Love was a terrible thing […] Not perhaps my cup of tea.
So says Mildred Lathbury, self-proclaimed spinster and one of the ‘excellent women’ of Barbara Pym’s 1950s novel of the same name. The setting is post-war London – the start of the baby boom – when early marriage and motherhood are the norm. Little wonder that thirty-something Mildred thinks she’s missed the (love) boat.
Those of us born during that boom were generally more reluctant than our mothers to get on the marriage-go-round so early. And many of those who did at least had the comfort of no-fault divorce in Australia from 1975 onwards. Those same women – of whom I’m one – are now in their sixties and seventies and looking down the barrel of being single for the rest of their lives.
I spent a very quiet two weeks at the start of this year contemplating this prospect.
Recently single again, I had taken the option on the holiday accommodation originally booked for two. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had. A smoky haze from the distant devastating bushfires hung overhead, matched by the blue funk of introspection that followed me on my daily walk through the golf course, into the café where I had my morning coffee and up the hill to my tiny cabin.
It was my dark night of the soul.
But in those early days of reconnecting with my single life, the feeling of loss was tempered by a strong sense of relief. It reminded me of the early days of motherhood and the sense of liberation I felt whenever I managed to escape the house in a child-free car.
I loved my children dearly – still do. But I was never one of those mothers whose lives became inextricably bound up with that of their offspring. There were things I still wanted to achieve in my own right, and they always knew it. I don’t think it has harmed my relationships with them. When I ran away to France, they were my biggest supporters. Or maybe they just wanted me out of the house. Either way, when my resolve wavered they held me to my dream of living in France for six months.
Over the years, this independence of mine has been both a blessing and a blight.
It has had me wondering whether I’m just not suited to being half of a couple. A long marriage was followed by two years of blissful singledom. Then a couple of short relationships followed by a four year partnership. In the end, my need for time to myself outweighed the fun of shared interests and intimacy and all the other positives that come with coupledom in a partnered world.
I should have been more careful of what I wished for.
Because along came lockdown and suddenly I had more time to myself than I’d bargained for. Time to ponder whether this was what I wanted for the rest of my life. And if not, was I capable of making the sacrifices coupledom demands?
Recently, two single friends and I made a wish list of the characteristics of our perfect partners:
- Tall but not too tall
- Active but not a marathon runner (narcissists!)
- Great conversationalist but knows when to shut up
- Sociable but likes to curl up in front of the telly
In other words, a figment of our feverish iso-imaginations. We knew it and saw the funny side. And why – we asked – would we need a partner when we had each other?
For me, the key to a happy single life after 60 – after health, financial stability and strong friendships – is the sense of still having things to achieve. Not the kind of achievement that is thrust upon us by the choices of others, like grandmotherhood, but the kind in which we have agency, like being a good grandmother. Or being published. Or getting to Eurovision.
And if the tall, active, conversational, sociable partner of my dreams doesn’t get in the way of those things, I’ll wake myself up long enough to give him my number.