Being a 30+ Single Woman, or Coming Home After 500+ Days Abroad
This reflection was written in my journal at 2:23 PM on June 21, 2017 on my first trip home to the USA after 500+ days abroad.
I’m on my flight from Paris to Philadelphia and here’s what I’m expecting and feeling about everything at the moment:
I don’t think it will feel that weird to be in America — yes, it’s by far the longest stretch I’ve been abroad (even living abroad, I went home every 4 months or so for holidays), but I have experienced living abroad and coming back to America before.
It will be unusual to be surrounded by so much English — just hearing so many Americans in CDG airport was like, ugh, it’s really annoying to be able to overhear and understand conversations even when I don’t want to.
I hate the invasion into my brain that comes from being able to understand things without trying or paying attention to them. There’s a peace of mind that comes with existing in a foreign environment: I can retreat into my thoughts & everything fades into background noise.
Many things are easier in America, and I’m definitely exhausted, but my brain loves puzzles, so figuring out how things work and how to get around is kind of a joyful thing for me and why I enjoy traveling so much.
The part that wears me out is researching where to go and deciding what to do — figuring out how to get around and how to communicate with people is the fun part for me.
I’ve been feeling incredibly anxious about coming back and facing people, having to have the same routine conversations repeatedly with each new person — and have so much of that conversation feel really judgmental and superficial.
Traveling for 3+ years, I’m constantly faced with questions about what I’m doing, and the tone is usually less genuine interest and more something on the spectrum between disdain, jealousy, and disapproval.
You’re soooo lucky! (typically said by my white, middle-class or higher peers)
Your life must be so fun! (as if I’m on constant vacation, nevermind my work or the challenges of where I travel to)
What’s your favorite place? (of 40+ countries and considering no parameters)
When are you going to move back and settle down? (why?)
I have a real pit in my belly anticipating that groundhog-day situation.
However, a couple college friends reminded me, just by being themselves, that some of my friends (if not most) are thoughtful and caring people — and most are truly as interested in me and respectful of my life choices as I am curious about their lives and admire what they’re doing.
My parents told me that people will be insensitive about anything in life, and dealing with that is just an unavoidable part of life and relationships.
A French friend reassured me (unfortunately) that she encounters the same kind of frustrations being a single mid-30s woman in France, and that often people don’t realize that part of why we make the choices we do is because we don’t have a partner — and that’s less by choice than just not having lucked out with meeting the right person yet.
Ultimately, a lot of my discomfort being in America is that I am an anomaly — and though many people can point to their one “cool aunt” or a coworker or that friend who is a single 30+ woman, it’s still a small minority.
It’s not that I fit in better anywhere else, but just that by simply being a clear outsider and foreigner, I don’t expect to fit in, nor am I expected to.
But when I’m in America, the one place where I’m a “local” myself, especially fitting the bill as generic white middle class woman, there are different expectations of me.
I’m supposed to be married, with kids, working a full-time job on some high-achievement track while saving money for my retirement.
Because that’s what advertising and media have shown us. Because that’s what our mothers did. It doesn’t matter what they might have wanted to do — or what they did do before they were mothers.
Part of the reason I am this unusual single traveling woman is because I haven’t found the right partner. And perhaps if I had one, I might be living somewhere.
But I haven’t lived a celibate life — I’ve dated and been in love with quite a few people over the past 15 years, and most were great people. Most of them have partners or are married now.
We didn’t “work out” as a couple for a reason: I was always wanting to move to a different place, try a new job, pursue other experiences. Even though I’m always the one who gets dumped, I also have tended not to compromise my goals and move from my path onto theirs.
And should I?
Or do I stay the course and hope that some day, someone’s path will align with mine — instead of having to sacrifice who and what I am and care about for the sake of having someone by my side.
As tempting as it has been at times to let love sway me, my gut has always told the truth about past partners: being with someone in spite of myself and the unknown place I was trying to get to would lead to regret. I would begrudge them, and, worse, myself for that sacrifice.
I look at my peers and family members who have partners, and I envy them the financial and emotional support of having someone at their side.
Think of it as walking down an erratically bumpy road: with a partner, you have a hand to hold, and should you stumble, their grasp may keep you upright or at least help lift you up when you fall down.
When you’re alone, you’ve got try to trip forward gracefully and then push yourself up from the ground when you flail forward onto all fours (or land flat on your ass).
The times I’ve had a hand to hold, someone to babble to about the passing scenery and assess the road with, it’s been wonderful.
But when we reached a fork and I tugged one way and they another, we had to make a choice to continue separately or together, and so far, I’ve yet to end up on the other side of a fork with my hand still held.
I know that were I to walk down their desired path, I’d be ever craning my neck to see where mine went, lagging behind or tugging them ahead, and eventually, I’d probably wriggle free to take the next side route or run back to the untaken divergence.
Children look much the same. As a former teacher and generally kind human being, I seem to confuse people as to how I can enjoy and relate to children so well and yet not want any of my own.
Oh, you’ll change your mind, they tell me. Perhaps.
But I look at parenting as a job, and I see the work and devotion and time it requires. I assess it the same as I have going to medical school and becoming a doctor, for example, and both demand things of my time and energy that I can’t commit to — especially given that the resulting role (a mother or a doctor) isn’t one that I really want.
Do I respect doctors and parents? Absolutely. We’d be in a pretty bad place in society without either.
But that doesn’t mean everyone has to be a doctor or a parent, and certainly the world will continue to have medical care and new babies without me personally contributing on either front.
So what is it that I feel more compelled to pursue? To everyone’s frustration, including my own at times, I don’t have a clear answer to offer up.
Here’s what I’ve determined thus far: to be a witness and a storyteller.
I am deeply curious — a quality that I have cultivated more as an adult than as a child, and I feel compelled to share and teach what I learn and see.
If having children is about contributing to the future generation, then my desire and drive to tell stories that educate us and allow us to better empathize with other people certainly could qualify as valuable a contribution to the future as adding another human.
Perhaps I will never know the love that parents espouse feeling upon the birth or adoption of their child, and that may be a great loss.
But in place of that deeply concentrated love for one or two people, I instead feel a very broad love for humanity and the earth.
My extended family and friends occupy more space in my heart than I would have room (or time) for if I gave that heart to my child.
Acquaintances and strangers — even people long dead to history or living far from where I will ever venture — people who have brief intersections with my path via personal encounter or anecdotal recounting become woven into my reality and often my heart.
So that’s what it comes out to, at least for the past 10+ years and the foreseeable future:
I am living a life that is less about focusing on particular people and places, on establishing my own space and family, and instead is about ever broadening the reach of where I feel points of connection and having threads of love and affection and understanding weaving a web around the world.
My heart may never belong to one or two or three people, my hand may never be held for long walks down the path of my life, and I will stumble more often and feel lonely more often because of these truths.
But I will love and feel loved by many people in many moments, and I will use those two free hands to climb mountains so that I can cry others’ stories into the wind in the hopes of sharing them with people on paths near and far.
Or at least that’s what I think, for now.