The evangelist’s wife knelt beside me at the front church pew, her close-set eyes earnest as she asked, “Now, honey, what are you praying about?”
At 17, I’d spent the past year in mental turmoil. But now, against the piano chords of “Have Thine Own Way,” I reported a docile summary: “I don’t know what God wants me to do with my life.”
“Well, honey.” She smiled, relieved at the simplicity of my spiritual ailment. She had a handy treatment which she offered like a lozenge from her big leather purse. “You don’t need to pray about that. The Bible’s already told you God’s will for your life as a woman. You’re s’pose to stay in your daddy’s home and wait until a man comes to marry you.”
Well, then. The path had been laid with yellow bricks toward Oz. And what luck that I was in a budding relationship with a good-looking guy.
I should have risen from the pew rejoicing.
The churches of my childhood declared a woman’s place was in the home, and obligingly, in Lisa Frank journals, I outlined my dreams of a hard-working husband, three kids, a house in a cul-de-sac, and a chocolate Labrador in the backyard.
But despite my plans and conditioning, when she laid that predetermined, narrow path before me, I hesitated to accept it.
Against Mrs. Evangelist’s prescription, instead of settling in with the folks, I went to college, eventually broke up with that good-looking guy, taught college classes for seven years, earned my MFA, launched into a new career in Cincinnati, and here I sit reflecting on the past 15 years.
Sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t right.
If I’d just waited, stayed put, did the dishes and vacuumed, got highlights in my hair or giggled more, maybe I’d be packing school lunches and driving a minivan instead of checking the single box on my tax forms.
Now, at 32, understanding my odds of staying single, I try not to focus on marriage too often. No use in poking sleeping monsters.
Once awakened, discontentment can be hard to wrangle back into its cage. But every so often, something stirs it up. A movie or a book or a couple at the mall will agitate the romantic in me who wants a man to share goals with, to be the strength to his weakness, someone with a strong shoulder and a generous heart, someone to move the heavy stuff and kill the spiders.
And, if I’m honest, maybe most of all, I want someone to save me from what other people think of my singleness.
Recently, my seven-year-old niece informed me, “Aunt Sarah, you aren’t a grown up until you get married.”
While waiting for the terrifying unknown of adulthood, children stay brave by constructing and clinging to a formula for the future. And children aren’t the only ones.
When life goes “as planned” for people—they get married, have children, get a mortgage—sometimes they project those expectations onto others. They set up their single friend with that single person from the office. They judge or blame them for being too picky. They criticize them for not settling. They feel comfortable—somehow—with saying things like, “At least I’ve got a family.”
In a conversation a few weeks ago, one man came right out and said, “The whole purpose of humans on earth is to marry, procreate, and form family units. And, sorry, single ladies—I’m sure there’s some other purpose for you.” He stopped just short of saying, “But I don’t know what it is.”
Words and actions imply, “You aren’t good enough—not without a partner. You’re just a permanent resident in the waiting room of life.” Even Frank Sinatra on my Pandora station croons the reminder,
“You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.”
If I’m not careful, I start evaluating myself by others’ estimations—maybe I am worth less than my friends who are married with kids. Maybe my body shape or overbite or personality just didn’t make the cut for love. Maybe marriage is what life is all about, and I’ve missed my chance to matter.
At those times, I want marriage more than anything, to twist the gold band on my finger and assess my worth, to feel in the night the warmth of the man to whom I have vowed my life, to read the rise and fall of his chest like the stock market of my value at the close of each day.
On the opposite end, some people consider the desire for marriage to be a sign of weakness, of desperation or dependence. You’re your best you when you’re single.
Mrs. Evangelist told me to wait; others tell me I’ve waited too long; some people tell me to stop waiting at all. Their words leave me, at times, feeling pointless, insecure, even guilty.
But earlier this summer, I read something that has me thinking a little differently.
In the novel Little Women, Marmee is on her way to care for Mr. March who is ill in an army hospital. As she leaves, Marmee admonishes her girls, “I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone . . . . Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.”
Hope and Keep Busy. I liked this advice so much that I posted it on my cubicle wall at work. But I’ve found that I only half know how to follow Marmee’s simple directive for moving forward.
I’m good at keeping busy. When I’m creating a hand lettering or writing an essay or focused on work, I don’t cast longing glances at my future or feel discontentment start to rattle its cage. But sometimes, rather than trying to deal with my desire to be married, I stuff it beneath a full schedule and numerous pursuits. I use my busyness to convince myself that I’m fully content with being single because I’m afraid of building expectations for a future relationship.
Expectations are plans that we count on unfolding, sometimes without even working toward them. If we’re not careful, expectations render us entitled or disillusioned, disabling us to accept reality as it comes. And as someone whose spirit has been wrecked by unfulfilled expectations in the past, I’m leery of sustaining them for my future.
Marmee said to hope, but I don’t always know how.
Maybe I confuse expectations with hope.
If I know Marmee March, she wasn’t telling her girls to launch a flurry of positive vibes toward Mr. March for healing. She was telling them to hope in good things yet to come, whatever they were, flowing freely from the hand of a benevolent Father who would never abandon them. If Mr. March had died, the girls still had reason to hope in God’s comfort and provision.
Maybe hope means putting my trust in something more secure than my plans, like a compass to guide me forward, a life preserver to hold me up, a rope to pull me in. A sure thing. If that’s true, I shouldn’t place my hope in fragile things out of my control any more than I would tie a rope around a twig and rappel off the side of a mountain.
If my hope is in marriage or any other unpromised thing (the perfect job, a book deal, a viral blog post), I might live my life unfulfilled, in a constant holding pattern for my purpose and happiness to arrive.
But if I can trust in the goodness of the heavenly Father who redeems shattered expectations, uses lives in unexpected ways and reminds us of our worth in Christ—rather than in a mate—I can experience a full life right now while working toward my goals and hoping for more fulness in the future—which might or might not include marriage. Instead of focusing on being married or being single, I can just be.
Marmee carefully posed her advice: hope first, then keep busy. When I rightly place my hope, I can contentedly thrive in what I’m called to do right now—as a magazine editor, a writer, a friend, a woman—not as a distraction but as the way forward.
When you’re praying for your single friends, don’t simply ask God to send them a partner. Ask him to shield them from shallow expectations, keep them busy in worthwhile pursuits, and make them hopeful in him.
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Note: I recently read this article, “Why Hope Isn’t Just Optimism.” It expands on my thoughts in this post. I hope you’ll read it.