Emotional Health · Lifestyle · Relationships & Dating

Battle Cry of the Tiger Spinster

Recently, Lauren—my best friend for more than 25 years—called me an “old maid.”  It began innocently enough (though few of Lauren’s comments are innocent, given her wicked sense of humor). Practicing my Spanish, I had left her a phone message playfully identifying myself as Señorita Wells, and Lauren was kind enough to point out to me that I was too old to be a señorita. She went on to explain that señorita  (like mademoiselle and even, to a somewhat lesser extent, miss) is used to refer to a young unmarried woman, NOT an old unmarried woman. It seems there is no word for that. The concept of a delightful middle-aged woman who has never had a husband (or children) is too far outside the societal norm for there to be a word to describe it. So that’s when Lauren cheerfully volunteered the “old maid” option. So I stand corrected: There is a word for this poor woman . . . just not one that I like so much.

I began a halfhearted search for a word that aptly describes this life-stage of mine. I couldn’t be bothered to pick up a hard-copy dictionary, so I just went online. I Googled the definition of “old maid,” and the Collins Essential English Dictionary said this:

old maid, n.
1. A woman regarded as unlikely ever to marry.

Okay, that certainly is me . . . by my own definition and that of most people who know me. I’m often amused by the calls I get from past suitors to ask me out again when they’re between relationships of their own.  I have this vision of them, newly single, thumbing through their phone contacts and wondering who they can find to help fill some time. And then they remember me. When they call, they are usually kind enough to ask if I’m seeing anyone, but I don’t think even one has ever asked if I was now married. They just kind of know.
Answers.com added more color to the  definition:

Old maid, n.
1. Offensive. A woman who has remained single beyond the conventional age for marrying.

This definition also fits me, technically, though I don’t think I want to adopt it if it’s going to offend (although I guess the offense is actually to me). Plus, I can’t help but think of the withered old crone in the Old Maid card deck. When I was growing up, we would play the game whose goal was not to be the player who ended up the Old Maid. Ending up an Old Maid was obviously bad. Plus, the Old Maid was ugly, with scraggly hair, a big nose, and warts. I don’t look quite like that, so I guess I don’t want her representing me.  And, fittingly, there was only ONE lonely, pathetic Old Maid card in the deck. All the other cards had a mate—because, clearly, that’s the way things should be.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is bachelorette.  It sounds lighthearted and fun. I think of my youth, and cocktails, short dresses, high heels, and unencumbered weekend mornings. That still feels like me, although my gut knows there’s a problem—without my actually having to look it up in Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

bach·elor·ette,  noun
Informal. An unmarried, usually young woman

And so Webster’s goes on to confirm what I suspected.  I  probably passed the bachelorette stage a decade or two ago.  But there’s always spinster. I think of Jane Eyre. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t quite fit me, either, but it’s a thought.


Spinster, n.
Archaic. An unmarried woman of gentle family

I’m not exactly sure what “gentle family” means, but I doubt that it describes mine (though I have a great family). The Encarta Dictionary says it means “upper class, relating to high social status.” I grew up in a blue-collar family in Washington, D.C.  We’re good people, but good, solid, working-class people, so I’d be taking a few liberties with spinster, too—but there’s something about it that I like. It’s archaic, and I think I like the idea of resurrecting a word that’s past its prime.  It sounds sturdy and not completely pathetic.

So spinster it is, at least for now. But why am I not, instead, a wife and/or mother?  Lord knows I’ve been asked that question a gazillion times. My most honest answer, really, is that I think I was absent the day those genes were being given out. I don’t have a memory of ever aspiring to be either of those things (let’s just assume “aspiring” is the right word). When I played “house” with Renée, Jackie, and Carla as a kid, everyone wanted to be the mother (who was also a wife) . . . except me. I often agreed to be the man/husband/father . . . not that I wanted to be a man (I’m straight), but we were playing make-believe and I didn’t see what the fuss was about, so I was happy to accept this role so we could get the game moving along. What difference did it really make? If I remember correctly, I was the only one who felt that way. I was the only one not vying to play Mama.

“What’s Wrong with Her?”

It’s always remarkable to me when I come across a grown woman who brightly declares, “I’ve known since I was a kid exactly what kind of wedding I wanted.” I’m thinking to myself, “What is wrong with her?” In all these years, I can honestly say that I’ve never fantasized about my wedding or what I would name my kids. (Yeah, I’ve met women who picked their firstborn’s name long before they even knew who the father would be.) I don’t think I ever actually thought that marriage and kids were necessarily bad things, but they never seemed to be for me . . . and I really was puzzled why just about everybody else in the whole wide world felt that it was for them. (I am still puzzled by this.)

Most of the spinsters I know are kind of spinsters-by-default in that they didn’t actively choose it. Some definitely wanted to be married, but just weren’t able to make it happen. Others were kind of on the fence: wanting it, but not willing to work too hard at it. As far as I know, I’m the only one I know who went out of her way to make sure that marriage didn’t happen. This used to make me feel kind of weird sometimes—that whole square-peg-round-hole thing. I often get the raised-eyebrow look when I say I actually chose this. People don’t know what to make of it. Now it’s their turn to think “What’s wrong with her?” (meaning me). I still chuckle, though, at the advice I was given, when I was just a spinster-in-training, from an older woman I knew who had also managed never to have a husband or child. She told me that I should just “find someone and marry him.” Even if I didn’t like him very much, I should do it; I had to stay only a little while. Then I could divorce him, because, you see,  “It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was”!  (I’m not sure I buy that, but I know that a lot of people do.)

I have been fortunate (fortunate?) enough to have had a few boyfriends who wanted to marry me, so it’s not like I didn’t get a chance. It just never felt right. And marriage seems really hard. Consistently, whenever I have tried to entertain the notion of marriage for even a nanosecond, it has been impossible to look 15 years down the road and still see that same guy’s face. No matter how much I loved him. That image just didn’t work for me. How in the world was I supposed to pick someone and stay there? I don’t even plan most of my vacations too far into the future, because I might change my mind.

Don’t Fence Me In

Amelia Earhart–aviator, brave soul, free spirit, and the first person to fly solo over both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans—has come closest to describing my feelings about my own marriage. In a letter to her then-fiancé in 1931 she wrote, “I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.” I totally get that.

And kids?  All I know is that they can be great . . . for a few minutes. When I’m around them, I spend most of my time pretending that they’re cuter and more interesting than I actually think they are. When their parents aren’t looking, I pinch them. (Okay, no, I don’t . . . I just think that’s funny).

And here’s something I’m finding rather interesting:  Lately there’s been a rash of studies and articles about how some people are finding that raising kids can be really hard and rather unfulfilling. Maureen Dowd wrote a New York Times column and quoted a researcher who found that “the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.”

And I think the title of an article in New York magazine, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” pretty much says it all. Should this stuff really be a newsflash, though? Kids are cute, wonderful, and delightful, but they’re also expensive, time-consuming, irritating, anxiety-producing, and a lot of work. And sometimes, when they grow up, they lose the “cute.” (Both articles go on to talk about how unwilling people are to admit they wish they hadn’t had kids or that their kids were helping destroy their happiness, so I won’t belabor this point). Honestly, sometimes I wonder if parents who are “concerned” that I don’t have kids are really members of the misery-loves-company club. Just a thought . . .

So, here I am: 56 years old, still single, still with no children. (Lauren has been married to Albert for more than 25 years, most of them happy.) And while I’ve never second-guessed the “no kids” thing (well, almost never), I do sometimes wish there was such a thing as Rent-a-Husband. I can see times when one might come in handy.

When I meet a guy these days, I’m not necessarily seeking marriage, but I am no longer repelled by the thought of something seriously long-lasting. At this age, “till death do us part” isn’t that long, so it’s not so daunting, and I am finally ready to spend some Saturday nights sprawled on the couch rather than on a date. Fortunately, I’m too old to have to even think about kids.

Excerpted from The Spinsterlicious Life: 20 Life Lessons for Living Life Happily Single And Carefree. Copyright © 2012 by Eleanore Wells. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Available at Amazon.com.



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