As I am approaching my 30th birthday, enjoying my unmarried but committed relationship and going through professional and personal ups and downs as an expat in Asia, thoughts of a different, more conventional lifestyle often enter my mind. As more and more of my childhood friends get married, have kids, and settle into lives closely resembling those of our parents, I begin to wonder whether it’s time to factor a baby and/or a marriage into my 10-year plan or if I’ll ever come to regret the choices I’ve made so far.
With these thoughts in mind, and after listening to an episode of Call Your Girlfriend podcast which featured a conversation with the author, I have recently reached for Glynnis MacNicol’s memoir No One Tells You This. It struck me how closely my own thoughts and fears were reflected in her story. In the book, triggered by her 40th birthday and her mother’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, MacNicol looks back at her own childfree, unmarried, single life, closely examining her choices and asking herself: Is this the life I really want?
Throughout the book, she recounts the events of that year and discovers a reflection of her own internal struggles in the lives of her friends and family: insecurity, unfullfillment, loss, and grief. As she supports women in her life through the hardships of motherhood, marital problems, and debilitating illness, she is trying to understand whether there’s a set of choices that would ensure forever-protection from existential loneliness.
In this liminal moment, the author confronts the dominant cultural message about femininity, which she has absorbed over the years: a woman who doesn’t settle into the predefined role of a content mother and wife by age forty becomes invisible. MacNicol looks straight into the eyes of life that could have been hers (quite literally, while holding her newborn nephew) and ponders her childlessness and the hypothetical joys of parenting. It’s a moving moment of love, acceptance, and self-assertion and a real lesson in confident, mature womanhood.
Of course, I might regret it. (…) But it seemed to me that going through life making decisions on what I might possibly feel in a future that may or may not come about was a bad way to live. I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. – Glynnis MacNicol
As the author finds her own answer to all those existential questions, we get a glimpse of what a life of a New York female journalist looks like post 2008-financial crisis. We follow her through professional burnout, regaining financial stability, building her own business, and pitching book proposals. But most importantly, we get to know her friends, women who have been supporting her for over two decades. No One Tells You This is in fact a tribute to the power of female friendships and “voluntary family,” a concept central to the author’s identity. From MacNicol’s book we learn that the “husband-shaped hole” in one’s life can be filled with love offered by a group of doting friends and that sometimes “saving someone” means offering them a glass of wine and a couch to sleep on.
One theme in MacNicol’s book that particularly resonated with me was the account of her mother’s illness and death. The frequently used phrase “We don’t fully grow up until we lose our parents” would come to mind often while I was reading those passages. The author describes shuttling between NYC and her home country of Canada, researching elderly care facilities, and discussing her options with social workers and medical professionals. While for many 30-year-olds the perspective of becoming a caretaker for an aging and ailing parent is still a far-away possibility, it is something that many expats consider years in advance. In between infrequent visits, often dictated by the cost of plane fares and complicated holiday schedules, we live in fear of receiving news of illness or death from home and often think about the logistics behind the hypothetical international move in case of an emergency. While there’s nothing that can prepare us for those situations, it was comforting to be reminded that we all struggle in similar ways, regardless of age and experience.
“There are no happy endings, just good editing,” states MacNicol at the end of her memoir. These words ring especially true now, in the age of social media, where our friends’ carefully crafted Instagram and Facebook narratives can often gives us the feeling that we’re the only ones failing at life. But as Carrie Kerpen writes: we should stop comparing our behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel. Letting go of the future we’ve been told to pursue, embracing our needs and choices, and creating a life that is a true reflection of our values and goals is the key to satisfaction and joy.
No One Tells You This: A Memoir by Glynnis MacNicol
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 10, 2018)
Price: $13.99 (Kindle edition)