Beyond the Picket Fence

What does an unmarried woman in her forties who has no children look like? 

Let me guess the picture in your head: A woman sitting at home on a Saturday night, drowning in cats as she eats leftover Chinese food straight from the box and growls bitterly at the romantic comedy feature on cable. 

But why is this the picture that is commonly shared by so many? Why is there no shared societal vision of a happy, fulfilled, and successful woman of forty who finds pleasure in herself and her accomplishments?

Growing up in the typical, southern-fried family, I have grappled with these questions since the day I first realized that I did not want to be a mother and, most likely, did not want to be a wife. At my kindergarten graduation, I proudly proclaimed that I had three goals for my life: to be a teacher, a mother, and a “fish-seller.” Turns out, a five-year-old doesn’t know she wants to be a mother any more than she knows she wants to be a fish-seller. Unfortunately, though, my kindergarten dreams of becoming a mother were not considered absurd, humorous, or childish as were my dreams of selling fish; instead, the dreams of being a traditional southern woman were nurtured and encouraged until the only way I could imagine my life was from behind a white picket fence with a baby on my hip.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a great, loving, and supportive family that has encouraged me to be smart and independent, to be second to no man, and to pursue my dreams. They wanted, and continue to want, what is best for me. Because they, along with those before them, have had happy and successful lives as husbands and wives and mothers and fathers, they want the same for me. So that’s why I have to dance artfully around the question “When’s your wedding?” just about every time I go home, or why I had to feel sick to my stomach when I finally told my mother that I wasn’t going to make her a grandmother.

I guess I was around twenty-one when my prescribed life began to get confusing to me. I started to question why I wanted so badly to be a wife and a mother. I realized that this desire to be married wasn’t about who I was marrying, about finding a partner with whom I wanted to take on life, but instead about the idea of being married, of having a family, of having the successful lifestyle shared by just about everyone in my family and community. I wanted to be married because I didn’t want to be that cat lady eating Chinese food on my couch. But is that a good enough reason to seek out marriage? As a fiercely independent and introspective person, constantly re-evaluating life and changing, who couldn’t even commit to a box of cereal without breaking out into a cold sweat--But what if I get tired of Cap’n Crunch and want something healthier?--I couldn’t imagine myself committing to one person...forever. I felt selfish for denying my parents the grandchildren they so wanted, ashamed that I wasn’t comfortable with living out the life that I had proclaimed to want, confused that I no longer wanted it, and frankly, a little scared of what the future held.

If I rejected the idea of marrying and raising a family, what would my life look like? As a twenty-seven year old, I often attempt to gaze into the hazy future before me, and with each passing day, that future seems more and more unclear. If I’m not hauling children to the baseball field ten years from now, what am I doing? If I’m not making breakfast for my husband or teaching my daughter to cook, what am I doing? If I don’t pass on the traditions, values, and love that were given to me, what is the point of it all?

And so now I am faced with a struggle, going down a path that feels unpioneered. Realistically I know how egocentric and untrue that statement is, but I have only been given two models for my future: proud, southern woman with a husband and kids or bitter, lonely cat lady with leftover Chinese food and a bunch of regrets. It is up to us, women of the south, to forge ahead and rebuild the image of a strong southern woman as a wife and mother (if that’s what she wants to be), an independent and successful career woman (if that’s what she wants to be), a partner (if that’s what she wants to be), a world traveler (if that’s what she wants to be), a lover (if that’s what she wants to be), a thinker (if that’s what she wants to be)....

I wanted to be a wife and a mother for a long time, and my mind changed. It may change again--two or three times. But what I am learning to embrace is the idea that my mind is my mind and my future is my future, both of which are shaped by experiences and by interactions with those around me. I am fighting to find peace in the fact that I don’t need to know what my future looks like because I am only starting its construction now--picket fence not included.

The Path, Max Patch, North Carolina

The Path, Max Patch, North Carolina