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  • Neenah Pickett

When Love Doesn't Come

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Half of the women in the room were single millennials and I represented their biggest fear. You could see the horror on their faces. And so, to spare them further pain, I stopped talking and stayed silent for the rest of the evening.

It all started at this monthly gathering. It was a women’s group and ironically enough the topic that evening was shame. It was the first and the last time I attended. A dozen of us were seated in a circle, discussing life and love, challenges and hope. A forty-something mom talked about her children and how she was struggling to find balance between her career and her roles as a wife and mother. A twenty-something woman I’ll call Amy, in tears, said that she was afraid she’d never find love or have children. The other single women echoed her fears. Those who were married were quick to comfort and encourage them, saying, “Have faith. God will bless you with a family.”

I tried to keep my mouth shut, but I thought, “Shouldn’t I have my say too?” So, I started, “But it doesn’t always turn out that way.” I had their attention. “Look at me. I’m in my fifties — still no husband, and no hope of having kids, at least not biologically. We don’t always get what we want.”

Silence. No comfort or encouraging words for me. Instead, the tension and terror were palpable. Their silence spoke volumes. Quickly recovering, one of the married women changed the subject. It was then, at age fifty-two, that I realized my truth wasn’t welcomed. I was shamed for having the nerve to speak it out loud. So I kept quiet.

I get it. It wasn’t the best setting to express my truth. No one clinging to hope wants to hear from the person spouting despair. But in this setting, I thought we were all taking the mask off.

Over the last decade, I’ve had to face that I’m never going to be the wife and mother I desire to be. I’ve struggled to let go of that hope. And I became ashamed that I no longer feel like the hero in my own story.

In 2009, I launched a blog and personal dating site called “52 Weeks 2 Find Him,” where I chronicled my extensive efforts for an entire year to find a husband. It was an exciting and crazy adventure. In addition to my own site, I signed up for at least five other dating sites; I went on numerous speed dating events and I went on outings that my readers selected in order to meet men. I even spent a week trading places with three married friends where they got an online taste of being single Neenah for a week, and I had to manage some of their duties.

My public journey went viral and I appeared on national morning shows, talk shows, news outlets, and other media. Because of all the attention, I went on more dates that year than I had in my entire life up to that point. I also got to know women and men from around the world who encouraged me and gained courage from my journey. I felt like a hero because I was proactively pursuing my dream, filled with hope, and courageously sharing my story. It resonated with so many. It was an eye-opening experience for so many reasons. I will always treasure 2009.

I was ultimately unsuccessful in my quest, yet I still ended the year hopeful. And the next year, as I’d publicly vowed, I took a year off from dating to see if love would find me. It didn’t. Then another year went by…and another. I dated for a short period a few years ago, but the relationship didn’t last. Fast forward a decade later and I still haven’t found “him” and that hopeful hero has grown weary.

When marriage didn’t present itself, I thought about adoption. I went to adoption seminars. I talked with social workers and friends who were foster and adoptive parents. It took some soul searching, but over the years I decided I just didn’t have the support system I needed to raise a child on my own.

So while I won’t have the pleasure of being a mother, I haven’t given up on the possibility of walking down the aisle. We’re a rare bunch, the never-married. We make up only 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. population. There’s even fewer of us who have both never been married nor had children. My odds aren’t great; Pew researcher Kim Parker says that the chance of getting married after age forty-five is small. I have a 1.6% chance. And it’s not a leap to deduce that it’s smaller still if you are, as I am, African American. While we’re finally learning to celebrate women who choose to remain single and childless, we often forget that for many it isn’t simply a choice.

As a Black woman, I’ve learned that I must often work harder to get what I want. In more than a few areas of my life I’ve beaten the odds and I feel incredibly grateful for that. But I know that one-third of us Black women will remain single by the time we’re in our forties, compared to only 1 out of 9 for white women. As a go-getter, I stared at those odds and was determined to beat them. So after my “52 Weeks” project ended in failure, I resented becoming just another statistic.

Of course, not everyone wants to get married, and that number is rising. A great many millennials don’t find marriage necessary. According to Pew research, when the millennial population reaches my age, “a record high share (roughly 25%) [are] likely to have never been married.”

It’s wonderful that so many unmarried adults find contentment in their singleness. No one should be made to feel like they are wrong for wanting to stay single or childless, nor should they be criticized for their desire to have a family of their own.

My concern is that in many circles, it’s no longer socially acceptable for me to voice that desire. Years after my ’52 Weeks’ project, I was with a group of six millennial women. Some had children, others didn’t. Although we were in a work environment the topic turned towards marriage. One of the women was pregnant and spoke of the difficulties she’s having with her baby’s father because of his controlling mother. His mom was hindering them from being together. I asked, “do you think you’ll get married anyway?” I sincerely thought that’s what she meant. She seemed puzzled, maybe a little offended by my question. She told me she had no plans to get married.

We talked about marriage for a short time and the five other women felt the same way. Marriage wasn’t an important part of their future. I shared with them briefly about my journey. While some were fascinated others criticized me for being old-fashioned. Their views were starkly different than the women I mentioned earlier who wanted marriage.

I fully support those who don’t want marriage to be associated with a happy ending. I have benefited from women who stood up to the shame and stigma of being single, and who fought against the discrimination and stereotypes. I don’t want to be accused of setting the movement back. But I wonder, can I be a feminist and still be disappointed with not having the family I longed for or will there be a perceived betrayal?

I’m not naive. I know that having a family can be a struggle. I hear about the frustrations every time I talk with friends who have their own families. But I also hear them share about the indescribable love, the joy, the sense of purpose, and how their families make them want to be better people. I’ve heard them say over and over how they can’t imagine their lives without their family. It’s what I imagined too, and I feel an overwhelming loss for the family I never had.

“Why can’t you just get over it?” well-meaning friends ask me. “Be content with your life.” They’re surprised to learn that I am content. I have a great life. But contentment and desire can and do coexist.

So, now I rarely mention my desire. There are the eye rolls when I bring it up. I’ve allowed myself to be shamed into silence and that’s on me.

My “shero” in this area is Gayle King. I’ve watched her for decades express her desire to marry again after her first marriage ended in 1993. My heart leaps when I hear her discuss it because there are so few role models who give a voice to what I’m feeling. And no one silences Ms. King! She’s a smart, funny, extremely successful woman, yet she isn’t embarrassed to talk about something so personal that she desires.

I’m still processing my disappointment that my life didn’t turn out the way I wanted, and it’s okay to not be okay with that. I wish I could have articulated my feelings to the women in that room. In some ways, it feels like I failed me. It doesn’t matter whether it was my fault or not. And there are certainly many areas in my life where I’ve succeeded and thrived. But as for the goal of having the family I longed for? It’s not going to happen.

After my “52 Weeks” project ended, I grieved. When December came around with no man was in sight, I called my friends and we strategized about how we could spin it so I didn’t look like a failure. Ultimately, all the ideas we came up with fell flat and felt desperate. Despite knowing the online haters would be delighted with my lack of success, I knew I needed to simply be authentic about my very public defeat.

You don’t often see people posting on social media about their failures. But there’s great benefit in taking the time to process our failures. Author Kerri Weems describes it as allowing yourself to grieve in order to move forward into “practical hope.” The first step involves “radical acceptance.”

I have choices concerning my marital and parental state: I can pretend I’m not bothered by it, feigning cold indifference. I can point my finger at myself and others and bitterly focus on the blame. I can chalk it up to ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ — a passive fatalistic approach. Or, I can practice radical acceptance.

“Radical acceptance rests on letting go the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” — Marsha Linehan

Psychologist Marsha Lineham stresses that suppressing my desire and pretending I don’t want what I want isn’t effective. Instead I should accept that I want something I don’t have. It’s simply my reality. Acceptance makes a problem that you’re unable to solve less emotionally painful in the long run. Facing the disappointment — letting it wash over us — then learning from it and bravely sharing what you’ve learned with others helps you move forward.

Acceptance doesn’t mean simply giving up. Instead, it’s being mindful of your current state without projecting it onto your future. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a draft of his sermon on Unfulfilled Hopes suggests, I ask myself, “How can I turn this liability into an asset?” While I never imagined I wouldn’t have a family in my fifties, I still hope to have a husband one day. I don’t dwell on marriage 24/7. I don’t obsess over it. But like anyone who has a dream, I still long to see it fulfilled, and perhaps help others with the same dream.

And I want to be able to talk about it — all of it: my disappointment, my excitement, my insecurities, and my optimism. Dr. King beautifully described it as “developing the capacity to accept a finite disappointment and yet cling to an infinite hope.”

I understand the anxiety of those young women in the circle. But instead of changing the subject and avoiding the topic, I wish they’d made room for older women like me to face their reality.

Here’s what I wish I’d said to those women: Let me accept my disappointment. Don’t minimize my pain. And please don’t shame me because you think I shouldn’t desire marriage.

I’ve been where you are, and there’s no need to fear my story. While I still haven’t found a husband, there are things I’ve learned along the way that have helped and even encouraged me. I’m sure that you’ve learned some things I could benefit from too. Please do share them with me.

Here are ten things I would say to women of any age who desire to marry:

1. Hope, in spite of it all. Hope brings resilience. You’re never too old to find love. I have friends in their sixties who married for the first time. I’ve read articles about women marrying for the first time in their seventies and even their eighties!

2. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you, speak truth to you, and not belittle your desire for marriage.

3. Keep a healthy balance between striving for the things you want and practicing gratitude for what you have. You can desire to marry and still be content.

4. Don’t expect love to just happen. It’s wonderful when it does, but if you want marriage, you will most likely have to actively look for it.

5. Time really does fly. It’s wonderful to be passionate about your career, but don’t set aside a good relationship. Make time for both.

6. Consider why you want to get married. Learn about healthy and unhealthy reasons. And never let someone make you feel inferior because you’re single. Married people have no fewer issues to work through than singles. Regardless of our marital state, we all must work to improve ourselves.

7. Don’t let your bad experiences with past relationships sour you. Despite what anyone tells you, there are still plenty of great single men out there. Discard the cynicism.

8. Don’t try to force it. You can’t force yourself to fall in love and you can’t force someone to fall in love with you. So be mindful of what is in your control, such as pursuing peace even when things aren’t going your way.

9. Decide that even if you never get the husband and the kids that you’ve always wanted, it won’t destroy you. You won’t be bitter. You will still enjoy your life. Yes, it will hurt at times, but look for ways to turn the disappointment into a learning and growing experience.

10. Find “your people.” These are other women who share your desires and are positive influences. A group with other single women your age reminds you that you aren’t alone and allow you to cultivate positivity.

No, love doesn’t always come. But I choose to accept where I am and seek out that infinite hope in new areas. I choose to turn life’s disappointments into opportunities to speak up, practice more compassion, encourage and support those with unfulfilled desire and to once again be the hero in my life.

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