It can be hard to find stories about women who are single and don’t have children. There are now so many more people delaying marriage and family, but it can be hard to find them. It might be tempting to think that they don’t exist. Glynnis MacNicol’s wonderful book No One Tells You This is one such story. It’s an exploration of life when MacNicol turns 40, a year which holds highs and lows of family illness and loss, friendship, professional successes and challenges. Regardless of your relationship status, this is a must-read.
I caught up with MacNicol to talk about the way things have changed for single people, friendships, and what she loves about her life.
Tell me about your book?
I’ve come to think of it as a coming-of-age story about turning 40, being single, not having children, and trying to find your way in a world that really doesn’t recognize you as a vital part of it. I think a lot of why I wrote the book was that I was struggling to find a blueprint for myself for what the next phase of my life would, could, and should look like. You really have narrow narratives around women’s lives that almost exclusively adhere to the marriage plot or the motherhood plot. I wanted to create a different narrative.
I was seeing not just myself, but so many women in my life, living fulfilling, exciting and complicated lives as women outside marriage and motherhood. Women in marriage and motherhood live full and difficult lives outside of both of those roles, but I couldn’t find any version of that in the culture. I was both incredibly angry about its absence and felt suffocated by it, as I think anyone who finds themselves living outside the norm. How do you measure the value of your life? How do you measure the progression? How do you know your place in the world when you are not seen? That’s what the book is trying to accomplish.
One of the reasons I was able to write this book is because so much happened to me when I turned 40, which is a very loaded age for people, but women in particular—because it coincides with our idea of the end days of fertility. The book is about what it means to be a woman outside these cultural norms. But it’s also very much about my relationship with my mother and the generation my mother came from and the relationships I have with many of my friends.
In many ways, your book is about the extremes of single life. Would you talk about how you found being single to be similar/different from our cultural stereotypes?
I found it to be both. I’ve observed that single women, particularly single women past a certain age are found to be either very spoiled or objects of pity. Some people will read this and think I’m very spoiled. Let me emphasize the self-made nature of my life. Most people are so comfortable attributing self-made-ness to men and so uncomfortable attributing it to women. I have been living on my own since I was a teenager, and, financially, I’m my only support system. We really don’t have any way to understand women as both self-sufficient and as outside the direct support system of being a mother. I am in a supporting role in so many people’s lives, as a caretaker or support system, or whatever it is, that the idea I was selfish and spoiled was pretty much upended. At the same time, the freedom that coincided with some shred of financial independence, on my part, in terms of being able to travel, made me sort of an object of envy in ways that no one had ever prepared me for. No one prepares a single woman, aged 40, to be the object of envy of anybody. You’re just ready to be the forever alone person.
I was living both those stereotypes, but sort of at the opposite ends of them and I felt that as the title suggests, no one had told me either of these things were going to be possible.
Your story makes it clear that while you don’t have a partner, your life is full of love, both in the friends you’ve chosen, and the family you belong to. How have these relationships enriched your life and how do you think they would be different if you were in a couple?
I don’t like to speak broadly for everyone because everyone’s experiences are different, and I want to emphasize how much I was in New York City. I love New York, but I think living in New York and living in major urban areas as a single person is a different experience culturally then living in the suburbs. If I owned a house, as a single woman in the suburbs, and had to drive places, my social interactions would be far fewer than they are right now.
I always like to say I think it’s a fallacy that women in my position wouldn’t be overwhelmed with relationships. I appreciate that that’s not true for everyone, and I have lived in the same place for two decades and I am still friends with many people I’ve known since my early twenties. Maintaining friendships over two decades is complicated and difficult and requires determination and compromise, much the same as marriage. So I like to emphasize that too, because some people have come up to me and said ‘How do I get friendships like yours?’ and I’m like, ‘It looks perfect now, but you know, we’ve been through the deep end of difficulty over the years like any long-term relationship.’ But we have this assumption of like lonely, poor you. Even my editor said to me at one point ‘Do you want to talk about how difficult it is around the holidays, you’re not married, and you don’t have a place to go?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what other people’s experiences are, but people are trying to book me up for their holidays months in advance.’ I have so many holiday invitations and I think I’m very fortunate. How would that be different if I were married or if I were in a partnership? I don’t know, so it’s hard for me to say.
When all of your friends start getting married and having children, your life shifts fundamentally and you have no control. It’s really painful. My experience is that everyone comes back to you once they get through those early years of their lives shifting, but what happens is that people have less time. There’s a number of years where everyone’s main focus is their children.
So dating and relationships of all kinds change so much as we get older, what are some of the differences you’ve seen both in dating and building other relationships throughout your different decades?
Making friends in your 20s is so easy because you’re all unformed and have high tolerance levels. You’re also, and this goes for dating too, constantly in social situations, surrounded by people your own age, largely with your own ideas about how life should go. I say that as somebody who very clearly left where I was raised and found a place where I felt comfortable and was surrounded by people who shared my idea of what the world should look like. I’ve kept my friends since my early twenties and then also have made a different set of friends with each decade that goes by. The older you get the more you understand the people you want in your life and the people you don’t want in your life.
With regards to dating, people tend to think of dating as a job. There’s some truth to that since you don’t find yourself in circumstances that naturally create the environment where you are meeting new people. You have to go out of your way to create these circumstances. If you are a person that wants to be in a relationship, and if you are a person that wants to be married with children, which is a completely valid goal to have, you have to work at creating those opportunities. Those circumstances just don’t happen naturally they happen even less naturally in a world that’s dominated by social media. So, if dating is a priority for you, you have to make time in your schedule.
That changes again when you hit your 60s and people’s kids are out of the house. We see people coming more back into a social arena where you’re surrounded more by people your own age. What do you see as the greatest gifts of being single?
That’s a big question, because women having the opportunity to remain outside of marriage for their entire adult life and financially be able to support themselves is an incredibly new development in history. I raise this point every time I talk about this subject: in the United States women couldn’t have credit cards or bank accounts in their own name until 1974. They had to have a husband or a father co-sign. When we talk about what is the greatest thing about remaining single, just the fact I can is the greatest thing.
I encourage every single woman to remind themselves of that, because, culturally, we really like to attach shame to any aspect of a woman’s life where she’s doing something on her own. You’re traveling alone? What’s wrong with you? You’re eating alone? That’s something to be ashamed of, or you are up to nefarious things. What’s the matter with you? That’s a cultural decision we’ve made. I encourage women to think, if they’re feeling bad about being alone, who benefits from you feeling bad about it? The greatest thing about this development is that I even have the ability to be single and successful in every aspect of my life.
If you could go back and communicate with your younger self, what would you say and what advice would you offer our single readers?
If I went back to my younger self and I said: ‘You’re living in New York City in your own apartment and you’re making a full-time living as a writer,’ my eight-year-old self, would just be like: ‘Awesome.’ I don’t think my eight-year-old self would have asked: ‘Are you married?’
My advice to women who are single: you have nothing to be ashamed about. Congratulations on being able to live a life that hasn’t been possible for women before this era. Marriage is not a solution. We look at single women as a problem in need of a solution, but you are not a problem. Do not feel ashamed.
What were your hopes for your readers as you wrote this book and sent it into the world?
I really wanted just to open the door. I didn’t want this book to be prescriptive. This book is not: how to be single and great, or self-help or anything. I thought of it like a dispatch. I am out here in what feels a bit like no man’s land. I fully appreciate that there’s long history of women outside of marriage and motherhood, but the fact that we have so few stories about them tells you something about who’s writing the stories.
I want to tell you what it’s like so that maybe it will be less overwhelming, or frightening, or shame-filled, or anxiety-inducing for you as you contemplate it. I just wanted to map my small place in this wide experience and send that back. I wanted to provide an alternate version of what a woman’s life could look like.