My neighbor Sita is standing in the entryway of my apartment. She’s here to pick up her kids. It’s almost two o’clock in the afternoon. I look up from my computer, slightly dazed, and stand up to welcome her. Sita is a small, slim woman with a shiny braid of black hair that goes all the way to the middle of her back. She always looks relaxed, as though life has given her everything she ever wanted. I, on the other hand, must look hella frazzled. I’ve spent most of the day navigating the rabbit hole that is on-line travel, planning for a vacation that I should have organized six months ago.
As we’re waiting for the children to gather their things, we make small talk until she can’t help but blurt out:
“What do you DO all day?”
I laugh. I’m a teacher on summer vacation. I’m used to it. If I cared less about what people thought of me, it would be easier. “I do nothing all day. I just lie around on the couch eating bonbons and masturbating.”
Oh no, of course dear reader, never at the same time! I mean, I have standards, right?
There’s something about the inevitability of the question that bothers me though. I keep trying to get to the heart of it. There’s a failure of imagination here that strikes me as incredibly odd.
Some men struggle to understand that a woman exists independently even when he’s not there to witness her. It’s annoying, but hey ― men. Whatcha gonna do?
...the lives of single women over forty can be just as rich, fulfilling, valid and significant as anyone else’s."
The thing is, though: even women have a hard time picturing the lives of their female counterparts. Especially those of us who can’t be easily recognized or defined by a social role such as wife, mother, caretaker, or nurturer.
In some of my other pieces, such as Dear Married People, I’ve lovingly outlined some of the ways I spend my “free time.” No, not because I’m so awesome, but simply in an attempt to answer the question that so many people (from men on dinner dates to PTO moms) can’t fathom:
What does a single woman in her forties DO with her life, exactly?
In my writing I keep searching for ways to make the point that the lives of single women over forty can be just as rich, fulfilling, valid and significant as anyone else’s.
And yes, if you’re a millennial woman reading this, it matters because at some point in your life it’s going to feel as though the whole world is sending you a message that you’re invisible, that who you are is of no interest (beyond your sex appeal), and what you say or do doesn’t count. That’s the way things are set up in our society right now, but it’s not the way it has to be forever.
Single women over forty are a quiet but powerful presence. We are an unrecognized force in a world that wants to deny our existence. We have every right to take up space. We spend money in commercial spaces. We dominate work and educational spaces. We protest for our rights in civic spaces. We have an abundance of wisdom to share in religious and spiritual spaces. We should be free to express ourselves fully in intellectual spaces ― in any way that we choose ― without being patronized, mansplained, or told we’re being “too personal,” “emotional,” or my personal fave, “hysterical.”
You think women over forty don’t inhabit sexual spaces? You’d be dead wrong, but that’s a topic for a whole ’nother essay.
There are going to be times when you have to push back hard for the right not only to exist, but also to be seen and heard. Those are the times when you will be tempted to contract, and withdraw, maybe even disappear. Those moments, in which the small voice of shame whispers in your ear “you’re taking up too much space” may be the perfect opportunity for your own personal double-down.
That’s the time when you finally write that essay about the day your daughter was born; when you publish the poem about your lover that you’ve kept hidden in your notebook; when you go on that March that your boyfriend thinks you shouldn’t attend. That’s when you make the “wholly impractical” cross-country trip to New Mexico to see the Flamenco festival; when you go zip-lining, learn chess or karate.
It’s the time when you start paying even more attention to living your best creative life.
That’s the time when you quit putting so much of your awesome energy into worrying about “finding or keeping a man.” You’d be amazed how much it frees you up to focus on your own passions. I’m not saying you should permanently give up the search for love and connection. I’m simply saying that we live in a society that keeps telling us that our lives are incomplete as women until we’re coupled up. It’s an infantilizing, debilitating, myth. It’s just not true.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m posting and leaving this here as a reminder. Because as women we have to be reminded again and again that we are worthy and valuable no matter how many clicks, views, and “loves” you receive or don’t receive. We have the right to take up space. Call it “woman-spreading.”
(On second thought, perhaps, we better not).
As for this question, “What do you do all day?” The answer is, simply, if they can’t imagine that it’s possible for a woman to have an independent life of her own ― a life of the heart and mind ― then they don’t have the right to know.
Tell them you sit on the couch all day, eating bonbons and masturbating. That should shut them down pretty fast.