I celebrated my 26th birthday last week. I spent most of the month dreading the day – March 31st served as a stark reminder that yet another year had passed and I wasn’t where I expected to be in my life. I was going to wake up the morning of my birthday, alone. No one was going to make me birthday pancakes and bring me a strong cup of French-pressed coffee in bed. I was a single as they come, and it was daunting.
In an effort to show myself the love I craved, I researched healthy pancake recipes and made a plan for my birthday alone. I’d cook myself breakfast, do some yoga, watch the sunset over the city, and maybe head to the bar I work at for a champagne cocktail. I was ready. I didn’t need a man in my life to have a good day, and I was prepared to soldier on, pushing ghosts of birthdays past and my most recent break-up from my mind.
But even though I had replaced the negative narrative of a relationship-less birthday with one of self-care and perseverance, I couldn’t escape it.
My first Facebook birthday notification rang in at 7:42am from my mother. It was a sweet clip of a home movie – my seventh birthday. She gushed how proud she was of all I had accomplished in my life. She told me I was beautiful, talented, and smart…and that when that special someone came into my life, they would be lucky.
“That special someone”, I read. It didn’t matter how much I had achieved in my 26 years – I still didn’t have a man. I couldn’t be complimented for everything I’ve worked for without this qualifier. I wasn’t that “special someone” all on my own. But I should be.
Throughout the course of the day, I heard versions of this unwarranted, damaging sentiment: “Only 26? I met my husband at 28; you still have plenty of time!”
My birthday well-wishers, attempting to provide comfort in my singleness (without provocation), instead reinforced and echoed a message that constantly bombards single women – our value is attached to our relationship status. If we’re not in love, not only do we not have it all, we don’t have enough. We’re lying in wait for our real lives to begin, biding time until we meet the person who will bring us true happiness in life. Everything else pales in comparison – career achievements, beautiful friendships, and personal enrichment. All that fulfills us as single women can’t possibly fill us as much as a man would (no pun intended).
It’s no wonder I felt sad and disappointed leading up to my birthday. It’s what our culture has taught us – what our family, our peers, and the media remind us. 26 and unattached? Of course I’m not where I expected to be at this age when held against such outdated standards. But you know what? I’m exactly where I should be, for me.
Regardless of whether or not you want a family in the future, you are enough, alone. There are no guarantees in life, and it is naive and dangerous to aspire to a fairy tale romance. Countless women still, understandably, fall into the trap of believing that once they fall in love, are married, and have children, their lives will be perfect. (You can go ahead and blame Disney; I do.) I’ve watched strong women rely on this notion, believing that once they find a partner, they’ll be taken care of and set for life. Marriage is touted as the only and ultimate goal, and unfortunately, much of the time, things don’t work out as planned. When you base your life on the success of a single relationship, the likelihood of that relationship failing increases, and when it does, you’ll be left empty, devastated, and uncomfortable in your aloneness.
It’s in our nature to be socially dependent creatures. We don’t want to be alone. It’s normal to want someone to share your experiences with as you travel through life. Some people may even value this more than others, thriving on the companionship and intimacy that comes from close partnerships, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But it should never mean that your value and worth is attached to whether or not you have that partnership.
On your own, you are beautifully complete. You are whole. You are not less of a person because you are single. Not being in relationship doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of one, either. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t lovable.
If this seems intuitive, that’s because it is. But the world needs to start acting like it.
We need to stop telling women that they are worth less if they are unattached. Being in a relationship can be wonderful, but it should no longer be hailed as the ultimate goal for every woman. Doing so minimizes our accomplishments, degrees, careers, hobbies, and passions. We’re no longer property to be sold to a man, but the mindset and value placed on that notion still persists.
As a society, we need to catch up to ourselves. Women aren’t fated to rely on marriages to men for financial support. We’re educated, financially independent, sexually emancipated creatures, and marrying later in life (or not at all) as a result, and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Do I want to one day be in a committed partnership and have children? Absolutely. But that has no bearing on my current self-worth, and my value will not change once (if) I have those things.
It’s time we alter our internal narratives and stop believing our worth is tied to our relationship statuses. In addition to that, we owe it to ourselves and other women to remind those that unknowingly encourage this mindset that doing so is damaging, as unintentional as it might be.
And we need to start valuing ourselves just as we are – single, unattached, fiercely independent, and free.
At the end of the day, you can make your own birthday pancakes. You can top them berries, cinnamon, syrup, and a hearty dollop of self-love. The strong sense of self-worth that you’ll be encouraging while doing so, the value that you’re creating – those are the beautiful examples you want to be for yourself, your peers, and your potential future daughters.
This is what we need to teach them.
But first, we must learn it ourselves.