Nancy in her nursing uniform in Rotorua, New Zealand 1969.
When I was 30, I was living in Rotorua, New Zealand, and working as a nurse. I was flatting with a policewoman and a school teacher. We did lots of things together. We went skiing and we went travelling. There were plenty of things you could do. Most of my friends were married, but a few weren’t.
I met up with lots of men – boys and men, I should say – but there was no one I really wanted to settle down with. No one made me think, “Oh, I could live with him for the rest of my life.” I think that’s the type of person I was – I like my own company. Although we went to dances, parties and things, I didn’t meet anyone I thought I could live with.
I have a twin sister, Margaret. She’s single too. We have two house units ... side-by-side. I moved here in 1989 and she was already in the one next door. She’s got Parkinson’s disease so it’s very handy because she doesn’t drive anymore and I can take her places.
When we were 30, Margaret tried to buy a house but was told there were “more deserving people than a single woman”. She went back and the manager said: “Well, it will be on my head if you don’t get it.” So she got it. That’s when things started to move a bit, I think, for single women.
I suppose we did encounter other [prejudice] but we took no notice. You know, every time you’d go out, they would say, “Mrs? Oh. Spinster”, but you just shrugged it off. I’m a pretty positive person and I don’t take too much notice of what people say – I just get on with it. You did feel a little bit left out at weddings but then again, people do talk to you. If you’re sitting having a drink, someone might walk up to you – or you up to them – and say g’day.
I didn’t want children. The reason is because we’ve got a history of motor neurone disease in our family and that was always in the back of my mind. I think if you have enough around you – enough people and enough communication – that’s the most important thing.
A lot of people in their old age don’t have people calling in or don’t have any conversation in their day. I play golf and croquet. I go out to [see] films. I go out for lots of lunches. There wouldn’t be a day go past where I don’t see someone. You look after your own money, then you save it to buy what you want and to buy yourself a house and everything that goes in it. And you don’t have any arguments with anyone – because you’ve only got yourself!
Shelly, 53, Brisbane
Single & 30 in 1999
A newly single Shelly, at age 32, with her two kids.
I was married when I was 21, had my first child at 25 and my second a few years later. I got to the stage on my 12th wedding anniversary where I thought: I can’t stand this anymore. He was a very jealous man and I couldn’t be myself in the relationship. I couldn’t have any friends. It was very isolating. I tried to sort out those issues but it got worse and worse as the years went on, and that’s why I left.
I was 32, single and had two young children: it was a terrible feeling of failure. When you get married, you think it’s forever. The hardest part is realising that all the dreams and the things you wanted to do together are never going to happen. You aren’t going to see your children grow up in a family environment with two happy parents. It felt like a disaster. But once I left, I knew I would never go back because as much as it was really difficult, it wasn’t as difficult as being there.
I had some of the best times of my life being single in my 30s. I went on lots of dates and met lots of people. When the kids were with their dad, I had a great time – the best days of my life, probably – I did whatever I wanted and did everything I wanted to do. It was such a free feeling.
The break-up and custody stuff was really painful though – it was horrendous. People were very judgemental. There were lots of comments about the children because I was the one who had left. In the courts, that is very much played on: being a female and wanting to be single and leaving your marriage. I noticed some people stopped inviting [me] to places because they thought, ‘Oh, maybe she’s going to be after my husband’ or things like that. And the other thing back then that people would say is, ‘Oh, she’s a lesbian, that’s why she left’. Whatever. I suppose I had more important things to worry about.
I couldn’t have done it without my family. My God, I can’t imagine what it would be like without that support. It was really difficult being so emotionally distressed and maintaining work with the kids. There were times when I felt I just couldn’t go on another minute. I think the financial pressure was the worst. However, I thought as long as I had flour and rice, herbs in the garden and some milk, it didn’t matter – we could make anything.
It was such a relief to be by myself that I never, ever, ever wanted to get married again. I’ve been with my partner now for 14 years but I have no desire to get married. I don’t see the need for it. You’re either committed or you’re not committed. [It] doesn’t really matter in terms of signing on the dotted line.
Shelly (right) with her daughter (middle).
I think it’s great that there is a positive slant now on being single, being independent, looking after yourself and not needing other people to make you whole or happy ... It’s all about the fulfilment you’re getting from your own endeavours, rather than relying on other people to boost you up. It’s a very good trait to be happy in your own company.
Kate, 32, London
Single & 30 in 2020
I’ve been living overseas for more than four years now. I’ve never had a serious relationship but it hasn’t really been something I’ve prioritised in my life. I’ve focused on my career, travel, friendships and creating the life I want to live – which doesn’t necessarily have a man in it. It would be a nice add-on, but it’s not essential to my happiness.
In your 30s, there is so much more pressure to settle down and have children because you have that ticking time bomb of your ovaries slowly expiring. You see the window getting smaller and smaller. Then again, I also feel like I’m a lot more comfortable being single now than I was in my 20s. I put a lot of pressure on myself then to reach certain milestones. I was always benchmarking myself against other people on social media, but now I’m happy where I am.
Dating apps make it harder because everyone has so many options and is always looking for the next best thing. It’s brutal. There’s no loyalty. You get ghosted. You have to wade through ‘dick pics’ or have really inappropriate messages being sent to you that I don’t think people would have had 20 or 30 years ago when they were writing letters to each other.
Society tells you that there is a path you need to go down (find a partner, get married, buy a house, have kids) but I’ve had friends who have run down that path thinking it’s the road to happiness and then built and found themselves in a life of unhappiness because it’s not as all-fulfilling as they were sold by society.
I go through stages where I really want kids. I’ve said to myself that if I get to 38 and still don’t have a partner I’ll go it alone; but I also appreciate that it would be bloody hard to raise a child by yourself. [There’s both] the financial cost and the emotional cost. So I think it’s just weighing that up. My mum has offered to pay to freeze my eggs to take off some of the time pressure. I’d like to keep the option open and when I get closer to that age, I will have to seriously consider it.
I grew up in a non-traditional family where my mum was always the main breadwinner, so, for me, it’s not unusual for a woman to support herself. However, I would have a much higher disposable income without the ‘single tax’ and would save so much money on rent, food, bills and travelling.
I think being single is a choice that people make and it shouldn’t have the shame associated with it that it still does. Whenever I go to family events or catch up with friends, the first question I always still get is, ‘Are you seeing someone?’ or ‘Have you been on any dates recently?’. There are so many more facets to me and so many more questions you could ask me rather than whether I’m seeing a guy at the moment. You almost have to build up a comedy routine to deflect the question.
It’s still often the first thing written about single female celebrities and it can be used to define them. Having strong women, such as [singer] Lizzo and [actor] Emma Watson, who are obviously killing it in their respective fields and who are out there openly talking about the benefits of being single does help to address some of the stigma – but I still think there is a long way to go.
This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of marie claire.