In the opening pages of her memoir, No One Tells You This, Glynnis MacNicol is single, has no kids, and is about to turn forty. She describes herself as “someone who was now spending the last hours before her birthday seized by the belief that she was being marched to her demise.”
By the closing pages, she was still single with no kids, but “quite thrilled with who I’d turned myself into, and quite up for the task of navigating whatever came next, whatever it was.” The pages in between are the beautifully written story of her transformation.
The year or so following her fortieth birthday belied every stereotype of the single person as selfish or self-centered. MacNicol was there for her mother as the cruel progression of Parkinson’s turned her into someone nearly unrecognizable, even moving from New York City back to Toronto toward the end of her mother’s life. She was there for her father after her mother’s death. She was there for her single sister, when she had her third child; she flew to her home and stayed for a while to help care for the newborn and the other two children. She was there for her friend Rachel when she had a baby. She drove across country with another friend who was moving to the West Coast.
No One Tells You This is an insightful exploration of the complexities of single life. One of them is that no matter how devoted you are to helping the people you care about, other people will still suggest that you are just a spoiled single person. As I put it in Singled Out, in one of the chapter titles mocking the myths about single people, “Like a child, you are self-centered and immature and your time isn’t worth anything since you have nothing to do but play.”
In between all those times when she was being “the good friend, the good sister, the good daughter,” she was, much of the time, living her single life fully. She had memorable experiences in her travels to places such as Iceland, France, and, in the U.S., Wyoming. So taken was she by the spectacular beauty and stillness of Wyoming that soon after she made her way back to New York, she put everything aside to spend another month there, a woman alone in a place where that was unusual.
MacNicol exemplifies a version of single life that should be most justifiable and impervious to attack. She ticks off all the boxes for what the scolds insist that single people should be doing with their lives: She helps other people. She has lots of friends. She does great work. She uses the opportunities her single life affords her to expand her horizons, for example, by traveling.
Yet such is the power of the dismissive, singlist views of single people that even some single people wonder whether the degrading stereotypes are true. MacNicol did.
A risk for single readers is that some will think that they, too, need to tick off all the same boxes in order to lay claim to the legitimacy of their own single lives. But they shouldn’t have to. Married people aren’t pressured to justify their lives. It doesn’t matter if they are there for the other people in their lives (on the average, compared to single people, they aren’t), whether they are living their lives fully, or whether they are a good spouse. They are married and that’s enough.
MacNicol does not look down on people who make different choices than she has. In some ways, she celebrates them, as in her lengthy discussions of life with children. Maybe she is so respectful of others because she did not have all her privileges handed to her. For example, she worked at jobs such as waitressing and did not get money from her parents.
No One Tells You This is a memoir, not a work of social science, so the author had no obligation to position her work in the context of works of nonfiction that preceded hers. If she had, she may have noted that the theme that there is no blueprint for single life — that no one tells single people how their life is going to unfold — has been mined for decades.
In 1994, sociologist Tuula Gordon gave us, Single Women: On the Margins? The same year, clinicians Natalie Schwartzberg, Kathy Berliner, and Demaris Jacob pointed out that academics had no framework for conceptualizing the course of single life, so they offered Single in a Married World: A Life Cycle Framework for Working with the Unmarried Adult. Four years later, journalist Marcelle Clements wrote The Improvised Woman. Also in 1998, professors Xavier Amador and Judith Kiersky highlighted the marginalized place of single people with their title, Being Single in a Couples’ World.
What else is it that “no one tells you,” other than good luck finding a blueprint for your single life? That living single with no kids is a life you can choose and delight in, despite the challenges? It is not quite true that no one ever tells you that. I, for one, have been saying that for decades. So has sociologist E. Kay Trimberger, who in her 2005 book, The New Single Woman, offered a blueprint of sorts with her six pillars for a satisfying single life.
Although I appreciated every page of No One Tells You This, I also found it deeply dispiriting. Glynnis MacNicol is a brilliant, insightful, sophisticated person, living in New York City among the cutting-edge thinkers in the 21st century, and yet she is forty years old before she questions whether she really does want marriage and children. She is forty years old before it dawns on her that a single life could be a good life.
At a time when more people are staying single for longer than ever before — including, sometimes, for life — the idea that single life can be a meaningful and fulfilling choice should no longer qualify as a revelation.
No One Tells You This: A Memoir
Simon & Schuster, July 2018
Hardcover, 304 pages