Glynnis MacNicol on why her new home became the ultimate escape for her married friends.
A sneak peek at Glynnis MacNicol’s new memoir.
A FUNNY THING began to happen after I moved into my dream apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Fairly quickly, as friends came over to visit, it became a strange sort of confessional booth, as if people sensed I was so secure in my life that they could more freely confess their worst fears about theirs. It almost always began in the same way: A friend would arrive, take a look around, turn to me with a slightly awed face and declare “I’m so envious!” It became the most uttered phrase in my new home the first month I was there.
The idea that I could be a source of envy was still something of a revelation. On paper, at least—single, childless, 40—I continued to be the definition of the thing most women believe they should avoid becoming at all costs. And if it had been just one friend who’d mentioned it, I likely wouldn’t have noticed. Objectively speaking, it was a great apartment. I was a New Yorker, after all; some people here aim for apartments the way they aim for careers. This was the equivalent of a corner office with great benefits. But when it kept happening over and over, I began to take note. It was as though by coming into my home, my friends were being given the chance to walk a few steps down the path not taken (or avoided) and were discovering it wasn’t as dark and thorny as they’d been taught. Or perhaps it was dawning on them that there was another path. (It’s not as though women are raised being overburdened with the sense that they have options.) “You make me want to be single again,” said one friend who’d been married for more than a decade. “I mean, I love Sam and the kids, obviously, but this is incredible.”
“So, this is your apartment,” said another, a mother of two, grinning in a hungry sort of way.
“Can I please come over and lie on your bed some afternoons and pretend I’m single?” “I want your life,” professed one woman I’d known for years, who had a much-desired two-year-old at home, before lying down on my bed and weeping. “I wish I’d been braver about not getting married,” said another friend, newly divorced and a mother of two. “I remember being 32 and in a state of near-total panic at the idea that I might be single at 35.”
Every woman I knew seemed to think she was failing in some way, had been raised to believe she was lacking and was certain someone else was doing it better. Had been told never to trust her own instincts. Taught to think of life as a solution when “done right,” when in reality we exist in a kaleidoscope made of shades of grey, able to be very happy and very sad all at the same time.
I knew the only reason I was hearing all this was because in me they seemed to have found the rare assurance of non-judgment. I was not a participant in the mothering Olympics; it wasn’t as though I was going to admonish someone for not breastfeeding. (I was always thrilled when someone switched to formula because it meant I got to do the feeding.) Nor did I get too frustrated by the fact that they could not hold a conversation for more than 45 seconds at a time—I could see their own frustration at this. They were lonely too. Which was painfully ironic since I was certain that more than one baby, not to mention a few marriages, had been conceived by women tired of being left out of every conversation her married-with-children friends were having. “Don’t ever have kids,” said nearly all of them at some point.
“They don’t mean that!” said a successful businesswoman I knew who was expecting her first grandchild. She seemed shocked and offended at the very idea. I wanted to suggest to her that she might have changed her tune had she had to do her small-children mothering in the age of 24hour email and social-media Greek-chorusing. I knew they didn’t mean it—not really. What they meant was “Don’t fall for the hype.” They meant that it was harder than anyone had ever warned them it would be. They meant that the longer they’d been able to rule their own lives, the harder it became not to. They meant that they had been promised that things would get easier and better, not harder and more relentless. They meant that they’d lost their own hard-won identity in ways they weren’t prepared for and were still trying to reconstruct it.
“I’m so tired of hearing women tell me how terrible it is to have children,” said my friend Kim one afternoon when she came over to help me organize my closet. Kim was in her early 30s, had been married a few years and, I knew, was starting to think seriously about kids. “The non-stop negativity is just exhausting.”
This was the flip side, I supposed. I’d watched so many of my friends go into marriage starryeyed and thrilled and then be bowled over by the realities of childcare that it had never crossed my mind what it must be like to hear only the bad parts over and over and not know, as I did, that it came with plenty of good too.
“I think they just feel like they were never warned,” I said. “And they don’t feel like they have the right to be unhappy. It’s the same as people constantly telling me what my life is missing, as though they can’t believe I could be happy alone—I think they’re told they aren’t allowed to be unhappy when they have the only two things women are supposed to want.”
Of course, not every woman came over and complained like this—and never my newly married or about-to-be-married friends, who were caught up in the throes of romance and wedding planning. Nor did my single friends, some of whom had setups similar to mine, or younger friends, who perceived my life the way people in their 20s perceive every accomplishment of someone older: the promise of possibility.
But listening to these friends unleash their doubts and fears did make it that much easier to remind myself, on days that I needed reminding, that everything was just as good as it was bad and not an either/or. n
EVERY WOMAN I KNEW SEEMED TO THINK SHE WAS FAILING.
Copyright © 2018 by Glynnis MacNicol. From No One Tells You This: A Memoir by Glynnis MacNicol, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.