Kate Bolick: Untying Corsets

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One might think that living in New York City would make it easier to be a single woman well into your thirties and forties, but that’s certainly not the case. We still live in a society where coupledom is viewed as the default mode. It’s not just an attitude among certain suburbanites; it’s a problem in our biggest cities. “In college I’d decided I’d marry by thirty — that seemed enough time to learn a little bit about the world before settling down,” the journalist Kate Bolick writes in Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own. “To choose to not do something so normal and expected would require a very good explanation, which I certainly didn’t have.” Instead of getting married, Bolick has followed a different path.

In 2011, Bolick wrote a cover story for The Atlantic called “All the Single Ladies,” in which she wrote about historical aspects of dating and the modern landscape. “The single woman is very rarely seen for who she is — whatever that might be — by others, or even by the single woman herself, so thoroughly do most of us internalize the stigmas that surround our status.” That article led an even more in-depth book. Spinster is a highly engaging and intelligent investigation into Bolick’s own personal choices in relationships, as well as the literary inspirations behind many of her decisions as a modern woman. They include Maeve Brennan, a short story writer and journalist known for her “Long-Winded Lady” column in The New Yorker but who ended up homeless toward the end of her life — and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had many romantic suitors and an open marriage.

I recently spoke with Bolick at a quiet coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights. We sat on barstools, so engrossed in conversation that I was surprised when a young woman interrupted us. She overheard some remarks Bolick had just made and was compelled to share her own thoughts. Those comments are included here as a reminder that this is a book that will resonate with readers of any age. —Michele Filgate

The Barnes & Noble Review: When you published the article “All the Single Ladies” in The Atlantic in 2011, did you know that you were going to turn the piece into a book?

KateBolick

Kate Bolick.

Kate Bolick: No. The article was assigned to me. The assignment was, “Will you do a cover story on how the worsening economic prospects of men are changing the future of dating, marriage, and the family? And will you write that in the first person, drawing on your own experiences as an unmarried woman of a certain age?” I was thirty-eight. I said, “Yes, of course. That sounds fascinating.”

As I started doing the research and reporting, however, I started to panic. Men’s worsening economic prospects had nothing to do with why I’m an unmarried woman. How was I going to find that link and be able to write about the topic in the first person, without sounding like an asshole? Then I found the statistics around single people, which I hadn’t known about, and thought, “Ah, this is what the story is about!” So I called my editor and said, “This story isn’t about men’s worsening economic prospects and marriage. It’s about this growing demographic of single people, which I’m part of, and why is it growing?”

The women I write about in the book had been on my mind since the 1990s. I felt like they were actually perched on my shoulder as I wrote the article; I was thinking about them and sort of talking to them. I glancingly mention them in the article; I felt like I owed it to them because they were there in my mind. But that article wasn’t the place to write about them.

After the article came out and publishers asked me to turn it into a book, I realized I wasn’t interested in writing that book. I had explored the topic enough journalistically for my own purposes, and I didn’t think I could make an interesting book by expanding that article. Even though I think there is definitely an interesting book there, it just wasn’t the one for me to write.

Meanwhile, I was hearing from all kinds of young women who sounded just like me when I was in my twenties and early thirties, trying to figure out these questions about how to live. Between those emails, the experience of reporting and researching the article, and the women from the past perching on my shoulder as I wrote, I thought, Well, maybe now is the time. That book that I used to want to read and write myself is still a relevant book, and so I’ll try writing that book rather than the more straightforward book.

BNR: In Spinster, you talk about the origin of the word and how it didn’t used to have such a negative connotation when it first was used. Why do you think it is that in 2015, spinster is still considered an insult while the word bachelor isn’t?

KB: Society is always threatened by the single woman. Even now, even though we know we shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t make any sense. And that’s going to continue to be the case for as long as culture tells us women should be wives and mothers foremost.

The reason I used Spinster as the title of the book is because it immediately broadcasts this archaic fear. Nobody uses the word seriously anymore. We use it only self-deprecatingly, only in jokes, but we all agree on what a spinster is: a repressed, lonely, frigid old woman who lives with her cats. It fascinates me that the spinster’s specter still haunts us even though she doesn’t exist.

BNR: Did you want to reinvent the meaning of the word, by claiming it as the title?

KB: I think that would be cool, but I don’t expect that to happen. It’s really hard to turn a word inside out and make it mean something other than what it already means. So I’m not on a mission to reclaim the word. I think of it more as a very useful way to think about a very complex topic.

And I like it. To me, the spinster is a very positive mode of being: she’s self-reliant, mistress of her own universe, and a little bit inscrutable. There’s freedom in not being completely understood.

BNR: You talk about other spinsters you admire: Neith Boyce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, and Edith Wharton. How does looking at your own life through the lives of others help you figure out your own identity?

KB: I think of it as like talking to friends, and how when we talk to the people we care about, we learn a lot about ourselves. Through my twenties and thirties, I kept attaching myself to interesting women from history so I could talk to them in my mind. I would read their biographies, and the works about them, and the works that they wrote, and find myself drawn into conversations with them where I would wonder, “What would Neith think about this?” There are a lot of other writers and women who I was interested in during that time period, but these were the ones who made the biggest impression on me, for highly idiosyncratic personal reasons. It felt like a very intimate conversation with friends. But they were my fantasy life.

BNR: You write, “I was just another person trying to figure out how to live and I needed a boon companion to talk with, not an idol to adore.” What’s the danger of having idols? Do you see yourself as being in conversation with those dead women you look up to?

KB: We of course need heroines to inspire us — they help us imagine things we could never do. But focusing exclusively on heroic, larger-than-life women as ideals can be as pernicious as seeing nothing but airbrushed models in magazines. It’s a vision of perfection, and teaches us that only badass rebels and rule breakers can twist the world in their own image, and that everyone else is a conventional sheep. What interests me are the women in between. How do we figure out lives that are the best for us? I think we do that best — or, I do that best — when I feel engaged with a person I find interesting, rather than hero-worshiping them.

BNR: Taking what you learn from them, but shaping it for yourself.

KB: Exactly.

BNR: You grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and you say in your book: “It’s even possible that those of us who move to New York City from the provinces have a somewhat easier time becoming adults than those who grew up here.” I’m very curious, as someone who grew up in suburban Connecticut an hour away from the city, how you feel about the societal pressures of being a single woman in smaller towns as opposed to New York City. What are the differences, and what are the similarities?

KB: There are drawbacks and positive elements of both. What’s great about the city is there are so many single women, so you don’t feel unusual. You don’t stand out. But if you’re feeling anxious or insecure romantically, you can feel a lot of pressure, because it’s such a competitive place. Small towns can actually be very embracing of eccentric and idiosyncratic figures — but having a specific identity in a fixed community can be comforting or imprisoning, depending. It also depends on your age. If you’re a young single woman living in a small town where everyone is married with families, and you want a family of your own, the pressure is going to feel more pronounced. The thing to remember about stigmas is that you can choose to reject them.

BNR: How does one juggle the balance between being alone and loneliness? At one point you bring up studies that show “long periods of extreme, unrelenting loneliness actually alter a person’s molecular makeup, weakening the immune system.” And I think many people are afraid of spending time in their own heads, which can lead to people being in relationships for the wrong reasons. How do you juggle the balance between being alone and loneliness?

KB: I’ve always valued solitude. I need it for my own emotional equilibrium. But until the age of thirty, I was always in relationships, so solitude was something I sought out and cherished but didn’t experience full-time. I wanted more of it — which is why I started to live on my own. But I didn’t know what living alone meant or how I would do it, and I wasn’t very good at it for a while, because I didn’t know what I needed and how to go about getting those things. When I was experiencing the hard parts — feeling lonely, which is a terrible feeling — I felt very afraid, and I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So it was a process. I had to learn how to create a purposeful solitude, and build a life that felt intentional and balanced, so that when I felt those bouts of loneliness they didn’t overwhelm everything or make me fall down rabbit holes in the way they originally had.

One trick that helped me was starting a very meticulous calendar, a Gmail calendar, with color-coded categories for every type of way in which I spent time: social time, alone time, work time, family time, exercise, travel. Everything had its own color, so I could see how much time I spent doing different things.

BNR: Did you stick with it?

KB: It wasn’t a schedule that I had to follow. It was more that I tracked what I did so I could see how I spent my time, and make necessary balances. Like — seeing too many purple blocks (that’s “social time”) in a row made me recognize that I’d been spending too much time out, and needed to dial back a bit. It helped me become more accountable to my own self and how I was using my time. And I found that to be really useful.

And then, emotionally, I had to create a shift where I stopped prioritizing romantic love above all else and instead recognize and value all the positive relationships in my life.

BNR: I love when you say, “Why must women always be leaving marriages to find what they want? Why couldn’t they find what they want first?” How do you think we can encourage, in our society, a culture where women work on self-discovery before they are attached to a significant other?

KB: We need as many reminders as possible that we live in a couple-oriented culture and that it doesn’t have to be that way. The fantasy of romantic love solving everything, and the myth that we’ll only be happy if we’re in a couple and not otherwise — it’s all so pervasive. We need to chip away at it with more TV and movie characters that show different ways to live, for example. But the primacy of the couple is so ingrained in us that de-emphasizing it is a two-way street — it’s also requires an internal shift. For many people it takes a lot of effort to undo that way of thinking and be able to value your other relationships for being just as important.

BNR: How critical is it that people have an experience of complete and utter independence before living with someone in a romantic way?

KB: I generally think that it’s important for most people to spend time on their own, but it depends on the person — certain people need it for longer periods of time than others. And then, some people really are strongest and at their best when they’re always inside of a couple, and that’s fine.

I’m a relationship-oriented type. I’m a good daughter; I’m a good older sister; I’m a good friend. I’m very invested in my relationships and always have been. So for me, I definitely needed time away from relationships where I was learning how to take care of myself. It felt very important to me. As far as how to do it: just don’t get in a relationship. It’s that easy.

BNR: What’s your advice for people who are too scared to spend time alone in their own heads? What’s your advice for navigating that in a world where we’re super connected, by social media and cell phones and emails?

KB: One of the more miserable periods of my life was after I first moved to New York. My boyfriend and I had broken up, I had finished graduate school, and I was living with a roommate and writing freelance full-time from my apartment. I had zero structure. Instead of embracing all that freedom, I started this belated grieving of my mother. The days were so painful to get through. I’d found a therapist, and he kept saying, “What are you so afraid of?” “Well, I’ll cry all day long.” “Well, what’s so wrong with that?” “Well, I don’t know.” Turns out that exactly what I did; I just had to cry myself out, you know? And eventually I learned that the roof didn’t fall down on my head.

As for how do we carve out time alone for ourselves in this social media age — well, you just have to do it. You have to not go on Facebook, or whatever.

BNR: Easier said than done, right?

KB: Right, but being hyper-connected on email, Facebook, Twitter . . . these are deliberate, chosen addictions. Break out of your routine and go to a new coffee shop in a different neighborhood. Or just take a long walk by yourself. It’s not like we all need tons of time alone — there just needs to be enough to check in with ourselves.

BNR: How is it in 2015 that we’re still defining who we are by whether or not we’re in a relationship, whether or not we have kids? Why do you think so many people judge one another on their personal life choices? Do you think part of it comes from fear maybe?

KB: Absolutely. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to other people — though, it’s more of a sickness for some than it is for others.

As far as why we’re still doing it now, in a time when all bets are off and anyone can be whoever they want — well, it’s important to remember how quickly this has happened. It’s astonishing and dazzling how much the American family has changed before our eyes over these last ten and twenty and forty years. Nobody knows exactly what to do, and there is no right answer. It was easier to fool ourselves, I would think, in an earlier time, when things were more spelled out, but that didn’t mean anybody was happier or more satisfied with their lives. So we’re just dealing now with a surplus of choices. It’s hard to figure out which one is the best one for you, and to trust that you’re trusting yourself.

BNR: And I like that we’re now seeing a lot of attention with your book and with Meghan Daum’s anthology [Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed] about people who don’t want to have kids. If you could have a conversation with your teenage self, what advice would you give her?

KB: Oh, that’s great. You know, I think I was okay with my teenage self. I think my twenties self needs more advice. [Laughs] That was the most confusing time. You think you’re a grownup because you’ve finished college and you’re living on your own and you have a job, but the fact is you’re a kid in your twenties. You don’t know anything. Take the relationship that I opened the book with. We moved to New York together when I was twenty-eight, and I thought I was supposed to get married just because I was about to turn thirty. It felt insane to me at the time that I felt that pressure so strongly, and it feels insane to me now, looking back. But it was there, and I hear people still talk that way.

In certain ways things have changed in fifteen years. In other ways they haven’t at all. It’s important to me to be good to the people in my life, and it was very stressful to think of hurting somebody. So that was hard. But the idea that I was supposed to make some major life decision just because I was a certain age was ludicrous, and I wish I had understood that, and I didn’t.

BNR: I think we all put so much pressure on ourselves at that age. How has writing this book transformed your idea of what it means to be a modern woman? Have you changed your mind about anything over the course of writing it?

KB: I have changed my mind about things. One important idea of the book is that we modern women aren’t very different from the post-Victorian women I write about. The foundations of their lives, the basic components and elements — work and career and figuring out the balance between love and self and autonomy — are the same as ours, and they were asking and wrestling with the same very fundamental questions that we do. To my surprise, they brought a wisdom and freshness to these questions that made me think the modern woman is a little more lost. For example, today there’s a lot of confusion around what success is that didn’t exist back then. One hundred years ago, just having a job was pretty amazing. The issues that women are dealing with now have a lot to do with finding balance. The quest for perfection in all realms is very pernicious and real.

Female: Sorry. I overheard what you were saying, and thank you. Because I’m just . . . what you were saying about making certain decisions because of your age, I’m about to go to college and everyone’s saying it’s such a transformative experience and you have to do certain things a certain way. But no, you don’t always have to, and you don’t have to make certain choices because you’re at a certain point in your life. Thank you.

KB: Oh, good!

BNR: You should read her book that’s coming out. That’s why I’m interviewing her. This book is amazing. I wish I had read it right before I went to college. It’s coming out . . . when’s the pub date?

KB: April 21st.

So we’re talking about modern women. Not to quote my own self, but I think I have a line in the book about the corsetry of received attitudes. That we are always corseted by invisible ideas and ideals about what a woman should be and they just take different shapes.

We think we’re modern, we think we’re not held back, and we look at the old-fashioned ladies and how held back they were and we feel so liberated in comparison. We are — but we still have so many other invisible things holding us back. So when I think about the modern woman, I’m asking: what are the invisible corsets that restrain her?

Really, there’s no such thing as the modern woman. At every iteration of history is a person dealing with a bunch of forces and influences in order to figure out who she is versus what our culture is telling her to be. So much of the genesis of this book was feeling in the year 2000, “Why is it that I’m so confused, even now, here in the future itself?”

BNR: In many ways it seems like this book is a conversation with your late mother, who was also a writer. Did you view it that way as you were writing the book? Did you feel like you were speaking to your mother directly?

KB: Oh, that’s funny. I didn’t feel like I was speaking to her; I felt like I was recreating the conversations I had with her. Now that you’re asking, I don’t even know what she would think. I’m so curious. I have no idea. I’ve spent my whole adulthood without her. My understanding of her adulthood is . . . all the information my twenty-three-year-old self had accumulated, and everything I’ve decided about her retrospectively, which has all been through the prism of my own experience. So I do wonder what she would say exactly.

BNR: You talk about learning from Charlotte Perkins Gilman that “we become adults by learning how to be responsible to ourselves, whether or not we’re married or have children.” And with that, you went out less and spent quality time with the friends that mattered to you. How does one ultimately learn to take care of themselves?

KB: For me, my thirties were my adolescence, because I never went through a rebellion. I had always been in these long-term monogamous relationships with boyfriends. I didn’t break any of my own rules until I was thirty years old. So I think of that decade as me going through a lot of stuff most people went through in their twenties or teens.

I was radically open to experience, because that’s what I wanted. I just wanted to try as much as I could and experience as much as I could, and I’m very glad for that, that I opened myself up and sort of uncloistered myself, or unsheltered myself. But in the doing I made a lot of mistakes. Or got involved with people who made me feel bad about myself — toxic friends, toxic boyfriends.

And at the beginning that was what I wanted. I was sick of being sensible and always doing the right thing. I decided: I’ve never been bad, so now I’m going to be bad and see what that’s like. And that was risky. I’m glad I did it, but I also feel lucky that I came out as unscathed as I did because there were some stupid relationships in there.

I knew all along what I should be doing. I knew how to listen to myself and be a stable person, but I was choosing not to. So after my little rebellion phase, I had to relearn how to do it. And that’s just as simple as listening to your physical response to other people. If you leave dinner with a friend and you feel down and drained, stop spending time with that friend. And if you spend time with a different friend who makes you feel really elated and kind of floating afterwards, spend more time with that friend.

BNR: Listening to your gut.

KB: Yeah, which is hard. I’m not even really good at it because I think I can get too swept away with wanting a novel experience or something. So maybe it’s not even your gut, because I think your gut can mislead you, but your heart area, is where I think of it in the body. Clearly you know. You feel something, positive or negative, around certain people or in certain circumstances.

Another way of being good to yourself is to remind yourself that the possibilities are always larger than what they seem. We all get so funneled into our own narrowed experience and think the parameters we live inside of are the only ones that exist. We tell ourselves, “Well, I hate my job but I don’t have a choice. I need to pay the rent. What am I going to do?” Well — you can apply yourself to looking for other jobs. It takes effort. Everything requires effort. But there’s no excuse, ever. We can’t change everything, but we can always try to change everything. And it’s always worth the effort, no matter the outcome. Changing it just requires the thinking and the imagination to figure out what the change could be, and trying that out. And then, remember that there isn’t some state of perfection that any of us will achieve; all of this is a process that we’ll be going through as long as we live.