Vows for Every Girl
Promises I Made to Myself about Living Single after 40
It happened every June. I would attend a wedding—and an old, sad question would get stuck in my heart. “I wonder if I’ll ever marry.” Although I would be sincerely happy for the new couple, the melancholy would sneak in around the time they said their vows, “For better or for worse . . . for richer or for poorer . . . in sickness and in health . . . to love and to cherish . . . for as long as we both shall live.”
Year after year I would hear those promises and ponder how extremely significant they were to a happy marriage. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized how critical those vows were to me—a single girl . . . a single girl done with the waiting.
So yes, to answer your question, being single does change after 40. I think for the better. Something happened in me around that milestone birthday that took the angst out of June weddings and pulled me in from the fringes. Thanks to these wedding promises, I finally figured out that married or single, the beauty of life is all in your view.
We’ve come to the age when many who got hitched right out of college have hit loose gravel. Twenty years after white lace and promises, some of these unions are dissolving. They once shared a name, now they share custody. That which became one flesh is peeling apart.
But that’s not the case with all my friends.
Some still take long walks like they did when they were dating—only now they walk through the door of their own home.
Some call each other through the day and pick up a conversation they began in the 1980’s.
Some still reach for the other at 3 a.m. and comfortably spoon, both aware of their hearts matching beats.
Their independence may flare on a regular basis and sometimes their hearts get bruised but now they know where the deep wounds are and try their best not go there.
For these friends, their commitment to live together “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish for as long as we both shall live” has changed their married life.
These promises came alive to me when I realized that I must make these same commitments to myself—to see life for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish for as long as I live. Day by day those vows are leading me to a full, unexpectedly fulfilling, happy life.
FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Life is sweet and life is hard for both the married and single girl. It’s the truth.
A single woman is often tempted to blame everything that makes her feel helpless or unhappy on the fact that she doesn’t have a man around. My married friends have laughed when I’ve complained that maintaining my car would be a whole lot easier if I was married. One resourceful girlfriend even changes the oil in her husband’s car. “It’s just not his thing.”
You know it too, life happens to us all for better and for worse. A woman who spends her time thinking about what she doesn’t have and what she can’t do will soon feel like a sieve. Everything, no matter how lovely or good, will fall right through. Nothing will benefit her very much. She will believe the lie that real life is for other people.
I choose to think better.
Never having married, I’ve had my own set of joys. I’ve tasted the freedom of riding out waves of opportunities. I’ve known the surprises that come from meeting my own financial needs (and getting someone else to change the oil in my car). Sure, I’ve been kissed less than I should have been and I’ve carried more than I’ve wanted. But when I’ve needed help, I’ve relied on a good God and his good people—just what we all need, single or not.
Life can be better; life can be worse and most of it has nothing to do with marital status.
FOR RICHER, FOR POOR
Will I have enough?
We all worry at that question. Usually it’s about money, but we also fear not having enough time, energy, love, or some other precious resource.
These worries can easily undermine a single girl’s security and whisper nasty things to her about the “what ifs.” Fear will put her in a cage by convincing her to hoard everything she has even when she has enough.
What I learned at 40 opened that cage.
I have always wanted a daughter.
I was a good daughter to my mom and have missed her every day since she left the earth in 1998. I look in the mirror at my mother’s eyes and smile when I see her live on in me in good and quirky ways. I am my mother’s daughter.
I was standing in a store’s check-out lane one day last year when I saw a kiosk for a children’s relief organization. Paper-clipped on the sign were three pictures of children who needed help. All had aids. All lived in impoverished Ethiopia.
And I knew right away that the girl in the center picture could be my daughter. I saw it in her eyes.
Her name is Nagese. Her picture is framed on my mantel. Her letters are on my fridge. She’s lived all eight of her years trapped in a poverty I know nothing about.
But while she is poor in lifestyle, Negase is rich in spirit. She loves her brothers, she’s learning to read and write and think. She writes to me about the colors of sunrises and sunsets in Ethiopia and I’m transported there. She asks me about my two cats and the children who live in my village. She is learning to play the flute. She has a serenity that seems almost miraculous given the time and place of her life . . . her small and extraordinary life.
Most likely, Negese’s life will be shorter than the 8-year-old girls I know in the suburbs. But richer or poorer, Negese’s eyes teach me to see beauty. Her generous spirit compels me to not hold back. Giving makes me richer.
What I learned at 40 was that being rich is less about investment portfolios and more about investing in someone who desperately needs what I can give. It’s about making room inside myself for someone else. And setting a place at my table for those who are hungry—many times for more than food.
I’ve learned what I truly need often gets filled up in the giving. Instead of fearing that my limited pool will be drained dry when I give, my life becomes a river that miraculously flows deeper.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
The question remains for the single woman, how do you deal with the absence of something that should have been but never was? A true love that we crave which remains elusive? A promise someone made but never kept?
Whatever the answer, it doesn’t begin with “If only…,” nor does it end with “that’s not fair.” Again, the answer comes from a healthy view of how I fit in the world.
One of the natural risks of living single is thinking too much about yourself. It’s a danger that comes quite honestly. Reflection can quickly spiral into a prideful self-absorption. What am I getting out of this? Am I happy? How does my life compare with hers? Why did this happen to me?
But this self-pity pushes away everything good in life. A self-centered outlook is at the heart of every broken relationship—every failed marriage, every estranged child, every lost friendship. Think about it—it’s true.
At 40 I realized the only way to survive is to treat self-pity like cancer: detect it early, take its threat seriously, and get it out of my body before it’s allowed to grow.
This is not to say that you don’t view life realistically. Some things are unfair. Some challenges are tougher than we might have expected. And most of us never thought we’d have to face it alone.
But at 40 I learned that my story is still being written. Every day I can craft a different ending than what self-pity would dictate. I can refuse to allow the wrapping of life (the health crisis, work challenges, family issues, etc) to distract me from what is good.
This shift in thinking doesn’t happen automatically or quickly. None of us will be Mother Teresa by the weekend. But as I talk through, try on, and come to terms with my own story, I can give myself some needed grace.
At 40, I knew that I needed to lighten up and laugh more every day. I needed to forgive and go on. That struggle which makes me toss and turn in the dark will likely look different in the morning. Instead of fussing, I needed to focus my mind on how my challenges strengthen my soul. I needed to be grateful that life is greater than my perception of it. And be glad for it . . . glad for it all.
TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH
By 40 I’ve lived long enough to know that loving a person just the way they are is no small thing (to quote Sara Grove’s lovely song.) Love is tireless work—in forgiving first . . . and remember the reason . . . in speaking up . . . in listening without judging . . . in helping without criticizing . . . and celebrating every victory.
I have a friend with whom I’ve made a pact that if one of us should unexpectedly die, the other will rush over to her house (before relatives arrive) and burn her journals and clean the bathrooms. You cherish that kind of friend.
Married or single, we’re not meant to experience life alone. We all need someone to say, “I am a witness to your life.”
I have a friend, Ruth, who could tell you the story of my life, as I could tell you hers. We’ve been friends since college. Last month we took a mini-cruise to Mexico. If we had said in 1981, “wherever we are in 30 years, let’s meet up in Miami and go on a Caribbean cruise,” neither one of us would have believed it. After all, what're 30 years to someone, not even 20? More than a lifetime.
But thirty years pass in a flash. And there we were three decades later, walking around the Lido deck together just as naturally as we had around the campus lake—more full of joy and scars than we could have imagined as young freshmen . . . and full of life experiences that don’t get captured in photo albums, on resumes, or even on Facebook.
The last day of the cruise we sat on the ship’s back deck from when the morning sun rose on the right till when it set on the left. We rehearsed our lives against the blue-blue of the Caribbean sea and sky. At times we could hardly tell where one blue began and the other ended—somewhat like the decades we’ve witnessed in each other and all that we’ve discovered about life’s grace and griefs and every shade of color in-between.
FOR AS LONG AS I LIVE
What I discovered about living single after 40 is that I like it.
I can be fully here and nowhere else. I can savor today for what it is, not run ahead looking for some future satisfaction nor lagging behind in the paralysis of regret. Today, I can listen to my life and see it for its mystery, as Fredrick Buechner says, “in the boredom and pain of it no less than in the holy and hidden heart of it. Because in the last analysis, life itself is a gift.”
I haven’t always felt this way. I’ve been impatient, disappointed, discouraged, and ready to despair. But at 40 I realized I didn’t want to let the best years of my life happen without me. I learned how to accept the present as a gift.
At 40, I considered what kind of woman I wanted to be at 41and 51 and 71 and I decided “from that day forward” to bind every decision to that vision of myself.
When I was a little girl, I climbed a mountain with our church youth group. Much younger than my brother and sister who hiked at the top of the train, I walked at the end with an old man from our church, Mr. Schultz. The very young and the very old, hand-in-hand, as I recall. When we reached the top in our own good time, I remember Mr. Schultz lifted me up to stand on a stump, our eyes level, looking out. Gazing at the rippling hills below and whistled through his teeth, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”
And every day, in some small way, I try to do what he said.