There’s an old Appalachian song:
When I was single, my shoes did squeak
Now I am married, and my shoes they do leak
Don’t I wish I was a single girl again, Oh Lord
Don’t I wish I was a single girl again.
In the song the girl laments the better economic times she had before she met and married a man who fails at supporting his family. Its a song to make the Carrie Bradshaws of the world cringe. But not so long ago marriage was a woman’s main means to better her economic situation. These days, though, women not only CAN work to support themselves and their families, they have to. They buy their own shoes, and provide their own housing. And women are staying single longer, if they even choose to marry at all (cough – no old maid jokes please). Some women love it, some hate it, and plenty have never tried it. Gender history aside, though, it’s hardly just women who are choosing to live alone.
But a couple of recent articles have addressed the benefits – and the supposed downside, of living alone. They address living alone as if it were a quaint, slightly strange, yet fascinating social behavior. Here, The New York Times writes an article entitled One is the Quirkiest Number, where they questions whether people are trending towards less communal living and more isolated abodes. And a recent Atlantic magazine story, All the Single Ladies, talks about the ins and outs of relationships, and even goes so far as to describe a complex in Amsterdam where women go to live alone. They need a commune? Seriously?
Supposedly this is a “new” trend, yet the US and western European countries have long drifted toward this norm. I remember being shocked when, studying abroad in Madrid, it seemed I saw couples of many different ages kissing everywhere. Making out in front of metro stations, in parks, on benches in front of famous paintings. It was a veritable smooch fest and we were all curious about the kissing (and probably jealous). One of our instructors informed us that it was because in Spain, it was common to still live at home with parents until marriage. It sounded so… quaint.
I personally don’t think this is a new trend. Actually, I don’t even think it’s a trend. I say the opposite is true. I know far more people that have been forced to move back in with parents, siblings, or random strangers they meet on Craig’s List and hope aren’t serial killers or sadists than people with the financial wherewithal and desire to live alone. Personally, I think living alone is a luxury most people can’t afford. Which is, perhaps, why The New York Times, and this article, are styling it in such quirky (read: too cute to be truly cool, ala Zooey Deschanel).
I’ve lived alone for more years, now, than I lived with people, family or roommates. And I confess I do like it. While I don’t subsist on scavenged sweet potatoes and random bits of kitchen offal – who ARE these people and don’t they have taste buds? – I do enjoy occasionally closing the blinds and lying on my couch in frumpy pyjamas watching bad tv, or good tv, or no tv. I enjoy the ability to dance in the living room, or not. I enjoy the ability to sleep late, to go to bed early, or to stay up all night. The recurring theme, if you hadn’t noticed, is that I enjoy the freedom. Freedom from what you ask? Judgment, maybe. Living with roommates, whether or not they have blood ties, means things get noticed. Did you eat pizza five nights out of the week? Did you ACTUALLY watch an entire Top Model marathon? Did you buy a new dress AGAIN? Perhaps the judgment is implied. Perhaps it’s all in your (my?) head. But there it is. Fear of judgment. When you live with people, they get to KNOW you. And how many of us would choose to let a random person we met off Craig’s List really KNOW us?
Or maybe its easier if the person is random. If you have no preconceived friendship that bears sustaining. If you quite simple don’t care if they know you’ve run that credit card bill up too high, or eaten ALL of the Ben and Jerry’s you bought yesterday. If you can simply cohabitate, share the electric bill, and part ways when you’re done cohabitating and never see each other again, taking the secret of the missing Ben and Jerry’s off into the aether. There is freedom in that too, I suppose.
I have a friend who, despite being in a committed, long-term relationship, prefers living with roommates. And her significant other. All together. Like a sitcom, minus the laugh lines and decent salaries. At first I found this strange. I got all judgmental. See? It goes both ways. I thought, she really just wants people around so she doesn’t have to deal with a failing relationship. But that really isn’t the case (see also, cynical jaded bitch and preconceived notions). Their relationship is one of the strongest and most enduring of any of my friends, and I have had cause to envy, on more than one occasion, the freedom they give each other to simply be who they are. Which is, to me, the ultimate goal, the ultimate prize. Finding someone who can see you in those frumpy pyjamas and STILL want to also be seen with you in public. And who maybe wants to smooch too. Because hey, smooching is important in life. Of course, perhaps any relationship, whether its roommate, life partner, or simply friend, takes work. I’m just saying, I prefer to only do that work once, when it counts (see also: lazy, and fear of commitment).
Maybe, like the NYT article says, it means I’ll be out of practice, though I doubt I will be so out of practice as to be unable to adjust. I live alone, I don’t live on an island devoid of all human contact. But I am quite sure it means I’m spoiled. And frankly, I don’t know how much longer I will get to enjoy the luxury of living alone. In the past six years, in New Orleans, I have seen rent prices for a studio go from a reasonably affordable average of about $550 to $950. Salaries, conversely, have not increased. More and more people are shacking up. And I mean that literally. Priced out of “better” (I say that with tongue in cheek because all neighborhoods in New Orleans are neighborhoods in New Orleans, with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the DUCK that’s a GUN) neighborhoods people opt for middling neighborhoods, and shared apartments, two or three roommates instead of none, or one. I’ve avoided this (like the plague echoes in my mind) so far, and in my thirties I feel even less inclined dto share my space. I know, I know, kindergarten, go back, etc. I even moved OUT of New Orleans, for many reasons, but at least one of them was a desire to protect my solitariness. I really am a spoiled brat.
The economic downturn that began in 2008 has played a big role in this. I know very few people my own age who actually own a house or property. Rather, I feel like my generation has become a generation of nomads. College educated out the wazoo nomads, with no place to call home but our Facebook timelines, and salaries that are probably a third of what we expected when we took the SATs. Student loan payments equal, for many of us, that which we would pay on a house (for some of us, a house, and a couple of European vacations a year). We got the degree, not the yard with the picket fence. Things change. And yes, it is a question of priorities. I prioritize the freedom of dancing in my pyjamas in my living room with no eyes, and no judgements, upon me. But like most people, I struggle to pay the bills, to live the life I want to live.
I live alone. But for how much longer? For me, its no longer a question of IF I meet that special someone who can induce me to LET them see me in my pyjamas, I may no longer live alone. Its now a question of how much longer can I afford food AND rent?
If the middle class is disappearing, what will our living situations look like then? I remember as a girl in school playing MASH – Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. You pick a number and count it off in the letters of each – M – A – S – H and the one you land on equals what you’ll live in when you grow up. Like roulette. You’d play a separate game for who you’d live with, what you’d drive, and how many kids you’d have. But life is never as simple as we envision it as children. I can’t afford Carrie level footwear. But at least, for now, my shoes don’t leak.