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 I Don’t Owe it to Anyone

I’ve reached an age, and this happened before I turned thirty, where people often tell me that I would be a great mother. As a single woman, I never know how to interpret this compliment. Everyone who says it means well. When I am told students like and relate to me because they are looking for a mother figure, it is meant as a good thing. A quality that will help me if I stay in this profession. Never mind the fact that actual mothers are both overtly and subtly discriminated against in academia. And never mind the fact that male academics are rarely asked to be both a teacher and father to their students. I often find this compliment painful, because although being a mother is something I’d like, I’m at a place in my life where I am unsure it will ever happen. I do not have a partner, and I work a job that barely pays me enough to feed me myself, let alone a little human. I know these things aren’t prohibitive to having a baby. Not for everyone. And I know many people deal with far greater and more painful struggles when thinking about having children. But I am trying to figure out if they are prohibitive for me. Or if motherhood on my own is something I am capable of.

March has seemed to contain years. I feel like I’ve lived for eons, epochs in these four weeks. Part of this is due to so much happening in such a small space of time. I moved to a new apartment, gained a roommate, had a birthday, had a breakup, sewed a dress, knit a sweater, started reading two new books, worked on my novel, and let other people’s social media affect my day far too much. But mostly these weeks have felt too full because I felt too many things all at once. Deep happiness, and deep sadness and anger colliding almost daily. I felt a pure, hot joy while grocery shopping with my roommate, choosing together which snacks to set in bowls on our counter. Picking plants to line our wide windows. And I burst into tears in my car when I Wish I Was the Moon by Neko Case came on during my morning commute. This is a mood I can’t sew myself out of or bake myself out of or knit myself out of. Believe me I have tried.

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I thought there would be a limit to how much I could write or say about heartache. I thought there would be a limit to the heartache itself. It seems the purview of teenagers and bad poets. But like acne, the idea that it will be over and done by twenty is a lie. I will never be finished talking about heartbreak, trying to figure it out, to fully understand it so I can make it a useful thing.

But not everything is useful. Not everything teaches a lesson. It is true I’ve learned a lot from every relationship, no matter how long or short, but how many times do I need to be taught these things, in this way? What is left for me to find out? Truthfully, I don’t think there is much. I’m tired of heartache. I don’t want it in my life anymore. And if ending heartache means giving up any other chances at finding a partner I think that is finally something I am ready to do.

We don’t live in a world that likes or supports single women over a certain age. Single women are not fulfilling their patriarchal mandate to support husbands and procreate. We live in a world that from infancy tells us that finding love and starting a family is the most important thing. The only important thing. Yes, that narrative is changing. There are more options than ever for women. More stories about women than ever. But that socializing doesn’t undo itself so easily. For women or for men. And even though I have decided to stop looking for a partner, the acceptance of a single life has not been easy to come by.

Feminism has been a defining movement for me. It is through that lens that I have figured out my place in this world. But I don’t know how to live my feminism in my dating life. We don’t often think of patriarchy on the small scale, of how it affects two people trying to relate to one another. But I don’t know how, when we’ve been taught such radically different things about what love means and what sex means, we can possibly be expected to figure out how to make a relationship work. I am always worried I ask my partners for too much. But really, I think ask too little. I don’t advocate for myself in my romantic partnerships the way I do in all other areas of my life. I’m a woman who is unafraid to speak my truth in staff meetings or at protests or to my friends. But I am too afraid to speak it to the men I am asking to love me. This lack of agency that I feel, this fear permeates all my interactions with men. And I think it has a lot to do with power, and who gets it and who is asked to give it up. The power that stops me from advocating for myself seems really different than the power that allowed a man like Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. That allows legislators full of old white men to make laws about the bodies of women and trans and non-binary people These things are separate, different, but they exist on a continuum. And that continuum, which starts with small things, allows a whole culture of misogyny to flourish. I am not saying that the men I’ve dated are bad people. Most of them were good and kind. But I am saying that even good men, and good women uphold these things, whether we intend to or not.

Often over these weeks I’ve felt lonely. I don’t expect that to change. I’ve learned how to be lonely and how to be alone. I’ve learned it over years of being a single woman in this world that wants me to feel bad about it. Or if not bad, wants me to both keep trying while not admitting that marriage is something I want. I can’t keep doing all these things. So I’m not going to.

I know that when I’ve told people I’m giving up on romantic love they don’t believe me. I appreciate that my friends have more hope that I’ll find someone than I do, even if I disagree. I love them so much for it. I want their love to be enough for me. I want friendship, and my family, and all my passions and all the things and people I love to be enough.

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But the painful truth is that I’m not sure it is. And I’m not looking for pity. I’m looking for help in making this okay. I’m looking for people to remind that I’m allowed to be sad. That my sadness doesn’t have to be hidden for me to keep experiencing the world.  I’m looking for ways to exist in the world, and ways to make the choices that I want, not the ones that these systems of power are telling me to make. I wish we lived in a different world, a better one. And I wish that building that world was easier, and that more people believed it was possible and were trying to make it manifest. But while we are still in this one I am trying to figure out how love fits into my life. And how motherhood might, even in a single life.

Whenever I feel ugly I take a bath. It reminds me my body is a thing that belongs to me alone. That I don’t owe beauty to anyone. I like to blur the water with my hands, so my edges bleed outward and outward and outward. So I can pretend the space I occupy is vast. So I can pretend I’ve never made myself smaller for other people. I want to learn how to ask for help when I feel I should already know all the answers. One of my best friends told me that I should try to love what my life is right now, and to change it in ways that I can control. I think I can do that. I think that’s a good first step. There are so many kinds of love in this world. So, so, many. I don’t believe I’ll find them all. But I hope I’ll find the ones I need.

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