I’m not going to lie: the last three years have been a romantic shitshow. My marriage ended. I went on dates, some of them fun, some of them boring, some of them leading to relationships that weren’t quite right. I fell in love and then I didn’t. I wept in my friends’ arms. I wept in glasses of rosé. My heart accumulated more fissures than I care to count.
And during all of this, people kept repeating to me, Maybe you should try being alone.
I have been boy crazy my entire life. I hate that term (because I’m 40 years old and it just feels stupid) but it’s accurate. I can’t remember a time when men were not the first thing I thought of in the morning and the last thing I thought of when I fell asleep. There are, I’m sure, many reasons for this. Some of them deeply personal. Some of them traumatic. Some of them attributable to how women are often valued for their partners and not themselves. For better or worse, I’m in love with the idea of love.
Of course, this is problematic. I often measure success by the kind of relationship I’m in. I haven’t spent more than six weeks alone in 20 years. My personal identity is tangled up in how desirable I feel, in how much attention I attract at a bar on a Friday night. Even now, I struggle with how any of this fits into my feminism, into how I make choices independently of men, into my life as single mother.
But the question is: why do I feel so much anger when someone says, well-meaningly, Maybe you should try being alone?
This suggestion assumes a number of things. First of all, that the desire for a partner or intimacy is a sign of weakness. It leads to further assumptions about independence and respectability. If I’m a woman who uses intimacy to feel genuine happiness, then others conclude that I am unable to accomplish much of anything without it. Can I be a successful writer independent of the man who is sleeping in my bed? Can I appreciate my success without a man to reflect it back to me?
The short answer? Yes, I can. And, yes, I have. Do I need to send you my CV to prove this?
I’m also a single mother, which carries a lot of weight, particularly if I’m thinking about introducing a partner to my child. Necessarily, all of my relationship decisions are a delicate balance. What do I want? What’s best for my son? What do we want as a family unit? But knotted up with that is how respectable mothers are supposed to be. We’re very rarely afforded the option of being sexual. If we’re lonely, we’re allowed to bury that loneliness in romance novels, caftans, and discreet day drinking. If we express desire, it’s supposed to be a means to an end, and that end is a new daddy for our children.
Now, any gendered schemata for how I’m supposed to behave is a sure-fire way to make me do the exact opposite and I know I’m not alone in this (raise your hands, contrarians of all genders). Feminism has done some hard work on respectability, sexual independence, and motherhood, but on a daily level, those gains are very difficult to see. The world would be far more comfortable if I stayed at home and ate ice cream to fill the gaping sexual void instead of going on blind dates in a skirt that my grandfather would say is too short.
Now, for just a minute, I want to talk about Kate Hudson. I know. But humour me.
For a while now, Kate Hudson’s brand of single motherhood, or how it is portrayed to the media, has been pushing all of my rage buttons. The message is unwaveringly perky. She’s hot! She’s single! She wears plunging necklines! She attends every event! She sells workout clothes! There are many intersecting circles of race and gender and sexuality and class here. She can afford childcare whenever and wherever she needs it. She is a blonde, white, straight and cis woman, and, while she certainly attracts public sexual attention, she is not subject to the kind of fetishization that women of colour or queer women often are. Her visible sexuality—how she constructs her brand and how public she makes her series of relationships—is a form of privilege. She is allowed to be just the right kind of sexual.
I am not wealthy or white. If I want to go on a date, it requires a lot of work and expense to secure childcare and, sometimes, I can’t afford it. If I go out into the world in a plunging neckline or leather pants, I will most certainly be sexually and racially harassed.
So my sexuality is bordered on all sides by codes of behaviour: respectability politics, white feminism, and perceptions of motherhood. And all of them would be easier to navigate if I flirted less, if I fell in love less often, if I didn’t care about intimacy.
The idea of being better without a partner is, on its surface, an admirable one. After all, no one can control how a love relationship is going to evolve or end. There is no permanence, only change and reactions to that change. It’s more rational to build a life on work or family or your ride-or-die group of friends. And through the lens of feminism, doing all we can to dismantle patriarchy or create systems that have no need of patriarchy is precisely how we make space for people who have been subject to marginalization. When someone advises me to try being alone, that is, in part, what they are saying. You don’t need a man to succeed, Jen. You don’t need a relationship to be happy.
No, I don’t. But I do. And this has been the hardest thing of all to admit.
It has been 23 years since I started dating. In that time, I’ve come to conclusions about what I want my relationships to look like, even though my desires shift as my life shifts. I’ve made hard choices about monogamy, about straightness, about the past experiences my partners and I need to share, and about how much of this I want to communicate to the world. And I am only just now reconciling my drive for partnership with my politics. Relationships have the unique ability to make me happy in a way that is fluffy and light and giddy and carefree. This is where my high comes from. This is what I have spent 23 years chasing. And I no longer feel like defending that choice.
None of this means I don’t find joy in other areas. My career has been what I turn to again and again to work out anxiety or sadness or rage. My friends continually buoy me up. And my son, with his dimples, ninja fantasies, and unstoppable laugh, is the most perfectly quirky human.
If I were a single father, the type of man who dates a series of younger women and declares loudly to everyone who might listen, I love women, would anyone ever say that I should try being alone? I don’t think so. Instead, we would drink with him at a rooftop bar and perhaps, even, buy him a tray of negronis so he could tell us more stories about the last backup dancer he dated.
I have some good stories too, if we substitute the backup dancer for a housepainter or a carpenter or a man who looks like Anderson Cooper. Buy me a negroni. And then maybe I’ll tell you.