The Thirtysomething Single

Photo credit: Tanzila Ahmed

The phone rang, waking me from deep morning slumber. Naturally, I don’t pick up, though when I see the number my heart skips a beat.

It’s my college roommate. She never calls me. In the past decade since graduating, our lives took very different paths. The only times I hear from her are for celebrations or deaths. She called me for her engagement, marriage, baby one, and baby two. What else could be left – it must be sobering news.

Sure enough, a text message follows: “Give me a call as soon as possible.”

We’d been randomly assigned as roommates our freshman year, two naïve Muslim girls who bonded immediately and spent the next four years exploring our American Muslim identities and boundaries. By the time adulthood rolled around, I was on my way to DC to be a political activist, and she was going on rishtas with eligible Arab men selected by her mother. She was the first of our college circle to get married. We drifted apart, reconnecting only for significant life events.

I braced myself, and called her back as soon as I was coherent. “How are you?” I asked tentatively. “How is the family?”

“Everyone is great,” she replied, suspiciously cheerful. “So… at my son’s school, he has a lot of Bangladeshi friends. And I was talking to one of the mothers and she has a brother….”

“Are you serious?” I replied incredulously.

“He’s in entertainment – law, or accounting or something. A couple years older than you. Never been married. How about I set up a tea, and you can come over, and I can invite them over and you all can meet?”

“I thought someone had died,” I responded, deadpan.

“Isn’t this a better call than that?” she responded jovially.

“Well…” I reluctantly humored her. “Have you at least seen him?”

“He has a job, and he’s breathing,” she snapped.

“I’m not even asking for a photo or what he looks like! I’m just asking if, at minimum, you’ve seen him!”

“You’re being too picky.”

+++

Being single in your thirties is the equivalent to strangers rubbing pregnant women bellies, a single friend told me recently. It’s out there, and when people see it, they feel compelled to reach out and touch it, without waiting for an invitation. They invade her personal space, completely ignoring the fact that their touch is uninvited by the mother in question. But she has to grin and bear it because the groper only has “good intentions.”

The most uncomfortable thing about being single in your thirties is how society and other people see you. It’s slightly more urgent and nasal than the messaging received as a single twenty-something. There is this tone of desperation in their voice when they ask you, “Is there anyone special in your life?” Which kicks off a rant on how important it is to have companionship, followed by, “Allah made someone for everyone,” and wrapped up with “…maybe you should try online dating.”

These conversations are often one-sided, with little actual input from the single person in question.

By the time you are in 30s, your singleness is “pathologized”, as noted by Sara Eckel in her book, “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.” And I totally concur. No longer are you the cute, independent 20-something girl that just needs to find the right man who will respect and love you for all your qualities: “You just keep being you, and The One will come along.”

In your 30s, especially if you’ve been relatively unattached most of your grown life, the narrative shifts dramatically. Suddenly, there must be something wrong with what you are doing. Or, maybe, there is something wrong with you.

“Maybe you should tone it down and not be so vocal about your politics”

“Have you thought about really trying to put yourself out there? Try a little harder?”

On the flip side, after you share your bad first date antidotes parade, there’s the implication that I should give the guy a second chance. “Maybe he was just nervous/drunk/not that libertarian/really loved Bjork.”

All this in spite of the fact that a request for a second date never materialized.  When the topic of love, dating, and marriage are broached, social gatherings become virtual land mines to tiptoe around.

When I’m not confronted with these kinds of people, I often forget the desperate single girl plight I’m in. When left to my own devices, my life is rich and immersed in the arts, activism, music, travel, and community. I struggle to find alone time to create, and often request friends to meet up over writing instead of coffee or brunch.

When I get to choose the topics of conversations, it’s about musical migration of the South Asian diaspora, or the downfall of American Apparel, or on the latest novel that I read by a woman of color. And if pushed, I can even talk about “love” – about how capitalism breeds false ideals for romance or the evolution of the love letter from paper to text.

But most people don’t know how to talk to single people in their 30s. The conversations are infantile, with questions like, “What are you looking for?” and, “What are your long-term plans?”

Or, even worse, they expect The Minstrel Show of Bad Dates, so that they – poor marrieds – can live vicariously through my romantic high jinx failures, once again. I get performance anxiety and have to dig up stories to rehearse ahead of time when I know I’ll confront one of these kinds of people.

This month alone I’ve been told:

  • “You have to be specific with what you are looking for. And then it’ll be easier to know when he comes along.” Which directly conflicts with:
  • “You need to be more open. Don’t have too many things on the checklist – you never know.” (So which is it?!)
  • “Enjoy being single! I don’t know why I was in such a rush!” (From a recently coupled – and vanished – friend)
  • “You don’t need a life partner – look at how busy you are and how you’ve filled your life!” (As if the latter is just filling up the space the former would have taken.)
  • “You should be careful what you wish for.” (As if love is terrible.)
  • “You could have a boyfriend. You just choose not to have a boyfriend. All those guys that holler you at from street corners, they would be your boyfriend in an instant.” (No, they just want to have sex with me. If I tried to engage the cat-caller in a long-term commitment, they would run.)

It’s no wonder older single women are portrayed as bat-shit crazy cat ladies on the path to Golden Girls. They just might be with all the conflicting messaging bombarding them on the regular.

+++

It is now just days into the holy month of Ramadan where solstice summer afternoon shadows stretch into the fingers of azaan’s first breath. We abstain from food, from water, and from temptations because it makes us stronger. And when we break fast, our lips taste the sweetness of the Medjool, or we quench our parched tongues with the wetness of water. In this month, we are sacrificing, expressing faith, showing love. They say that heaven’s gates are open, that good deeds are rewarded sevenfold, and that life is tinged with a special kind of noor.

“Pray,” you might say. Give dua to Allah for what you want, who you want. Duas, manifesting, vision boarding, praying – it all goes back to the same thing, doesn’t it? Having faith in a higher being to deliver on your dreams? Pray I will, but at the end of the day, I know that if I haven’t found someone to be with yet, it’s simply because our paths haven’t crossed yet. No myths, no mantras, no pathologies. Sometimes that’s just how the random chances of life go.

Ramadan is the month of abstinence – and maybe in some ways there is a parallel between the strength gained by fasting all day from food and being single. I am stronger as a person figuring out the world alone than I would have been had I had a partner. I have surprised myself with bravado when I’ve had to count on myself unexpectedly. I’ve been intentional in how I’ve created a community of love in my life instead of expecting one person to carry that alone. There is a certain kind of brilliant strength in the ability to fast, whether from food or from men.

And, inshallah, if he does come along, when our lips meet, it will taste like the sweetness of the Medjool. Together, our parched tongues will finally be quenched. I’ll appreciate what we have found in being together that much more.

But if he doesn’t come along, I’ll know I’ll do just fine, too.

This piece was originally published on LoveinshAllah.com in July 2014. Read more by Tanzila, here.

Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively.  An avid writer,  she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.


6 Comments on “The Thirtysomething Single”

  1. Saajida says:

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Even here in South Africa, the South African Indian community behave in much the same way. Way too much of pressure is applied on young girls to marry. The comments about marriage start when you’re about 18-19 years old. And if you’re well into your mid 20s and unmarried, people do start wondering if you’re okay and WHY wouldn’t you be interested in marriage. Sometimes the men aren’t even asked about marriage at all. It’s just the women and it’s so damaging to the female youth.

    I support marriage as I am married myself and it’s a beautiful journey but having said that, it’s not the be all and end all of life. This is because Allah knows best what is good for you and at which time in your life you should experience different things.

    People need to be more sensitive, or simply learn to not engage with topics that do not concern them.

  2. Since this is an article originally published in July 2014…I would love to read an update on Tanzila’s life right now.

  3. muslimnlove says:

    Thanks for sharing this heartfelt piece. I think many women, from all walks of life, can easily relate.

  4. jessy says:

    hi, i happen to register myself accidently on this site, well after reading some stories i feel ,its not necessary that as marriage is important subject as many have discussed. i believe its all made written in heaven , so carry on with life , people have no job who speaks about others personal matters, list to be done is ignore them rather making our lives more complicated listening their tales. why always society discriminate only females if they reach 30, why not men ? is men not growing older. God has made everyone equal . live life be happy.

  5. Hi I just found your site and love your takes on being single, brown and in your 30s. I am a 36 yr old single black woman who has experienced everything you detail above in terms of advice and prodding about why I’m still single and how to fix that situation. Glad to know I’m not alone.