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“Let me tell you how wonderful it is to live on my own!”
My then-69-year-old mother was a vision that morning—newly in love, she was glowing and looked happier, prettier, and much younger than the last time I saw her.
I had come to spend a few days with my mother to see how she was coping post her separation from my father, her husband of nearly 40 years. The woman who greeted me was the opposite of the lonely, sad, and lost victim who’d been my mother figure.
The idea of “ending up alone” had always been among my mother’s biggest fears and one of the main reasons why she held on to her destructive marriage several decades too long.
Through my conversations with women I know that this worry is not unique to my mother. Most women I speak to fear that not only will they not be able to find someone better suited for them, but that they may not be able to meet anyone else at all, citing their age as the biggest obstacle. Often there is no more talk of emotional connection, but pure calculation: isn’t it better to come home to somebody rather than nobody? So to witness my mother’s enthusiasm about a life situation which most women try to avoid at all costs, was at once a relief and a complete shattering of the world as I knew it.
No one ever speaks of the pleasures of living alone. Everyone always talks of their dream of meeting the “right person” to share life with and grow old together. The message I received growing up was that people who lived on their own were weird or eccentric. Even then, a single man is usually tolerated as too immature to settle down, but is always a potentially eligible bachelor. But a woman alone is always damaged goods, suspicious, and abnormal.
Most women have absorbed societal judgements from childhood and feel inadequate when not in a relationship. And although today many of us have the impression that alternatives to the traditional patriarchal definition of a family exist, most women sooner or later do succumb to the biological call to procreate and long to share their lives and children with a partner.
To that end, women are prepared to work hard and often put their own lives on hold for the assumed bliss of creating a family of their own. Once the children come into the picture most women will tolerate the lingering inequality and double standard of the prescribed gender roles, while we work to “keep the family together.” Most of us just assume that such is a woman’s lot in life: attend to your duties and don’t ask too many questions. As a result, most women I know, myself included, come to their middle age completely burnt out, flattened out, and depleted from years of service and considering everyone else’s needs before our own.
So when I hear my mother—the woman who taught me by example to sacrifice our personal happiness by keeping the family intact no matter what—tell me how happy and at peace she finally is on her own, I pay attention.
With a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eyes she tells me how free she feels: doing what she wants, when she wants; no one puts her down, tells her what to do, or judges her.
Yes, that does sound like a dream. After many years embodying the inherited formula of self-neglect in order to have my marriage and three children thrive, to now witness my mother’s empowering transformation after breaking free from her marriage is a game changer. It opened the floodgates of doubt and gave me the permission to question everything that seemed unquestionable before.
Today, many women feel empowered to leave a marriage and raise the children on their own, if necessary. Earning their own income and still doing the majority of work at home, women often feel that their partner becomes more of a burden than a help, and initiate divorces in the majority of cases. Moreover, because most women were never taught how to communicate their needs clearly and without guilt, they often suffer the burdens of an unfair share of work at home in silence, allowing the resentment to accumulate over time until it explodes out of them and takes them to the point of no return.
As society evolves, our images of what a modern family may look like become less rigid and more inclusive. We are eager to break free from stale and obsolete roles that we observed in our parents’ home. However, as we gain the coveted freedom for self-expression and independence, we realize that we still need emotional connection and support, besides the need to share the burden of material duties of everyday family life. Most of my conversations with divorced friends and single mothers clearly show that living without a partner and assuming the duties of a single parent is not a solution: it is difficult, lonely, and frustrating.
We are on the cusp of great changes.
Such times produce stress and tension, because we are in the process of rewriting the old rules of relating and partnerships. We are creating new forms of relationships and experimenting with what works as we go along. Contrary to the past, where a singular image of what constituted a “normal” family was accepted and adhered to by everyone, today our definitions and structures have to be more fluid and flexible, because a singular formula for behavior within a partnership simply no longer works for everyone.
As we try to invent new rules, it is tempting to rebel against the institution of marriage, but no partnership can survive without commitments and certain ground rules for setting up home base and appropriate behavior within it.
Navigating relationships has always been difficult, but, in the past, keeping it all together depended largely on a woman’s readiness to shape-shift and sacrifice personal happiness for the well-being of the family. The majority of women were brought up believing that personal happiness is found in the joy of motherhood and family life. Today, increasingly more women understand that for a fulfilling life they need to make space to include passions, goals, and activities beyond their family and work. However, for that to be possible, women must be able to respect their own needs, know how to communicate them, and prioritize self-care as they protect their personal boundaries.
Simultaneously, our partners must be ready to engage in the dance of give-and-take and support women in the same way that women have always supported them.
When I saw my mother, raised on the rigid rules and images of what a woman’s role should look like within family and society, break out of the traditional paradigm, face the fears that have held women back for generations, and actually flourish in many ways, it felt empowering and liberating.
However, my conversations with women, as well as plentiful statistics on loneliness, disconnect, and depression within or without the constraints of marriage reinforce my feeling that the solution lies somewhere in between.
It is obvious that we need to completely rewire a lot of our definitions and build a new paradigm of relating, based on inherent equality and mutual respect. For that, both women and men must come out of currently polarized camps where we hide in mistrust, resentment, and lack of understanding.
We must forge new unions based on patience, compassion, and love.
Women must stop giving away our power to the belief that we need a man for status, stability, and validation. Here is where self-awareness and the ability to communicate nonviolently, with integrity and clear boundaries, will go a long way. The point is not to live on our own. Human beings thrive in relationships and our ability to cooperate and negotiate has been key to our survival as a species. We must learn to live together as equals, break the habit of shape-shifting to meet our partner’s needs, and be ready to hold our ground for what we need and value, while being considerate of the needs of those with whom we share our lives.
Men, who suffer from loneliness and decreased health when living on their own, are clearly invested in working out a viable solution toward successful partnerships. The structures we create today will set the stage for future relationships. We must be willing to discard the roles that no longer work and experiment with new rules, new structures, and new ways of relating.
For the success of this endeavor we must be willing to break away from all the notions that we saw in our parents’ relationships and even in our religious and cultural communities, because the structures which they perpetuate no longer work.
The polarization that we observe today between women and men comes from the chaos that is created as the familiar societal structures are in a state of flux. There is fear, anger, misunderstanding, and mistrust. We need to be able to clear the slate and return to working together, discarding past illusions based on rigidity and exclusion and rebuilding the future to diverge from the past.
Our transformation will come through union and intimate connection, without losing respect for our individual sovereignty and freedom. We simply must learn how to evolve together and find unity in diversity: each of us is unique, but we need each other. A partnership is continuously growing and evolving with the changes in each partner. We meet somewhere in the middle, between extreme freedom and extreme dependency, where we can find balance and live our dreams in compassion, mutual respect, and peace.