Eating dinner at a wedding recently, I felt like I was wearing my very own invisibility cloak. I was sitting at a table with three couples. I was good friends with one pair, but on the other side of me sat a woman I’d never met and her husband. For most of the meal she spoke past me, focusing on my friends (they all have little daughters), advising them on the merits of hitting up Disney World before the ‘princess stage’ is over.
At first I felt this was normal – she had parenthood in common with them, after all, while I don’t have kids. Still, I consider myself a fairly interesting, decent human being, and a good conversationalist. As the evening went on, I couldn’t help thinking of my fellow guest as a stand-in for society as a whole. I was solo in a situation where it’s far more usual to encounter other couples. When you don’t fit into a familiar box, society isn’t sure what to do with you. So it ignores you.
I never used to think about being single as equivalent to minority status, but at 41 that’s essentially what it is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 14 percent of women between 40 and 44 are single in the sense of never having married, though the number is higher when you include those who are divorced or separated.
I don’t believe single, 40-plus men experience the world quite the way I do. There’s far more pressure from society for women to act a certain way and fill certain roles – namely, wife and mother. If she’s neither of those things a woman is sometimes pitied, or just regarded as odd. I’ve certainly started to feel my lack of ‘normality’ as I’ve got older, including at the office. You become increasingly conscious of how out of step you are with colleagues as the years go by and they marry and procreate, and you drink more and more toasts out of plastic cups at lunch and attend more baby showers.
Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor and author of books including ‘Singlism’ and ‘Singled Out’, says society has a raging case of ‘matrimania’, the worship of all things marriage-related. She believes singles discrimination is prevalent, including at work.
“There is some disadvantageous treatment written right into the law,” in the U.S., she says. “You can work side by side with a married person and when the married person dies they can leave their social security to their spouse. When a single person without children dies, it goes back into the system.” Health insurance has built-in inequalities too. Married people, or in some workplaces, those with domestic partners, can put the spouse or partner on their healthcare plan at a reduced rate, but “single people have nothing comparable,” DePaulo says, in that they can’t add a close adult family member or friend to their plan.
Then there’s the assumption by some bosses or co-workers that you don’t have a life. I haven’t experienced this so far, but DePaulo points out studies have shown single employees often feel pressure to work during popular holiday periods, or simply to put in longer hours and take on more intense, travel-heavy projects, because they don’t have a spouse or kids. A recent Huffington Post story about single women echoes those findings with a depressing tale of one single, non-mother’s experience in the workplace at the hands of her married-with-kids female boss.
Some colleagues probably don’t even realize they’re making assumptions. Take this comment from late 2008, uttered by former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. President Obama had nominated then Arizona governor Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary. A microphone picked up Rendell saying Napolitano would be great for the role, “Because for that job you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect – she can devote literally 19, 20 hours a day to it.”
Some in the media called him on it, and Rendell subsequently claimed he worked crazy hours and ‘had no life’ either, but those words still make my heart sink, confirming the stereotype that single people have nothing better to do than work all the time.
And don’t even get me started on cats.
Category: Family 2.0