No Sympathy for the Singles

Guess what, single friends! The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger has a tip for you: You're doing it wrong.

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Guess what, single friends! You're working too hard. All that angst and stress you feel, never getting to hang out with your pals, not enough time to jet off to India or the Bahamas if you feel like it, not even enough time to plan said trips or even pick up your dry cleaning without it waiting in the laundromat for a week and a half and then when you get it the dry cleaner gives you that look and you know he's judging you so you don't go back for another month and then it's just the same thing all over again? The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger has a tip for you: You're doing it wrong. This is because you—single little old you—have it hard, too! As she explains,

"Being single takes a lot of time. There's no one else to pick up milk or take out the recycling on the right day or wait at home for the plumber. It's just you."

Right, right. These are difficulties we singles face. If we were not single presumably our husbands, wives, or children would ease the load of these difficulties, allowing us the luxurious lives which we truly deserve. Far from them needing our attention, we would have theirs reaped upon us, and this would make our lives easier. The milk would be picked up like clockwork, as would the dry cleaning. But alas, we are not so lucky; we are single by choice or not. So, what should we do?

Shellenbarger tells the tale of Anne Marie Bowler, an icon for our time. She is single. She used to work 12 hours a day or more at a big New York City law firm. Consider her trials!

  • Having to cancel plans with friends.
  • Not getting to the gym enough, or possibly ever.
  • "She yearned for more control."

Yep, sounds about right, and totally exclusive to single people! What did Bowler do? She quit her job, and has a new one. Now she has time for dinner at sidewalk cafes while it's still light out, long evening bike rides in the park, and the opportunity to leave her new office to go to charity golf outings and such. What availed her all of this freedom? She started her own firm with a colleague. Shellenbarger writes, "She is still immersed in clients' cases and often works long hours. But 'I wanted to have a life—a full life—which meant not just always working,' says Ms. Bowler, now 36."

OK. This sounds like, actually, not quitting your job but trading it in for one that allows for more control but is not necessarily easier. As with working moms and dads, there's a balance you hope achieve between work and life and so you choose between options, identify priorities, and make decisions, living with yourself when you feel like you've failed and applauding yourself when you don't. So why the differentiation between single women and marrieds-with-kids?

Bowler starting her own firm is supposed to compare to working moms facing work-life conflicts as they juggle infants and their jobs. Single women face their own conflicts, is the story. The key conflict is one of time (though, honestly, that's pretty much the same conflict as women with kids; check the stats): "68 percent of childless women say they would prefer having more time over more money, compared with 62 percent of women with children, according to a 2011 More magazine survey of 500 college-educated professional women over 34." My beef with this piece, though, isn't over the idea that we face conflicts—nor that some might be different, or the same, depending on what we're doing with our lives—but how it "feels sorry" for singles.

For example:

"No one is focusing attention on those women or men, who are achieving such great levels in their careers, all alone," Ms. Langburt says.

Aw. And, somewhat laughably,

Single professionals report going to extremes to manage non-work duties—buying extra socks and sheets to avoid doing laundry, cooking and freezing 20 meals at once to save time or jamming two or three workouts into the weekend to try to stay in shape.

This sympathy reads as hilarious at best, patronizing and undermining at worst. It's like your married friend looking at you across the dinner table concernedly and asking if you still haven't found anyone nice because she so wants you to enjoy the happiness she has found. Beyond that, statements like these—"She recently dined on beans and rice for a week because she couldn't make it to her neighborhood grocery store before it closed at 8 p.m."—are (shhh) a badge of pride for single people, not a cue to change your life, unless there are other problems with it that you're facing beyond beans-and-rice unhappiness.

So what's the real message here? Is it just that single people who aspire to success in their careers and want to have lives, too, have compromises to make (as do married people, and people with kids?). Is it to remind single women, in particular, but a little bit, men (the article ends with a man who's given up his high-powered job to work at the exotic-game website he founded), that they can quit too, and for "personal reasons"? We all know we can quit for "personal reasons," just as "personal reasons" may be exactly why, married or single, we don't quit. Why all the Sturm and Drang over how hard single women have it without husbands or kids, then? Also, if you can start your own company, like the two examples in this story did, and that allows you to travel more and some overall greater flexibility in your life, that's great, and you should be proud of yourself. But that doesn't mean you're quitting your job for an "easier" one. Few people describe starting a successful company as "easy," or more people would do it.

I suspect this piece is merely trying to capitalize on research like Eric Klinenberg's indicating that more singles are living alone than ever and liking it. But there are a couple things it gets right: One is the quote from a 37-year-old single women whose married friends are always asking her for dirt on her Sex and the City lifestyle. She says, that's "not exactly the case." Duh, girl. We're all watching that Lena Dunham show now. The other is that, yes, sometimes bosses assume that because you're single you can work harder and work around the clock. But more often, the perfectionist single person is the one who assumes that about him or herself. We have it so hard!

Image via Shutterstock by Diego Cervo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.