Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Elephant in the Room, in the Running Shoes

The other night I was at the gym waiting with a group of people outside of the spinning room to teach a class. A couple of us were talking about a 15K race that happened over the weekend, comparing notes on the course and how we did. A guy overheard our conversation and decided to join in, since he too was a runner. He glanced at me in my spinning outfit – a black tank and shorts that did nothing to conceal my collection of tan lines (more like faded sunburn lines), and chuckled as he proclaimed, “Well obviously you’ve been outside training, you have the lines to prove it!” I smiled, about to politely excuse myself from the conversation to prepare for class, when he began to say something else.

“You know, it’s nice to see a runner like you that isn’t all long and lean. You always see those tall thin runners and then there’s you.”

From the look on his face I could tell that he meant this to be complimentary, and it was in its own way, but his horribly dysfunctional delivery resulted in some degree of “offended” on my part.

“Yes…I’m certainly no gazelle gliding miles upon miles over the land with ease.” I replied. As I heard myself saying this, I simultaneously recalled all of the times that my father has said that I’m “scrappy” in reference to the fact that I am 5’3” and 138 pounds of muscle. I may not be svelte, but I don’t show up to races to look pretty. I show up to kick some ass. Now I was feeling like I wanted to kick this guy’s ass. He would get his when class began.

I didn’t think the conversation could get much worse, but it did.

“So you’re married?” The guy asked.
“No, no…not me,” I said.

“Really? I could have sworn that you were,” he looked off in the distance, squinting his eyes while trying to concentrate on how he knew this.

I thought that maybe he was confused because I was engaged before and he may not have heard through the grapevine that the wedding was called off. Even though the class I was teaching that night was not my own, the gym is a small place where news travels fast and this had happened more than a year ago.

“Well, I was engaged but we called the wedding off.” I told him. He looked at me, still confused that his intel was wrong.
“Wow, well I just assumed that you were married and had children,” he replied.

I paused on that statement, unsure what he meant by it. Just a few weeks ago I had been carded at a convenience store while purchasing a case of Corona. When I showed the woman my ID, she gasped in shock to learn that I was 30. Her and her son could have sworn I was just 19 and I was asked to show alternate forms of ID to prove them wrong. Now I was standing in front of a guy that must have assumed that I was “at that age” that I should be married with children, despite the fact that all of my fingers were bare and nothing about me says “maternal.”

“No, no children here. I’m only 30!” I said this as if everyone knows that 30 is still young and there was plenty of time to have children if that’s what I wanted one day, but I forgot that I was in upstate New York where it seems that many women want to be done having children by 30.

I could see from the man’s face that my response was confusing him, which made sense since he mentioned he had two teen-aged daughters and I would guess that he himself was in his early 40s. By my calculations, he probably started making a family in his early 20s. In my early 20s I was living in Manhattan and unknowingly dating an attractive Irish lad from the IRA. Ah, the good days.

Deciding to add an element of humor to our dialogue, which was clearly becoming awkward, I offered my sentiments on myself as a mom.

“I think I’m much too selfish to have children right now. I have a lot of things I want to do before I have to devote my time to raising kids.” I laughed as I said this, batting my hand lightly on his shoulder as I tried to lighten the mood.

“Yes, well, it’s good that you have things you like, you know…” He trailed off with his words, but his facial expression and tone said the rest. This guy seemed to be speaking with me as if I were some candidate for the Make a Wish Foundation, and soon my opportunity to be a mom would wither up and die with my 30-year-old ovaries – but no matter, even if I could never be a mom, I would have plenty of time to do crossword puzzles and shoe shop.

“I’ll be an aunt soon,” I said.

I have no idea why I said that, but I think that some part of me felt like I had to prove to this guy that I was cognizant of the circle of life – that I was human and capable of showing some enthusiasm for babies and birth despite the fact that I was not yet experiencing these things with my own body.

One of the things I like to do to remind myself that I still have time to be a mom is read US Weekly and learn about the celebrities that are pregnant. They always put the person’s age in parenthesis after their name and lately that age has been well over 30 – moms that are 35, or even 38! The shame.

On that note, we started to walk into the spinning room and I went to set up my bike and prep the music for class. The conversation left me feeling confused and angry. How did any of that even come up? It was like a “your life sucks” bomb was being dropped on me from out of nowhere. What’s worse is that I had arrived to the gym feeling really great. I got home from work and was able to start laundry, vacuum, dust, take the garbage out, and figure out what I’d make for dinner later on all within an hour. Who was this guy to come in and dilute my “multi-tasking” high?

Fueled by irritation, I punished the class with challenging cadences and frequent increases in resistance, favoring a drill sergeant interpretation of each track over my usual motivational tone. My legs were sore from the race I completed the day before, but I needed to work hard as my soul was sore from yet another conversation about my shortcomings as a 30-year-old woman. The self-pity was short-lived because the exercise high always trumps all and by the end of the workout I was relaxed and feeling very good. The lactic acid from Sunday’s 15K left my legs and I was easily hammering through each song on my workout mix. Everyone was energized and responding well to my coaching, and the guy that was talking to me in the hallway was barely reaching pace in the last 20 minutes of the workout.

“I’ll show you long and lean,” I thought to myself as sweat coursed over my brow, through my eyes, around my nose and over my lips like white-water rapids.

We hit the last song for cool down and proceeded to the floor for stretching. By then, I had totally separated myself from the earlier conversation in the hallway. As class came to an end, I thanked everyone for coming and started to pack up my things to leave. My mood skyrocketed when I remembered that I’d completed all of my chores before getting to the gym so all that was required of me when I got home was the consumption of a cold glass of wine and hitting “play” on my DVR to watch “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In my peripheral vision I saw the man come toward me.

He wrapped his towel around his neck and stood over me as I jammed my water bottle into my gym bag.

“I was thinking…I hope I didn’t offend you before when we were talking, I didn’t mean to say that you were overweight or anything…” he seemed genuinely concerned. “Obviously you are in great shape and I didn’t mean for it to sound like you should be skinny to be a good runner.”

I knew his intention was never to offend, and he didn’t realize that my issues with the conversation had more to do with his reactions to my being single and childless at 30, than with my ability to run while carrying a few extra pounds. So I gave him the reaction he needed to feel better about it all.

“Are you kidding me? Don’t worry about a thing – I was flattered by what you said!” I plastered the most gracious smile on my face that you’ve ever seen. It was as if someone had just mistaken me for a movie star (albeit a sweaty one).

“Really, it was such a nice thing to hear! Who wants to be long and lean?” I continued on for full effect, shrugging my shoulders at the very idea of having zero body fat to worry about.

While there was a part of me that was slightly taken aback by the notion that I am somehow not a real runner because I am not tall and skinny, that was never the part of the conversation that pushed my buttons. What really got to me was the idea that I’m somehow not a real woman without a husband and a baby and that this guy didn’t even realize that his comments conveyed that loud and clear. It’s like the elephant in the room, in the sneakers. I’m this obviously present woman living my life the way I want to. I’m not committed to a marriage; I’m not responsible for children. I’m not what you’d expect a marathon-running, Ironman-finishing woman to look like, but I’m not what you’d expect in many areas. And why should I be?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Social Media and Spinster Landmines

I remember being a young girl and watching my mom open Christmas cards from all of our family friends. She read them to us at the dinner table as we passed around pictures of people I didn’t know. It always seemed like the point of these cards was to wish everyone in the family well, while sharing a bit of excitement over good news and recent events in people’s lives. I recall looking forward to these kinds of cards, and was also interested in the ones my mother sent to her own list of recipients. It was nice to see such a happy summation of one’s life over the course of a year, and I daydreamed about writing my own someday.

As the years go by, I’ve felt various emotions over Christmas cards and other pieces of festive correspondence. When I was in my twenties, receiving a wedding invitation or a holiday card with a family portrait of my friends and their new families was a thrill, and I still thought of myself as a likely candidate to share the same kinds of cards with them. I was excited for the way our lives were changing, and anxious to experience similar things in my own life. Maybe next year…

Or the year after that…

My twenties went by and I responded to a steady stream of RSVPs for other people’s weddings and showers, while receiving pictures of children in pumpkin patches or smiling faces of friends with their fianc├ęs, husbands or pets. I’ve designed invitations to bachelorette parties, “Save the Date” magnets, and wedding brochures for many friends. I continued to be hopeful that one day it would be my turn, and then it was.

When I was 27 I got engaged and found myself sitting in the driver’s seat of my very own wedding (secretly very relieved that it was happening before I turned 30 because I have been conditioned to see that as the "deadline age" for doing the things a woman should do as a grown-up).

Finally my mother had news of her engaged daughter to send in her Christmas cards, and I tooled around in Photoshop designing my own wedding paraphernalia. I created “Save the Date” cards and had them printed, but they were never sent. When the wedding was called off, there was a hard stop to my newfound enthusiasm even as I believed I was making the right choice. I felt myself empty like a balloon with a hole in it – its once taut surface now a withered shell amid a sea of invoices and receipts for a wedding that was planned but that never took place.

Coinciding with my broken engagement was the rise of social media and my 30th birthday. The combination is deadly for the single woman that is “aging” and dramatically out of sync with her peers. On sites like Facebook, the good news of couplehood is no longer restricted to the annual Christmas card or wedding announcement, and unavoidable if you have many friends. Since Facebook “friends” are comprised of everyone from your most inner circle to those that you are only loosely acquainted with, one can amass quite a community within their social networking profile. It is not uncommon for me to learn within the first 10 minutes of logging on to my Facebook account who is having a baby, who is closing on a house with her husband, who is newly engaged, and who had a bridal shower over the weekend. (The tally includes multiples in each category.)

While couples are posting photos and updates on their new puppy, smoothie-maker or honeymoon – some of us stare at our monitors and wonder what we have to show for our several years on this planet? Forget about having to come up with something fabulous for your Christmas card – now you’ve got to worry about an entire profile on a regular basis. Facebook is like a digital scrapbook of what your life is all about, but unlike the one you used to make with rubber cement and scissors, this one isn’t stashed under your bed to be consumed only by you and your closest friends at your discretion. It’s out there for the world to see.

My profile is chock full of all the things I am at the age of 30 – an Ironman finisher, a person with a decent grasp on the English language, a fitness instructor, a world traveler. But at times Facebook makes me only aware of what I am not – a mother, a wife, a homeowner. Generally I feel very comfortable with who I am and what my life is comprised of, but there are times when being single at 30 just plain sucks.

It’s hard enough to learn that the universe of people you are connected to is moving forward in “important ways” while you feel stuck in reverse with stories of first dates, blind dates, and new relationship doubts and fears…but what is even worse is the fact that Facebook has some kind of sick way to connect you with people you don’t even want to know about anymore. Like ex-boyfriends that broke up with you because they didn’t want to be so seriously committed or try to keep a distance relationship alive. Next thing you know there is a “Friend Suggestion” in the top right corner of your computer screen and a picture of that same ex-boyfriend with his face smushed lovingly against the girl he started dating after you (the one that lived an hour further away than you, who he proposed to six months after dumping you). The reason for this unfortunate friend suggestion is because Facebook, with its “six degrees of separation” connectivity, has noticed that my ex and me have some mutual friends and so surely we would fancy a friendship of our own, right? Hardly. Because what I really need is to see my ex wading in a sea of Mr. Potato Head parts while he plays with his son on the floor of the home he bought with his wife.

Another fun feature of social media sites like Facebook is the way it tailors the advertisements framing your profile with products and services that it believes you need in your life based on the information you provide. The moment you let it know you are “single,” an icon of a broken heart appears in your status updates and an ad for a dating website pops up on screen. I’ve also seen ads for depression. When it comes to any status updates that employ the “broken heart” icon (i.e. any indication that you are now alone), there are no positive ads to be found. They are all self-help oriented or geared toward getting immediately paired up again. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this just seems like more evidence that our society celebrates couples and discriminates against singles. At the very least couldn’t there be the option to use a “party hat” icon for a break-up if the end of the relationship was a good thing? Couldn’t there be some way to celebrate a woman who is strong enough to (gasp) be on her own in the world?

Why does being single have to be construed as being an awful thing? I am a healthy person living a blessed life struggling to be happy some days and it seems like that mood is always derived from my apparent shortcomings as a 30-year old woman. Why am I not engaged, married or starting a family? Why when people hear that I am 30 and single do they say things like, “You still have time?” How is someone in my situation supposed to feel about my status in life when it is regarded as some kind of “social cancer” that can be treated if it’s caught early enough?

Lately logging on to Facebook feels as though I’m looking at a growth chart that I can’t quite measure up to. I can see the marks above me and I know where I should be, but I can’t get there. Everyone within five years of my age seems to be riding effortlessly from one social milestone to the next, while I continue on with my training wheels (an ironic metaphor considering I teach two spin classes and spend several hours clipped into a Cervelo P2SL each week).

I’m lucky to have found a group of people in my life that are in the same situation I am (that is, they are within range of the “deadline age” and enjoying fabulous lives that have nothing to do with babies or weddings). With these women I feel that my life has relevance and meaning even if by society’s standards it is sub par. As comforting as it is to have a group of people that applauds my lifestyle, it still hurts when some of the people closest to me seem to be let down or uninterested in my “news” because it pertains to things they don’t understand or agree with. I’m in a new relationship that I would like to share with everyone but when I bring it up in conversation it doesn’t seem to register with the other person that it’s important to me. There are no follow-up questions, there is no dialogue, there is only me saying something about it and the other person waiting for the subject to change.

Sometimes I wish I could take a sonogram of my brain so I could capture a visual of the energy that is displaced within when I’m spending time in my new relationship. Maybe if I present this information in a context that people seem to pay attention to they will acknowledge it and share some of my enthusiasm. Or maybe I’ll just have to wait until the next time there’s an engagement ring on my finger.

For all of my complaining about how Facebook makes me feel about what I don’t have at the age of 30, I want to be sure I convey to anyone reading this that I don’t have any ill feelings toward any of the people I’m friends with. I am very close to my friends and family and this isn’t a commentary on any specific individual – it’s a commentary on the social expectations that our culture has encouraged for decades and how those expectations influence the feelings of a single woman in her thirties.

Social media makes me more aware of these feelings. I believe that being connected with so many “peers” in real time will inevitably cause us to compare ourselves to others that we’re exposed to – whether it’s family, friends from high school, friends from college, people we’ve worked with, or new acquaintances. Facebook allows us to connect with one another on the things we have in common – but I would like to think that it could also allow us to admire each other for the things that we don’t.

*Image credit: Sean Ellis, Getty Images