Ask Polly: Will I Ever Find Love As a Single Mom?

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Photo: Suzi Eszterhas/Corbis

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Dear Polly,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about giving up dating, and more – giving up on the idea that there is someone out there for me.

I’m 43, and my whole life, the thing I wanted most in the world was to fall in love — the stay-up-talking-about-everything-and-anything, close-down-the-bar, always-know-you’re-in-my-corner kind of love, but it just hasn’t ever happened. 

I’ve had relationships. I was married for ten years to a good person who tried very hard to be a good husband. He was loyal, honest, dependable, and funny. I loved him in large part because I felt like he was the kind of guy I should marry. And I bent over backward to be the good wife. I made elaborate dinners and sewed curtains and kept track of appointments. And I followed his career at the expense of my own in a tough cross-country move. But in the end, the nagging feeling that he just didn’t get me, didn’t understand or appreciate my needs, blew up when I finally realized how suffocated I felt by a role that just wasn’t right for me. I couldn’t bring myself to have kids in a marriage where doing so would obliterate any chance I had to build something for myself.  

I’ve been divorced for eight years, and aside from one long-distance relationship and a handful of short flings, I’ve been single ever since. Two years ago, I had a baby on my own. Before my son was born, I had this feeling of being untethered, as if I could float away and it wouldn’t really make that much of a difference to anyone. Now I feel that my love for my son grounds me and gives a center to my life. He’s amazing and it was the right choice for me.   

At the same time, I’m still me. And the longing for a companion, someone to talk to and share jokes with and be in my corner and get me, has not gone away. Plus, I miss sex and physical affection a lot. About a year ago, I decided I was ready to start dating again. But I don’t think I was really prepared for how much the online-dating landscape has changed. Before, it was all lengthy profiles and revealing charming details about yourself, followed by a polite exchange of get-to-know-you-banter emails and arrangements to meet for coffee. Now, it is a lot of pictures and swiping right, followed by some text messages if you’re lucky. I’ve been surprised about how quickly it turns to rudeness. Ghosting after a few (or a lot of) text messages and never meeting people in person is common. Giving someone your phone number more often leads to silence than it does to a date. People “liking” you on multiple apps and then not responding to your messages is also common. And the guys I have managed to go out with almost never feel worth the babysitting money. There was one guy a few months ago that I liked a lot and had three dates with, but then he told me I was great but it wasn’t what he was looking for.  

The whole experience has been pretty awful. I feel like I'm the only single person over 40 who actually wants a relationship. It makes me feel bitter and frustrated, like I am spending a lot of energy chasing something that is simply unattainable for me. 

I’ve asked pretty much everyone I know to fix me up, only to be told that no one seems to know anyone who is available. There seems to be no other way to meet people except through online dating. Maybe I'll cross paths with the man of my dreams in the grocery store, but that doesn't seem like something I should pin my hopes on.

I feel totally stuck. Giving up feels like beginning a process of grieving the loss of a dream I’ve had as long as I can remember. I am caught between thinking that, on the one hand, the grief, although hard, would at least end the misery and hopefully take me to a place where I can just be satisfied with the rest of my life (which is pretty great), and still feeling, on the other hand, that love is a basic human need, so cutting myself off from what still seems like the likeliest path to getting there will only end up stunting my life in the long run.

So what do I do? Do I forge ahead with online dating and hope that it really is a numbers game and that someday mine will actually come up? Or do I just let it go and accept that an adult love relationship is just not in the cards for me? 

Single Mom on the Verge

 

Dear SMOV,

There are people who say that once they gave up on love, they became a lot happier. That makes a lot of sense to me and dovetails with my happiest single days. The aim of "giving up" here amounts to: (1) cutting out the kind of unfocused longing that drives you mad; (2) refusing to waste your time on an online-dating culture that mostly serves people looking for quick sex; and (3) committing to taking care of yourself instead of entertaining the notion that someone else can do this for you. But it doesn't necessarily involve WRITING OFF LOVE FOREVER AND EVER.

That said, if you've never truly felt like "You, Alone in the World!" could be a romantic and beautiful picture, then searching for love will always feel like sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, begging passersby to throw you some emotional change. There is self-hatred in that picture. Why can't I be loved? Don't I deserve it? Why can't I live without love? Am I too weak for that?

Self-hatred can turn any picture ugly, even the bravest single's life or the prettiest Happily Ever After. So the first step is to absolve yourself of any stigma. You've done so much with your life! You grew up, found someone, realized he was wrong for you, broke up, pursued a career, made friends, had a baby. Now you have a 2-year-old. You're just getting back into the swing of things. It's not that easy to approach dating with a clear mind when you have a tiny person who cries out for you the second you leave the room.

First-time mothers sometimes don't realize just what a hurricane of small-person needs they're living in until that era is over. It sounds like you're expecting way too much of yourself. You don't have to charge forward all the time — or declare that you're officially done with love, either. You feel proud of yourself for making a good decision and having a kid on your own, right? So, bask in that for a while. You saw your son through to age 2. You knew what you wanted and you went for it. SAVOR THIS MOMENT.

Then build on that good feeling. What else do you really want, besides love? Do you want to make some new friends, maybe some single moms who would love to have a partner to do things with occasionally? Do you want to pursue new interests? In your marriage, you gave up everything and became someone who served the marriage alone. If you fell in love now, could you imagine doing the same thing again — throwing yourself into someone else's world, taking on their needs, folding yourself into their life? There are some hints that you haven't completely escaped this way of looking at love.

If some part of your subconscious mind views love as an escape from the dreary realities of life, you'll continue to be haunted, transforming your need for affection and love into a need for someone to guide and define you. Sometimes we crave this in spite of ourselves. But I don't think you REALLY want to lose yourself to another person. So you need to clarify how it would look to have love in your life. Imagine the boundaries, the borders, the things you wouldn’t want to change.

I've abandoned myself and moved into other people's lives. I've sewed curtains and planted flowers and suddenly found myself thinking FUCK THIS. The kinds of men who want you to play a supporting role in their lives aren't the sorts of men who are likely to make you happy. And the kinds of men you might want — men who look for women with full, rich lives of their own — are naturally going to get flinchy if they start to feel, in their bones, that you're nursing fantasies about a man who might save you from your life and yourself. You've got to clear this fantasy from your view if you want to feel good about your life regardless of what happens next.

I tended to think this way when I was a little depressed and nothing else in my life was moving forward. Back then dating was like moving to another country: I took up the practices and customs of the natives of my new land. I abandoned my own habits and hobbies without a second thought. THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT: TO ESCAPE MYSELF.

Also, the kind of love that closes down the bar isn't the kind of love you want. You don't want obsessive, stay-out-too-late, let's-have-another-drink love. Love is not a whirlwind, not for a 43-year-old mother with a full, happy life. Love is not an escape. Love complements your life, it doesn't replace it.

For now, I would give up on online dating. That culture will change soon enough. New apps for people who hate Tinder will spring up. The Tinder-ization of the world will subside, or at least stay in its own high-speed fuckboat lane. In the meantime, ask yourself how you want to spend your time, what you want to become, how you want to feel. Exercising vigorously every day is mandatory for a single 40-something mother who needs to muster a good attitude every morning. Commit to it. Commit to yourself and your life. Make it look and feel beautiful. But don't use self-hatred to move forward. Start from what you've already accomplished. Feel proud of what you've built, and make changes that will make you feel even more proud.

I think we all need to give up on the idea that there is ONE PERSON OUT THERE FOR US. There are lots of people out there, actually. The good ones won't notice you when you're stressed out and swiping right; they'll notice you when you're in the middle of doing something you love, something that engrosses you completely. They'll notice you at the very moment when you're feeling like you don't need anything else in your life. When you're open to love, but you feel sure that you'll never give up on yourself again.

Take those hours that you spend dating, and turn them into hours where you leave the house feeling independent and fully alive. Take some new classes. Swim in new ponds. Engage with the world passionately and follow your own path. Do things that make you feel proud of who you are. Now imagine what it will take to live that way when you're 50, when you're 60, when you're 70. I think women have a tough time thinking ahead like this. Maybe everyone does. But instead of imagining ourselves as getting older and grayer and less interesting and less useful, we women should take pains to imagine ourselves as growing more interesting and capable and bold and gorgeous and EN FUEGO, MOTHERFUCKERS.

There will be challenges. There will be setbacks. But if you honor yourself, there will always be love out there for you. Someone will come along. Maybe in five years. Maybe in five minutes. The world is filled with someones. You're not remotely done with love yet. You are only halfway through your story. But how do you want the second half of your story to go? Don't ask someone else to write it for you. You have to write it yourself.

Polly

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