The Secret to Feeling Fulfilled as a Single Woman

Your single life isn’t just a placeholder until you get married and have kids.
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Your single life isn’t just a placeholder until you get married and have kids.

On a recent Friday night, I was visiting with some girlfriends. One conversation led to the next until one friend, clearly fatigued from the week, said, “I like my job, and I know it’s meaningful work, but let’s be honest, it’s really just a placeholder until I have children.” Many of our friends nodded in agreement.

I could relate to my friends’ feeling of aimlessness. I too hope to marry and raise children one day, and there was certainly a time when I felt like those weary days at work were just filling time. The truth is, this sense of fatigue is not uncommon among women, but—as I have learned—finding Mr. Right, and even having kids with him, isn't a cure-all.

"Millennial women are leaving their jobs more than their male counterparts,” reports a Fast Company article, citing recent surveys of women and work trends, but, “ […]it isn’t because they are becoming mothers,” the article continued, citing that only 11 percent of women leave the workforce permanently to have kids.

Fast Company sources attributed the burnout of young women to high expectations and high demands—citing the tendency to check email last thing at night and first thing in the morning and expecting fulfillment from a job that isn’t turning out to be the “dream” they had their hearts set on. Their “solution” to the predicament of young women burning out in promising careers is to find a job you’re passionate about and learn to find balance in life.

A nice idea in theory. But as an article on the topic at Forbes noted, “It seems relaxation is something millennial women have never experienced.”

Especially as a single young woman, the demands on life seem high. It's as though you either should be actively pursuing a man, or overachieving at work so that your career justifies your lack of spouse. Either way, I think I speak for many millennial women when I say that rarely does it feel like we're enough—social enough, hard-working enough, dating enough, pretty enough.

And as these trends show, our perceived shortcomings are taking a tole. 

“These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse told Forbes. “They expected things to be better now that they’ve arrived and made it," she continued, “But instead they are starting over on the bottom rung and still striving. You can’t see the end of the tunnel because they are so many twists and turns[…]. They don’t know what they are striving for, which makes it really hard to move forward.”

To which I nodded in agreement. Because not too long ago, I was in the same fatigued spot as my friends on that Friday night and the millennial women leaving the workforce, exhausted from work that, yes, I loved, but that didn't make me feel fulfilled in life. And like so many, I too was not sure how to change my situation.

Short of marrying the next man who came along and hoping, in vain, that starting a family was the answer to my uneasiness, I turned to family, friends, and mentors for guidance. After all, there was no reason to think that being single and burned out meant I was in crisis; It just meant I needed a shift.

“Think about where you want to be at the age of 50,” one older friend advised. “Then determine what steps you need to take to get there.”

I held my breath as she started her next sentence, not sure what she might say.

“What type of daughter, sister, friend do you want to be?” she pondered. “Are there books you want to have read, hobbies you want to have, or places you want to have traveled? Do you want to know any foreign languages?” And finally, “What professional contributions would you like to have made?”

As I listened to her suggestions for my next steps, I could actually feel the fatigue being lifted. This all sounded so logical, and so freeing, mostly because it takes the pressure of purpose, fulfillment, and success off of one’s job or relationship status and instead applies fulfillment and success to several factors. 

Looking back at the first twenty-two years of my life, that is not how purpose, fulfillment, and success were defined.

What my friend was proposing to me in my fatigue, is that now that I’m in the long-awaited professional realm, my purpose is not just the next big résumé advancement or even life milestone like starting a family (an obviously wonderful ambition)—rather, my purpose is to live life well, in all areas, no matter my current state in life.

This looks like leaving the office on time on a Tuesday night so that you can meet your friends across town for dinner, where the topic of conversation will avoid work and instead focus on movies, the news, or big ideas circulating in our heads. It looks like calling your sister or mom on your commute, just to chat about the latest news or family happenings. It means cultivating that green thumb you always wanted or cooking your way through that cookbook you got for Christmas. And more importantly, it means resisting the urge to respond to that work email at 10 p.m. and cracking open a novel instead.

Of course, a life lived well includes giving your all when you’re at work. And there will still always be times when work is more demanding than average—that project that requires you stay late at the office for weeks or that business trip that cuts into your weekend. And of course, there's nothing wrong with pursuing love on your own terms and as the right timing comes along. But in my experience, life's demands are less draining when you know on the other side is that friend, hobby, or novel you’ve been eager to spend time with.

Jobs and positions will likely change over the years, and children will grow up and move into independent lives of their own. While certain seasons of a woman’s life will be overly concentrated on raising children or nurturing a career, may we accept the challenge of those seasons—to resist the urge to strive for the next rung on the ladder and instead embrace the joys and struggles as just one part of a life lived well.

 Photo Credit: Julie Cate