Redefining Old Maid
When singleness drags on, it can feel like you’ve been dealt a bad hand of cards. But marriage isn’t a prerequisite for a meaningful, joy-filled life.
The cacophony of childish voices would shriek and dissolve into a babble of laughter. Sometimes my voice was among them as we sat pointing and jeering at the unlucky child holding the only card with no match in the deck. Other times, I was the one left with the card bearing the image of an awkward-looking older woman. I would roll my eyes and shake my head in defeat. It was only a game — next time I would be luckier.
More than two decades later, I remain a fan of many childhood games. I still spend lazy Sunday afternoons sitting around the coffee table with my nieces, playing Candy Land, Go Fish, and Chutes and Ladders. As a single woman in my 30s, however, Old Maid is one game I hope they never play.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I didn’t think much about old maids. Just like the “old maid” in the card game, never-married women were a minority — 86 percent of women were married before they turned 30.1 In that context, “old maids” entered my awareness in an array of caricatures: the spinster aunt chaperone in period films, the career woman with big hair and suits boasting shoulder pads, the cranky librarian lacking social skills. And those were the positive examples. Older single women also took up imaginative space in the most sinister spheres: Ursula the witch, for example, who tried to steal Ariel’s prince in “The Little Mermaid.”
As a teen, my perspective broadened to include other stereotypes. There was the bohemian with a passport overflowing with stamps but no place to call home. And of course there was the missionary. Amy Carmichael and Mother Teresa stood out as examples of benevolent celibacy. My dreams and gifts, however, were always more domestic.
Like many conservative Christians, I heard about the value of marriage and family. I learned the importance of courtship and of prayerfully choosing a spouse, and the benefits of early marriage. Godly womanhood was modeled before me in the context of being a wife and mother. I read and re-read Proverbs 31, wanting to become “excellent wife” material. So when my 20s started to drag on with no husband in sight, I floundered a bit. What does being a godly woman look like in the context of singleness?
Over time, I came to some conclusions about my identity and made peace with my relationship status. While people have tried to push me into the stereotypical role of career girl or world traveler, I have slowly carved out a space to live out the principles of Proverbs 31 femininity in life’s many spheres.
“She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. …
Her clothing is fine linen and purple. …
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31:17, 22b, 25).
It’s easy to think the answer lies in our outward appearance and level of physical attractiveness. We have all had those days — the ones where you simply wallow on the sofa in sweats while nursing cartons of ice cream. And then there are those other days — the ones full of crash diets, fresh haircuts, and yet another new outfit.
Regardless of what we might wish or preach, attraction will always have a role in romantic relationships. What we take in visually is our first sensory experience of other people, and we can’t get away from that reality. As single women, however, we don’t have to get stuck in the cycle of viewing our bodies through the lens of our relationship status or lack thereof.
Our bodies belong to God and we ought to steward them for His glory. This includes staying in shape and growing in physical strength because we want to honor God and be healthy enough to serve others. Stewardship also includes hygiene, tidiness, modesty and dignity — realizing that our appearances say something about our values. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, we can let our character work its way from the inside out.
“She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and portions for her maidens” (Proverbs 31:15).
Marriage is a major rite of passage, and extended singleness can turn into a strangely extended adolescence. I once had a fellow member of my singles group call our class “youth group.” She blushed, as we were mostly late 20s and early 30s. But I understood the slip up. Activities amounted to games. Potlucks consisted mostly of bagged junk food. Many of us didn’t fellowship or show hospitality like adults.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing a bag of chips to a party or playing games with friends. But we can socialize like adults even as singles. We can volunteer to bring a main course to the potluck. We can invite people into our homes and cook actual meals for them. We can sit around and discuss real life over coffee or tea. Table fellowship has always been central to the Christian life, and we can facilitate these meaningful times of connection, regardless of marital status.
“She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:19-20).
As Christians, we know that part of our identity as human beings is rooted in our role as workers (Genesis 2:15). To do our work well is part of our calling as image bearers of God. And yet finding meaning in the 21st century economy can be a struggle. I have experienced the blessing of having the financial freedom to pursue dreams (including further education), but it’s been a struggle to stick to long-term financial plans. In truth, it’s hard to be motivated to save up for a house on my own.
Remembering that there are many needs in the world outside of my own personal wants provides encouragement toward increased financial security. I may never have children of my own to provide for, but being more financially strong would give me the means to foster a child or adopt. Better financial planning leaves more left over to give to those in need. While my own portfolio is a work in progress, considering the needs of the world has given more meaning to my work on days when it begins to feel empty.
“She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant;
she brings her food from afar” (Proverbs 31:13-14).
While financial responsibility is important, being single doesn’t mean you have to commit to a typical 9-to-5 job if that isn’t your calling. Growing up, I assumed I would be a stay-at-home mom like my mother and grandmothers before me. When I went to college, I chose a path I thought I could do from home — freelance writing and editing. Then, after I graduated with a B.A. but no M.R.S., I found myself confused about what was next. I began working on a freelance career while doing various part-time jobs. When friends asked about my work choices, I found many people confused and rather judgmental about my lack of “true” career path. As a single woman, I felt a cultural expectation that I should start climbing a ladder somewhere, not hone my work-from-home skills.
In “The Measure of Success,” Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank noted the focus of the Proverbs 31 woman remains family-centered:
Her primary responsibilities were to provide food and clothing for her household. That was no small task in the ancient world. These duties had become the work that women performed because the tasks were compatible with childcare.2
Today’s economy is far different from that of the ancient world, and God leads women into many fulfilling career paths. However, you can choose a work situation that provides you with flexibility to make relationships, family and church a priority. Whether that means starting a business, working toward a from-home job or juggling a couple flexible part-time positions, the single years are the perfect time to make these sorts of transitions.
Being an Example
“She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be a little girl growing up in 2018. Things have changed in so many ways, for good and for ill. My nieces know who Ursula is, but they also love watching Elsa and Anna, whose frozen fairytale does not revolve around a prince. These days, people are marrying later, with more than a quarter of women not marrying until at least their 30s.3 My nieces know many more unmarried women than I did at their age — and I think that is a good thing.
As I struggle to live my life well, I hope that I can be an example of a different sort of “old maid.” I want my nieces to know they can grow into traditional values like those taught in Proverbs 31, regardless of whether they find themselves married. I want to speak to them about the goodness of marriage while modeling a life that is joyful and meaningful. I want them to know that in Christ, they can have a happy ending — no matter what cards they are dealt.
Copyright 2018 Candice Gage. All rights reserved.
- Kreider, Rose M. and Renee Ellis, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009,” United States Census Bureau, May 2011, https://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-125.pdf.
- McCulley, Carolyn and Nora Shank, “The Measure of Success” (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 56.
- Kreider and Ellis, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces.”
About the Author
Candice Gage is a freelance writer who wrestles daily with what it means to love God and love others well. Success for her means being the best sister, daughter, auntie and friend she can be. She enjoys long discussions over coffee, spoiling her Jack Russell terrier, Dolly, and watching fireflies from her hammock. As an amateur minimalist, she is trying to live more simply and fully every day. Her undergrad is in English, and she thinks the solution to most of life’s problems can be found in a book. She blogs at Incandescent Ink.