The stresses and joys of hitting a milestone birthday while single
Women talk about hitting that next big number and living full lives
A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from a woman who was upset she would soon be turning 30 and was still single. A few days after that milestone birthday, she’d have to celebrate Valentine’s Day unpartnered, too. I thumb-tapped out a quick reply – “It’s really not that big of a deal!” But before I could hit send, my memories came back to me.
It had been a big deal.
Just shy of 10 years ago, I was living in a city I didn’t want to be in – Denver. Working a job I didn’t want to do – janitorial sales. And dating a man I didn’t like. My life changed radically that year between 29 and 30. I left that city. Quit that job. Ended things with that man. And entered a new decade of life as a jobless, carless, grad student with a 21-year-old roommate.
On paper, I was not winning, but in reality? I’d never been happier. I celebrated my 30th at an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue with a goofy grin on my face as more than a dozen friends sang “Happy Birthday.” In that moment, it hadn’t mattered that there was no man by my side – I was my own self-fulfilling prophecy.
The changes I’d made had not been easy and didn’t make sense to many of the people around me. But there was this knowing that swept into me at that age, that guided me to do what I wanted and not just what was expected of me.
I had not imagined myself single at 30. Or depending on the bus. Or yelling at my roommate because her drunken friend had locked himself in my bathroom.
But I also had not imagined myself launching a freelance business at 32. Selling a book at 35. Or leading a news team at 37. And yet, it’s likely none of those things would have happened had I not taken that first step by quitting my life at 29. By being brave enough to act, even when I couldn’t quite make out the vision.
And now, I’m two years out from 40 – and still single – and curious about what feelings might be stirred up around this next milestone birthday. So, I chatted with several single Black women about what it felt like to approach a milestone birthday alone and how they felt once they’d moved into their next decade.
Last year, for a piece on Black women’s singlehood, I chatted with Asha French, who at the time, was living in Providence, Rhode Island, completing a postdoctoral degree and on the verge of her 40th birthday. She’d since moved back home to Kentucky, so I invited her over to revisit what she’d said about turning 40 single. She sat on my couch, and I asked if she remembered how she’d felt this time last year.
She was worried about the timeline of her writing career.
“Forty is the age that Toni Morrison published her first book, and I was like, ‘Oh, s—, I’m missing the Morrison Mark.’ ”
That her finances weren’t where she wanted them.
“I was having all kinds of existential parenting questions about being 40 and alone… because when I imagined being a single mom … I thought I was gonna be like white moms and like, Single Mothers By Choice – I was reading that book. A lot of them were financially well off and I thought, ‘Sure we’ll get to Disney World.’ So, it was just a pile on at 40 being a single mom not having been to Disney World.”
But there was something she’d been looking forward to – she’d heard your sex drive goes up.
“You go through this 10-year period of like – SUPER SPLASH. Like your eggs’ last stand.”
But what about being 40 and unpartnered?
“I do know I’m old to be on the dating market, so I just wanted to have a life that I love. And be my own partner in a way. So, yeah, I wasn’t stressed about that.”
It’s true, she’d told me that she viewed her singleness as a privilege, but I asked her if she also remembered being heartbroken, “Asha, you asked me if I knew what ‘limerence’ meant. You were going through it.”
“Oh. My. Oh, God. And it was somebody who had triggered my old woman feelings because it was a younger person …”
I apologized for bringing back bad times, but French thanked me. “At least, I know how far I’ve come because I don’t think about this person anymore.” She’d felt foolish for falling for the games young dudes play, she said. “Forty is too old to be getting got like this.”
To release that person and quit playing games she felt too old for, French realized she had to let go of the ideas she’d held since she was a teenager about what her life would look like, “My idea for where I would be at 40 was like my idea I had at 16 for where I would be at 25. It was just like 25 – plus mo better. I hadn’t really readjusted yet. And… this young person came into my life and triggered all that 25-year-old stuff.”
At 16, French had envisioned herself married by 25: A Black Baptist husband and Black Baptist children, plus a successful TV writing career. The problem was, French didn’t feel like she was living a single life that anyone would be envious of. She was lonely in Providence with no friends or family nearby and no funds for travel. Single women aren’t allowed to just be unwed and unworried. If we’re not living a cookie-cutter life with a husband and children, then the life we are living is supposed to be fabulous and we’re supposed to look fabulous and be doing fabulous things.
Not living up to the single ideal made it even harder to give up on her marriage goals. “It’s part of striver culture. As long as marriage is the goalpost, I can always feel like I’m striving,” she said. “But if I let that go – because I did all the other things I wanted to do. I became a mom. I really, really wanted that. I did the degrees I wanted. I’m close to the other stuff – but marriage is the last thing on this list of strive-able Black excellent things to do.”
French, who will turn 41 this month, plans to approach 50 differently than she did 40, or even 30, “When I was 30, I wasn’t imagining me at 40. I was just abusing me in my 20s, like, ‘You dumb b—. Why did you spend all this time doing this, that and the other when you could have done this or whatever?’ But now I think about myself at 50. And I’m trying to give her the gift of a life. So that when I do get to that milestone, I can be like, ‘Oh, I did this for myself.’ ”
And she’s confident partnership will be part of that picture – like she said, she’s already done the rest.
La-Trenda Ross is 57 years old. And single. She had not anticipated being unmarried in her 50s. At 32, she met a man she thought she’d be with forever, but the relationship ended 11 years later. “I was looking for a relationship to be everlasting. And, of course, it wasn’t like that because the guy cheated. Once that happened … I wasn’t really interested in dating. I was more interested in developing friendships first, to really get to know who the person is.”
But Ross, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, found many men in their 40s had baggage she wasn’t willing to carry. They were lying about being single. They had drama with the mother of their children.
Less than two years after the end of her relationship, life delivered Ross another heartbreak: Her job was ending. The retail warehouse she managed was closing. Ross said she was so devastated that the next day she got dressed and got on the bus to go to work as if nothing had happened. But instead of going to the warehouse she found herself at a place she’d passed many times but had never visited: the local community college.
“I never experienced graduating high school. I got to the 11th grade and that was it,” she said. “So, I always believed that college wasn’t for me because I’m listening to other people, right? We just always assume that everyone knows what they’re talking about.”
At 12, Ross lost her mother in an accident. Her teenage years and her 20s were shaped by grief. “She passed away at a very young age. She was 37 when she passed … Boys liked me. I’m very dark-skinned … I had a really nice body shape on me. I was a really nice, good person but also came with a lot of hurt and pain.”
She had her first daughter at 18 and her second daughter five years later. She still describes her girls as her world, but they were both more than grown that day she got off that city bus, stepped into that community college lobby and burst into tears. Children grown. Man gone. Job done. What was she to do?
“I happened to run into this beautiful woman who said to me, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Ross didn’t know why. The woman asked her if she wanted to go to college. When Ross said she didn’t have any money, the woman told her not to worry about that. “ ‘I promise you, everything is going to be fine.’ And I swear to God, from that day forward everything was fine. She was my angel. I believe God sent her to me.”
Ross eventually earned an associate degree in human services, and then went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Degrees in hand, Ross was done with working jobs. She became career-focused and even began to get into politics. But as she grew, she found that the men she dated had not. “I’m a person that’s very encouraging and try to uplift people,” she said. “But if you cannot see that for yourself, right? No matter how much I want it for you, it’s not going to work because you’ve got to want it for yourself.”
After realizing it was time to hang up her pompoms and stop playing cheerleader for these men, Ross said her interest in dating shrank and shrank and shrank and since 2020, she’s been completely single. “Am I OK with that? Not really. I’m not OK with that.”
But when Ross considers getting back out there, she worries about meeting men who will bring problems into her life. And Ross who’s worked in social services, is concerned about the rise in domestic violence. She regularly sees stories in the news about men killing women who ended relationships with them.
However, like French, she doesn’t see herself stepping into her next decade solo. For her 60th birthday, Ross envisions the love of her life by her side as she plans a massive all-white party – with touches of fuchsia, her favorite color – and he’ll be on her arm as she struts onto the dancefloor. Ross has a thing for tall men, but the man who’s meant for her will be one who’s close to his family, and whose family wants to be close with her family.
And until she meets him, Ross said, she’s going to “focus on me, my priorities, my health, my well-being, and what I want out of life, and what I want to do.”
Jessica Humphries, a trauma expert and licensed counselor in Mason, Ohio, said it’s only human to take inventory as we approach a milestone birthday. But there is a way to alleviate some of the stress we may be feeling. “If we can shift the focus on to the things that we’ve done well, the things that we’re happy about, our accomplishments and really celebrating because that’s what birthdays are about, they’re about celebration of life,” she said.
And the anxiety can be particularly high for Black women because “you have to be respectable, and sexy and alluring, and all of these things … It’s almost a double bind. How do you fulfill all of these things? So, it’s no wonder that we’re anxious.”
Humphries, founder of a therapy service called For the Love of Black Women, is relieved that the younger generation of women aren’t putting the same weight on themselves to be wedded by 30. “My daughter will be 21 in June … She sends me the TikToks that she’s seeing,” she said. “What gives me a peace is that younger women are not so focused on marriage. It’s not that they don’t want to be — I don’t think, although some don’t, and they’re really OK with it — I think it’s just that it’s been normalized that there’s so much more to life than a man and marriage.”
But what about once her daughter hits her 30s? Will concern crop up then? Humphries is clear that she doesn’t get to dictate what her daughter’s life looks like, and any concerns are her own to manage. “I’ll ask myself what is the fear. Or what is the discomfort. Oftentimes, it is the fear of how she might be perceived, or how I might be perceived as her mother. And at that point, that’s not her. It’s not her thing. That’s my stuff. I have to unpack that. And I need to deal with it.”
She’s talking about her relationship with her daughter, but she could just as easily be talking about our relationship with ourselves. If you’re feeling anxious about a milestone birthday, you should ask yourself what are you actually afraid of. What’s the perception that you fear? That if you’re not married by a certain age people will perceive you as unlovable? I’ve certainly had those moments. And I coax myself out of them by remembering that I can’t do anything about other people’s perceptions of me, but I do have control over my expectations of myself.
Humphries wants Black women to remember that who we are is sufficient and that self-help is a $13 billion industry designed to exploit our relationship anxieties. Instead, she recommends seeing a therapist to “work through issues like boundaries and communication and identifying and processing emotions — all of those skills are important for a relationship.”
You can also rely on loved ones to help keep you from spiraling about being another year older and no closer to walking down the altar. “They can be great mirrors, reminding us of who we are when we forget. And what we bring to the proverbial table that we keep being asked about.”
Rather than needing a reminder of who she is, Danielle Buckingham has a photo of her grandmother that serves as a look toward what she could become.
Buckingham, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, is the woman who sent the tweet that got me thinking about milestone birthdays. I met her years ago at a writing workshop in Philadelphia, and full disclosure, she’s now a writer on my Black Joy team at Reckon. When I ask her about the tweet, she tells me I’ll have to remind her what it said – she’s the tweet-and-delete type.
Still single. Milestone birthday. Valentine’s Day.
“Yes, this actually comes up every year around my birthday,” she said. “I remember when I turned 29, I was thinking surely, I’ll meet somebody … And now I’m realizing no, I’m having another birthday where I’m alone. And I know Valentine’s Day is some s— we made up. But it’s really hard when I’m experiencing that during my birthday, especially a monumental birthday – that’s extra – but it’s a new decade.”
Reflecting on dating in her 20s, Buckingham said, “21-year-old me never would have thought this would be where I am romantically.”
The thing about imagining what our life will look like, is that we often have these big-picture ideas such as, “I’ll be engaged by 27.” But the challenges are in the details. It’s easy for Buckingham to see why what she envisioned for herself and her romantic reality were misaligned. “I’ve been in school most of my 20s. I recognize I’ve been a graduate student. Most of my 20s I’ve been in jobs that take up an enormous amount of my time. To the point where it’s literally my life. And it’s hard in the South dating as a queer person, especially when you lean towards people that are not the opposite sex.”
This might be why by the time I call to discuss her milestone b-day feels, she’s already moved on from those tweets. She plans to spend her 30th surrounded by friends celebrating her and her journey into a new decade.
“I haven’t even been spending as much mental space as I thought I would on the fact that I’m single,” she said. “I’m thinking about, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope this wig is gonna set off the outfit the way I want it to. I hope I get to go by Sephora to get me some makeup so I can practice because I want to do a full face. And I want to be pretty and just like look like a grown woman.”
Last year, Buckingham’s grandmother turned 75. The family gathered to fete her properly and out came the photos. “There were all these pictures that I’ve never seen of her traveling and smiling and happy – happier than I ever seen her. And she wasn’t hanging off of no man. She was with her girlfriends going on cruises.”
“She’s always been very glamour, dressed really nice, wearing jewelry and makeup,” Buckingham recalled. In her favorite picture of her grandmother, “she was sitting in this chair with her legs crossed … and she just looked like … the ’70s version of the baddest b—- in the world.”
It’s what Buckingham wants for herself, to feel sure of herself. “I want to be satisfied with my freedom as a single person.” She plans to use that newfound freedom following in her grandmother’s footsteps by traveling. “I’ve been stuck in Mississippi. I’ve never been out of the country. There’s places in the United States that I would like to visit.”
Her hopes for herself are a wish worthy of any milestone birthday. “I just want to feel like I’m living and not waiting to live because I’m so hung up on being single still.”
For an extra-spicy take on Black love, check out Andscape’s new feature film, Three Ways, premiering Feb. 10 on Hulu.