By Amber Ikeman
“I’ve been trapped inside this picket fence too long
But a drifting spirit never can be tamed
I have purpose past a rocking chair, beyond the herds
I will run with wild buffalo, and fly with summer birds.”
-”Wild Buffalo,” Amber Ikeman (video below)
I’ve heard it from family and strangers alike:
“Do you have a boyfriend? Aw. Don’t worry, you’ll find someone.”
I’m sure it’s mostly well-intentioned; maybe people don’t want me to be lonely. But it’s a result of something much bigger, something that’s often subconscious.
Like most girls who grew up in the ’90s, I watched Disney princesses pine away for men to come along and give their lives some purpose. I was incessantly questioned about my dating life at family gatherings (followed by, “is he Jewish?”). When I’ve been single for long stretches of time, there’s been suspicion about my sexuality.
There are some cultural expectations at play here, of course. I think my family hoped I’d marry a nice Jewish doctor, have babies, live down the street and have a stable job as a teacher. I’m a single, touring musician living 3,000 miles away from home, with no desire to “settle down.”
They’ve been as supportive as they can be, considering I’m living a kind of life that they never expected. “I want you to be with someone because I want you to be happy!”
Why is it inconceivable for a woman to be single and happy? Why do people assume that a single woman is trying NOT to be single?
The notion of a woman creating her own happiness – alone – is radical. It’s a threat to the patriarchy.
It’s the end of 2017 and yes, things are different than they were 50 years ago; western women generally have more freedom to get an education and choose a career over homemaking. But gender roles are still deeply ingrained in our society, and there is still a great deal of stigma against single women. Though many of us have more choices, we’re often still judged if our choices deviate from social standards. Not to mention the current administration’s attempts to limit women’s freedom of choice (but that’s a longer rant for another day…).
Comments like “you’ll want to settle down someday,” or “when you have kids,” (like it’s a given that all women want to – or should – procreate) are a byproduct of these deeply ingrained stereotypes. In many ways, women are still expected to remain in submissive roles, from ideas about domestic life to the way we look and behave. Settle down. Be quiet. Make yourself smaller.
After all, women used to be considered property in marriage. The gender roles created by this institution – woman stays home and man goes to work – diminish a woman’s power by keeping her financially dependent on her husband. These ideas, created at a time when women had much less equality, still exist today. Tell me again why I should be interested in this?
We’re judged if we don’t want marriage and children, or met with incredulousness – “Oh, you’ll change your mind.” Marriage is over-hyped and celebrated as an accomplishment; singleness is viewed as something to be fixed, and must mean that we’re miserable and waiting for someone to save us (Bella DePaulo wittily calls this “matrimania” and “singlism”). By putting such strong emphasis on marriage and children in our culture, we send messages to girls and women about how important it is. Of course, marriage doesn’t grant us life-long happiness or solve all our problems, though we still want to believe that it does. In fact, DePaulo’s 2016 study found that single people may be happier than married people:
“Increasing numbers of people are single because they want to be. Living single allows them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life.”
Marriage is also extremely commercial. White dresses! Extravagant receptions! Toy penises for bachelorette parties! The glowing bride-to-be, creating the perfect wedding because it’s supposed to be “the best day of my life!” How profitable to frame being single as undesirable.
Society tells us we should be terrified of being alone. But getting married doesn’t mean that you’re never going to be lonely again. In fact, it can feel even more lonely being in a relationship for the wrong reasons than being single. Single women can have full lives, especially if we can broaden our ideas about companionship. We can also develop a very strong sense of self by being on our own, and make decisions about our lives that aren’t affected by the needs of a partner. Some call that selfish; I call it empowering.
There’s also concern about being single for too long, tied to standards about when everyone is supposed to get married and messages that we become less desirable as we get older. When we start seeing rings on our friends’ fingers, we’re taught to worry that it’s getting too late, and wonder what’s wrong with us because no one’s popped the question. We face stereotypes like “old maid” and “spinster,” but choosing to be single doesn’t mean that we’re bitter, or that we failed at the husband competition. On the flip side, we call single men “bachelors,” which usually carries a more positive connotation, even a sense of freedom.
Perhaps we can ask ourselves this: “am I choosing to ‘settle down’ or get married because I actually want to, or because that’s what women are supposed to?”
My new single, “Wild Buffalo,” was written to challenge these expectations. I wanted to declare that I don’t depend on anyone else for happiness, and I’m not waiting around for someone to complete me. Women have so much more to contribute to the world than just wife- and motherhood (though there’s nothing wrong with choosing those things if they’re what you really want). We gain freedom and equality by challenging standards, celebrating the solo successes of women as much as traditional choices, and following the path that’s most true for us, even if it isn’t the one that was laid out for us.
When we’re comfortable and confident on our own, doing what truly fulfills us instead of what we’re told, we’re powerful. When we’re powerful, we have the ability to wear down the system that wants to keep power from us.