Once upon a time, I was a stereotypical little girl. I liked my long hair trimmed with bright ribbons and barrettes. I loved my easy-bake oven, the color pink, Disney princess movies and dolls that you could dress up in pretty outfits with matching hats. Whenever my best-friend Maria and I got together, we always played house. We busied ourselves with the babies and the baking, anticipating the arrival of our husbands soon expected home from the office. We played out the fairy tales we saw so often on TV, which were remarkably similar to our own lives. Maria and I came from good homes. Our parents were happily married and financially stable, each with three healthy children. We were protected and carefree. We lived a fairy tale life.
More than twenty years later, my oldest two nieces, Kennedy and Kingsley, are going through the princess phase. As a Christmas gift, I wrote some fairy tales in which my nieces star as the princesses of the imaginary kingdom Michigandaloo. I wanted to stir the girls’ imaginations by sticking close to the fairy tale genre with its galloping adventures and bits of magic. At the same time, I was cautious because fairy tales can be dangerous. Let me explain through a few paragraphs of autobiography.
For the most part, I grew up in an environment of happiness. Whether I read it in books, saw it in movies or witnessed it in real life relationships, there was a clear fairy tale formula for happiness: girl meets boy, boy rescues girl, girl and boy get married and they live happily ever after. The stories I knew, both fiction and non-fiction, were ripe with sentiment. They made me feel good. I laughed, I cried and I craved the same happiness. From everything I knew as a child, happy people were married people, and when I pictured my own future I wanted to live the fairy tale.
In Christian circles, there is a lot of emphasis placed on marriage. After all, one of the great scriptural metaphors for God’s love for his people is a groom’s love for his bride. When I was preparing for college, a number of women, both at my church and in my family said that I would find my spouse there. This was true for most people I knew at church, for my parents, my brothers, and the majority of my extended family. I had no reason to think that it wouldn’t be true for me. So I went to college expecting to get a degree and a husband. But it didn’t happen. Four years and not a single date! I had a crush on one guy for a few years, but he dated three of my friends instead of me. That was not how the story was supposed to go.
I was blessed with wonderful things in college – friendships, discovering my calling, a deep love for learning, growing faith and a valuable education – but I left California bewildered and a little panicked. Suddenly I reached my future and it was not as I had imagined. Being single was not part of my formula for happiness. No fairy tale I had ever known, whether on screen or in real life, ended with the woman alone. To me, that was the stuff of tragedies, movies you never wanted to see twice because they were too sad. But there I was, standing in the doorway of my real adult life, looking at a landscape that was completely unimagined. I was a sleeping beauty who woke up, not to the gentle kiss of a future with her dragon-slaying prince, but to the jarring crash at the bottom of a rabbit hole, arriving unexpectedly in a strange world where I had to face the dragon myself. Why hadn’t I realized that there was no guarantee that I would meet my spouse in college or get married young? Why had singleness, short or long-term, never been discussed as a possibility for my future? As I grappled with these questions, I felt betrayed by all those women (and a few men) who had ever told me I would find my husband in college. It was foolish of me, but I believed their prediction of my future. I’d been led on, hoodwinked by a fairy tale.
If I read my life like a novel, it’s not surprising that the single page-turn from chapter twenty-one to twenty-two would be so difficult for this protagonist. In many ways, my life to that point was very easy; I usually got what I wanted. When I was suddenly faced with the surprising reality of singleness, I had to learn to chew and swallow certain difficult truths. You can’t buy or create a husband when and how you want him. More importantly, you can’t guarantee you will ever have a husband. People are not things to be acquired. Marriage is not an achievement, like a trophy that we get if we are good enough, nor is it the answer to what you want to be when you grow up. Marriage is not the cure for loneliness, the elixir of contentment or the brand of worth. And, finally, lasting happiness is not inextricably tied to romantic relationships, marriage and children.
It took me several years to process and accept the reality of being a single adult. Surprisingly, I needed to grieve the loss of my unmet expectations. Slowly, like scabbing and rescabbing over deep scratches, I healed from the disappointment. Part of that healing, a very important part, was beginning to reconstruct a vision for my future that led toward happiness which did not hinge on marital status. I also found solace in discovering that my experience was very common among young Christian women.
I once supervised a young woman named Cindy, who has graciously given me permission to share her story with you. When she was a junior in college, Cindy shared with me that she thought way too much about boys. Like many women her age, Cindy wanted to be dating, to be pursued, to have a boyfriend. To combat these consumptive thoughts, one year she gave up thinking about boys for Lent. Unfortunately, deciding not to think about boys didn’t help her stop thinking about boys. We talked about what might be causing her mind to be so focused on romantic relationships. Our conversation led her to try a more tangible experiment, giving up romantic comedies. Around the same time, friends convinced Cindy to see the movie Enchanted. Here’s what happened:
“When I decided to go, I only thought of Enchanted as a Disney princess movie, but as I sat in the theater watching it, I realized it was very much a romantic comedy. I caught myself giggling and sighing, wishing I could be a princess and find true love’s kiss. That reaction was the very reason why I wanted to give up romantic comedies in the first place. Those movies gave me unrealistic expectations for romance and relationships and had me wishing for a fantasy. When the wishing was over, I was disappointed with the reality of my singleness.”
Three years later, and much wisdom gained, Cindy reflects on her experience.
“I realize it wasn’t necessarily the act of giving up rom-coms that affected my thinking so much as identifying those movies as potential obstacles for feeling content with [my] current situation or relationship status. Now, I am able to watch those movies more critically and view the whirlwind romances and serendipitous meetings with a bit of skepticism so I don’t learn to expect that in my own life. I still hope for a relationship and possibly marriage, but I can’t just assume that will happen. I don’t know what plans God has for me, whether it includes being married or not. I’m trying to be content with my current singleness since I don’t know how long it will last.”
I’ve met, befriended and/or mentored many single women like Cindy who grapple with unexpected or unwanted singleness, just like I did. It’s vital that together we work to make meaning of our experience and encourage each other to value what we have and who we are, just as we are. If we don’t, discontent or loneliness will be the bitter replacements for our happiness.
As I continue to write fairy tales for my nieces, I think very carefully about the assumptions that undergird what I write. I want these stories to help Kennedy and Kingsley peer into the future and see a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I’m loosening the fairy tale formula so that a myriad of things other than romance – acts of service or kindness, friendship or overcoming challenges – shape a fulfilling, God-honoring life. My hope is that Kennedy and Kingsley read my stories and learn valuable lessons about how to live happily ever after.