A woman’s worth does not depend on her marital status. But you wouldn’t know that from the way we celebrate (or rather, don’t celebrate) milestones beyond pregnancies and engagements. Or by the conversations around the holiday dinner table. Or even by the tax code (more on that later).
So today I’m pleased to invite author Paulette Perhach to Too Ambitious, to share how the milestones we do or don’t deem worthy of celebration and support can impact our self-worth – even when we know better.
Help; I’m trapped in a story. The story says, “You’re almost 40. None of your romantic relationships have worked out. You’ve never had kids. You are not a wife. you are not a mother, your life is negative space.”
With the Care Bear stare of all available self-care and spiritual practice, I try to shout back a story that names my existence as valuable, but –
The way society leaves single, child-free people out of most kinds of formal celebrations and support holds up a mirror with a message that’s hard to combat.
No no no no no, interrupts my brain, the part of myself I’ve trained to come to my own rescue. You’ve been iffy about kids from the time you quit babysitting at 12 and you are a writer, just like you told your best friends in fifth grade you were going to be. Your Barbie was a rock star, not a bride. You have traveled to Asia and Africa and Europe. And yes, you’d like a permanent travel buddy you also happen to be in love with, but you’ve had a string of deep, caring relationships. (Though that last one left me with third-degree burns over 95% of my heart and the doctors aren’t sure if I’ll ever be the same.) No no no no no, remember? We talked about this. Who traveled South America for three months? Who galloped on her own horse? Who speaks Spanish, hiked Machu Picchu, runs her own six-figure business?
A mumbled, head down, “me.”
Don’t make me bust out the affirmations.
The story comes at me as if through a loudspeaker in moments of stillness, the quiet of mornings and especially in the vacuum of nights, or in times of juxtaposition, standing too close to someone else’s happy ending — even with a mother who’s never pressured me to get married, even with lifelong friends, even with my mounting resume of adventures and achievements. Worse, the second chapter of the story kicks in, which tells me that if I were a better person, I’d be able to have a better attitude about it.
But truly, what mirror has society built for me?
We have a local character in Seattle who pushes around a walker covered in scarves and dances with them at festivals, and I once heard him introduce himself to a room. “Hello, my name’s Scarf Man,” he said. “I like to celebrate.”
I’d never thought of the word celebrate as a concept so full of agency until he said it like that. It sends me to the dictionary, where I find definitions of celebrate that strike me: to “acknowledge” and also, to “honor.”
We have so much acknowledgement and honor built into the choreography of our culture. We hear friends are engaged and we already know we will plan and participate in engagement parties, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, rehearsal dinners and the wedding. We use vacation days, book flights, ask where we can find the registry, buy single-use dresses, get our nails done, and our hair. We spend an average of $430 to watch our loved ones say, “I do.” For this is how life goes, we know.
Compare that to the celebrations for women’s achievements in art, business, and adventure, which, after graduation, fall off a cliff. They are ad-hoc, relying on it occurring to friends that acknowledging it might be nice. There is no “Moving to a City to Pursue Your Dreams” Registry. I’ve never seen a “First Day in Business” greeting card or attended a “Passed the Bar” Party.
The first time someone showed me it could be different happened on my first big trip, a summer in Hawaii, crashing at my sister’s military housing after my first year of college. I’d started to sell the jewelry I’d been making for years, and when I got my first order from a store to stock pieces on consignment, a friend of my sister’s named Treena gave me a congratulations card that said she was proud of me.
I remember being so surprised, so delighted, not even realizing that being celebrated for such a thing was possible. I still have the card.
A decade later, when I came back from that solo trip to South America, my self confidence beaming, I found myself in a group of women, where I was asked a single question about how my trip was before the conversation turned to baby teething and chewed up nipples. It felt like, in one flight home, I had diminished in value as much as the Colombian pesos still in my wallet.
By the time my first book came out, I was 36. I had been to at least 10 weddings, and while my own was nowhere in sight, I had done something that I thought merited the same effort of celebration. So I asked for it. I requested my best friends and family come to my book launch, to celebrate me in a way that required a flight, and they obliged me. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being a bride.
I once looked at a gorgeous woman’s ring, a trio of multi-caret diamonds, and thought, That makes sense. She deserves that, because, look at her, she’s worth more than I am. Then I immediately put my arm around myself, and said, Oh sweetie, you’ve been out here in the capitalism too long.
With every ounce of my being, I am trying to hold on to my self worth.
Though I’m having a hard time choosing my attitude right now, I want to tampon-commercial smile through this age. I want to, as I help others do in meditation, say “yes and.” To live in acceptance, to honor the fact that millions of women in the world, even some married mothers I know, would gladly trade for this life, with the freedom to go where I please and do what I please, to speak my mind and run my business. To stay open, as I jog to the wise words of Beyonce in a lyric to the bitter ones, “Stop living in regret, baby, it’s not over yet.”
What an ugly thing, bitterness, which is why, when I feel its heavy infestation in my soul, I get out the emotional pressure washer. I promise you, I am doing the work. I’m meditating, I’m gratitude journaling.
But with a system that sprinkles my romantic wounds with the salt of financial penalties, it’s hard to ignore the very real message: “You’re not, actually, worth it.”
First there are family plans, for car insurance, cell phones, and vacations, which exclude me, myself, and I — only one of the reasons every year of life costs on average $2,600 more for single people. As a wedding present, the government has 1,000 laws that benefit married people and ties them with a bow of tax benefits, but says to me, “Sorry sucker, we’re going to go ahead and charge you almost $40,000 more in taxes over your career that we wouldn’t have if you’d sealed the deal with that last one. Hope you finally find someone who can accept your man hands and profanity habit.” Then there’s rent, wifi, cable, utilities, and furniture, all twice as expensive without someone to split them with, unless I want to be a roommate (and oh, have I been a roommate, often paying this tax with my privacy rather than my dollars). And still, I think this is about to kick me out of the city, where single people can find such cultural acceptance, if not financial. One estimate by the Atlantic showed that all this compiled over the course of a life, being single will set back someone like me, who makes around $40,000 a year, half a million dollars, and the kind of woman I hope to be soon, one who makes $80,000 a year, a full $1,000,000. So, a toaster would be nice.
I am not saying to the world: you owe me. Weddings are expensive and so are children. That’s no joke. But I am saying that the world sometimes adds to the feeling of being unworthy of acknowledgement.
I am not at all saying, “Down with weddings and celebrating babies and these traditions.” I’m saying, “Up with new ones.” Let’s get creative. A “You Finished Bootcamp, You Badass” Girls’ Weekend. A “Good Luck with Your Move” Home Goods Shower. A “First Big Job” Clothing Registry. Any social gathering or enjoyable activity where it’s said: We, as a society, value what you’ve done and support you on your journey.
Because we need women to pursue the things they were put on this earth to do, and value that thing even if it doesn’t have a slot in the greeting card aisle. We need to not waste the time of the next possible Rihanna, Sarah Silverman, Oprah, or Jane Austen questioning her path, wondering what’s wrong with her, the way I seem to enjoy wasting my time. We need more female doctors, like the one that finally diagnosed my friend’s endometriosis after multiple male docs missed it for years, so let’s have “Doctor, You Did It” Vacations. We need more female engineers, because without them things like Apple Health forgetting period tracking happen. Hence we should have “Your First Patent” Parties.
Friend Anniversary Flowers, “You Paid Off Your Loans” Parties, “Congrats on Breaking Up with That Shady Boyfriend” Ceremonies. Because we like to celebrate, and be celebrated, too. As Shane Koyczan wrote, “if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself / Get a better mirror.”
Paulette Perhach’s writing has been published in the New York Times, Vox, Elle, Slate, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire, Yoga Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and Vice.
Her book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, was published in 2018 by Sasquatch Books, part of the Penguin Random House publishing family, and was selected as one of Poets & Writers’ Best Books for Writers.
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