The Invisible Single Woman

by Sara Hinkle

As I synthesized the messages of various books and articles focused on women in leadership and considered how they applied to my own life situation, I came to a realization: as a single, childless woman in my 40s, my point of view is not really being represented at all. The messages out there are primarily targeting the working mom. As Kerry Hannon noted in Forbes in a critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In,

Sandberg spends the lion’s share of her book on the challenges facing working women with young children. But the plight of women without kids in the workplace is virtually ignored, even though nearly 1 in 5 American women exits her childbearing years childless.

Indeed, Hannon echoed my feeling that my perspective was not being captured. Further, I’ve found many of the messages being delivered to be frustrating and even insulting at times. Allow me to elaborate on the plight of the invisible single woman.

Sandberg is certainly not alone in her singular focus on the working mother. In their respective books, Lean In and Wonder Women, Sandberg and Debora Spar, both wives, parents, and professional women, weave tales of balancing their roles as leaders, spouses, and mothers throughout. Each woman also dedicates an entire chapter this subject: “The Good Wife’s Guide to Life and Love” (Spar) and “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” (Sandberg). The advice from Sandberg’s chapter is summed up nicely by a quote from a commencement speech that she delivered at Barnard College in 2011:

[T]he most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further.

I certainly can’t argue with the idea that it’s valuable to select a supportive and egalitarian partner. However, I couldn’t help but wonder, what does this mean for those of us who don’t have partners? Are we deficient? Less than? Are we not going to go as far for this lack of spouse?

The “women in leadership” literature is also peppered with the notion of “having it all.” Indeed, Ann Marie Slaughter devoted a whole article in the The Atlantic to exploring the idea of “Why women still can’t have it all.” So what do we mean by “having it all”? In the context of this dialogue, I believe we mean having a successful career and a successful family life, once again leaving the single, childless woman out in the cold. Under this framework, it would appear that we are somehow deficient because we haven’t achieved “it all.” I would argue that “having it all” is a highly individualistic concept that every woman needs to define for herself; having a career and a family should not simply be the default when it comes to defining success or happiness. As one single woman shared:

I have sincere respect for mothers…I support the challenges moms face having to or wanting to do things outside the context of motherhood. But when we say that success is only achieved when one does those things along with being a mother, we cast aside the women who are not mothers as if they are not eligible to be a “picture of success for the modern woman.” (Notkin, 2012)

Another common buzz word in the “women in leadership” genre is that of “work/life balance.” And what image does this phrase convey? The harried mom, dashing from her boardroom meeting in her suit and heels to go pick up little Morgan from daycare and then go fry it up in a pan for her kids and man. These poor women need to find some “work/life balance,” right? Well, don’t we all need work/life balance? Whether we’re single, married, a parent, childfree, male, female- this is a healthy concept for which we all need to strive. But let’s be real here. The single, childless woman has plenty of time to herself, right? Never mind that she bears the sole responsibility for every aspect of her life and household.

I’m sure my single counterparts can relate to this scenario: When the mom dashes out of work early to take Mikey to his baseball game, she’s lauded as being a good parent. But if the single woman leaves early, she’s selfish and not dedicated enough to her job. Now, to be fair, I’ve always had supportive colleagues who have never seemed judgmental about my work schedule. One even acknowledged, how are you supposed to meet someone to start a family with if you’re stuck behind your desk every night? The guilt is primarily self-imposed; it’s my own feeling that my time is not as valuable as that of my parenting colleagues. But clearly, the writers of these leadership books and articles are not really concerned about my time either.

As if the single career woman doesn’t have enough to worry about, there’s also her waning fertility. Indeed, a recent “baby panic” was sparked by Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s controversial book, Creating a Life, in which she advises women to have their children young, or risk having none at all; she says, just as you plan for the corner office, you should plan for grandchildren. This sparked a flurry of related articles, such as such as Jean Twenge’s “How long can you wait to have a baby?” in the The Atlantic, and Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Baby panic” in New York Magazine. The reality is that young professional women may not be having their children before age 35 for a number of reasons, such as a lack of partner or financial stability. For many women, this is not a choice at all, and implying that they have total control and are blowing it is offensive and frustrating. (Indeed, my “shero,” Tina Fey, and her fellow female comedians lampoon Hewlett’s perspective beautifully in a Saturday Night Live clip).

Author Melanie Notkin contends that women who are infertile by circumstance (i.e., because they have not yet found the right partner with whom to start a family) are becoming so pervasive that she’s dedicated a whole book to the experiences of this population, which she’s dubbed the “Otherhood.” Members of the Otherhood often have to deal with unfair negative stereotypes. For example, back in the 1970s, single, childless professional women like Mary Richards (pictured above) were “spinsters.” Now we’re “delayers,” or “career women,” that is, either selfish for eschewing family for career, naïve for gambling with our fertility, cold, non-maternal, etc. As Notkin points out, what choice do we have but to be “career women”? Who will support us otherwise? We have no alternative but to “lean in,” as one woman Notkin interviewed expressed:

I feel like I have to lean in on everything big or small. I’m leaning in so hard that I’m going to fall over! And I have no net! Single gals bear 100 percent of the consequences and the responsibility for our livelihoods. I’m trying to figure out how to allow myself to lean back! (2014, p. 193)

The reality is that single, childless women constitute a large percentage of professional women out there, and our needs and struggles need to find a voice in the dialogue. Our time is just as valuable as that of our parenting counterparts and we also struggle to find the elusive “work/life balance.” We want to have it “all” just as much as the next person, though how we define that may vary. We are not cold, non-maternal “career women” who have put our career first or played games with our fertility. We are simply doing the best we can to lead fulfilling lives with meaning and purpose and find happiness, both personally and professionally.

Take notice of us. We should not be invisible.

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References:

Grigoriadis, V. (no date). Baby panic. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/nymetro/urban/family/features/6030/index2.html

Hannon, K. (2013, March 13). Sheryl Sandberg’s 5 best ‘lean in’ tip for women. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/03/13/sheryl-sandbergs-5-best-lean-in-tips-for-women/

Hewlett, S.A. (2002). Creating a life: Professional women and the quest for children. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Notkin, M. (2014). Otherhood: Modern women finding a new kind of happiness. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Notkin, M. (2012, July). Is motherhood the only path to success? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melanie-notkin/marissa-mayer_b_1686793.html.

Notkin, M. (2011, June). It’s time to stop calling career women without children “delayers.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melanie-notkin/childless-women_b_863598.html.

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Alfred K. Knopf.

Slaughter, A. (2012, June). Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic, 85-102. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.

Spar, D. L. (2013). Wonder women: Sex, power, and the quest for perfection. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Twenge, J. (2013, June). How long can you wait to have a baby? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/how-long-can-you-wait-to-have-a-baby/309374/.

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16 thoughts on “The Invisible Single Woman

  1. Love it Sara! I have countless stories of comments people have made to me, decisions made by my peers for me(e.g., “my kids have x so I can’t make it. But, we really need to have someone attend”), and my own frustrations with not being taken seriously because “I don’t know what hard work really is.” I work with incredible people and this still happens. A lot.

    PS – I couldn’t stand Lean In for the mommy assumption and the hetero assumption.

  2. This is so timely as several faculty and staff colleagues and I had a very similar conversation just yesterday in connection with a women’s leadership development program we have all been involved in this year. Thanks so much, Sarah, for initiating this discussion in this forum!

  3. This was a perfect & timely post. As a woman who is still struggling with not knowing if I even want children, an interesting group to include would be women who have chosen not to have children, regardless of having the right partner or financial stability (and how society views those women). In my experience, I’m viewed as odd, “broken”, selfish, or lacking maternal instinct for sharing that I’m unsure if I want children regardless of any circumstances.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. In the interest of brevity, I focused primarily on my own perspective, that is, a woman who always planned to have children, but was thwarted by not finding a partner in a timely manner. However, I definitely acknowledge and appreciate that there are many women who choose not to have children- a valid choice that should not be villianized! Perhaps you would consider a follow-up post in which you elaborate on your own perspective.

  4. Enjoyed this. As a childless woman in her 40s I often feel square peg in round hole in mass media and work life balance discussions. Apparently all that stuff us not for me! Thanks for highlighting this.

  5. Thank you! This definitely resonates with me as well. I’m turning 39 in a few months and I’ve been struggling with this too. It feels like no matter what we do, it’s not good enough. You have a PhD. Great, but why aren’t you a professor? You have a leadership position, but you don’t have a family of your own? I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Thanks,
    Ellen

  6. Thank you for sharing this! I am in a women’s leadership group on campus and we read Lean In and felt frustrated by that same sentiment. So much of that book is about being a partner and a parent, which is fine for women like me who are both, but was alienating for other women in the group who did not necessarily see that in their future. Thank you for sharing your voice!

  7. I loved your article. I am married with four children, but I often bristle at the “having it all” and “work/life balance” language. I don’t even know what that means, really, and it is not reflective of my experience. I much like your statement: “We are simply doing the best we can to lead fulfilling lives with meaning and purpose and find happiness, both personally and professionally.” Yes indeed.

  8. I have to admit that I’m a little scared of my future. I’m 23 and I don’t see myself getting married or having children. Many people tell me “You just haven’t found the right one” or “Your hormones just haven’t kicked in yet” or, my personal favorite, “Do you want to grow old alone?” Maybe I’ll change my mind, but sometimes its hard to understand that I don’t have to.

    1. The beauty of feminism is that it gives us choices. We don’t have to get married or have children if we don’t want to, and society should not judge us for following the path that feels right to us. Stay true to yourself and do your best to ignore such insensitive comments. Thank you for commenting.

  9. Dreadfully late to this thread, having stumbled across it by accident during a search, but I find it quite poignant. There are entire worlds out there of which so many of us remain unaware until a happy accident like mine. I’ve gratefully subscribed.

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