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Two generations of singledom: a mother (mine) and a daughter (me) talk about it

July 4, 2015
My mother Jean aged 83 last birthday, September 2014

My mother Jean aged 83 last birthday, September 2014

It’s a shaming fact that I don’t have a single photo of my mother and me together since she was, ooh, about 69, which would make me in my forties then. Shame on me. But perhaps that’s an illustration – or a non-illustration, no pun intended – of the theme of this blog. Are we ‘close’? I think so, but perhaps one main definition of that term, closeness, for me and her, is that we have so much in common these days, rather than that we’re always in each other’s pockets.

Anyhoo, I haven’t been ultra-personal for quite some while, so I thought it could be interesting to transcribe a conversation she and I had a little while back about our different perceptions of singledom: she at 83, me now 60. I recorded it, with her permission, so here goes.

Paula: My name’s Paula, and I’m 60, and I’m sitting here with my mother Jean in her house in a small market town in Warwickshire, England. We thought it might be interesting to explore what singledom meant to both of us. Introduce yourself, pray do, Mamma.
Jean: I’m Jean, and I was 83 last birthday, 16 September 2014.
Paula: Now you and my father divorced some time ago, and he’s very much still with us, but you don’t see him, although I do. How long is it ago now?
Jean: Over thirty years.
Paula: And you have four children of course. I have two brothers and a sister, and I’m the eldest, but I’m the only sibling, the only child of yours, who isn’t married or partnered with family, with children.

Paula: What does singledom mean to you? Do you regard yourself as single in the same way that I mean single when I talk about me?
Jean: No, not at all. I regard myself as living on my own, which is quite different.
Paula: Whereas despite a few relationships, sadly I just never found the right person to be with, not in the long term.
Jean: [Muses] But I think being on your own has many advantages. Even though it might seem a little selfish, if you like to call it that, you can do what you want, when you want to do it.
Paula: Yeah, I quite agree with you on that. You can have your own routines, your own habits, you can decide where you want to travel to, where you want to go on holiday, when you want to go, even things like who does the washing up, when you get up in the morning….
Jean: Yes, that’s right.
Paula: Well it’s true, isn’t it? In a sense you can spoil yourself in that way.

Paula: But I think you’ve said to me that you’d hate to be seen as selfish as a person.
Jean: Yes, I’d hate to be labelled selfish. And so I do try to help other people whenever I can.
Paula: Yes, absolutely. [Pondering] And I also think that as I’ve got older I’ve got more keen on socialising with people who, like me, are single, or see themselves as single. Because I don’t feel I have so much in common with friends who are in a couple, or, even, who have children, because I don’t have children either, as you know. And of course in that we’re different, because you have children, including me, and also seven grandchildren. So I do find that I seek out the company of my single friends. I do still see my friends who are in couples. But what about you? Do you find you socialise more with single people?
Jean: Well maybe I do gravitate more towards people who are on their own: widowed friends, or friends who are divorced, maybe. And probably people of my own generation, more. But I do remember that as a child, I never minded being alone, because I was an only child. At first it did bother me though, when I was left alone at first….
Paula: You mean when Father left you?
Jean: Yes, yes. But you get used to it. Although you do worry at first about inviting people into your home because you’re on your own, or going to someone else’s house. Because you might get paired up, say, with a single man.
[Paula laughs]
Jean: Or you can feel very out of it if you go out.
Paula: Yes, or you can feel, ooh, they’re just inviting me out of pity, or to make up the numbers, and I think I’ve experienced that as much as you. But in my case, maybe more than yours, I’ve felt that some friends are quite uncomfortable with it, and so perhaps they don’t invite me. And so I think, OK, well all right then, so I’ll see my single friends, and we can have our own conversations. After all, I don’t necessarily want to have conversations I’m not a part of, like children’s schooling, or how your partner’s getting on at work, so we’ll have our own singles’ conversations instead…. But it’s interesting, because it wasn’t until I started talking to you about all this that I realised that I only regard my friends as ‘single’ if, like me, they’ve never found anyone permanent. I’ve also got friends on their own who are divorced or separated, and who I see quite a lot, but for some reason, I don’t regard them as ‘single’ in quite the same way. Which is a weird distinction to make. And that’s especially true if they are divorced or separated but have children. I suppose I regard them as having their own social, i.e. family, unit, so for me they’re not single in the same way. Is it the same for you?
Jean: Yes, though of course I have children and grandchildren, so I can share that with friends in a similar position who are on their own….

Jean: But another thing I’d like to say is that when I was very young, I never minded being an only child. But as I’ve got older and older, I do feel myself very bereft from not having brothers and sisters. You’re so lucky in that way.
Paula: Now that’s interesting.
Jean: You see, you’re so lucky having brothers and a sister, which I don’t have.
Paula: I can see that. I am so lucky in that way.
Jean: Of course, I do have children and grandchildren to support me, which is wonderful. But it’s not quite the same as having close family of your own generation.
Paula: Yes, I do see that now. But I wonder, though. Is it possible that in some way, being an only child was quite good practice for being on your own when you and Father divorced? Was it, in a way, quite a valuable rehearsal, do you think?
Jean: I’ve never thought of it that way till now, but maybe, at least subconsciously, it was.
Paula: You see, for me, I’ve often thought that it might be quite nice to be an only child. You’d be the undivided focus of your parents’ attention, you could be spoilt and doted on.
Jean: I don’t think I was ever spoilt in that way, no, that’s not how I remember it. But I suppose an only child does get all the benefits and resources that are going.

Paula: One thing I’ve always felt about you, maybe because you were an only child or not, I don’t know, is that I think you’re a very good ‘joiner-in’ of things, better than me.
Jean: Yes, I do think I like joining in things, doing things. I think I’m more of a ‘people person’ than you are! I’ve always said that it’s people who really interest me. I’m not nearly so interested in objects, in things. I’m interested in how people cope, in how they tick. I like joining groups and finding out about people. I’m not a stay-at-home.
Paula: No, very true. You see, I think I’m much more of an introvert than you. I like staying at home, I like my own company, and I don’t think I’m as confident at joining things and going to things as you are. And I think that one of my ways through my singledom is by writing and thinking about the world, people and myself, including my single state. The blog I write, for instance, and my novel. I do enjoy people, and I do enjoy conversations, but I think that these days I prefer 1:1 conversations, or conversations with just a few people at a time. I do enjoy people, but I think I’m even happier observing them than interacting with them. I suppose I’m more philosophical about it all rather than practical! Do you think that’s true?
Jean: Yes, I do.
Paula: I think I should engage more, though. At the age of 60, I am trying to join more things, to get more involved with stuff that interests me. I think I should at my age.

Jean: It’s not that I mind being on my own. I still enjoy my own company, and as I get older, I think I get better at being on my own. I find I can focus on one thing, and…
Paula: Well that’s certainly true. You can certainly get more done! I find I can get more done! And I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at multi-tasking, I’d rather concentrate on something and get it finished.
Jean: And I do like my routines. I’m not good if my routines get thrown out in some way.
Paula: Well that’s certainly true of you! I thought I was bad enough, but you’ve certainly got a severe case of routine-itis….I would say, though, that at times I do miss someone special in my life…. Until, I have to say, I think of one of the main advantages of my own singledom as I get older, and that’s not being one half of a couple and having to go through the pain and loss of witnessing someone disappearing into old age, illness or death. I do count my blessings on that.
Jean: Yes, absolutely. I have to say, when I see my friends in couples losing each other, it’s a loss far more devastating, as far as I can tell, than it would be if they were much younger. They’ve been through so much together. I agree with you, that’s such a blessing for both of us.
Paula: If I’d had a long-term partnership now, that I’d fully entered into, I know I’d have been absolutely crippled by the death or loss of the other person. I don’t know that I’d have coped, quite frankly….

Paula:[Muses] One thing I’d like to say to you genuinely, and I know this is being recorded then transcribed, but still, is that I’m so full of admiration of the life you’ve made for yourself as a single person. I mean, you’ve done masses of things that I don’t think you would have remotely considered or got round to doing if you were still with Father. I mean, you’ve got a degree now, you’ve joined so many things, you did an Advanced Driving Course, you manage all your finances, which you wouldn’t have done if you’d stayed with Father, in your traditional married-woman role, you’ve travelled all round the world on your own, sometimes to some very adventurous, exotic places, you’ve taken up all sorts of hobbies you might not have done otherwise…. I think that’s what has brought us so much closer together: that independent-spirited nature which a single person has, probably has to have, to survive and thrive.
Jean: Of course, when I was younger we, particularly women, never had all these opportunities anyway. Not to go to University, or travel abroad. But my elderly cousin said, ‘Get yourself abroad, Jean!’ – so I went! The first time I’d ever travelled alone. I went to New Zealand, the States and Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong….

Paula: And now we have that in common too – a shared passion for travelling, as well as for music, art and architecture. I love travelling alone, as you know: you so often see more, experience more, get to talk to more people. And now, because we get on so well, we travel together quite regularly. We’ve been on holiday to Portugal, Bruges, Madeira, Prague, Australia, Sri Lanka, California – and this year we hope to spend Christmas together in Salzburg, don’t we! Singledom is wonderful if done right alone, but it’s also fantastic experienced right together, isn’t it?
Jean: [Laughs]

Blog readers, if you would like to join the 83-year-old ‘Single Jean Fan Club’, please form an orderly queue.

  1. Duncan permalink

    That was lovely. And touching. I do think being on your own is very different from being single in another way. You can have a partner and still be on your own – both good and bad.

  2. Thanks, Duncan! I’ve written elsewhere about how alone people feel in relationships as well as when they’re ‘single’! Myths abound about singledom being a lonelier state, don’t they?

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