Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Redefining Adulthood


I want to be a grownup. Scratch that. I am a grownup, but the definition of adulthood is in the continuous process of adjustment. When I was a kid, and even a post-college adult-in-training, my definition—or requirement—for myself to obtain the official status of “grownup” included having my own family. Reality and biology veered in different directions as I found myself childless without a partner as a result of questionable decisions, abysmal timing, and plain bad luck. Between 38 and 40, I mourned. I was at the peak of loss. It was as if a tiny person or persons who should have sprung from my womb had perished, only they were never born in the first place. There was an absence, an emptiness, a giant baby-size hole looming next to me—and sometimes deep in my gut. The pain, sometimes a dull ache, and other times debilitating, came with little warning almost overnight. I shared this pain with others in the same situation: women with much to give and no one to give it to.

During this mourning period, the slightest mention of pregnancy or marriage in relation to others brought on the urge to break down into a lake of tears. I heard words of encouragement that were intended to help: “You have plenty of time,” usually followed by, “So many women are having babies in their 40s now,” or, “Have you considered adopting?” By 38, I was no longer getting the “freeze your eggs” suggestion, and at my age now, 41, who knows if I have any viable eggs left; I spent twenty years trying not to get pregnant, and can’t imagine what it would be like to do otherwise. My reaction to these questions and suggestions was one of quiet anger and thoughts like, “You just don’t understand,” but I know the women who said these things, who were usually younger and already had babies and husbands themselves, cared and were only trying to be positive. It didn’t help. In fact, it made my feelings about my situation worse.

It was never just about being a mother, although that is what I fully intended to become; it was about the complete package: I wanted my child(ren) to have a shot at two loving parents. I know plenty of people who are productive and happy with just one parent, or none for that matter, and I am the first to cheer on a female with the maternal urge, but no husband or wife, who has the wherewithal to procreate alone; I find these women brave and powerful. But having a baby on my own is not for me. I tend to think this comes from a place of wanting what I had as a child: two kickass parents who were always there for me. They were and still are my biggest fans. My stable, uneventful, stuff-of-dreams childhood is somewhat of a blur, but the part that stands out most is walking home from school every day down the hill to my four-bedroom house a mile from the beach to find my dad upstairs, drawing palatial houses and painting colorful scenery. I would hear the sounds of an artist through the second-floor front window: rock music, pens, pencils, paint brushes, a drafting board, and a tall chair on wheels. These were the sounds of comfort. I always had my parents to talk to after school, and they were always interested in what I had to say. They chose flexible careers to have time for me—and later my sister. How many kids can say that? Not enough. I was fortunate beyond what is reasonable to expect out of childhood. My parents were the model for my future as a mother, one that ultimately didn’t happen, leaving me lost for what it means for me to be an adult.

I recently wrote an essay collection called Yes Girl, which equally explores my relationships both momentous and those that only lasted a couple hours, if that. The book spans from my early teens, when I had the hope of a future love life, to now, when I have no love life at all. The title is appropriate for the collection, but if I were to write about myself as I am in this moment, the collection would have to be called No Girl. I don’t date. It’s not that I’m opposed to finding love that sticks. It’s that I no longer have the energy for anything that doesn’t have a shot at permanence. My last important, long-term relationship ended six-and-a-half years ago. I’ve been single so long I don’t remember how not to be single.

I recently spent three whole days on OkCupid, despite how terrified I am of online dating. I figured at the very least it would be an entertaining exercise meant to cure my growing boredom, as I had no intention of actually meeting any strangers face-to-face without an extensive background check and three solid references.

I created an honest profile with no holds barred. What did I have to lose? I refrained from layering myself with a fine coat of sugar, and I narrowed down my search to find matches who met very specific criteria. I know what I want now; I know a potential lifelong companion when I see him.

What happened in those 72 hours was this: I received more than 30 private messages from men spanning from 23-years-old to 66-years-old—basically “young enough to be my son if I had had a teen pregnancy” to “older than my dad.” (It’s important to note that I set the desired age range from 37 to 45.) The 23-year-old asked, “Your shower or mine” in an attempt to save water during the drought. (And yes, I’ve heard that one before.) The 66-year-old called me “sweetheart” and told me not to “break too many hearts.” I was disturbed by what strangers said to me. I felt exposed. I didn’t respond to anyone and realized that most people who wrote to me hadn’t even read my profile and what I was looking for. They just wanted to get laid, and I only want to do that now with someone I care about who cares about me. What a concept, huh?

OkCupid reminded me of David Cross’s standup when he talked about a garbage man he once saw cruising the streets of Manhattan calling out to every woman he passed, “Hey, Pretty Pretty. Turn that shit upside down.” Cross speculated on the garbage man’s state of mind, saying, "I might get 99 'no's, but maybe that hundredth girl likes to fuck on a pile of trash." It’s a numbers game, and I’m no longer into quantity, nor do I want to be a checkmark on someone’s list.

I perused the matches that were based on a series of multiple choice questions I’d answered. I quickly eliminated anyone who struck me as a potential serial killer, anyone with no photo, a photo that deliberately hid the potential suitor’s face, a group photo that made it impossible to decipher which man was looking for a date, and anyone with whom I had nothing in common. I clicked on the profiles of the “maybes.” One guy called himself “dishonest” in the first sentence. Another said, “I don’t like music,” as in any music. Another pointed out that the twenty- to thirty-minute drive between Los Angeles and Long Beach constituted a “long-distance relationship.” (I did, however, give his profile four stars because he was sharp and hilarious, and I recognized him as one of my favorite people I follow on Twitter. He didn't contact me.) Most of my "over 40" matches were looking for women 39 and younger; I’d just missed the cutoff. Those same men, and others, said they wanted children “someday” or were looking "to have a family in the future." I wanted to write to them and say, “The future is now, buddy.”

These profiles made me feel obsolete, replaced. It was as though I’d aged myself out of the market. Is it possible to be washed up at 41? In Los Angeles County maybe. (Don’t think I haven’t thought of moving.)

While frustrating, these revelations about nearby single men were not as upsetting as they would have been only a year or two ago. While my biological clock slowed to a halt and sent me into a darker depression than I’d known before—around the time of my 20-year reunion, which I skipped—that same biology is really quite miraculous because, after 40, the prospect of living a child-free life suddenly became okay. As abruptly as the mourning started, it stopped. My body is now telling me, “You’re done, and that’s fine.” I still wish I had a son or daughter—or one of each—but I only wish it had happened already; I don’t want to have a baby now. Hopefully menopause won’t send me into a tailspin again because I’m liking this newfound “okayness” on the no-baby front.

I now find myself genuinely happy for others when they get pregnant or engaged, without any added bitterness or jealously. It’s a nice feeling, and I’m not even sure why it happened. It just did. That particular pain is manageable; the worst is over. What’s not over, however, is the ongoing pursuit to figure out what it means for me to be a woman in her 40s with a life that is drastically different from the one I imagined. Who am I? Who am I supposed to become? Am I going to be that weird, lonely aunt who lives by herself in her 80s with a slew of pets? I really hope not. How can I be the Crazy Cat Lady if I’m allergic to cats?

I used to think that someday I would feel like an adult, and I still don’t know what that’s supposed to feel like because I feel like an imposter, but I do know that, often, I would rather spend the evening burning through my DVR in my jammies drinking caffeine-free tea than getting drunk in a noisy bar listening to mid-level  bands that might contribute to early onset tinnitus. I turn into a pumpkin if I’m not in bed by midnight, and I can no longer sleep in in the morning no matter what time I fall asleep (which really sucks, by the way). I find myself thinking more and more often, "Life is not just one giant party, you guys." Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good time, but I want more. I want something meaningful. I’m not actively searching for romantic love, but it’s not in my nature to give up forever.

As a single woman who feels tired, bloated, and old sometimes, where does that leave me? I’m not going to find my future mate sitting alone in my house reading a book—or even writing one. Although a psychic at a Halloween party did tell me once that my husband was “waiting for [me] to find my voice.” But who relies on psychics for accurate predictions? I guess that’s as good a forecast as any, considering nothing happened the way I thought it would. (See Yes Girl for more details once it’s published.)

So my search for the meaning of adulthood continues, as I remain in this constant, odd state of limbo. If it were up to me, limbo would be a four-letter word. I hate it, and yet I have lived in it for so long. The encouraging words of fellow females who said—and sometimes still say—“it’s not too late” now apply to a life of happiness without children, at least children of my own, as I’m not opposed to being a stepparent. Maybe like my maternal grandmother’s third husband, I’ll just skip parenthood and become a grandparent instead. While he wasn’t my biological grandfather, I saw him as my real one. Maybe by the time I’m a grandparent, I’ll figure out what it means to be an adult the way I envisioned it when I watched my dad ink black trees after school. I still have a modicum of hope, and that has to be enough.


  1. This is spot on. Although I never wanted kids, I completely relate and resonate with everything you're saying here.
    Also, this is better, in fact, the best, thing I've ever read on Slate or similar on this topic. Get it published sister!
    Luv ya!