish Single women. He handed Alicja a copy of Anielskie Single, and she says it changed her life. (It certainly changed mine!) She founded DN, and now dozens of Polish women, married and Single, meet for Christian fellowship--something that cannot now be taken for granted, even in culturally Catholic Poland. Needless to say, I derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from writing to Catholic Singles (and other Singles of Good Will) and exhorting you all to keep the faith and find joy and satisfaction in your Single lives.
This is why I will never write for a Catholic dating site, incidentally. "Alone this Christmas?" You aren't: that's the whole point of the Incarnation! (AAAAAAH! She tears her hair.)
Sixth, adoption. I loathe it when people ask "Why don't you adopt?" It's a painful, painful question to answer. However, I hold out the possibility. Wealthy Singles have adopted wards throughout history. Ideally all children would have a mum and dad. However, some Single women find themselves called to adopt a child. I would not build my life around a child, however: unlike jazz and a lot like parents, sometimes they die, too. When I think of the children I love, it is with mingled joy and terror that something bad... Anyway, there it is. Take it or leave it.
Most people get married. Some marry very miserably because they are not suited to marriage or to the person they settled for/hoped was the fantasy in their head. There are worse things than never being married. There are many married women who would love to change places with you right now. If, however, you are over thirty and not yet married, I sincerely hope you have made provision for this eventuality. If not, may I fraternally recommend you take my above advice. None of it will stand in your way of being married, should you finally be called to that vocation.
Update: I think I should stress the over thirty part. If you are under thirty, calm down. Take a chill pill. The average age for first marriages in Canada is about 30.1.