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


The Singlutionary said...

I hate facebook. I also love xmas cards. Honestly, with Twitter on one end and the yearly holiday card on the other, well, I prefer the yearly summary.

Generally, xmas cards require people to reflect, condense and celebrate their year. I have long wanted to make my own xmas cards and snail mail them out to the world. At this point I also realize how tedious and time consuming it would be to complete this project.

Even if I never send it, I do enjoy making a list of everything I did at xmas time. Even if there was sorrow I can list the ways in which I overcame or acted with grace and then condense it down so that it would all fit on a card. I enjoy making this list and I enjoy reading other people's lists.

But I hate twitter.

There are so many people in the world. An annual update is quite enough, thanks!

shilo said...

I HATE friend suggestions on Facebook. My ex often appears as my suggestion, as does his family. I also hate how I can see him posting on our mutual friends' statuses. GRR! That makes me crazy! If I never saw his picture of name again, I'd be happy!

Also, I hate that people hear that I am single and look at me like I am a wounded dog. Seriously. I am not broken just because I am no where close to married.

I wish I knew more single girls!!!

Great blog post! :)

Clever Elsie said...

Fantastic post!

Sometimes I feel like the only girl in the world who isn't on Facebook or Twitter. I'll confess that I don't see the point. If I want to talk to a friend, I pick up the phone and call him/her or send an email or text. I don't need a running commentary on what someone ate for dinner, and I don't think the world needs to hear about that from me, either.

I realize that social networking can help people reconnect with old friends and stay in touch. But if it's that important to a former acquaintance to look me up, I don't think there's anyone out there who doesn't know how to do it, either through the phone book, my email (which hasn't changed in years), or other friends. If it's not important enough to them to do that, then I don't know why it's important enough to exchange FB updates or whatever.

As far as milestones go, I'm reminded of those every time I get a shower invitation. I don't need FB to help out with its revolving pics of weddings and children. In one way, I understand why people do this. Their weddings are important to them. Their children are important to them. They're trying to share with others what's important to them. I get it. And I know that if I shared a picture of me and my cat or me on vacation or me with a friend, no one would ridicule that. But I also know those things aren't seen as important to my achievement of a grown-up life. (Or are they? I guess I can't look in people's heads and see what they think about it.)

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a married friend. She tries not to be singlist, and a lot of the time, she succeeds. But she's still a pretty traditional person. During our conversation, she mentioned, in reference to someone else, that singles and marrieds don't need to be "in the same stage of life" to be friends. While I appreciated and agreed with the sentiment, something struck me the wrong way, and when I thought about it later, I realized it was the assumption that being single is a stage of life (i.e., something you grow out of).

The danger to me is that I sometimes fear that attitude has a kernel of truth, and that leads to depressing thoughts. I fear that getting married and especially having children are parts of the human experience, without which I won't have fully lived. I worry that if I haven't ever had the responsibility for another human being, I won't have the chance to fully mature. I know this thinking is self-defeating and, moreover, inaccurate. I know that people who are married and have kids will miss out on all kinds of experiences that I will have. I know they won't ever be forced to be as independent as I am and that that's an area in which they will not mature. I also know that just because you have kids doesn't mean that you automatically become a responsible parent. But sometimes those cultural messages get to me.

Anyway, I just wanted to send some empathy your direction and let you know that I'm in the same boat!

FitGirl15 said...

I loved this post and can relate to EVERY WORD OF IT!!!

Life throws even the best of us curve balls and all we can do, is roll with it and make out better then we were before!

Juan said...

Hi! I'm a 16 years old Spanish boy, from Granada, and I don't know how, but I ended up in your blog and started reading your comment. Your life has nothing to do with mine, but I kept reading because of the way you write. I have to read an "upper-intermediate" book for my English class in high school, which is really boring because it is way lower than my English level, so inevitably I get distracted when I read it and it's taking too long to finish it. However, I read your post as fast as a light ray! Maybe it's the way you express your feelings and make everyone understand you and take care for you, even when you're a complete stranger to the reader.

I actually feel happy that you are in a relationship now, and I can only say, don't let yourself be influeced by this sick and superficial society. Personally, I have only kissed a girl once in my life, and I don't care, because that kiss was really special for me. I'd rather have a very good memory than many bad memories regarding to lovelife.

You probabily know that most of the guys my age have had loads of girlfriends and many of them have already done it, but I don't feel pressure at all, because my life, fortunately, is not based in a chain of broken hearts. I have many other qualitys, I love playing the piano, I love acting, philosophy, gym... I also have great and intelligent friends to talk with and try to "change the world" in one single conversation. Of course

I'd like to have a girlfriend, who doesn't? But I know that, just like my first kiss came by surprise, the time will come when I find someone beautiful (in the outside and inside)that likes me. I know I'm quite younger than you and don't have as much experience in life as you do, but I can still understand you and try to cheer you up.
LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST! Kind regards, complete stranger ;)