I have been trying to write you this letter for over two years. It is a very long time to write a letter, I know, but this has not always been a letter that I have been able to write. You know how sometimes you are so tired that it seems impossible to get out of bed? Or how when Little Brother is unkind, you get so full of feelings that it is difficult to listen? That is sort of how I’ve felt when I’ve tried to write this letter—not quite ready and usually full of feelings. But there are some things that I want to tell you, Jo, and stories I’d like to share, and now that you are seven, I think it is time that I do.
Let me start with a memory.
Two and a half years ago, we were all at the Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, Nebraska—well, all of us except for Josephine, who wasn’t born yet—and while we picked at our pancakes and sipped on our coffee, I listened as you began putting the world together.
“You need to get married, Auntie Amanda,” you said as you played with the old-fashioned toys at the table. “When are you getting married?”
It was an honest enough question and one that I ask frequently myself, but something about your little five-year-old voice, your hopeful face, and your doubtless belief that of course I would get married, it was only a matter of time, something about that hit my heart. Like when you walk down the toy aisle at the store and you see the pony—the pink one with the glitter tail, the one that was absolutely made for you and that you must have no matter what it costs—it was that sort of feeling.
“I don’t know, Jo. But if I do get married, would you like to be in my wedding?”
This is called deflection. Deflection is something you do when you want to change the conversation without letting anyone else know that you’re doing it. It’s sort of like when you’re supposed to be cleaning the playroom and instead you start playing games, then when Daddy comes to check on you, you invite him to play instead of talking about all of the toys that are still on the floor.
“Yes,” you told me. Then you paused.
“Uncle Timmy needs to get married too.”
This is also something that you’ve said before, though that day at Cracker Barrel was the first time that you put these two discrepancies together.
“You should marry Uncle Timmy,” you suggested between bites of oatmeal. As if marriage were really that simple. As if the ache in my heart could be solved by a pint-sized match maker.
Four and a half years ago I was living in Paris and taking care of a little girl not much younger than you are now. Nina and I read lots of stories, mostly about princesses and balls and happily-ever-after endings. One day, while we were jumping on the trampoline (which was Nina’s favorite thing to do,) she began asking about my love life.
“You are in love with a boy?” Nina questioned.
“I am,” I replied.
“What is his name?”
I told her.
“You are going to marry him?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
A part of me wondered why I was sharing all of this with a six-year-old. It wasn’t a simple story—the romance in question—and though I didn’t know it then, it would not have a happy ending.
“I want to marry him,” I told her, and this was perhaps the first time I had audibly and resolutely told anyone that this was the case.
“He wants to marry you?” asked Nina.
“I don’t know,” I said again. “He used to.”
It is not always so simple—love and marriage and working things out. Maybe it should be. Maybe all you really need for a marriage is a bride and a groom, a great big cake, a pretty white dress, some magic words, and a lot of determination. Maybe I expect too much from love or the concept of marriage. Maybe I should not expect it at all. But this is a problem that I’ve had my whole life.
I was six years old when I developed my first crush on a boy. His name was Marcus. He had sky blue eyes and a good smile and we played games together on the playground. When we were in Kindergarten, I kissed him at recess, or at least I think I did. I don’t actually remember, but this is the story we told each other when we met for coffee 18 years later. Marcus was the first boy I inserted into the “potential husband” spot in the marriage compartment of my brain. And though he occupied that spot for much of grade school, he would not be the only person to do so.
I have been told since I was small, probably not much older than you, Jo, that God was preparing a man for me to marry; that somewhere out there in the great big world a boy was growing into a man who would bring me flowers and take me to dinner, build me a house, sit beside me in church, help raise our children, and keep me safe from all of the things I didn’t know or understand. It was not the best picture of partnership, but it was there, and it was reinforced over and over and over again. Sometimes I still hear it. Sometimes I wish it were true.
Parents make light of childhood romance, of preschool “boyfriends” or second-grade hand-holding. They dress their toddlers in little white dresses and veils and get their pictures taken and framed, then prop them up on a bookshelf and wait for the future to come. But marriage is not something to pretend at and it certainly isn’t something to promise to someone else if you are not the person who is meaning to marry them. That sort of good intention creates expectations that might not be fulfilled and lead to disappointment and damage.
It is normal that you would think about marriage, Jo, not only for me, but also for yourself. It is natural that you would believe that you will get married and have a family just like your mommy and so many of the other adults in your life. I will not keep you from dreaming of marriage—I couldn’t even if I wanted to—but I might gently push you to reconsider your expectations, because I wish someone would have done this for me.
There are people, Jo, who are not married. Sometimes they wait a long time before marriage and sometimes they choose not to get married at all because they have other dreams or priorities or they are happier on their own. There are people who once were married, but whose marriages did not work or whose spouses have died. And then there are people who don’t ever get married even when they really want to.
“Waiting till marriage,” is a phrase that people, especially church people, sometimes use when they talk about relationships. Usually they are talking about how close they are going to be to another person or which parts of love they want to save until after a wedding. Sometimes when they talk about waiting, they are talking about “working on their character” or “becoming the right person” before they make vows, as though there is a potential future version of themselves that will finally be good enough for marriage and that God and the world are holding out on them until they get there. This is not true, Jo, and it is a terrible thing to tell someone who aches to take part in a marriage but has not met a person to share that with. The older I get, the more that I dislike this conversation about “waiting for marriage,” because sometimes marriage never happens, and waiting for it seems like a setup for perpetual longing and an invitation to believe that life can’t start without it.
I had settled on the colors for my wedding and picked out potential bridesmaids by the time I was 20. What I had not done was pick a career path, go to counseling, or make any plans to support myself after college because I was so certain there’d be a husband to factor into that equation. After all, that is what I’d been told since before I could remember. I’d been writing letters to this hypothetical man since high school and had no fewer than ten different “wish lists” of the qualities I wanted and thought I needed in a possible mate (including guitar-playing, dancing, and going to Broadway musicals).
I balked at the thought of a seven-year PhD program because I assumed I’d be having children by the time I was 25, and how could I possibly raise them while finishing school? I didn’t learn to do my taxes until I was living overseas and had to submit them online to avoid an audit. I still shirk away from acquiring furniture or investing in a new mattress that is only for me, even though I’m years past needing to do so. Despite the fact that I spend most of my creative time in my kitchen, I have not yet purchased a Cuisinart, a KitchenAid, or a decent set of pots and pans—all things that I associate with life after marriage—but that’s been as much a matter of money and space as it has a lack of a permanent partner.
There have been times, Jo, that I have defined myself by my singleness, times when I have felt that I am more a single person than I am a writer or a sister or a counselor or a friend. There have been months and years that I’ve questioned my value and worthiness solely because others are married and I am not. Sometimes I feel defective. Sometimes I feel behind. Sometimes I feel lonely. Often I feel like something is wrong.
Though I can’t imagine that you will not face your own frustrations in this area, I hope that they will be different from mine. I hope that you will not grow up believing that you have to wait till marriage for life to really start or that something is wrong with you because you are unmarried. I hope that I can show you another way of being in the world—of being single without being sorry that I am.
It is a myth, Jo, that every woman is like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, waiting for the day that her partner will come and find her and save her and then life will begin (or end, as the case may be, for nothing ever really begins with “happily ever after”). This is not even true for every princess.
Some princesses, like Moana or Elsa or Pocahontas or Mulan adventure and explore. They do very brave things and discover who they are without ever believing that it is bad to be on their own. They are not surrounded by empty promises or false hopes, though they are supported by whimsical friends and voices of wisdom. I hope that you will be this kind of princess and this kind of woman, that you will look out for others, come to know your own strength, and set out to make a unique contribution to the world.
I promise that I will be there to offer the best guidance I can, to lead you toward truth and remind you of your value. And I hope that I can give you what I never had growing up—an example of a compassionate, strong, and single woman who has learned to be happy regardless of her relationships, and who lives with the passion and conviction that her mission is vital and her path is unique.
Maybe someday, Jo, you will be in my wedding. And maybe someday I will be in yours. But it’s also possible that neither of those things will happen, and I want you to know that this would be okay. I want you to believe that you are worthy as you are, that life begins now, and that the journey is a gift, no matter who you share it with or encounter along the way.
In the meantime, I promise there will be lots of cake and a big celebration when I finish my first book, so you can look forward to that and to joining the party. I may even let you throw flowers.
Until then, you have all of my love,
4 thoughts on “Dear Johanna: Not Every Princess Marries a Prince, Thoughts on Being Single”
I know you don’t know me, but this was shared with me by one of your former teachers. She knew I needed these words as I continue my journey. This is beautifully written and everything I needed to hear as I sit single and wondering myself. Thank you for writing this.
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Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I really appreciate your comment and am so touched to know that this was helpful for you. Know that you are loved.
Very well said. Hope many many girls get to read this. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much for your reply and for reading 🙂 That really means a lot to me.