Don’t Pity Me! (Unless You Do It Really Well)

It’s tough to go through a tragedy—for me and for my friends who want to help. Our mutual task is to embrace the mess.

Twenty-one years ago, I joined a club that issues no membership card, but which functions as a central force in adult social life. It's the club of Being a Couple. Four years ago when my husband died from cancer, I left that club, which opened my eyes to the flip side of club membership.

Now let’s start by saying I live a blessed life in many ways. I live in a country where my kids aren't at risk of being conscripted as child soldiers or shot in the head for wanting to read. I have a small mortgage and a job and a mother-in-law I can occasionally have lunch with. So the reflections that follow are really the product of a stable life with a tragedy in the middle of it. It’s a story of muddling my way into a different sort of mid-life than I imagined.

Take last year, when I found myself driving across town through terrible traffic to meet up for dinner with a guy I used to work with. I'd emailed him off a group thread with this spontaneous suggestion: "Hey Craig, want to go on a date? I know it's out of left field, but I thought it’d be fun." To which he replied that it was indeed out of left field, but he was "down with it." Beyond interpreting that in standard English as meaning yes, I realized I had several challenges as a now-single person who—as my date later remarked—is "on the market."

  • Realization #1: I am a complete social moron when it comes to being around single men. I was never a single woman before. Give me a married man friend, and I can banter with the best of them, as Being a Couple taught me to do. But give me a single guy—especially now that I am a single gal who is raising not one kid (which still allows a woman to be flexible, available and interesting), not two kids, but three offspring with eight baseball slots a week—and I'm at an utter loss. I'm terrified that I will only attract awkward men and worried that I might have become so task-focused that I won't be able to engage in a romantic relationship.
  • Realization #2: I'm secretly hoping, as Hollywood seems to promise, that Mr. Right will appear magically from nowhere. This would save me time and energy and the embarrassment of the trial-and-error approach to finding a partner. Efficiency is really important to me, which is why I recently seriously considered settling for a guy whose best move was to check into fixing my storm door. Well, that and an embrace that took place next to my fence. Choose a man just because he likes me plus he'll fix the storm door? Scary how long I entertained that thought.

The dinner with my coworker Craig went just fine, even though I nervously downed my vodka-based beverage on an empty stomach, turned a shade of purple-gray, and sounded like the awkward slash inexperienced mom-widow that I am. That was okay, I found out recently, because Craig—who is now jobless—has his own self-consciousness. He describes himself as a burger-chowing, homeless-looking person. To which I'd say, why sweat being temporarily jobless when you're a great person? But reassurances like that never work, as I know because others have tried to reassure me about my self-consciousness over having kids and still trying to find a match. I guess we’re all insecure about things that make us feel outside of what we think of as normal or okay.

Speaking of wanting to be normal and okay: it's funny how profoundly having a partner makes for security in a social setting. You can be acne-prone, overweight and have terrible bags under your eyes and stains on your clothing (which was me, when I was the sleepless mother of three toddlers), and still face a social event with excitement and the assumption you'll have a good time. I remember that I rarely even sat next to Andrew, yet always knew I could sit next to him, touch him or check out the buffet with him. Just the fact that I was half of "Andrew and Val" meant I could voluntarily stare off into space for a moment, and if someone caught me they would probably take at face value that I was spacing out but otherwise fine. Now—as I admit I used to do to others who were uncoupled—I imagine that people who see me solo in a group setting wonder if I am

  • about to burst into tears because I'm so lonely without a partner
  • numbed by the burden of raising three kids or
  • about to corner them to chat for an hour so it’s best to keep moving.

On this last note, shortly after Andrew died I went to a birthday party where I did in fact corner some unwitting person and talk about fascinating (to my mind) things like reupholstering furniture. The conversation continued until her other half came along and suggested, "Um, honey, maybe you'd like to get a drink or something? You've been talking awhile." She immediately said, "Yes/bye," and I was so embarrassed that I made my way inside to the present table, where I spent my time drawing a birthday message in bubble letters.

It’s the fear of being pitied that gets to me the most. By all means pity me for having no alcohol-processing enzyme so I turn purple after three sips of vodka, or for panting over a guy whose hot move was to diagnose my broken storm door! That kind of lighthearted sympathy leaves me guffawing in the mirror. But feeling sorry for my poor fatherless boys, or for this woman whose husband died the year she hit her sexual prime (just saying) or for anything that's substantially painful? Ugh. That kind of pity leaves me hopeless, because it takes what's already a challenging situation and leaves me wishing I had anybody else's life. It's like my niece wishing she could change her race.

Growing into whatever fullness this current path might hold for me? I'm (usually) all over that. Even believing for happiness that could outstrip what "normal life," the universe or God offered me before my tragedy? Count me in. But making me think "IF ONLY" my life were This or That, or Like Her's—namely if right now I could just rejoin the club of Being a Couple again—then all would be well? That feels like the kiss of death.

An ongoing and important lesson has been to stop making mental comparisons with others. When I don't refrain from comparing my situation to others', my mind darts around like a tetra fish about to die in tap water that it isn't quite acclimated to yet.

So how do I stop this killer habit? 79 percent of the time, I catch myself reacting to others and feeling rejected or lame. But then I ask myself: are their lives actually perfect? (The answer is no, in case you weren't sure.) Once I realize that everyone has challenges, I can focus on what actual desires I have to improve or enjoy my own life. Friends who help me in this regard have grown closer to me in the last few years. They tend to the quirky side of me, the side that can immediately go dormant the second you lose your partner. They practice loving the minutiae-filled part of me that has non-urgent, often insignificant interests. Rather than asking me in a hushed voice, "How are the kids?" these friends will inquire, "Did you find that pair of earrings you wanted?"

Singlehood looks better to me when I'm in this more centered space. I can get in touch with things that I'm thankful for. I like having more downtime. I don't mind learning how to pitch a tent. I like exercising that universal selfish gene when I hog the TV remote. But, even better than allowing me free reign to watch my favorite shows, I'd say singlehood has offered me a deeper connection with the continual neediness that’s a beautiful part of being human. I ache for connection. I long for partnership. I am poised and ready to laugh. But even though it would be great to share life with a guy again, I sense something right now that feels as important as my next happily-ever-after. It's the interior quiet that gives me space to acknowledge that I'm alive and to pay attention to my day and my Maker and my world. And then I have more empathy for people who, because of health issues or career twists or social awkwardness, still don't fit into the new urban, millennial version of the old-time "white picket fence" ideal. Embracing more mess in me and in others has its own deep pleasures.

So believe me, if you have a great hot single guy who's into widows with perpetually long grocery lists, send him my way. But until then, I'll be the person at the party who's staring off into space. You won't know whether I'm about to burst into tears or am just relaxing to the beat. Come ask me which, and I'll let you know.

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