Shadow lives of single women

Today is Friday the 13th – a day replete with ominous superstitions metaphorically represented by black cats, bogey man,  cauldron-stirring witches, and more. How about the image of an old lady sitting behind a creaking spinning wheel – how does it make you feel? Spooky? Sinister?  Yes, she is called a spinster – possibly brewing potions too, or doing magick or…..

But we’re not going to talk about the spinsters of the “witchy” kind….Our spinsters are ones with normal needs, strengths, weaknesses and all. They continue to exist in the shadows of societal conformity to be nurturing and strong – oftentimes at their expense.

Myths of being single

Being single has its merits. In fact, and especially in this era of modernity, singleness is flaunted like a badge of honour and courage.  In the past, being single especially past the marrying age was a disgrace both for the individual and their families. Here, labels like “matandang dalaga (old maid/spinster)” or even the males’ “matandang binata (bachelor)”were stigmatising not only to the individual, but to their family as well for the belief was that “singlehood” was hereditary!  When one was introduced as “matandang dalaga”, the comment was likely:  “it is not surprising as she came from a clan of spinsters”.

A 2017 study echoed this observation of how older singles were viewed with prejudice. Today’s  “Karens” (patois for privileged or entitled adult white female) or “Maritesses” ( Filipino counterpart of Karen) would have been the yesteryears’ “cynical” old maids who would scoff at anything that did not conform to their standards. Of course, these are only perceptions of others who might have been at the receiving end, not once, but perhaps several times of the reprimand by an elderly (single) person. 

According to “An exploratory  study on the life experiences of Filipino single elderly women”,   authored by Denise Jeremy T. Escarieses and Erica Mae F. Jimenez of the University of the Philippines, Diliman,  spinsters were viewed as “undesirable, man-hater or infertile”. Let me add that other derogatory attributions include grouchy or grumpy, tigang (“sexually” barren) menopausal and other below-the-belt tirades. Today, some smart*** coined a new term for older, over-26 years old unmarried women –  “thornbacks”. May I call it status-shaming instead?

If for anything, this (mis)labelling should not come as a surprise because the title “spinster” itself has pejorative roots. Read the Merriam-Webster entry about the origin of the term ascribed to unmarried women >>

Considered a liability

Being unmarried is no longer as “shocking” as it was ages ago  but I must admit that it still bore traces of such stigma. Unmarried women are also subject to speculations regarding their status – “did some guy break their heart?” or “are they homosexual”?

Naomi Stewart in her dissertation, “The evolution of the spinster: Austen and Woolf’s single women characters”, mentioned that during the 18th-19th centuries, the convention for women was to be married to a husband, raise a family and manage the home. Anything beyond this convention was considered, “odd” or “unwomanly”.

I remember when I was small, I would hear elderly neighbours telling their young nieces or daughters to behave in a way that is female-appropriate (whatever that means, although I surmise it was not to be “galawgaw” or naughty; or “bulagsak” or careless) or “ you’ll be like your aunt so-and-so…naging matandang dalaga (ended up an old maid)”. Singlehood must have been dreading like a plague then.

We also have this superstition: we must not sing while cooking lest we end up being an old maid/single for life.

To this day, there are a significant number of Filipinos – men and women, who are single. According to the latest single population data (2015 census) in the Philippines by the Philippine Statistics Authority released in February 2020, there were nearly 35 million single persons in the Philippines or 44% of the total population for 10 years old and over in 2015, up by 3.5 million compared to the previous (2010) data.1

Of that tally, the survey found that there were more single males – accounting for over 54%,  than females or 118 males per 100 females. IN the 20 years over age group, there were 131 males for every 100 females.

Expectation versus reality

In the Philippines, singles have been expected to undertake responsibilities for the family. They are often asked to look after their nieces and nephews while the parents are away or working. They become the caregiver to ailing relatives or sole carer for their old parents. Singles working overseas are expected to send more, if not remit all their money to their families back home. Single people are also expected to lend money to relatives or sponsor a relative to college. There are countless stories of singles neglecting to form personal relationships because their time is divided between work and their family obligations.

These “unwritten” expectations are imposed by the society. Deviating from this expectation, or, at the least, attempt to set boundaries between one’s needs and providing the needs of relatives/others solicit criticism for being “selfish” or “stingy”.

Being single, sadly, is in some cases a curse rather than a blessing. Especially since, singles are wanting of a solid support system. Imagine this: Your family depends on you – physically, emotionally and economically. Then most of your friends are already married and have their own lives to tend to and they do not have the time for you as they used to. Besides, they assume you are strong and not overwhelmed by husband and children issues. While they think you are having  a holiday, the absence of a support system can eventually drain you.  

Ako Naman: reclaiming the self

The Filipino expression “Ako naman” has no direct English translation. It is not even similar to #MeToo. Is it “Me, this time”? Nonetheless, it is an expression of self-empowerment and profound realisation of being.

Singles are supposed to extend help at their own will and not under the pressure of self-serving taunts.

What I can say is that you need to look after yourself too. You also have your own dreams to build, own goals to reach,  and a timeline to follow.  You have your life to live.

Just say No, but why is it so hard to do?

In a culture that is used to euphemism, it can be a struggle to say a straight up “No”. Either we sugar-coat our  “no” by saying “maybe” to please the other person; or we “ghost” people to avoid saying “no”.

Other people get creative by coming up with a “script” of white lies just to deny favours.

I know that breaking away from this chain of obligations takes a lot of courage, let alone saying “no” flatly. But you need to know your limits.  You are under no obligation to take responsibility for someone else’s choices.

Saying no is disabling co-dependency. Dependency breeds laziness. It can also prevent the dependent from exploring their own limitless potentials.

Take a close hard look at yourself – what do you need? What do you really need? Have those needs been met? Do you feel you have wasted time on other people but not on yourself? Have you already saved up for your retirement?

These are very serious questions that you need to ask yourself right now. You cannot share with others what you lack! As they say, charity begins at home. Home starts with you.  Tell yourself, “Ako naman”. It is not greed to recover and secure your space and existence, and to acknowledge your needs and desires. You are important.

NOTE: if you wish to share your story, shoot me an email anytime!


1 The census of population is conducted by the PSA every ten years. PSA pools data on marital status o persons age 10 years old and above.

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