If the story doesn’t end with marriage and a child, what then?
This question plagued Glynnis MacNicol on the eve of her fortieth birthday. Despite a successful career as a writer, and an exciting life in New York City, Glynnis was constantly reminded she had neither of the things the world expected of a woman her age: a partner or a baby. She knew she was supposed to feel bad about this. After all, single women and those without children are often seen as objects of pity, relegated to the sidelines, or indulgent spoiled creatures who think only of themselves.
Glynnis refused to be cast in either of those roles and yet the question remained: What now? There was no good blueprint for how to be a woman alone in the world. She concluded it was time to create one.
I have been really into non-fiction lately. In this seemingly endless slump of mine only it and the occasional thriller seem to be holding my attention – and keeping me awake on the train. When Ann Friedman interviewed Glynnis MacNicol about her new memoir, No One Tells You This for the summer reading episode of Call Your Girlfriend, barely five minutes into the interview I knew I needed to get my hands on this book, hardback be damned. One fortunately timed Amazon voucher later, and Glynnis’ memoir – which has an enviablely stylish cover for its genre, btw – was in my greedy hands.
In this honest, emotional and ultimately inspirational read, Glynnis MacNicol takes us along with her on her fortieth year – months of inner conflict (husband? Baby? Should she? Does she want? What does it mean if she doesn’t?), travel, empowerment and grief as she deals with her mother’s rapid decline in health after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. In this gorgeously written memoir, Glynnis dives deep into the minutiae of her life as a single, childless woman in a society still stuck on both as measures of female success and happiness – which, don’t get me wrong, for some people they totally are. But it’s not for everyone.
“Being alone sometimes felt like a solitary tree atop a very windy hill; there was nothing between the world and me to break its impact. I had to root myself very deeply in my belief about what was good about my life so as not to be tossed to and fro.”
This book is essentially about how societal expectations fuck with us all. Despite a life in which she is pretty much successful, fairly happy and financially stable (with the occasional hiccup), Glynnis still can’t help but but feel like she has done her life, somehow, wrong. Her friend’s mothers often reassure her at parties that there’s “still time” – for husbands. Even for babies, at a push – and when she meets a man even slightly promising finds herself calculating how long it might take them to get married and pregnant. It’s not until she’s 40, the societally agreed age at which women cease to be relevant (lol), that she starts to really interrogate these notions, and to ask whether these calculations add up to anything she actually wants.
When she really thinks about it, she finds that husbands and babies were something she assumed would be the endgame of her life through constant conditioning rather than any real desire. In one of my favourite passages in the book she goes to stay with her younger sister to help her look after her new baby. Every night Glynnis sits with her newborn nephew in her arms and forces herself to confront the question of whether or not she wants children, whether or not she’ll regret not having them. She finds she doesn’t, and as for regret – well, there’s a risk of that in everything.
What felt so deeply authentic to me in this book was that for every moment of empowerment Glynnis felt, she experienced equal boughts of insecurity. Scrolling through her Instagram feed looking at her friends snapshots of life with their husbands and babies that familiar pull of do I? Should I? resurfaces. But then, away from The Feed she knows those lives have as many complications and frustrations of their own. Even her friends in good marriages spend a lot of their time wondering if their life might be better had they made different choices – so really, their situation is not at all different from Glynnis’ own. She differs in having the burden of moving forward in on a path without a recognisable blueprint, where often strangers will perceive her life choices as a threat to their own.
No One Tells You This shows all of the wonderful progress in attitudes towards women, but also all the garbage we still carry around. Oftentimes it seems the main sources of Glynnis’ insecurity are external, whether that be the random acquaintance questioning her choices, the barrage of images of love and romance as the Ultimate Goal that suffocate our culture, and, of course, The Feed, which invites us to create stories about people’s lives that very rarely have much in common with the truth. It’s crazy that forging a path as an adult woman choosing to be alone is a revolutionary act, but it still is. And in writing about it, Glynnis MacNicol has create a revolutionary book.
No One Tells You This is a beautiful book about fighting for yourself, believing in your decisions and creating a life that is truly your own. It’s a vital to read for everyone, regardless of your relationship status. It isn’t a book about being alone so much as, actually, a book about being yourself.