My daughter runs in a field of dandelions as the ferry we just missed lurches out onto the water. I unwrap a warm piece of flatbread pizza, rip it into chunks and yell, “Lunch!” We spend two carefree hours playing and making priceless memories as we wait for the next ferry to take us to Vinalhaven, Maine. Having small adventures like this one has become our new weekend routine. It’s just one of the new things I love to do now that I’m single.
Two years ago, my life looked a lot different. I was married to my husband of five years and expecting my daughter. A few weeks after I gave birth, I discovered that my husband was having an affair. He said it was purely an emotional one, but the revelation ultimately uncovered a tangle of lies and infidelities. It ultimately led to our divorce.
Yes, my life blew up. But amazingly, it then came back together and improved in ways I never could have predicted. In the two years since I left my husband, I improved my credit score by a hundred points, qualified for my first mortgage, bought my first house and decreased my debt by 80%. I wrote and sold a book to a major publisher. I’ve spent more quality time with my family and friends these last two years than in the previous 10 combined. And I booked a trip with my daughter, our first vacation together, without consulting anyone. All of the energy I used to funnel into my partner I now invest in myself and my child.
All of this compels me to ask: Is being coupled truly beneficial to both parties? Or do long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationships actually bring down the female partner?
A hundred years ago, women had to marry in order to function in society. In fact, a woman wasn’t even considered her own person in the eyes of the law — she was just a subset of her husband. Unmarried women stayed on the fringes, isolated and scorned. In the U.S., women could be barred from opening bank accounts, owning land and securing mortgages without the help of their husbands — and up until the 1970s, we could still be prevented from getting credit cards independent of a partner.
But I’ve seen firsthand that the bulk of the work still seems in marriages still seems to fall on the woman — even in relationships where couples agreed to split domestic duties. Their houses are clean, food shopped for and cooked, clothes laundered and kids cared for. And, in many marriages, the female partner contributes equally to the household finances — and more and more married women are actually the primary breadwinners in their families. In fact, in my own marriage, I invested a substantial amount of my savings into my husband’s dream of owning a restaurant. I realized later that if I still had that money, I’d be in a much better position to pursue my own dream: a graduate degree in psychology.
The reasons for entering a union are no longer necessarily monetary, because women can now gain financial independence through their own livelihoods. Nor are they necessarily biological, since reproductive technology allows women to become mothers by choice. Single women are buying homes at twice the rate of single men and have emerged as an influential voting bloc, proving our power. We can create the lives we want on our own.
So why is finding a partner something women still strive for? Why is coupling up still idealized in movies, books, songs and magazines? Why are our parents still teaching us that marriage is an essential part of adulthood? Why do we still look askance at a single woman of a certain age, wondering silently if there’s something wrong with her?
Maybe everything is right with her. Maybe her fairytale ending didn’t involve a prince charming. Maybe she’s moving around with agency, thinking: I am creating this life on my own terms. I don’t need a partner to complete me. I am already whole.
Of course, there are certain harsh realities for single women households, and disproportionately so for women of color. Black and Hispanic single female heads of households are more likely to live in poverty than their Asian and white peers. And black and Hispanic women are paid substantially less than white men, meaning that it can often be difficult to live on a single salary.
In my own life, I was fortunate enough that I had the support to strike out on my own. I was able to move in with my parents for the first months of my daughter’s life. I was terrified. Eventually though, as my daughter grew out of the colicky newborn phase and we moved into our own place, I started to trust myself. I didn’t always make perfect parenting decisions, but I made the best calls I could on a day-to-day basis — and I learned to be OK with that. It wasn’t until I was forced into single parenthood that I realized raising my daughter alone had been an option all along. It didn’t even occur to me that doing it on my own could be financially and practically easier — and even more emotionally fulfilling.
I want nothing more than to pass on this idea of self-reliance to my daughter. I will tell her to trust her gut. I’ll teach my daughter that there’s no right or wrong way to grow into herself, as long as she stays open to learning and changing and striving to make healthy choices. That there’s a difference between being kind and being so accommodating that you sacrifice your own needs. I’ll teach her that she’s whole, with or without a partner.
It’s been two years since my divorce, and I’m still reveling in my newfound freedom and close bond with my daughter. Two nights ago, as the temperature climbed to a sweltering 90 degrees, we turned the fan on high, put on Christmas music (her favorite, no matter the season) and danced around the house. I know that someday I may decide to seek out an equal and fulfilling partnership. Right now, though, I can’t imagine adding a third party to the mix.
Jen Waite is the author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal.