Wednesday, December 1, 2021

What if You KNOW You Don’t Want Kids, or a Husband? Expert Advice From a Woman Who Has Written the Book On It All

This month we’ve been reading Self Contained by Emma John for our book club (paired perfectly with a glass of Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Gris 2020!). In it, Emma examines what it means to be a woman over 40 who is single and child-free by choice – and it’s one hell of an interesting, thought provoking read. Her words have obviously struck a chord with many of you too, as we had the chance to speak to Emma and handed over the reins to you to ask questions and were inundated!

Here, Emma talks about how to speak to your parents about your choices in life, how the word ‘spinster’ has become so far removed from it’s original meaning, plus the best books out there that have strong, happy single women at their core!

So, without further ado, here’s YOUR interview with Emma John.

YOU ASKED: I LOVE that you have written a book on this subject! What spurred you into writing it?

EMMA SAYS: I’d had the subject of spinsters in my head for a long while, because as someone who loves reading I found I came across them so rarely, and the ones who were in the stories I read didn’t often reflect my own experiences of life at all. I’d toyed with the idea of writing a history of the single woman, but doing what I’d done with my previous books about cricket and bluegrass music, and weaving my own narrative alongside it. And then when I finally had the time to write the book (during lockdown), everyone I spoke to told me that my own story was the one they wanted to read, which surprised me because my life seems so undramatic and unspectacular to me. So in many ways I was reticent to write it at all – not least because I was worried that it would expose me in front of my friends as well as strangers and turn me into ‘the person who writes about being single’ which wasn’t what I wanted to be.

Author, Emma John

YOU ASKED: I find it so hard to find books/novels where the main character is a happy single woman not searching for love or battling alcoholism/personality disorders or hoarding cats! Do you find this infuriating too? Do you have any recommendations for other books I could read?

EMMA SAYS: Since I started writing Self Contained I made it a real project to go off in search of great writing about single women. So yes indeed, I can offer a reading list right here and now. Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a wonderful place to start, as is almost anything by Anita Brookner (I began with her debut, A Start In Life, which opens with such a strong central character that it’s almost impossible to believe it’s a first novel). Possibly my favourite recommendation is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend who is an overlooked contemporary of Virginia Woolf; it’s a wonderful novella that made me laugh out loud and absolutely blew my mind. Some of the Victorian novelists – I exclude Dickens from this, since he always seems to make his spinsters twisted and evil – begin to write really interestingly about women who choose to remain single, including Anthony Trollope in Miss Mackenzie and George Gissing in The Odd Women; there’s also Henry James’s The Bostonians although I don’t recommend that unless you want to get yourself worked up into an angry lather.

YOU ASKED: I’m 27 and KNOW I never want kids and I’m not fussed about having a husband or partner. I genuinely love my life as a singleton BUT this horrifies my parents. My mother is terrified that “by the time I change my mind it will be too late for me”. I’m sick of having the same conversation over and over again. What can I do?

EMMA SAYS: It’s tricky, and I’ve definitely been there. It’s born of our parents’ generation’s slightly outdated fear – although one that’s not entirely without merit – that partners have to be ‘locked down’ in a certain period of life before a) they become less available and b) you lose your best chance to have a family. I think if your arguments aren’t winning the day, then the best you can do is tell your mum in a loving way that you want to be able to talk to her honestly about this stuff, but that the conversations are getting you down. Your mum is almost certainly coming at this from a place of love for you, so if you can be direct enough to tell her how her expectations for you are making you feel, she might back off. I know mine did when I approached her in that way – she still had reservations, but discussed them with my dad instead of with me!

YOU ASKED: Why do men get to be “bachelors” and women get called “spinsters”?? Why is the language around single women so much more derogatory?

EMMA SAYS: It’s a long and complicated history that I won’t go into entirely here but we can partly blame a cultural change in the way single women were written about in the 18th century. Of course throughout humanity’s patriarchal history unmarried women have been unusual, because the societal function of women was to care for a husband and bear children, but the term ‘spinster’ didn’t used to have any derogatory connotation – it literally meant someone who span wool, which used to be a living for single women in particular. Single women only really became vilified as “Old maids” after it began to become possible for women to live independently of the family unit (particularly if they were widowed, and had some funds of their own). Around this time, Britain’s imperial ambition was expanding across the globe, and there was a feeling that women who didn’t produce sons to fight in its wars/man its colonies were shirking their duty, and the feeling around them was very bitter. The more women rejected the roles that they were ‘supposed’ to assume, the more scornful the use of the term ‘spinster’ became. 

YOU ASKED: Is it okay to avoid your judgy coupled friends until you find your partner?

EMMA SAYS: I’ve been really lucky in that most of my coupled friends aren’t judgy, although that’s not to say I haven’t met plenty of people who seem to forget what it’s like to be single the moment they find their own partner. But I’d say absolutely, if a particular relationship isn’t offering you support in your current situation, then maybe let it go for now. A good friendship will survive that, and a bad one won’t be one you’ll regret losing.

YOU ASKED: I have really enjoyed being single during the pandemic/lockdowns. I found I really flourished and invested in myself, whereas my friends who are married with children really struggled. It was hard to not be smug. Did you enjoy the lockdown?

EMMA SAYS:It was a complicated time for me, which I write a bit about in the book – my mum had had a leukaemia diagnosis the previous November and so we were worried about her treatment, especially since she was waiting on a stem cell transplant from Germany and we didn’t know if that would come through. And then when it did, she had to go through all that alone in hospital, while I stayed with Dad to keep him company. So it was an unusually tough time for our family, but not without its blessings. I am really happy that I got to spend more time than I would normally have done with my parents, and I definitely felt lucky to be a writer and to be able to keep working (as I did, on the book!)

Emma with her brilliant latest book, Self Contained

YOU ASKED: What if your career has stalled and you are single? What is your advice to turn that around?

EMMA SAYS: I’m not a qualified advice giver but I do write in the book about a time that happened to me; I felt like my job role (and therefore my career) was going nowhere, and because I’d invested so much of my identity in it, I didn’t really know where I was going as a person, either. A number of factors coming together made it possible (if not completely advisable!) to leave my employment and I took the rather bold move to spend a year abroad, in a slightly impecunious and precarious state. I was writing a book that didn’t provide me any real income, but the experience really helped detach me from my usual working environment, and all the preconceptions I had about myself. It helped me discover that it’s possible to be happy (and to be myself) in entirely different ways to the ones I was used to, and that my worth didn’t depend on whether I was a professional success.

YOU ASKED: OMG, your bit about being at the kid’s birthday party spoke to me. I get so awkward when people quiz me about my relationship status, even though I am very happy to be single and would prefer to remain that way. Do you have any advice for what I can say/do in those situations? (I too often meet a single friend for a wine afterwards!!)

EMMA SAYS: I don’t think I’ve ever found the perfect response but I do think it’s about being a bit more prepared for those questions, both in terms of what you might say and how you protect your own feelings when it comes up. I never used to think about boundaries because I’m a naturally unguarded person (as you may have noticed from the way I write!) but I think the real issue with people asking if you’re dating is that it always then falls on you to manage the emotional load of that conversation. It doesn’t matter to them what your status is, they’re just saying out of habit and convention. Whereas to you, it could be either painful, or annoying, or provoking, or deeply deeply tedious. It’s such a damn personal question, after all! So I think prep is key: find a phrase you like, then have it in the bank as your stock answer. Don’t feel you have to entertain or amuse or justify with your story of why you’re single – you don’t have any obligation to share! For me, something purposefully opaque like “Stuff’s going fine thanks, how are you?” said with a smile is a way to move the conversation along and kill off any follow-up questions.

YOU ASKED: Do you ever get anxious or lonely?

EMMA SAYS: Anxious – yes, often, I have struggled with anxiety since I was in my 20s but I don’t think it’s at all related to being single (in fact, I first started experiencing it during a relationship!). Lonely, almost never, although my mum getting sick has introduced me to the feeling a little, because I’m afraid of being without her.

YOU ASKED: What is your favourite thing about being single?

EMMA SAYS: Autonomy.

YOU ASKED: Why does everyone feel that there’s something wrong with you because you choose this life?

EMMA SAYS: To be fair, I think attitudes are changing and I don’t think everyone does feel that any more. But I do think people who are in happy relationships will have enjoyed so much in terms of companionship and sharing of experiences and memories – I give my parents as an example – that they just want the people they love to have what they have. It can be hard to believe that a single person can feel as supported and loved and cared for from their other relationships, because those relationships appear so much less intimate or comprehensive.

YOU ASKED: If you could go back and give yourself any advice when you were younger, what would you say?

EMMA SAYS: Don’t worry so much!

ABOUT SELF CONTAINED:

If you’ve spent any great length of time single from about your mid-twenties on, you’ll likely know the feeling: that semi-awkward moment when a stranger at a baby shower asks if you have kids/a husband, a well-meaning friend quizzes you to try to work out why you’re still single, or you get the third degree at a family Christmas as to why you don’t have a plus one with you.

Emma John gets it. She knows that baby shower or kids’ birthday scenario only too well (and has a great exit strategy of SOS texting a friend to get a wine immediately after) and what it’s like to be the ‘uneven number’ at a dinner party. 

As she writes in her hilarious and beguilingly honest memoir, Self Contained

I’m about to turn 40, have no boyfriend and can’t be sure of one any time soon: I haven’t been on a date in three years. I’m tired of Tinder, bored of Bumble – I’ve even been ejected by eHarmony, who, last time I logged on, told me it couldn’t find me a single match.

VILLA MARIA WINE MATCH with Villa’s Wine Expert, Jessica Bell

Let’s raise a toast to the single life! As Emma writes, being single isn’t something to mope about, or pity others for, if you step back and look closely, it’s a life “that is full of endless possibilities and many wonderful memories.”

Now that’s something to raise a glass to! 

The Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Gris is the perfect choice as it is rich and  textural coating your whole mouth with its ample more-ish flavours. Think pears, apples and juicy summer peach, with just a hint of baked fruit spices.

As Emma looks forward to the rich possibilities in life, it’s timely that we’re also, finally, entering spring and the perfect time to pour a glass of Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Gris – a taste that feels like a promise that summer is on its way.

So, if you’ve just escaped a kid’s third birthday party, call a buddy and get one of these on ice. Or – gulp! – if it is your child’s birthday party, pop a bottle in the fridge and invite a friend to stay on after the official celebrations.

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