What It Means To Be An Unmarried Woman In Her 40s With No Kids

I’m not ashamed of my life. I do, however, get tired of having to defend it.

40 year old woman volunteering her time with animals Group4 Studio | Canva

I turned 41 years old this year, and for the first time, I felt a shift.

It wasn’t overt; in fact, it was deeply subversive. Small things, like fewer doors held for me as I walk into department stores. Or the water cooler chats at work about kids going to college or wedding anniversaries — conversations in which I cannot participate.

It’s the articles I see about how hard mothers work and why they, therefore, deserve a break, while the only commentaries from childfree and unmarried women lament about the freedom in their lives, both time and money-wise.


My experience has been none of that.

As a newly minted middle-aged woman, I don’t have children. I’ve also never been married, although I’m not single. In fact, I’ve been in a committed relationship for over a decade. Nonetheless, my life is not what society considers typical for a woman my age.


In media, books, and stories, I find that middle-aged women are portrayed as either married or single. If they’re married, they love the family life or they struggle against societal gender norms. If they’re unmarried, they’re single and free, often traveling or building a loving sisterhood with a clique of best friends.

When I read these portrayals, I find myself feeling even more isolated.

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My life today looks like this: I own a house in Phoenix and live here with my two rescue cats. I see my partner, who I love, regularly each week.

I work a demanding, full-time job that pays the bills and ensures I get benefits to manage a chronic health condition. I make enough to put a little aside, but most of it usually goes toward house repairs or unexpected medical bills.


I have a Bachelor’s degree in a professional field from a state university. Nonetheless, I’ve survived three bouts of unemployment in ten years, each occurrence eating deeper into my life savings. Wages for my profession have decreased in the past few years, while expectations have gone up.

My parents are aging, and I try to be there to help, in addition to taking care of myself and managing my demanding job. My partner is also trying to help his aging mother while dealing with his own stuff.

My best friends are all mothers raising teenagers or toddlers. Whether they’re married or not, money is hard to come by and they work a lot while dealing with their own health issues. We rarely have time to get together.

My life is definitely far from the freedom of carefree travel and money galore that is somehow supposed to be me, based on my marital and child-free statuses.


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When I was younger, I felt seen.

I saw myself portrayed in movie after movie. Established adults would talk about how I had my whole life ahead of me. Young men would smile and hold doors. Young women would laugh with me about boys and sex and makeup and future careers. Stylish clothes fit easily and looked good. Hiring managers would interview me constantly. Bosses mentored me.

But now, as my hair has turned gray, I get asked if I have children and watch as the stranger’s smile turns to straight lips. I’ve had acquaintances ask me when my partner is going to propose, or even if he’s going to propose.


When I struggle to learn something new at work, I’m treated as incompetent. When someone learned I love cats, they joked I turned into "the cat lady." I’ve watched as married couples are celebrated more than my partner and me.

It hurts.

It hurts and hurts and hurts until all I want to do is hide away and become that reclusive old woman whom the neighborhood children fear. Storybook portrayals of evil witches living alone in the woods now bother me, because I finally understand the bias. Society labels, whether it means to or not.

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I may not have been a mother, an aunt, or a wife, but I have worked to be a good daughter, sister, girlfriend, best friend, and boss. I’ve written countless essays, stories, and poems that I hope have helped others feel seen. I’ve rescued animals and worked my butt off to give them the love, safety, and medical care they needed. I’ve done what I can to fight for my rights and the rights of others when life called for it.


I’ve contributed. Maybe not through marriage or children, but I have given back. Sometimes, I have to expend extra energy to validate myself in this, because society won’t, and its pressures are hard to resist, no matter what anyone says.

I’m not some renegade who decided to live her life in defiance of the patriarchy and is now railing against the consequences of that choice. My life just happened, the way it just happens for so many people. I had plans, but not all of them worked out due to circumstances beyond my control.

I’m not ashamed of my life. I do, however, get tired of having to defend it. The waves wear on me like salt water eroding rocks into sand.


If my circumstances have taught me anything, though, it’s to be more empathetic. To see things from another perspective. To recognize that not everything is simple and can be overcome with ease or a few quick solutions.

Indeed, life has many shades of gray, just like my hair.

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Shari Lopatin is a former journalist who now writes novels, short fiction, personal and political essays, and poetry about life, culture, and social issues. Her new book, The Condemned: A memoir told through selected early works of short stories, essays, and poetry, about coming of age through September 11 and The Great Recession while facing antisemitism was recently published.