I’ve always had a little baggage regarding marriage.
As a very single college student, I thought about marriage with real anxiety. I hadn’t dated at all yet and wouldn’t until after graduating. Meantime, I was surrounded by close friends who were all dating their spouses-to-be, further fueling my sense of inadequacy.
In my mind, one thing was certain: if I wasn’t married by the time I was 30, it would mean I was an unmitigated failure romantically—which meant that I would be an unmitigated failure as a woman.
Fortunately, the only failure was that assumption. My twenties have been full of joy, packed with life and love and even a few boyfriends (thanks be to God!). My 20-year-old self would be taken aback by the fact that I’m about to turn 30, still single—and feel just fine.
Still, there remains a certain expectation among my family and society at large that while it may take longer these days to complete the trifecta of settling down/marrying/having kids, every woman eventually does, and I should too.
It was a bit of a revelation for me, then, to read in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed that at least 10% of women, across space and time and culture, leave that trifecta in the rearview mirror and never have children. Actually, the percentage is often much higher, but even the heyday of the Amish and Irish never saw the proportion of childless women drop below 10%.
Gilbert calls this set of women the “Auntie Brigade” and notes that they have done an outsized amount of good in the world. Whether they are childless voluntarily or reluctantly, whether they identify as a religious sister, cool aunt, or not-so-crazy cat lady—regardless of their individual circumstances, these women keep busy.
Without children of their own to raise, the Auntie Brigade takes on the wider community, caring for those who otherwise fall through the cracks. They run orphanages, found schools, tend the sick, advocate for the poor, raise their nieces and nephews after a sibling’s illness or death, and on and on.
Gilbert, who is childless, speaks to her own experience of financially and emotionally supporting family members and friends with her resources. “In this way, I, too, foster life,” she writes. “There are many, many ways to foster life. And believe me, each one of them is essential.”
Yes, they are. And it was a joy to recognize in her words the call of my own current vocation of single life—to live generously, to share with the entire community, to support those who need extra compassion. To foster life, if in a less noticeable way.
So let’s raise a glass to the Auntie Brigade and all the women around us who keep doing their thing despite society telling them they’re doing it wrong. And as for me, I’ll try to match their generosity and vibrancy for as long as the single life is mine.