On How To Live a “Worthy Life” as a Single Woman

On a recent episode of Death, Sex, and Money, Anna Sale, Hari Kondabolu, and his mother, Uma Kondabolu, answer listeners’ life questions. A listener asked, “Do you have any advice for living a worthy life if I decide not to marry and start a family?”

It was a great show, but the answer from Anna and the Kondabolus circled around what to think about when considering having kids, rather than digging in to the meat of the question. So, this is me taking a stab at it.

I’m 32, and single. I’ve never been married, and I don’t have kids, and I probably never will. So I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few years about how to build a meaningful life without marriage and kids. What I have come to understand thus far is that most of us need certain things to make our lives feel meaningful or “worthy”— intimacy, mutual care, and what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson calls “generativity” — and marriage and childrearing are only one way to meet those needs. Here are some suggestions, garnered from my experience, of some other ways to meet those needs and live a full, spinster life.

1. Build close relationships, especially with other women.

Almost everyone needs intimate relationships to feel fully alive. Close, healthy relationships make us healthy and strong, emotionally and physically. Relationships with other women are especially important because this is where we will most often and most reliably find empathy, openness, the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to do the emotional labor of mutual care. Build relationships with women both older and younger than you. If you are around my age, it’s likely that many of your friends are getting married and having kids, and this is taking up a tremendous amount of their time and energy. Friends younger and older than you may have more time and energy to put into friendship, and cross-generational friendships are a rich source of perspective and insight. Friends can include family members, too, of course.

As for your friends with kids: be curious. Invite yourself into their lives. Accept that kids are part of their life, and if you want to be close to them, they’ve got to be part of yours, too. And invite them into your life. It is often possible to stay close across differences if you maintain mutual curiosity and respect.

Step up and give care when a friend needs help during a depression, after a divorce, in a health crisis, etc. This builds intimacy and trust, and puts some money in the bank, so to speak, for when you need care. Commit to working on asking for care when you need it.

2. Be part of a family or community.

Individual friendships wax and wan. To the extent that we exist in a more extended network of care, are lives and well-being are more grounded, stable, and secure. Some of us are lucky enough to be born into families that provide this base. For those of us who weren’t so lucky, we can seek out community in other ways.

Community is often a term used so loosely that it loses meaning. I’ve been to gyms and yoga studios that call themselves a communities, but as far as a I can tell, that doesn’t extend beyond sweating together. When I talk about community, I mean a large group of people committed to some kind of common meaning or purpose, and committed to mutual care. Religious groups and twelve-step programs are the main places to find this outside of families. If you’re working with an addiction, check out local twelve-step groups. If you’re not, check out local religious groups. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers are friendly choices for atheists and agnostics.

3. Build structure into your life on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.

Structure and routine helps our lives feel manageable and meaningful, make us feel grounded, and ward off chaos. Working 9–5 is not sufficient structure for most people. Build other routines into your life on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly bases. These can be almost any kind of activities, but it helps if at least some of them are activities you do with other people or in a group, as this builds in accountability.

Daily activities might include a morning ritual of reading the paper/ reading NYT on your smartphone, walking your dog after dinner, or getting a 2 PM coffee with a work pal. Weekly activities might include a Monday night game Meetup, a Friday dance class, volunteering every Saturday morning at your local animal shelter, or a Sunday morning pastry at your favorite bakery. Monthly activities might include going to a bookclub, a standing first-Tuesday-of-the-month phone date with your friend who lives in a different state, or going to that comedy night at your local bar hosts every month. Yearly activities might include an annual camping trip (solo or with friends) over the 4th of July, a week of staycation every August, Thanksgiving rituals that you do with friends and family, or taking time to reflect over the past year every New Year’s Day.

4. Get involved in generative activities.

Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” — “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation”. Some folks meet their generativity needs through procreation, but that is not the only way to be involved in creating our communal future.

If you enjoy spending time with kids, you can meet your generativity needs by being a great aunt to your bio nieces and nephews, or to your friends’ kids. Other options include volunteering with an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Teaching, tutoring, babysitting, and mentoring are other ways to engage in generative activities that might help you get a little extra cash, too.

There are also plenty of generative activities that don’t involve spending time with kids. Consider getting more civically involved. Go to your city council meetings and town halls. Join a local board or commission, and help make your town or city better. Get involved in activism or volunteer work for a cause that helps build towards a better future. Do meaningful art or other creative projects that help you connect with folks in the broader community, and communicates something personally meaningful.

5. Actively celebrate milestones and accomplishments.

Our society is good at recognizing births, school graduations, weddings, and deaths, but it is not good at honoring other rites of passage, milestones, and accomplishments. When we don’t mark the significant events in our lives, we sometimes lose sense of their meaning, and miss some of the joy and pride that we have earned the right to. Celebration is a way of recognizing, honoring, and taking joy in our accomplishments, and those of our loved ones.

Actively celebrate your achievements, and those of your friends and loved ones. Celebrate your birthday. Celebrate promotions and job offers. Celebrate buying a car or home. Celebrate meeting financial, fitness, or other personal goals. Celebrate friendship anniversaries and pet adoption anniversaries. Celebrate making it through a tough work project, or coming out of the other side of a tough break-up. Ask a friend or friends to celebrate with you, and when they tell you about a milestone or accomplishment, tell them it is worth celebrating, and invite them to celebrate with you.

I’m still figuring out how to celebrate, but here’s what I know so far: eat something delicious. Drink something delicious, and maybe alcoholic. Toast. Take a few moments to talk about what you’ve done, or what your friend has done, that is of note. Toot your own horn, and toot other people’s horns. Be unabashed with pride and joy. Dance if you want to.