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  • Most single women are not childless by choice. They want a family with a man they love. Tweet This
  • I was ready to get married at 21. This month marks 30 years in Manhattan, still single and no chance of becoming a mother. Tweet This
  • While more young women today say they're single and childless by choice, I have my doubts that it’s what most of them truly want. Tweet This
Category: Single Life, Women

"My friends and I had a contest to see who would be the first to get a ring on their finger,” said a woman I had just met. “And I won!” she added, with a level of glee incongruent with the two or more decades that had passed since her engagement.

I had been lucky enough to find an empty seat at a table at a large gathering of media folks at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, when the woman I’ll call “Lisa” began telling us how she got married—and by how I mean how she reached her goal of getting married, not how she met her husband.

Little did I know that “how-to-get-married” is Lisa’s competitive game of choice, and that I’d send her off to the races by way of introducing myself and what I do. I’m the founder of Savvy Auntie, a brand and insights company that focuses on childless women who love the children in their life. I’m single (never married), no children, though I had planned for and expected both.

Before I could order a glass of wine and catch up with the others at the table, Lisa, a woman of my own certain age, already had me beat.

“I was 22 when we met,” Lisa said of her future husband. “We broke up a few times, but I stuck with it. I gave him ultimatums!”

It took the man, 13 years Lisa’s senior, six years to put a ring on it. “I had set my mind on getting married, and by 28 I was,” Lisa said, though it was hardly her fait accompli.

Once married, Lisa met the rest of her goals. She has three kids and two homes, and the ability to enjoy her time being home with the kids in the city, and her time being without them in the summer out East.

“I had it all planned out. I made marriage my priority,” Lisa said, assuming I hadn’t.

“Well, a lot of it is luck,” I responded, thinking of the handful of men I’d fallen in love with over the years, the men I wish I’d fallen in love with, and all the years of wishing I had found love and marriage in time for motherhood. “You can’t control who you fall in love with and who falls in love with you,” I added, in my defense.

“Love shmove!” Lisa said with a look of disbelief in her eyes as if someone had pulled the wool over mine.

Love shmove? I thought. 

“I believe the man I marry deserves to know love and to be loved,” I said, with a glance at the 30-something single man seated across from me who nodded in return. 

“Did you love your husband when you married him?” I asked Lisa.

Lisa held a beat, but not her tongue. “You think marriage is a fantasy!” she said over the shrill of the room. 

“I don’t think marriage is a fantasy,” I retorted. “You have no idea about my life... about my heart breaks.”

I admit, I was half envious of Lisa, half sad for myself. Had I done it all wrong? Was it better to have never truly loved and gotten married than to have loved and lost it all?

What I’d said was true: I had been in love and had my heart broken. A few times. And as the years passed, each disappointment grew as my hope for children dwindled.

This wasn’t my plan. I was ready to get married at age 21, two years after my mother’s early death at age 52. I yearned to recreate her maternal love with my own children. 

While I had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, after she died, I became more observant, believing on some level that religious young men were more likely ready to create a family that would gather around the warm glow of the Shabbat table on Friday nights. (Later, I’d learn at least my instincts were right.)

At age 24, I packed up my life in Montreal, Canada, and moved to New York City to find that great Jewish man, the future father of my children. It was surely the best possible plan. 

This month marks 30 years in Manhattan, still single and no chance of becoming a mother. As the old Jewish adage goes: We plan; God laughs.

My second book, a memoir called Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness was published in 2014. Along with my own story, I share the experiences of Generation X and older millennial women who expected the love, marriage, and children our mothers had, along with greater access to higher education and the careers they didn’t have. It wasn’t that most of my generation chose the latter over the former. We simply expected that we would date and pay the rent simultaneously, just like the men we were dating did.

A chapter in Otherhood entitled: “Was It Choice or Chance?” was inspired by a male friend, then recently engaged, who remarked on my single status as I approached 40.

“Well, you made your choices,” he said, as if I hadn’t made all my choices with the best intentions.

I first chose a low-paying non-profit career with greater flexibility to take care of my future children. I invested time and money in online dating sites in my twenties, matchmaking services in my thirties, and singles events (or big ticket charity events where there would be plenty of singles), into my forties. 

And yet, no matter how highly I prioritized what I yearned for the most, the years rolled into the next, and the same refrain would play. We plan; God laughs.

Now, age 54, I am among the 25% percent of Americans who by age 40 have never married. And I have surpassed the 46.7% of never-married women ages 40-50 who are childless. 

Among my various circles of single female friends in their forties and fifties, some have decided to have a baby on their own, often with eggs they froze years earlier in case they remained single toward the end of their fertile years. A handful have succeeded, a few are in the process of trying, and many are still painfully undecided. A few tried and were unable to conceive. And most, like me, never tried to have a baby on their own.

It’s not that we did not want to marry. We did. And still do. Some who waited for love with a man ready for love— or ready for love again—have found it, though too late for children. And some chose (or acquiesced) to live with their lover in the hopes he will one day put a ring on it

The breadth of women who did everything they were supposed to do to prepare themselves for the life they imagined now stretches to the younger cohort who land on the college campus of their choice only to have few men to choose from. Or, they’ve graduated and moved to the big city, only to find it just as hard to meet someone. Childless women in their twenties out-earn their male peers in 20 metropolitan areas. For these women, meeting a man who is also ready to meet their match is more challenging than ever. 

Nonetheless, this narrative assumes women don’t plan well, make poor choices, put our careers first, are too picky, or believe love is a fairytale. And for those of us who didn’t find love in time for the children we yearn(ed) for and who grieve our loss, it’s often assumed we were too naive to understand our fertility would end. We waited too long, they say. Left it too late, they admonish. As if we didn’t have painful monthly reminders. For most of us, it wasn’t our choice. 

A few years ago, I spoke with the CDC’s Gladys Martinez, PhD, researcher and author of the National Health Statistics Reports. She revealed to me that the majority (80%) of single women of fertile age plan or hope to have children one day. Most single women are not childless by choice. They want a family with a man they love.

Back at the restaurant, I considered how life for the single woman hoping to marry and have children is like a game of musical chairs.

Should I have been more ruthless in my pursuit and pushed other women out of the way to grab a chair for myself? I thought, as Lisa went on about how she never had to work a day in her life.

Should I have settled for a much older man when I was much younger? I thought, as Lisa mentioned how her older husband is happy staying at home while she is always ready to go out and socialize without him.

Should I have made getting a ring the only thing? I thought. But just then, Lisa admitted that she is the only one of the women from the ring contest still wearing her ring.

“They are all divorced now,” Lisa said of her old friends, this time with no glee in her voice.

“Well, I never made the wrong choice and married the wrong man,” I said, regrettably with a little too much glee in mine.

“That’s true,” Lisa offered, with a little more compassion in hers. I smiled with a nod of appreciation in return.

While more young women today say they are remaining single and childless by choice, I have my doubts that it’s what most of them truly want. It’s simply easier never to be disappointed in love if you don’t even try. 

But one day, when these young women are at a crowded gathering, they might just be lucky enough to find an empty seat. And, perhaps by chance, a great guy will choose the empty seat next to theirs. And if they’re both lucky, the music will begin to play.

Melanie Notkin is the author of OTHERHOOD: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, and founder of SAVVY AUNTIE: A Celebration of Modern Aunthood.