My first boyfriend approached me not because he liked me, but because it was a bet. He was dared by his mates to see if he could get the girl that played hard to get, and he won the bet. This was in primary school. The nature of boyfriends and girlfriends was different back then: a boyfriend meant that I would have someone to dance with at the disco we had once a term; if we interacted with our brother school, he would be the boy I would sit with most of the time. It was mickey mouse stuff, just to keep our curious minds thinking that boys were relevant in our world. Although this was a mickey mouse relationship, it somehow painted my experience with the opposite sex: a love-hate relationship. My interactions with boys in school was further complicated by what I saw in the Bold and the Beautiful, magazines, popular culture and more importantly my parent’s marriage.
The history of failed marriages and fatherless (or rather absent fathers) the women in my family have had to contend with has made me wonder about the question of love, marriage and suburban bliss. I don’t have a model of what a good marriage is and I certainly don’t have a good model of a stable home. Sadly men have often been central to conversations where the women in my life lament about their experiences. There are seldom good stories to tell. My grandmother had 6 children with 3 different men. She never married and there was little if any talk of a grandfather in her house. She didn’t raise many of her children, but gave them away to relatives to look after until they were mostly in their teens. My mother often reflects how difficult life was being married to my father who often lied about his employment, leaving her with the burden of being the bread winner from the money she made sewing people’s clothes. She confessed to not marrying for love; marriage was an escape route for her as it was the only option she felt she had if she was to grow apart from her family (independence and no marriage was not an option she considered). Aunt number one relates her story with her husband who was unfaithful and displayed his affair openly to the point of telling her face to face, “Andikufuni" (I don’t want you in my life), but now they are ageing and live happily together. Aunt number two has three children. By the time she was 22 she’d already had two children. She relates a story of how she was preganant at the same time as my other two aunts in their early twenties-complete scandal for 3 young unmarried women from an unmarried mother nogal and no promise of marriage in the horizen. Aunt number three is still married, she met her husband while he was in a relationship with someone else while they were singing in the local choir, “wangena nge-window emzini wakhe” (she was married clandestinely and accepted as a makoti without the paraphernalia that is often expected).And what of these women’s girl-children? Three are married, one was almost married but left the abusive relationship that she had been warned about, one is a lesbian, one is expecting a baby and we’re all assuming she’s in a committed relationship that should end in marriage and then there’s me, single for 7 years. We all have daddy-issues and overbearing mothers but I doubt we are unique.
People across the world have the cloud of their parents' relationship to contend with before taking the leap of faith into any kind of relationship. Those who choose to question the structures in society when it comes to love and marriage are left with no bearings. It’s either you are in a heterosexual relationship where you reproduce what society deems as normal, or you risk a homosexual relationship where society creates endless problems for you (wanting to kill you being one) or you remain single and risk being seen as a threat by those who are protecting the frontiers of their homes or seen as not fully woman if you choose not to have children in or outside of marriage. And then there’s celibacy where you are accused of being fearful and abnormal if you even think that being single forever and ever as a viable option (how do monks and nuns and some priests do it?).
Then the liability of being a single black, educated, modern woman! I have often been accused of wanting too much...a superman complex! I used to have a list with what I wanted in a man and have recently learned that doesn’t matter anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a mental picture of what I’d like in a relationship, but apparently the man doesn’t exist: he has to be smart, somewhat attractive so I can point him out in a crowd, he can’t be a social dropout so a job or a sense of purpose in the world is important and spiritual (he doesn’t have to walk on water or turn water into wine, but living consciously is sufficient) and love would be a great ingredient to add to the perfect match. If he doesn’t exist then educated, opinionated, thinking women repel these kind of men. There seems to be a disjuncture where women are being encouraged to be independent(financially or otherwise) and seeing themselves as fully human as possible; where we own our choices and decisions instead of stepping into our mother’s roles of wife and mother; in relation to men who still pine for a replica of their mother with the figure of a magazine cover girl with perky B cup boobs and perfect make up. I’m no expert on men and I won’t attempt to speak for all women, but I’ve been told that highly successful black women are not at the top of the list when men are looking to settle. We’re all facing a nervous condition: we question the structures of marriage or even "shacking up" because we pine for the picture perfect idea of love and marriage where there are defined roles and responsibilities, but recognise that there has to be more. Some young educated professionals opt for a postmodern “neither here nor there” approach to relationships where even the titles girlfriend and boyfriend are too scary for people to consider: do you count the anniversary from the day you kissed or the one night stand that turned into regular dates (seeing as “asking someone out” or courting doesn’t really happen anymore)?
And where do I stand on all this? Part of me wants to ignore the questions my family poses about my lengthy single status while my cousins and sisters are either procreating or getting married or both in whatever order. I don’t have an answer to why I am still single, I can’t exactly date or marry myself. The best I can do is learn to get to know myself better and appreciate my own company with friends (who are mostly in the same boat because friends who are in relationships or married with children talk about their sweet boyfriends or the price of nappies respectively). Sadly I have been unable to ignore the fact that I am a woman who has emotions and feelings and I’m learning that my sabbatical from relationships has left me with no skills or a game plan. Do I act upon the feelings and tell a guy I have a “crush” on him (which I’ve done and have learnt that men don’t know what do with this piece of information as they are destabilised hunters)? The best advice I have received has been to let it be and go through the emotions...and then what? I hope and pray a guy will eventually notice I am a girl and act upon the instinct of pursuing me? Or do I throw in the towel and risk being told that my fear of heartbreak and disappointment got in the way of completing the picture of having it all—a thriving career, the perfect husband, healthy children and the suburban middle class lifestlye—with people feeling sorry for me because “she had so much going for her but simply couldn’t find a man”?!