No matter what women’s lives looked like up until this moment, we are currently experiencing the most extreme version of them.
Oh, you wanted to get married and have babies and a full and enriching career as well? Great. But did you want to be locked in a house (or in many cases an apartment) with a partner, and children, responsible for schooling and cleaning and cooking and working 24 hours a day, with no remittance, for the foreseeable future?
Oh, you wanted to not get married and not have children; in fact, you liked being alone, thrived on the freedom that came with it, and faced its responsibilities as best you could. But did you want to be alone, all the time, in your small studio (perhaps one bedroom) with no one to touch or see and only the approximation of human contact via screens for the foreseeable future?
There’s a big difference between living alone, even when that’s your preferred lifestyle, and being alone all the time, through a pandemic, no less. Isolation is considered an extreme form of punishment for a reason. I wrote a book about the ways in which being on my own was both unexpectedly difficult and surprisingly, wonderfully exhilarating, and even so, I find myself unprepared for the intensity of this moment.
And what about those who are alone but not by choice? The recently divorced or widowed. Perhaps you broke up with a significant other at the end of the Before Times. Perhaps you were just getting somewhere with that Bumble date that, miracle of miracles, went amazingly well. Perhaps you were hoping to soon have children, and now that that’s been put on pause, you are just waiting, hoping that when this ends your body will still be a viable place for that to happen. Or that your finances will still be in a secure enough place you will be able to give a child a home.
Maybe you are just alone, and you’ve never felt strongly about it one way or another, largely because being “alone” in the Before Times actually meant having lots of people in your life who were available to you when you wanted other people around.
Whatever the situation, alone is hard. And when you’re a woman, navigating it—not just the enduring of it, but the social and cultural pressure of it—is even more complicated. A woman living alone is a perilous thing. Any child can tell you this.
In “Rapunzel,” a beautiful maiden is locked in a tower in the woods with no stairs or door. Her only access to the outside world is her long hair, which she lets down so that the witch who imprisoned her, and later the prince who will rescue her, can climb up. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the witch lives alone in the woods in a house made of sugar and gingerbread (a diet I can currently relate to), waiting to eat the little children who happen upon her. The grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood” also lives alone in the woods, a lifestyle choice that results in her being eaten by a wolf. Even Frozen’s progressive Elsa, demonstrating the paradox of many modern independent women, who discover they are “a bit too much”—must retreat to her ice castle alone after her powers prove too much for her, and those around her, to handle.
In our stories, women on their own are either vulnerable creatures waiting to be saved or somehow suspect for their presumed magical abilities—namely, the ability or even desire to live without men.
In real life, women who have lived alone have often been very, very rich with no need to invest in a marriage for security. Or very, very poor and therefore easily dismissed.
But women who live alone now are not eccentric outliers. The number of women living solo has been rising for decades. And with that shift comes women’s heretofore unimaginable opportunity to determine the outlines of their own lives—the shape of a career, the how and when of travel, the creation of chosen families that look nothing like what women have been told their families should look like for centuries.
But that was before. These days, every woman appears to have been catapulted back into some earlier gruesome version of womanhood, and those of us living alone are stuck in a Rapunzel-esque nightmare, isolated in our apartments staring down at the world below, a place that no amount of hair, newly graying or otherwise, will enable us to access.
Since mid-March when COVID-19 began shutting down the country and self-isolation became a way of life, the internet has been rife with its usual brand of pseudo-helpful, let’s-make-the-most-of-this pointers, many of which have dealt in particular with the question of how “best” to isolate alone. And how to make the most of your time. It’s unlikely that anyone who lives through this moment will ever experience King Lear quite the same way again. Historians will no doubt point to this phenomenon as one of several examples of how we were both unprepared for the real significance of what’s happening now, as well as how determined Americans are to squeeze the religion of productivity and improvement into every experience, no matter how inappropriate. But the inclination is also natural. It’s human instinct to offer cheerful words of encouragement and hope, no matter how at odds those are with the realities of a pandemic.
As I write this, I have been isolating at home alone in New York City for more than two months. I don’t need to tell you this is hard, or even that it is not fair—as always, for some far more than others. By now you too are likely coming to terms with the fact certain parts of your life that you loved may simply no longer be. We are all, to some degree, in a state of grief. Humans love to romanticize hard times but from a safe distance, a distance we don’t yet have. We prefer to focus on the triumph, less on the period of upheaval that precedes it, almost never on those who did not make it through. And remember, now and at all other times, that most of our inherited stories of triumph in hard times center on men; we know far less about what or how women endure and even less about the experiences of women who live alone (fairy tales being the often grim exception).
In the past weeks, I’ve heard from a lot of women who are struggling to navigate through this on their own, and I find myself returning to certain pieces of advice and practices that have been helpful to me.
While plenty of Americans have lived with hardship on a daily basis for always, it is not part of our culture the way, say, the phrase stiff upper lip is so ingrained in the English identity. We understand self-realization as something that can be achieved with the right diet and an excessive number of skin-care products and some meditation apps. But the truth is we often don’t understand the good that comes out of something until we’re long past it. Just as therapy helps us make sense of past trauma, what we learn and who this moment turns us into might not be apparent for quite some time.
The digital era we’ve been living in the past decade has trained many of us out of thinking long-term, but it may be one of the muscles this moment requires of us most. Understanding that things may just be hard, and stay that way for a while, with no fixes may actually be a fix. Often times we don’t know what we can handle until we’re forced to handle it, whether or not we want to. In storytelling, we understand this as the hero’s journey. In real life it’s no less so, just less fun.
More practically, figure out how to be both the doctor and the patient. The laugh-until-you-cry upside for people who live alone is that you’re already socially distanced. The downside is that you need to observe yourself the way a doctor would, and, in the unfortunate event you get sick, to monitor your symptoms on your own as well as minister to them. This can mean keeping strict notes on your condition while battling its worst aspects. (This goes for mental health care too.) From now on, you have to play the role of caregiver and invalid simultaneously.
Another, equally relevant, challenge: You’re going to have to learn to say exactly what you need. This can be tough for those of us not used to having anyone around to respond to our daily presence. Culturally, we continue to think of women as the caretakers and yet still view women taking care of themselves (be it with face masks or massages) as indulgent. We also know that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s, particularly that of women of color. The combined effect of this sort of gaslighting is that women can be overly worried that they are overreacting to what their body is telling them when in fact it’s very often the other way around. Learning how to not just recognize your needs, but to take your experiences seriously and immediately tell people what you need is huge. Think of it as consciously connecting if you will. And this isn’t just for the big things: “I’m lonely—can we have a Zoom date?” is the emotional equivalent of an exercise routine. It’s as much of a survival as washing your hands regularly.
As for face masks and massages, even casual self-care is taking on a whole new meaning right now. Going without human touch for even a short period of time is not a natural way of being. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for combating stress, among other things. Some experts suggest trying to make up for its absence with hot baths and luxurious fabrics. (I would add to this list a good vibrator or two. As a doula friend reminded me over a cocktail hour Zoom the other night, masturbation also releases oxytocin.)
We’ve long been advised that the quickest way to feel better is to stay active and help others. For those of us used to being part of an active support system, however, it’s nearly impossible to understand that right now, doing nothing is the most heroic thing you can be doing. It goes against all human instinct. And yet it is. But while you’re home, there are ways to be useful in addition to giving money (which if you are one of the millions newly unemployed is not an option). Places like Crisis Text Line provide volunteer training.
And finally, when things get especially hard and scary and lonely, remember that we’re only nine or so weeks into this. That doesn’t sound like an encouraging statement but it can be. Humans are, for better and worse, an incredibly inventive species. These weeks are not a measure of how things will be always or even be in a month or two. For all the things you are missing right now, be it dating or simply embracing those you love, someone is spending a lot of time figuring out a hack. Many, many people are suffering through this alone and looking for relief. We tend to shame women for being too eager to find a partner even as we shame them for not having one after a certain age. But it’s okay to miss romance right now. You’re not a bad feminist for admitting, “Actually, I don’t want to be single” (only for thinking women on their own are somehow less than).
So much of this pandemic seems to be throwing us backward in time: from shopping locally to waiting in long lines to women shouldering more of the burdens of childcare, often at the expense of their careers. It follows that we may also see a reemergence of some old-fashioned approaches to coupling: A return to letter writing as courtship? A dating app for hugging but only after mutually agreed upon quarantining?
Meanwhile, take what heart you can in the fact that you are not alone in your aloneness. The entire world is getting a crash course in the language of isolation. Those of us who are already skilled at it may find ourselves, possibly for the first time ever, front and center in both the culture and its narratives about this moment.
Perhaps now is a good time to take some notes. No one actually expects you to write King Lear, but very rarely have women’s voices been able to dominate any historical event. As we all wait this out, in our separate isolated spheres, perhaps we will find this is less a moment for Shakespeare and more the time, finally, for Shakespeare’s sister.
Glynnis MacNicol is a writer and author of the memoir No One Tells You This.
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