LIFE

How Tara Hen­ley learned to be sin­gle.

Elle (Canada) - - Contents -

Can you ac­tu­ally en­joy be­ing sin­gle?

By Tara Hen­ley

Ican’t stop cry­ing even though this is a joy­ous oc­ca­sion.

It’s a bright sum­mer day, and I’m on a pic­turesque es­tate in the 18th-cen­tury town of Maynooth, Ire­land, where my younger brother is mar­ry­ing a won­der­ful woman, the mother of his baby daugh­ter, and join­ing a large Ir­ish fam­ily whom I adore. It should be a mo­ment of grat­i­tude. But, in­stead, it’s a reck­on­ing.

I’m 37 years old, sin­gle, child­less and baf­fled by my life. The thoughts “What did I do wrong?” and “How did I end up here?” keep run­ning through my head— the same thoughts that have haunted me for years. I have al­ways wanted mar­riage and moth­er­hood and as­sumed that it would fall into place some­day. And yet it hasn’t. But as I walk across the h

prop­erty’s rolling green hills and breathe in the sunny air, I have a mo­ment of clar­ity. I can ac­cept this re­al­ity—embrace it even. So I de­cide: I will stop wait­ing for some­one to build a life with and build one my­self.

In a sense, I had primed my­self for this mo­ment. Shortly be­fore at­tend­ing the wed­ding, I had quit my mag­a­zine-edit­ing job. Six years of 60-plus-hour work­weeks—even at a job I loved— had drained plea­sure from my life. I was burned out and lonely, and I’d given my­self the sum­mer to re­group. It was this break that helped me reach a turn­ing point in Ire­land.

When I ar­rived back home in Toronto, I be­gan to re­search sin­gle liv­ing. I stum­bled upon some­thing sur­pris­ing: Ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada’s most re­cent cen­sus, 44 per­cent of Cana­dian women are now sin­gle (un­mar­ried and not liv­ing with a common-law part­ner)—that’s com­pared to 33 per­cent in 1986, which is just a year be­fore the di­vorce rate peaked. And to­day, one in five will reach their mid-40s with­out hav­ing kids— dou­ble the amount of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to a CBC re­port. A ma­jor de­mo­graphic shift is un­der­way, even if I was un­aware of it. I had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing my cir­cum­stances pri­vately, in­di­vid­u­ally—won­der­ing what was wrong with me—but this is a col­lec­tive phe­nom­e­non, the re­sult of dozens of so­ci­etal fac­tors. This dis­cov­ery helped me to stop ask­ing my­self why I was sin­gle and start de­cid­ing what I was go­ing to do with the life I have.

I found a role model in my friend Carla Turner, a CBC pro­ducer. She has a hugely ex­cit­ing ca­reer—think sit­ting in the White House press gallery a few feet from Obama—but she also has a rich per­sonal life (with­out kids or a hus­band) that is full of globe-trot­ting col­leagues, friends from all walks of life and cy­cling and hik­ing ad­ven­tures. “I had to learn how to be alone after my di­vorce,” she told me. “I had to learn the dif­fer­ence be­tween just be­ing sin­gle and be­ing sin­gle and happy.” Talk­ing through my life with her helped me craft a road map for my new path.

I de­cided to go free­lance. I sold things, stream­lined bills, com­mit­ted to pub­lic tran­sit and rarely ate out. What I gave up in life­style I gained in time. My iso­la­tion van­ished as I caught up with fam­ily and friends, went on dates and re­con­nected with my­self. I spent hours cook­ing elab­o­rate Thai dishes like khao soi while lis­ten­ing to ra­dio pod­casts. I took up yoga and joined a med­i­ta­tion class. I trav­elled to New York to roam the streets and sam­ple Ger­man-choco­late and red-vel­vet cakes in bou­tique bak­eries. I went to Tofino, B.C., to hike in forests and walk the beaches in the rain.

Next, I looked for ways to side­step those soul-crush­ing Brid­get Jones-sin­gle­ton mo­ments. Since my first tour of duty as a maid of hon­our at 22, a friend has called ev­ery six months to an­nounce her en­gage­ment, trig­ger­ing another round of bridal show­ers, bach­e­lorette par­ties, wed­dings and baby show­ers. The events al­ways leave me feel­ing pro­foundly dis­heart­ened. So I qui­etly re­tired from the shower cir­cuit, po­litely de­clin­ing all in­vi­ta­tions other than the wed­ding it­self. I had ag­o­nized about tak­ing this step, but, to my amaze­ment, it barely regis­tered with any­one in my cir­cle. I cer­tainly didn’t lose friends over it. And it has had a big im­pact on my well-be­ing.

Then I mus­tered up all my courage and con­fronted the is­sue of moth­er­hood. My de­sire to have a fam­ily had given me an ex­treme case of tick­ing-clock syn­drome. I was con­stantly do­ing the math, run­ning through the time­line: “To have a child be­fore 40, I’d need to be mar­ried in six months, preg­nant in a year....” I worked hard to hide this from the men I dated, but my forced ca­su­al­ness wound up cre­at­ing dis­tance.

I had to find a way to take the pres­sure off. I read In­stant Mom, Nia Varda­los’ mem­oir about adop­tion. I talked to a col­league who had adopted two chil­dren—we had some great talks about his two teenage girls and how happy he and his wife were with the decision. Then I at­tended a lec­ture by Leigh Anne Tuohy, the re­al­life mother played by San­dra Bul­lock in The Blind Side. Some­one in the au­di­ence asked her, “Are you still close with your adopted son, Michael?” Her fierce re­ply has stayed with me: “Are you close with your chil­dren?”

I thought back to an ex­pe­ri­ence I had in my early 20s, when I back­packed through h

I qui­etly re­tired from the shower cir­cuit, po­litely de­clin­ing all in­vi­ta­tions other than the wed­ding it­self.

South­east Asia and vol­un­teered in an or­phan­age in Chi­ang Mai, Thai­land. I bonded with a two-year-old boy named Sutin. When I ar­rived in the morn­ing, he’d race across the room, push­ing other chil­dren out of the way to leap into my arms. He was des­per­ate for at­ten­tion and af­fec­tion. One day it fully regis­tered what this meant: He had no­body to turn to. He had no con­sis­tent adult in his life— no one who was fo­cused solely on his runny noses, his crayon cre­ations and his chirpy in­sights about the world. I could be that for some­one. I de­cided if I still wanted to be a mom when I turned 40, I would adopt.

I also re­al­ized that there were peo­ple in my life right now who could ben­e­fit from my ma­ter­nal care. I started giv­ing it freely, host­ing din­ner par­ties for for­eign stu­dents, pack­ing din­ners for a neigh­bour­hood home­less man, bak­ing cook­ies for my door­man. It was a re­lief to share my ma­ter­nal side—and to con­nect with oth­ers in such a joy­ful way. It helped me to stay fo­cused on the good in my life and not slip into melan­choly again.

As a re­sult of all th­ese ef­forts, I con­nected with peo­ple in my net­work who were in sim­i­lar sin­gle­and-child­less sit­u­a­tions. As I lis­tened to their pain and shared what I had learned, I re­al­ized that I had left my own un­hap­pi­ness be­hind.

It all hap­pened grad­u­ally, over the course of 18 months. And, of course, I had oc­ca­sional re­lapses. I dis­cov­ered that I need to avoid ro­man­tic come­dies or any other film or TV show that sug­gests that the only pos­si­ble happy end­ing is mar­riage. I’ve been watch­ing a lot of doc­u­men­taries in­stead.

As my shift in per­spec­tive be­came per­ma­nent, I re­al­ized that I had been build­ing an ex­cit­ing life for years—even be­fore I quit my job—and I just hadn’t been able to see it. Fam­ily and friends had been try­ing to tell me this for ages as I trav­elled the world for work, in­ter­viewed in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and dec­o­rated my down­town-Toronto condo. Sud­denly, I could see that it was true. I had been so fo­cused on what I didn’t have that I hadn’t no­ticed what I do have. I have al­ways needed alone time to recharge. And now, in ad­di­tion to ev­ery­thing I had be­fore, I have fi­nally carved out whole af­ter­noons to stroll through the Art Gallery of On­tario or pore over The New York Times.

I re­cently read What Comes Next and How to Like It, a new mem­oir on ag­ing by Abi­gail Thomas. She lives alone in a ramb­ling home in Wood­stock, N.Y., with her four dogs. She weath­ers the ups and downs of life with vis­its from her four chil­dren, 12 grand­chil­dren and her best friend of 35 years, Chuck. She has am­ple time to paint and write. She scours flea mar­kets for trea­sures, cooks soup and sleeps all day when she needs to. And you know what? That doesn’t sound so bad.

My whole life I had been wait­ing to be cho­sen by some­one. But I didn’t re­ally start liv­ing un­til that day in the Ir­ish coun­try­side, when I chose my­self and be­gan to find my own def­i­ni­tion of hap­pi­ness. It’s not what I thought I wanted, but it suits me. n

I dis­cov­ered that I need to avoid ro­man­tic come­dies or any other film or TV show that sug­gests the only pos­si­ble happy end­ing is mar­riage.

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