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The Single Woman as “Shelf Warmer”

Recently, I found myself spending time with an acquaintance who has always been in the same social network as me, but for whatever reason, never became a solid “friend” in the way other women in that network had. A married mother of three, she was understandably preoccupied with running her household and caring for her children. Since my lifestyle choice doesn’t require me to consult with a spouse and be confined to the complex schedules of three different little people, our schedules rarely matched and thus, we didn’t get together often. Our acquaintanceship was comfortable for us both and though we found ourselves with some down time on the same day, I was prepared for this isolated incident to not occur again in the near future.

I was en route to another commitment and though I was happy to connect with her, I reiterated during our hang time, “Girl, I’m having fun, but I really need to get running so I’m not late.” And then she did what married mothers who I’ve been friendly with over the years have done on more than one occasion. She made a casual comment that I was always off to somewhere else. Always doing something and thus never having time to hang out with her. When she was ready to hang out, that is. I chuckled and said, “Ya know, we all have overbooked lives in these complicated times. It is what it is.” She went on to bemoan only having this one night available and then admitting what I’ve always known mothers of this mindset have always felt but never vocalized. “I rely on my single friends to remind me what it’s like to have fun and enjoy nightlife on those rare occasions when I’m free.”

In that moment, I felt irritated.

“They want to put us on a shelf and then expect us to just be waiting happily when they find time to take us off that shelf.” Jasmine, a woman who is single by circumstance and childfree by choice has had this same conversation with long time friends whose lives shifted once they took on marriage and motherhood. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why after years of having some version of this conversation with friends who took on families, it bothered me now. To be clear, I was not bothered because my acquaintance had prioritized her family over me. I would find it odd had she made the opposite choice. I expected that even my good girlfriends would have less time to hang out with me once they married and had children. I didn’t begrudge them their decision to make a lifestyle choice that resulted in having to devote 85% of their energy only to the people who lived in their house. What I was taking issue with was this acquaintance’s suggestion that to be single was to be willing to serve as your married friend’s Plan B. In this arrangement, you are supposed to take it as compliment when your married friend with children, who has much more important things to do, puts you on her as-soon-as-I-can shelf until she has less important things to do and comes back to get you.

When I told my acquaintance just how tedious and condescending such a role was for ANY woman, she seemed shocked. It never occurred to her that what she was expecting of her single, childfree friends is exactly what the men she had dated before her husband expected of her and all other single women. To be patient as they were put on the shelf while he sorted out his super busy life that made it impossible for him to plan a date or return a phone call until his schedule dictated either were important enough to him. And when he made this momentous decision…when he didn’t have to be out of town for a weekend or work late or coddle a potential client or ___ and he called with the sudden desire to “see your beautiful face right now — in the next five minutes,” he was perturbed when you said you had other things to do. “But I finally have 17 free minutes to give you. Why aren’t you accommodating me?”

This notion that because you are an adult female who has not taken on children and a spouse, you are by default the one who should be readily available to anyone who desires your time is insulting. It is also ridiculous when you consider the increasing number of women who are choosing to remain single well into midlife. We are nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. Surely, it shouldn’t be a surprise to the world at large that women who don’t choose marriage and motherhood actually have committed their post-work hours to a whole host of fulfilling activities. Things they value and consider top priority with just as much fervor as their married peers cherish family time.

We don’t expect our married friends who are parents to be our Plan B. We don’t try to guilt them into submission when we ask them to go to an art opening and they say they can’t because they have other obligations. We often make effort to adjust to their new reality of suddenly ill offspring, no-show babysitters and spouses who need them more than we do. We do this without any expectation that they will return the favor. And many of us understand that their lives as parents make it difficult to do so, anyway. We don’t take it personally because we know it has nothing to do with us. It is about their choice to take on the role of parent and spouse. A lot of us simply anticipate the friendship going through a cooling off period and maybe once the children are older, there will be a reconnection. A renegotiation perhaps. Or maybe not. Since we would have nurtured interpersonal relationships with others in the absence of the one we lost, it just may be that the friendship dies off without ceremony or incidence.

What precious few of us are willing to do is be the shelf warmer, though. Yes, we know you really want to still maintain the connection, but you’re being pulled in so many directions. No, we don’t hold it against you because you aren’t able to spend more than a few minutes catching up with us before running off to deal with a minor catastrophe somewhere in your house. You have valid reasons for not having time for us.

And like the eligible bachelor who has legitimate reasons for never following through on his vague suggestions that he would love to get together sometime, we won’t be placing you high on our priority list, either. There is no ill will. No animosity. If Busy Bachelor has prioritized all these other things over us, good for him! While he is doing whatever it is that is keeping him busy, we will carry on with our lives. When he calls with an urge to see us because he now has an opening in his schedule, it should be no surprise to him that he will have to go back to his busy life because we have one, too.

Again, this should not be news to anyone: Single women are not the secondhand books that you found in your favorite used bookstore and have every intention of reading — eventually. Perhaps? When/If the spirit moves you. We are fully realized human beings with expansive lives and commitments. We are not quaint reminders of your once carefree life, default place holders for when spouses are on business trips or fantastical escapes from the mundane domestic life you really do enjoy, but just want a break from every now and again.

We are more than willing to still be your friend. What we won’t be is your Plan B. There are too many others who are willing to make space for us. It defies logic to expect us to wait around for that rare moment when you need us to free you from your life and then never really speak to us until you need to siphon off our energy again.

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