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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.

For Single Girls (When Having a Boyfriend Isn’t Enough)

I learned early on into my life as a single woman living overseas that I’d have to put in the work to rebuild the social network I’d left behind in New York City. This was not difficult for me since I have always been a gregarious person who relished the company of cool ass women. In Kigali, small town life had its advantages because meeting friends who shared my interests happened almost instantly and maintaining those friendships involved a simple, five-minute moto ride to someone’s house or a local pub. Shanghai proved itself a greater challenge as it is one of the largest cities in the world and I live and work a significant distance from the city’s center. My first year here, I used wechat groups to forage for female friends. I spent a lot of my free time going to a plethora of “black folk events” with various types of black folks. At this, my third year, I have developed authentic friendships with a core group of women who now serve as my sister circle.

“I don’t know how you do it,” a co-worker said to me after I turned down an invitation to go to an after-work event because I had other plans. “You are always off campus and downtown doing stuff.” I had come to expect this reaction from the other Ex Pats at the international school where I work and live.

“Are you coming to the Thanksgiving potluck,” they’d ask.

“No,” I’d smile politely. “Got a homegirl in Pudong who hosts our Thanksgiving dinner each year.”

“We’re doing brunch and a spa day at the end of this month,” they’d offer.

“Sorry, going to Chengdu with my friend to see the pandas,” I’d reply.

You know other people here?, their wide eyes would ask.

I have answered these awestruck eyes more than once with: You know, you, too, can have a life outside of the school gates. It does take work, but it is not impossible. Usually, I get some version of the same response. “I am too lazy to find friends outside of the ones I see for 40 hours each week.” However, one response from a female co-worker has stayed with me long after our conversation.

“I just hang under my boyfriend.” She giggled as she waved off my suggestion that she didn’t have to force friendships with the other teachers she didn’t really like. She could find women here in the ‘hai who could become her crew. “I probably should make more effort to have friends, but me and my man keep each other busy enough, I guess.” This woman was well over 40. I was dumbfounded by her statement.

To be clear: I greatly appreciate the company of a male companion. Particularly when that company involves nudity and good conversation. I have dated often enough since living overseas and have found myself in love a couple of times. However, it never occurred to me that once in a relationship this should be it for me. That the extent of my community should stop with him. This one male human. I don’t know what to make of women for whom a boyfriend is enough.

I have witnessed some crazy shit here in the ‘hai alone. I’ve had no desire to share some of these shenanigans with a boyfriend because he wouldn’t get it. He would listen. Maybe ask the right questions. But he just wouldn’t get it. And more importantly, I didn’t need him to get it. My homegirls would. Immediately. They would skip over the questions and get right to the judgments. “Well, that’s some bullshit right there,” they’d say. “Nothing but fuckery and foolishness. I can’t even…” We’d carry on together until the timid little Chinese barista would ask us to quiet down just a little, please.

When your community begins and ends with your man, who do you go to when you need to find a gynecologist whose staff speaks decent enough English and who does not shame women who are over 30 without a husband or child? Who do you ask to buy you a quality bra on their trip back home and entrust with this crucial assignment after only handing them your size and cash? Who will listen with authentic delight as you describe each bite of the succulent molden chocolate cake that you experienced at an unassuming café? When your entire time is spent keeping busy with Bae, who do you go to when you start to question why you are even with Bae? Who do you confide in when you realize you are only with Bae because this relationship is just a lil bit better than loneliness and long stretches of celibacy?

A loving man who respects you can only give you so much. It seems impractical to put so much on the shoulders of a romantic relationship.

A few weeks after my co-worker explained she was relying solely on her boyfriend to be her village, she shared that she was not extending her contract and would return to the States for a while. The boyfriend had no desire to leave Shanghai and even less desire to live in the United States. “You mean, you gon’ leave Bae?!” I joked with her. She offered up a half smile and just nodded her head. “Well, I need to go back home and if he doesn’t want to come, I don’t have much choice.”

In that moment I felt bad for her. Here she was with a relationship at the beginning of the end and a life transition repatriating back to a country that was on fire. She had no village with whom she could share her story. No healing hands of women to engulf her in a hug and say, “I know you are scared and unsure of your next move. But, look, here is a cake I baked. And some wine.”

I wished her well on this next transition and wondered what would become of her when she returned to a country she had not lived in for most of her adult life. Would she try to boyfriend her way back in or would she employ the more sensible strategy: reconnecting with old friends and making effort to meet new ones?

I know what I will be doing when I return to the dumpster fire that is America. My circle of healing hands knows, too.

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