I used to think summer was the worst time to be single…until I experienced my first holiday season as a single adult. It’s unanimous among CatholicMatch members as well: the holidays are by far the worst time of year to be single.
There are many reasons for it, which are commonly well known, but my situation is more acute than most. I am the youngest of five, only one of whom is married. That means four single, childless adults gathering for what is, on some level, a child-centered holiday.
It isn’t pretty.
For many years, three of my siblings failed to even show up for Christmas at all. My mother and I were often left with a dilemma: stay at home alone or go to the home of my only sister in-law’s family.
One year we opted to stay home alone. The result: the two of us huddled under blankets because we were mysteriously without heat. The cold gave my mother a migraine. We had no food, having run out from Christmas Eve dinner. We decided to cheer ourselves up by watching a marathon of “Ugly Betty.”
Neither one of us laughed, not even once. It was the worst.
Because of that, the following year we opted to go to my sister-in-law’s niece’s house. I lived through it and managed to leave feeling victorious. But initially, I’d never felt more ostracized and rejected for being single.
I should mention that my sister-in-law comes from a big family and that every last one of them – even the children of her siblings’ children – are married with children. When we entered the house, packed to the rafters with kids and food, it was obvious my mother and I were the only two people unattached to a group. It was difficult on my mother, to be sure, but she found solace in the fact that she’d had her kids and was simply a divorced woman.
I was not spared. Nobody knew what to make of me: a childless, single woman in her late 30s.
They gathered around me in the dining room and tiptoed around the real question, trying to lead in to it: “Do you live with other people?” “Do you often go out on weekends?” and I, in my stubborn us-versus-them mentality, gave nothing away, replying with vague, one-word answers.
If they were going to be evasive in asking, I was going to evade answering. Eventually, the issue faded to the background as celebrity gossip and recipes for appetizers became important topics.
To be honest, they are an insular crowd: They’ve never traveled abroad, don’t go to the city, have never been to a nightclub, eaten Thai food or sang karaoke. Their daily routines rarely take them out of their own neighborhoods. They have lived according to a rule book that, in contemporary life, is outdated: a girl opts for marriage over college, learns a trade like cosmetology or horticulture to supplement her husband’s income, and centers her life around home.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this. It is a lifestyle I find charming and, in our increasingly alienated lifestyle, necessary for raising well-adjusted kids. But if it means that these women can’t relate to singletons, I will take issue with it.
After a few hours of awkward conversation, and as the mulled wine began to take effect, I comforted myself thinking that perhaps they regard me with alienation because they’ve never allowed themselves to desire the kind of life I led.
The Christmas I spent with them was the same year I lived in London for a semester abroad in graduate school. Somehow that became a topic of conversation. I began relaying to them the experience of traveling alone: the thrilling, liberating feeling that comes from exiting an airport and thinking of endless possibilities.
To be sure, none of them had that experience. From the looks on their faces, they hadn’t even thought such a thing was possible. But now that I was telling them all about it, they were suddenly faced with a lifestyle that was exotic and interesting, rather than bleak and isolated.
Eventually, I began to detect that more than a few of these women would be happy trading places with me for a week or two. I certainly presented my life in this way, perhaps for that reason. So I’d found my way of coping: emphasizing my exotic Otherness through storytelling. By the time I’d left the party, I was seen as a pioneer, a free spirited jet-setter moving from one adventure to the next.
In our couple-centric world, singles have it hard enough. It is infinitely more difficult to be surrounded by families who fail to see the value in single life. If presenting myself as an adventurous, independent, accomplished person was my only way of defending my single status, so be it. I’d had enough of the idea that married life is enviable – let the marrieds envy me for a change!
Looking back on it, I’m not particularly proud of having done that, in the interest of humility. At the time, though, it seemed like the best option; I couldn’t bear any more of their pitying glances and unasked questions.
Perhaps I should have dealt with it differently, more honestly, answering their questions directly and telling them that while single life isn’t so bad, it feels worse under the scrutiny of the married majority. I don’t know what the outcome would have been, but perhaps I will get the chance to find out for the next holiday season.
This year Christmas will be decidedly easier: my siblings will gather at my mother’s home. It is comforting to know I will be surrounded by like-minded single adults and although the day will not pass without a problem or two, we will be together to solve them.