Late one night, a woman looked out of her apartment window with the unsettling feeling that the rest of her life would be spent alone.
She never anticipated being 35 and single. But after setups and short-lived relationships, she felt like she had run dry of potential men to date, much less marry. She ached for a husband and children. In this moment of despair, it felt like the chance to fulfill her deepest desires had escaped her.
This woman was my mom many years ago, although it sounds a lot like me.
I’ve inherited much from my mom, such as her eyes and hair, her shy nature and coyly dry humor, and her fascination with art history. But perhaps best of all, I’ve also inherited her stories, lessons, and tried-and-true ways of facing life (even its occasional loneliness) with a heart open to love.
At 24, I have no long list of ex-lovers. In fact, I haven’t even a single “maybe-it’s-love” relationship on my record. When thoughts about being forever alone slink into my mind, my mom’s lessons on singleness keep me grounded. After all, she’s been there before. And there’s some truth to the adage that “Mother knows best.”
While she would never call herself an expert on love or singleness, marrying for the first time in her mid-thirties gave my mom time to cultivate some serious single-woman wisdom. My mom never let singlehood make her bitter; she let it make her better. And she’ll tell you, her thirty-six years before marriage allowed her to become exactly who she was meant to be. Her lessons, which come with experience and age, remind me to not worry so much about dating that I lose sight of the present. Instead, she reminds me to focus on the here and now and to be patient but not passive. In other words, time spent single should never go to waste.
Here are lessons from my mom that have helped me stay positive through singlehood, and I hope they encourage you, too.
01. Stop drawing lines between singlehood and marriage.
“I had a full life before and after marriage, in different ways,” my mom says. While single, she flourished as a kindergarten teacher, furthered her education through a master’s degree, and traveled in the U.S. and abroad. She made the most of her time when single, and not much changed after the altar.
When my mom met her Mr. Right, her passions stayed the same. With marriage came a permanent travel partner and three of her own children to teach.
We are not defined by our relationship status. It’s time to dispel the myths that life begins or ends at marriage. If we draw lines between the two stages of our lives, we may mistakenly believe that our “best years” are only found in one phase or the other. As my mom attests, the lines between singlehood and marriage are not that divisive after all.
02. Don’t despair when your friends get married before you.
As four of her five sisters, both older and younger, got married before her, wedding bells were a bittersweet sound for my mom. “I was always happy when my sisters got married but a little wistful, too,” she says. But amid the thrill of family weddings, my mom kept a level head, knowing that her life and love story would unfold in their own timing: “Frankly, all but one of [my sisters] married pretty young,” my mom says. “And I knew I didn’t want to marry that young. I had a chance to teach and travel and experience life a bit.”
Rather than wallowing in jealousy, my mom chose to be happy for friends and relatives who had found love. The woman who can’t be happy for others will not be happy with herself. So, let’s celebrate our friends when their weddings come along—as we would hope they’d celebrate ours. Don’t forget, single life can be worth celebrating, too.
03. Love and serve others.
We hear that our single years should be our “selfish” years, but there’s a problem with too much “me time.” In the end, living for ourselves first and foremost can bring more loneliness than fulfillment. When single, my mom found purpose in loving and serving others.
Beyond our closest circle of family and friends, we can pour love into our communities and organizations. “From a practical standpoint, I think it’s important to be of service to people in some capacity,” my mom says. “Sometimes people who live alone can become self-absorbed. Volunteering takes the focus off ourselves, and it’s gratifying to help those who are in need. Staying engaged in life is important for emotional well-being and gives us a purpose.”
Let’s not mistake marriage for the only viable relationship we need in our lives. Even married women attest that marriage alone will not fulfill every desire of our hearts. When single, my mom prioritized time with her family, never missing weekly Sunday gatherings. Before my mom had children of her own, she served as a second mother to her many nieces and nephews. As a kindergarten teacher, she took pride in teaching and nurturing her students. By caring for kids in the classroom on weekdays and her nieces and nephews on weekends, her hands were full, and so was her heart.
04. Let life take you places.
Among its many perks, single life allows us to explore our interests and passions, wherever they lead us. For my mom, that once meant signing on to a three-week bus tour of New England, not knowing a soul and being the youngest person on the trip by thirty years. Her friends laughed at her for signing up, but her bus tour adventure brought her to new, wonderful places that she would not have experienced otherwise.
Pursuing your interests will also lead you to like-minded people: “You could even meet someone on a trip who also enjoys traveling or someone at a museum who also enjoys art,” my mom says. Common interests can even be the foundation for a relationship.
But most importantly, indulge your interests for your own sake. During her single years, my mom dabbled in aerobics, tennis, ballet, and needlepoint, all for the first time. She enrolled in an art history class where she discovered one of her greatest loves, the Impressionism art movement. “I didn’t meet any guys,” she says. “But I was enriched!”
05. Say yes to an old-fashioned setup.
My mom stresses that women be proactive in meeting men—not necessarily the advice we want to hear, but she has a valid point. My mom and dad met through a mutual friend. Before that, my mom went on many blind dates thanks to her matchmaking sisters. Her suggestion to women who wonder where all of the good guys are: Rely on friends and relatives for introductions.
“I think women should use their friends to meet other people. There wasn’t any social media in my day,” she says. “I think it’s really important to ask friends if they know of anyone you could date, and do the same for them.”
Don’t be afraid to ask your friends to play matchmaker. Trust their discretion, and accept setups with grace. Even bad blind dates can be practice for better dates to come. Moreover, give people a chance. “Get to know someone before passing judgment,” my mom says. When you give your date the benefit of the doubt, he is more likely to make a good impression.
06. Keep an attitude of gratitude.
When we find joy in everyday life and in the small things, as my mom says, we start to think less about being single and more about the blessings before us: “If you are mindful of your blessings and live in a state of gratitude, then you become more positive and mindful of what you have rather than dwelling on what you don’t have in your life, for now.”
Keep a running list of what you’re grateful for. You may even find that the single life comes with its own blessings (ahem, blessings in disguise count, too).
Single life and relationships alike are what we make of them. Personal growth starts long before we take that step down the aisle. Rather than a purgatory, singlehood can be a time of progression. Among the lessons I’ve taken from my mom, I’ve learned that whether single, dating, or married, we’re all works in progress. And love, like any masterpiece, takes time—something that I cannot rush, even if I tried.