They are tired of the sympathy, the shame, and the hostility. They reject the prevailing storylines that construe singlehood as some sort of deficit. They are Australian university professors Melissa Joy Wolfe and Genine A. Hook, and they want to tell their “joyful tales of singledom.”
The two scholars are done with “heteronormative coupledom.” They know that women are expected to define themselves in relation to a partner (usually a man), but they refuse to belong to a partner. They also know that a romantic relationship is supposed to be what makes them happy. They are not having that, either. “We are happy,” they declare in “Waving not drowning – The joyous feminist possibilities of single (un) becoming women,” to be published in volume 76, 2019, of the Women’s Studies International Forum.
The article is laden with academic jargon and gets “singlism” wrong – the authors think it means being single when it actually refers to the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. (I know because I coined the term.) Push past those issues, though, and there is a lot to like.
“I do all the work but have all the say”
The authors are especially affirming in the myth-busting ways they think about single parenting. The single mother who describes her experiences in the article does not see herself as lonely, unhappy, or lacking in support, nor does she accept the branding of families like hers as deviant or as failures. Instead, she explains, she appreciates “my freedom to parent how I like.”
She’s not sugar coating her life. She acknowledges that as a single parent, “I do all the work.” But, she adds that she also has “all the say.” Rather than bemoaning the “absent male biological ‘parent’,” she sees herself as parenting “beyond the input, interference and even external authority” of that person.
“I do not discount my vulnerabilities,” she says. “Nor do I discount the vulnerabilities of many sole parents.” But she does see her singledom as “productive, joyful and desirable” and an opportunity to consider many different ways of parenting.
Not devoid of others but not accountable to them, either
Wolfe and Hook reject the assumption that “to ‘be’ somebody is to be attached.” They also object to the way we are encouraged “to recognize only some of our attachments as the core of who we are.”
They don’t see themselves as devoid of men (or women). But they also don’t see themselves as accountable to others: “We account for our selves.”
They don’t see their lives as having been limited because they are single. Instead, they have had more opportunities to be productive, generative, open to different possibilities in life “because we are single.”
These scholars are not trying to do away with coupled life, not even the conventional hetero variety. Instead, they want single life to be recognized as a “joyful alternative.”
I think they could go farther. I don’t like the framing of single life as an “alternative” to marriage or coupling. That still makes marriage or coupling the standard. I think the many different ways of living a life should have equal claim to our affections and respect.
Where’s that joy they are talking about?
Most academic articles are stodgy and impersonal. I’ve always found that annoying. Because these single women are proclaiming that their single lives are joyful, I was especially grateful that they found a way to slip in an example of what that’s like.
Here’s what they said about their experience of working on the article together:
“The place we come is distant from both of our situated academic castles. We come to the Australian east coast to read, think, walk, talk, eat, was, and write… Our bodies, exhausted from the daily academic push, smile at each other. The rented house sits quietly in the Australian bush, a two-hour drive from our recently attended academic conference. Our matching cars are parked in parallel in the front of the rental; we brought our bikes.”
They go on to describe reading quietly, laughing, and clapping in glee as they propose different wordings of their work.
A neighbor stops by and remarks on how quiet they are. “We’re writing,” one of them explains. The neighbor wants to know what they are writing about. “We’re writing on being single women,” she explains.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” the neighbor replies. I bet she was proud of herself when she said it. Maybe the authors should send her a copy of their article.