Solo Dining and the Winding Road to Independence

See why women need to become independent and pursue their interests, instead of focusing entirely on their families.

Are you comfortable walking into a restaurant for dinner on your own? Be honest. If you’re a woman over fifty the answer probably is “not yet.” You’ve likely tried it on various occasions. I dare you to give it a go one more time with the ideas presented in an inspiring, hot-off-the-press bestseller called Spinster.

Full disclosure: I’ve been trying to cultivate solo dining since I was an undergraduate. In the first instance my boyfriend was out of town and I decided to dine at the local pizza parlour. It took me another three years to build up the gumption to try solo dining again.

Forty years later, I’m still learning how to do it well, with panache and without trepidation. For years, I surmised that it would get easier as I grew holder, but sadly it hasn’t changed. Earlier today I walked into the coffee shop around the corner from my home carrying a copy of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, the new book everyone is reading, or at least talking about.  At the door, I hesitated to hold the hard copy face forward for all to see.  I forced myself.

The couple at the table for two sitting across from me looked up. The man’s expression didn’t change. The woman gave me a disparaging glance before biting into her sugar donut.

Plus ca change.  That’s why the book has struck a chord with women: those who are single, those who have married, those who have never married, and those who are contemplating becoming single. As the author Kate Bolick says, “This book is about how to make sense of yourself as a single woman.”  It’s also about how to be alone, and that affects all of us, single or coupled, although there are more singles today than expected.

In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 105-million people aged eighteen and up were never married, divorced or widowed, with 53% of these being women.

Spinster is a fascinating read for women of any age but it’s older woman who will find it most intriguing.   After all, we grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when everyone was expected to marry, settle down, and start a family. All before turning thirty.  Think Betty Draper in MadMen and you’ll get the complete picture.

Back in the day, the term spinster was synonymous with the British term  “old maid.”  In colonial America and in Canada it was a cruel and disparaging way to describe women who had not married by twenty-three, according to author Bolick.

The question is:  how much have things changed? A decade ago, social psychologist Bella DePaulo, Ph.D argued that you’re “socially single if you’re sexually or emotionally involved with someone but the two of you don’t consider yourself a couple, or don’t meet the definitions of coupledom. Further, you’re personally single if you think of yourself as single, even if you’re coupled.”

My situation has been “iffy.” Married, divorced and now living with my partner, I ask myself where I belong on the “socially single” spectrum. I’m entirely in charge of my financial affairs insisting on a legal co-habitation agreement, enjoy an active and independent social life, but still…

As I’m delving into the heart of this book about being alone, my partner appears at my table for one.  I’ve left a note on the kitchen table saying that I’m at the coffee shop around the corner. “Be back soon.”

I’m surprised to see him. We ‘ve been together for three years, most of that time, happily.   And then there are these moments.  The instances that Bolick describes in her book when we are at our absolute best when we are entirely on our own.  Like me at the cafe, reading my book.  Or as the scholar Carolyn Heilbrun termed it, when we are  “ambiguous women.” To be an ambiguous woman is to centre your life around more than your marriage or life partner.

For older women, becoming “ambiguous”— if you are partnered or not— is increasingly important, particularly in the financial realm.  Women live longer than men, and grey divorce is becoming common.   We need to be able to imagine our senior years without having nightmares about them.

Here are three things that will help you to become an ambiguous woman:

  1. Make sure you are completely up-to-date and informed of your financial affairs.  It doesn’t matter if you are married or single, if your partner handles the family’s ledger books or you have a financial advisor directing your investments, you need to know everything. Ignorance is not bliss.  It is asking for trouble.
  2. Maintain both the friends and interests of your pre-retirement years. Stay busy outside the home. Retirement can be the ideal time to enjoy your network of friends and professional acquaintances.  That could mean starting your own business, volunteering, or generally building on the accomplishments of a lifetime.  In my case, I published my first novel the year after I retired.  Writing fiction opened up a whole new world to me of intellectual, emotional and artistic pursuits.
  3. If you can afford it, treat yourself. You earned it.  Dine out on your own. Go to the cinema by yourself. Enjoy the taste of a great martini without having to make conversation or being forced to explain why you wept at the movie.  I know, it sounds silly, but it changes your ability to think independently.  Eventually experiment with travelling on your own.  I began with a visit to a spa in Florida, then a week-long seminar in New Mexico and finally I ended up spending a month in England researching my debut novel. I was sixty and I felt as alive as I’d ever been.

After all sixty is the new forty.

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