What’s Age Got to Do With It?

So, after someone asks, “After all these years, how did you know?” you focus first on the “how did you know” piece. After the third or eighth or seventeenth sales clerk/prospective vendor/random person in public sees your forty-something self with wedding-related items and assumes you are the mother of the bride instead of the bride-to-be, you start thinking more about the “after all these years” piece.

Is it possible to laugh out loud while grimacing in rueful recognition? Ladies and gentlemen, Garfunkel and Oates, in “29/31”:

Lest you’re wondering, no, I’m not 29-and-holding; in fact, I’m quite a few orbits past 31-and-kvetching. (Well, okay. I cop to the kvetching.) Actually, it amuses and bemuses me every time I hear a news story about how the average age of marriage has risen dramatically in the past few years. To 27. Of course, that is an average. Just doing my small part to blow the curve.

I don’t know that I ever felt as confident and glib as “29,” though I definitely shared her naivete–especially the bit about how love and partnership “just happen.” I didn’t hit “31’s” wall of angst until I turned 36. Forty was closer than thirty…when did that happen? Suddenly I saw with clarity how the trajectory of my life, in terms of readily available dating opportunities, had progressively and steadily narrowed: the wide-open spaces of college in a big city when most everyone my age was unmarried and so “available”; grad school in a slightly smaller city, where the increasing demands of school and teaching meant I mostly met men in my department, a good third of whom were already attached; then my first full-time job, even more demanding, at a small college in a tiny Georgia mountain town with a charming square, great festivals, and six eligible bachelors. Okay, maybe seven.

The year I celebrated the pivotal 36th birthday, I’d moved to Virginia and broken off a relationship that distance proved to be a mismatch. Over the next five years I had two revelations: (a) If I wanted to meet people (not just potential partners, but anyone outside work) and see the world, there was no time for or sense in waiting; I was going to have to go against my introverted grain and, to quote a mentor, “make my own luck.” And (b) it was entirely possible that despite whatever efforts I made or adventures I embraced, I wouldn’t find a lifetime partner (unless felines counted).  And whether I did or not, I was going to be okay.

More than okay, actually. I was going to be awesome, because I could choose to live an awesome life, whether I lived it alone or with a partner. Or alone or with a partner with cats.

Not long ago, NPR ran a great piece on Morning Edition I wish I could have heard many years ago: “For Single Women, ‘An Infinite Variety of Paths’.” The piece ran as part of their current series on “The Changing Lives of Women,” and focused on an interview with Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry. My favorite comments from Traister’s interview are those the title is drawn from: “…we make a mistake when we create a binary between, you’re either married or you’re unmarried. Once you lift the imperative that everybody get married at age 22, what you get is an infinite variety of paths. It’s not simply some argument that single life is inherently better than married life. The fact is there are all kinds of married lives and all kinds of single lives, and more people are now free to go down a variety of paths.”

“An infinite variety of paths.” Which may be walked (or strolled, or skipped, or stampeded down) at an infinite variety of ages. Remaining single at 31, or 36 (or 43 or 55 or or or) doesn’t mean life is “over”; getting married at any age is simply the start of another exciting (and, for me, as yet uncharted) path. Not all who wander, as they say, are lost, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have the chance to experience many different paths within one lifetime, each with its own challenges, riches, and joys.

Some of them have annoying sales clerks.  But some of them have cats.

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