There are lots of great articles and blogs articulating what not to say to people experiencing infertility or undergoing IVF. (Turns out some people have had strangers ask them things like: "Whose fault is it?" Just...wow.)
The thing is, this isn't something only the TTC (trying to conceive) community face. The rising number of women who are single in their 30s and 40s and not actively trying for kids also face plenty of undesirable scrutiny from the public peanut gallery.
The holiday season is a time for coming together, connecting with different generations and old friends and family. It's also a time for a lot of unwarranted life commentary.
So, in effort to help people understand how to avoid putting their foot in it when it comes to chatting to the single women in your family and friendship groups, we've put together the below handy hints. Kindly spread the word to the uninitiated.
What you need to know
There are rising numbers of single women in their 30s and 40s
There's even a new term for this: "waithood"
It's estimated that by the time today's younger generations reach 50 years old, 1 in 4 will never have been married
There are benefits to being single, too: single people experience more personal growth than those who are married
Studies show being self-partnered is a better option than being unhappily coupled up
"Why haven't you met anyone yet?"
Because I have hooves instead of feet and I secretly worship the devil. Really, what kind of revelation are you looking for here, Susan?
Also, maybe let's not all be in such a rush to hunker down and get married. Research has shown that people who stay single for longer develop more confidence and undergo more personal growth and development than people who marry.
"How about THIS guy?"
Being set up is nice, fun, all the rest of it. But with one big caveat. It must actually be someone your female friend or relative wants to date. Everyone scraping the barrel for the only single person they know IS NOT A GOOD FEELING. If you talk about the prospective blind date in the same voice you use when reassuring someone their horrendous haircut is "not that bad", or your sentence is about to end with "...so, if you can look past the facial tattoo, pet snake and the fact he moonlights as a clown at weekends, he's a really solid guy!" then maybe question your matchmaking suggestion in the first place. Single does not automatically equal desperate.
In fact, a Yale study found that a key reason many women were freezing their eggs is that they hoped not to “settle.” They told researchers they were still hoping to find the “right” person—but that searching for this person took time and commitment.
"You need to be less picky."
Well, with projections that 45% of all marriages will end in divorce, DOES SHE? The idea of dropping standards is particularly hard to stomach because women implicitly receive the exact opposite message for all the preceding decade: don't throw yourself at any and every guy, wait for the spark, the magic, the butterflies, the orchestra of angels. Because there IS someone special out there, this perfect guy exists - you've just got to find him, they said. Now, midnight is approaching, the pumpkin is about to reappear and Prince Charming, it turns out, didn't show up to the party. It's one thing to let go of the fairytale and sprinkle in some realism. But that doesn't mean she should settle for the first guy that buys her dinner. In fact, research says that making like Emma Watson and choosing self-partnerhood is a smarter option than being unhappily coupled. It's officially better to be picky and single than in a sub-par partnership.
"Oh, you broke up with Martin? He was so great." [sad eyes]
As are her perfectly valid reasons for not being with him anymore.
"Have you tried that online dating thing?"
Uh, have you tried Netflix? Or running water? It's 2019, she hasn't just tried it, she's been all the through the swipe wheel and back around to the start. Thanks for the pro tip, though.
"The clock's ticking..."
OK, we're going to level with you: you are not the only one who knows this. You really don't think she is hyper, vigilantly aware of age-related fertility decline already? Besides, did you consider maybe for her the risk of not having a kid at all is better than the risk of having one with the wrong person, or having one before she's financially and emotionally ready? Unless you're a reproductive endocrinologist, don't try to teach biology class. Just drop this conversation and let her go pour some wine instead, because...oh yes, she's not pregnant. She can.
"Oh, well, enjoy your freedom now!"
With this one it's not so much what's being said, it's the person saying it. You know who she is. Early thirties, couple of toddlers and a baby in some kind of papoose, all inexplicably named after woodland creatures, like Fox or Wolf. Uses terms like "hubby" without any trace of irony. Previously worked a high functioning job and now applies the same self-punishing standards to mastering perfect, natural, modern motherhood. She says this seemingly kind phrase not in any meaningful kind of way, but with the telling addition of pity eyes, pity nod and the smallest pitying smile that together reveal: we both know I'm glad I'm not you. After listening to her explain how cordless breast pumps are the best thing to happen to feminism since Emmeline Pankhurst for three quarters of an hour, you find yourself hoping her husband is secretly gay.
"Aren't you lonely?"
Where to even begin with this one. Firstly, the assumption single women sit at home in their sweatpants in front of the TV a lot. Ok, well maybe that's true - but let's set that to one side. That's true of literally every elder millennial. But, really - you think single people have more time than coupled up ones?
They not only do every chore and manage a home single-handedly, they are DATING. Cast your mind back: that is an insanely time consuming activity, for a start. Not to mention actually attending the gym, galleries and gigs and working on a hobby, partly to be in shape and to have something to talk about on aforementioned dates. Not only that, they're staying in the office late when everyone with kids has already whisked off for bath-time. They're the sibling who looks after parents and elderly relatives. They're actively involved in friendships. They take care of pets. They travel. They meet new people all.the.time.
Research has busted the myth that single people are self-centered and isolated. In fact, single people are actually more likely to provide care to relatives who need it and maintain family ties. Researcher Ursula Henz found that single women and men do more than their share of long-term care of the sick, disabled and elderly, compared to those in relationships. They are also more likely to visit, support and advise siblings and parents.
"In fact, people who live alone are often the life of their cities and towns. They tend to participate in more civic groups and public events, enroll in more art and music classes, and go out to dinner more often than people who live with others. Single people, regardless of whether they live alone or with others, also volunteer more for social service organizations, educational groups, hospitals and organizations devoted to the arts than people who are married." - Bella dePaulo, Social Scientist, University of California, Santa Barbara
In contrast, cohabiting and married couples they tend to become more insular, even if they don’t have kids. Single people's lives are not empty because they don't revolve around a partner and a baby. They might want that someday, but it doesn't mean they're less-than without it now. And they're definitely not shirking when it comes to being socially responsible.
"You have to meet someone before you can start a family...kids shouldn't grow up without a father..."
Fair enough, that's a common preference. But ask yourself, is it based on fact or assumption? A study comparing the well-being of children growing up in single-mother-by-choice and heterosexual two-parent families actually found no differences in terms of parent-child relationship or child development. Moreover, the study found that the single-mothers-by-choice had a greater social support network.
The great majority of single mothers in this study said they would have preferred to have a child a with a partner, but as fertility time was running out, they opted to do so alone. (Though do bear in mind that most women in the study were from fairly uniform backgrounds: they were financially stable, had received a higher education and had meaningful partner relationships in the past.) Food for thought at least...
There's a whole series of etiquette for human to human interactions (like, normal manners).
But for some reason they don't seem to apply to the personal lives of single and childfree people.
Maybe this holiday season we can all do better to not make any assumptions, not try to "fix" a person or their situation and instead, whatever their life looks like, know that's it's enough to just to ask them how they're doing, and then just listen...
Personal growth and singledom: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2016/06/two-of-the-profound-rewards-of-staying-single/
Egg freezing and "not settling": https://marciainhorn.com/wp-content/uploads/s12958-018-0389-z.pdf
Marriage rate falling: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/
Married couples more insular: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00873.x