At a recent Jewish singles mixer, I made the requisite small talk with the men assembled, but it was only when I met another single mom at the event that I found an instant kindred spirit. “Hey, Tova, you’re talking to the wrong gender,” my friend running the event chided me as she walked by the two of us deep in conversation. Maybe I was. But that woman is now a good friend.
I’m blessed to say that, between my two exhausting and hilarious children, ages 3 and 6, a mostly amicable relationship with my ex-husband, my full-time job and a circle of close friends, I’m feeling pretty rich right now (despite what my bank account says). When my children spend nights with their father, I feel no palpable sadness at spending the evening alone, sprawled out on the sofa in my pajamas watching Netflix.
I deeply enjoy the time after work when I can get an hour or two in at the gym or wandering the mall. When I see blissful-looking couples hand in hand, I smile and think, “That looks nice,” and I don’t sneer at them with bitterness or cry on the inside because the only thing in my hand at that moment is my phone. In short: I’m happy. I’m single.
And yet, almost everyone around me is telling me how anxious and depressed I should be. Well-meaning friends, nosy acquaintances and my mother constantly ask whether I’m seeing anyone and then act apologetic when I reply in the negative.
“How’s dating going?” a friend asked recently. When I replied cheerfully — “It’s not!” — she responded with a look of pity and a whisper. “It’s okay, Tova, you don’t need to pretend with me.”
But I’m not pretending. At age 29 and divorced for about a year, I’m content for now to be a single mom. And in the Orthodox Jewish community, that complacency can baffle others.
“Tova, you have so many guy friends — how can none of them be prospects?” my mother asks hesitantly.
An older divorced woman I know talks to me about the bleak pool of prospects that awaits women each year they grow older and remain single. She is mildly confused each time I don’t panic along with her. When she asked me recently how dating was going, I blithely responded that I took a time-out because I don’t have the hours and the energy for dating at the moment. She paused and then blurted out: “You’re only young for so long, and you should really find someone while you’re still reasonably attractive!”
Then there’s the media: Endless news stories and op-eds in the Jewish media panic over the “shidduch,” or matchmaking, crisis of unmarried women outnumbering men. The secular media parrots similar concerns, concluding that lopsided gender ratios mean men hold all the power and feel no pressing need to couple up and settle down.
The matchmaking game is even more complicated for single mothers in their 20s; men in my social circles and relative age bracket lose interest almost as soon as they hear I have kids. It has become an almost enjoyable game: When I go to social or religious events on the Upper West Side — with its huge community of single Jews and where many of my single Jewish friends live — and I meet a man who might be interested in me, I’ll engage him in conversation for a little while and then watch what happens when I make an offhand reference to my kids. Usually, it’s a matter of seconds before he stammers some excuse for ending the conversation. If the guy is really classy, he’ll continue conversation for a few minutes before making a more graceful exit.
For example, after a recent holiday celebration, my friend Jonah said to me: “Tova, like 10 guys e-mailed me asking about you!”
“And when you told them I have kids?” I asked wryly, already knowing the answer.
“Sorry,” he shrugged.
It stung just a little at first, but then I started to shrug, too. If being divorced with kids drastically thins the playing field of eligible men, so be it. That’s just part of my new reality — and besides, finding another husband isn’t at the top of my to-do list right now.
In the Jewish world — whether it’s Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — heterosexual women receive the message, throughout childhood and adolescence, that the overarching goal in life is to find a suitable man and raise a family together.
But if you’ve already found a partner, had a couple of kids and that romantic partnership did not work out, you ought to be allotted some time in which you can bow out of the pressure to find another partner and focus on yourself without incurring the well-meaning worry of friends and bystanders. In fact, singles should be afforded that space regardless of whether they’ve married before.
I’m not a typical single woman, given that I have two children: Many of the Orthodox Jewish women I know who are panicking at the shidduch crisis are, in large part, doing so because they feel their biological clocks ticking away. But I am still a Jewish woman in a modern world that tells me repeatedly how anxious I should be about my singlehood. The Jewish narrative tells me to panic because marriage — even round two — is still the ultimate ideal. And the modern world tells me I should put up with dastardly behavior from men I shouldn’t even consider tolerating, because there’s so few of them and so many fish like me in the sea.
I know my friends and family just want to see me happy, and to them, that means coupled up. There are very few models for content singlehood, in the Jewish and secular worlds. But I would rather tune out both panicked voices and remain a calmer individual, even if it means remaining single.
Occasionally, I get a pang of loneliness on one of those cozy nights as I’m curled up on the couch with only the familiar banter from another “Gilmore Girls” episode to warm me. On a recent trip to Ikea, evaluating couches by myself was a rather awkward exercise as I sat on one sofa and then the next, looking over at, well, nobody, and wondering what would look good in my living room. It would’ve been nice to have someone else offering an opinion. But then I left the store, and the moment passed.
In fact, most of those difficult moments pass quickly and rather painlessly — and I return to enjoying my solitude. I suppose when I find someone I enjoy being with more than I enjoy being by myself, I won’t be single anymore.
And if I don’t? There’s a reason those guys seem so interested before discovering I’m a single mom: I’m a pretty cool woman. I’m grateful that I enjoy my own company.