Flying Solo: Single Women in Midlife

Carol M. Anderson and Susan Stewart with Sona Dimidjian.  New York: Norton Books, 1994.

I haven’t done a book review in some time, but this non-fiction piece, found a few days ago at Main Street Books 2.0, deserves a mention.  Though it’s almost fifteen years old, Flying Solo is plenty timely in its treatment of the struggles and triumphs of women who, through choice or circumstance, found themselves single in their middle-age years (defined in this book loosely as ages forty through fifty-five, but with plenty of examples of, and for, mid-thirty-somethings like me).

While in the last decade, unmarried women with and without children have become more of a norm in society, there’s still an underlying stigma in much of the country–or at least a discomfort among many who don’t know what to “do” with single women in their thirties, forties, and beyond, or how to seat them at dinner parties, or even whether to invite them at all.

Then there’s the assumption among some men that a single thirty-, forty-, or fifty-something woman is somehow “desperate” and “easy” (translation: vulnerable), and therefore even their most lewd and ludicrous advances will somehow be welcomed and accepted (an assumption I can attest to, having had this very experience with a married local business owner downtown on Monday night**).

This book deals with those stigma, and with the now mostly unspoken, but still often-present underlying expectation that while women should perhaps have careers, their real “job,” their real “goal” is to get married and have a family.

I have dealt with this expectation in my life, which in some part caused me to marry the first man who actually proposed (I’d had other, earlier relationships wherein the man just assumed we were going to get married without ever having asked), and to then have a child because we’d been married for a certain length of time, had good insurance, and, well, that’s what you do at that point in your life.

It took me a long time to recognize that pattern in myself (no one wants to wake up one day and realize they’ve been following someone else’s script without even knowing it), and I spent a lot of time after my divorce reckoning for all those years when I was following the unconscious script.  My parents never told me outright that I had to get married or have kids, but undergirding all their language about my future was the assumption that I would: “When you get married…when you have kids….”

This books deals with that unconscious baggage women often carry, and also with the heterosexual “marriage and motherhood mandate” or “The Dream”–of the Fairy Tale prince who will come and sweep a “girl” off her feet and take care of her for the rest of her life.

While I think that kind of dream is a little less common in these days of two-earner households (and it was never a dream of mine), the result can often be the same: women reaching mid-life in relationships they might not have chosen had they been aware of the subliminal tape running through their unconscious minds.

For me, the most intriguing part of this book is the discussion of the relationships these single women form with men, and how they keep their boundaries in place so as not to fall into the script once again.  With H. gone this week, I’ve been back on my incredibly satisfying workaholic schedule, and have realized how much I had changed my own routine to accommodate his, without his asking or expecting it.

After reading this book, it’s struck me that I’m falling into my mother’s pattern of having dinner ready at a certain time–of not starting projects later in the day even if I want to, because of course I’d need to stop once H. got “home.”  Except, of course, it’s my home, and he’s never asked or expected that I have a dinner ready for him or stop working on a project.  This is one of the reasons why “Feminist Chicks Dig Him,” as the t-shirt I bought him proclaims.

But those patterns are so ingrained, so easy to slip into.  In the book, some of the women interviewed have worked very hard to establish their boundaries, and are concerned that, even if re-marriage seemed like a reasonable option with a great man, they would, through little or no fault of their partners, fall into the traditional wife and mother role that’s been modeled for them their whole lives.

The conclusion of the book, which I have glossed through, but not yet read, is a sort of “mechanics” discussion–what it is like to be a single woman (with or without children) on a day-to-day basis–the surprises, the support mechanisms (friends, family, etc.), the sometimes grueling realization that no one but you is going to do the dishes, take out the garbage, sweep the floor, do the laundry, change the oil–you know, everything that has to be done in a household all the time.

Frankly, that’s an important point, though for a woman in a bad relationship, the idea of doing just her own dishes and laundry could seem like a real blessing, at least for a short time.  It is hard to keep up with the demands of having a house, a career, a child (or children), and for me, a business on the side as well, plus dealing with the occasional slight or stigma for my choices. It’s great to find a comprehensive book about those choices, and how positive they can be.

** I told him his wife is going to kick his ass, in case you’re wondering.  But, WTF?!?!  Hello?  Small town? Public place?  H. says he admires the man’s taste, but the tactics, if he was serious, leave a bit to be desired.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jillian Tatum on September 24, 2008 at 11:23 am

    Amen! Have you read Princess Bubble-I am all about this book!

  2. Posted by Matt on September 24, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Small town, public place . . . that’s part of the thrill, though certainly unnecessarily risky. My, MY. Do I have to come out there and beat the men off you? 😉

  3. Posted by flyingtomato on September 24, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Jillian–I have not read Princess Bubble. The title sounds strange, but I gather it’s in the same vein!


    Um, well, you don’t have to, but I always love to see you! Apparently, it’s not safe or proper for a woman to be in public places at night without her man-protector.


  4. Posted by Matt on September 25, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    thanks for humoring my inappropriate humor. hee hee.

  5. Posted by flyingtomato on September 26, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Oh Matt–

    What are friends for but to humor one another’s inappropriate humor?

    Really, though, it’s sad. I mean, in a small town–one more place I don’t particularly want to go. I’ve had a number of friends tell me to laugh it off, and that’s what I did (and then turn away), but now I feel like if I go in there and give him business, I’m saying this kind of sh*t is OK–it’s OK to talk to me like that.

    His humor was obviously inappropriate too, and it’s not like we haven’t had conversations before–but to horn in on the conversation I’m having with my friend, then wait until my friend goes to the bathroom and hit me up? That just goes over the line. It’s a different thing than friends making silly jokes.

    And the whole thing about, “my wife doesn’t have to know.” Oh, then why are you propositioning me in full earshot of several other people?

    I don’t consider myself a man-hater (obviously), nor do I have a problem with being considered attractive, but, you know, I’m not likely to *feel* attractive with this kind of approach. It’s disrespectful and trashy, and it just makes me feel tired and like I need to go take a shower to clean the “icky” off.

    Then there’s the little voice in the back of my head that worries if I do talk about it, he’ll come after me for being a “home-wrecker” or something. This may seem like over-reacting, but people who think it’s OK to act the way he did may also think it’s OK to then try to force me to shut up. And why the hell should I have to feel worried about something someone said to me? That I rejected? But there it is–and that’s a good example of why there’s no real gender equality. He says something stupid; I have to worry.

    But, like I said, I don’t necessarily need you do come “beat the men off me” (much more satisfying to do that myself 😉 ), but sometimes it does seem that a woman who goes out at night in her own small town is too often made the target of stupid, disrespectful comments and propositions.

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