| Arts & Culture
Art How a Woman Artist Helped Me Embrace My Choice to be Unmarried and Childfree
Morisot’s paintings of women up close lined the walls, a pastel perspective at vanity tables and in gardens. My breath rushed in: beautiful.
I spent six weeks traveling last summer, attending writing workshops in Portugal and Georgia, with a stop-over in Paris in between. It was the adventure I’d always dreamed of. Yet I often felt the need to apologize for being happy experiencing so much of it on my own; for not wishing I had a partner to share it with.
Being an unmarried and child-free woman isn’t as unusual as it used to be, but it’s still so often treated as an accident. I spent years pretending my life had just ended up this way, that I wanted what the world said I was supposed to want. But this life didn’t just happen to me; this freedom is what I have planned all along. I was just too scared to say it out loud, even to myself.
On my last full day in Paris, I decided on the Musèe d’Orsay. I didn’t know anything about the exhibits inside, but it was housed in a big, beautiful building on the Seine. Since I was traveling alone, without kids, I could go into as many beautiful buildings as I wanted. The museum offered a special guide for focusing on women artists. That guide led me to the exhibit of Berthe Morisot, an Impressionist I’d never heard of.
Morisot’s work was big and personal and light. Large paintings of women up close lined the walls, a pastel perspective at vanity tables and in gardens. My body reacted before my mind did, my breath rushing in: beautiful . I read the accompanying plaques. Morisot went against the traditions by focusing on women and girls in her work, by zooming in as the women went about their daily lives. She was a risk-taker and innovator in her technique, using loose, disconnected brushstrokes and blurring the lines at the edges of the frame. She did what she wanted on the canvas, made no apologies for it, and built a thriving career at a time when a woman artist was unusual enough, let alone a successful one.
In my own life, I had never been so confident. I kept my ideas to myself rather than challenging the ways things had always been done. As a little girl, I didn’t fantasize about a future wedding or pick out names for future babies; I dreamed of traveling the world and reading every book I could get my hands on. My fantasies were full of eating croissants at sidewalk cafés in Paris, walking next to the Great Wall, and creating my own personal library in a room full of built-in bookshelves. I’m not convinced my childhood dreams were so unusual; the ideals of marriage and motherhood are thrust upon us by the society that surrounds us and the culture that sets our standards. We are supposed to want those things, so eventually we do.
The first time I remember clearly understanding that I had no interest in marriage was in high school, when making collages from pictures in magazines was a popular pastime. I think we’d seen it on Oprah. We’d gather all the magazines we could find: thick, fashion-filled ones, the Seventeen someone had a subscription to, and someone’s mom’s Sunset . We’d flip and tear and pile, picking out the images that called to us. Then we’d sit on the floor with scissors and glue sticks and big pieces of poster board like we were working on a project for school. But instead, we were working on our dreams—creating what we wanted to see in our future.
On this particular occasion, I pulled out beaches and cobblestone streets, bright colored business suits and bookshelves full of books. Someone handed me a picture, saying, “Here, this is cute.” It was a body in a white, sparkly wedding dress with the head ripped off.
“That way you can imagine yourself in it,” she said.
What I imagined was the dress in red; something to wear to one of those galas people in soap operas were always having. But I took the picture and nodded, glued it to my board near the edges and mostly covered it with a picture of a lounge chair by a pool.
In college, hookup culture saved me some of the marriage talk. It was acceptable to say I didn’t want a serious boyfriend. When the subject of marriage came up, it was always from the girls who needed guidance on how to convince their boyfriends to become husbands. I asked them why they were in such a hurry and they looked at me like I was speaking a different language. Maybe I was. That was when the doubt first slithered in, when I started to wonder if I would be missing out on a piece of happiness if I never sought out a partner. So I started pretending that marriage was in my plans—just not yet.
“I have to live my life first,” I said.
Someone handed me a picture, saying, “Here, this is cute.” It was a body in a white, sparkly wedding dress with the head ripped off.
Those words became like a mantra. Something I could repeat when questioned. Something that helped me feel less guilty about building a life for myself. And they were the same words that older women used every time I took a step I wanted in my life: When I moved to Ecuador to teach; the summers I spent visiting Mayan ruins and traveling to Cuba just because; when I went back to school to get an MFA; when I moved across the country with only what would fit in the trunk of my car. Every already-married woman and mother said the same thing: “Do it now while you can. Before you have a family.”
What I didn’t say was that this wasn’t some bucket list of things I wanted to do before marriage and children put an end to it all; this was the life I wanted. Just this. But I couldn’t say these words out loud because a small seed of doubt remained somewhere deep inside. I worried that I was supposed to want the husband and the children and the ideal traditional life everyone wanted so much for me. What if it was me who didn’t understand?
Berthe Morisot didn’t apologize for breaking the rules. As I took in her work, read about her life, I was sure she didn’t feel guilty for creating the art and the life that she wanted for herself. She took the drawing lessons she was given as a child, as part of her instruction in becoming a proper, feminine, middle-class woman, and turned her art into the center of her life. Women weren’t allowed to enroll in art school, or any type of higher education, so she found private studios where she could take lessons and she spent time sketching works on display at the Louvre and painting outdoors.
She didn’t let what society expected dictate her life or her work. It’s all there on the canvas: She made her own rules. She painted what she wanted to see. And when her work didn’t fit with the expectations of the salons in Paris, she quit to join the Impressionists and helped shape a new movement in the art world.
The painting called La Psyché wasn’t her most famous, but it affected me deeply. A woman stands in front of a mirror, looking at her reflection. Her reflection gazes back, though everything about her face is blurry, except her eyes. It’s a frame within a frame, giving it a three-dimensional feeling. The deep red carpet helps narrow the focus to the woman at the center. I couldn’t look away. She is the only one in the room; her and the reflection of herself. It is an obvious metaphor for me. The real struggle is inside: What I see of myself and my life when I look in the mirror. If I like what I see, if I own who I am and what I want, what the rest of the world thinks shouldn’t matter. So why do I question myself?
Morisot painted her self-portrait in 1885, when she was forty-four years old. The painting looks like a declaration. Her head is turned to look right at the viewer, her hair pulled back and mostly gray; her expression is serious and the angle of her shoulders strong. She holds what appears to be a paint palette and brush, and her jacket is spotted with color. She is clearly standing in front of a canvas, working, though nothing is in the portrait but her. She is the artist, the work is her. This is how she saw herself, and what she wanted the world to see. There is no doubt in her face, no room for questions on the canvas. This is what I need in my life, this self-assurance.
Maybe I’m too quiet in my certainty. Even when I have told my close friends that I don’t want what I’m supposed to want, that I’m happy with the life I have, they don’t hear me. They question my choices, which always makes me question myself. Should I want what they have? Am I being selfish in choosing a life just for me?
If I like what I see, if I own who I am and what I want, what the rest of the world thinks shouldn’t matter. So why do I question myself?
There’s a best friend who has tried over and over to set me up with marriageable men. “I’m not interested,” I’d say, like I just meant this particular man and not the institution itself. She’d list their qualities like a dating questionnaire, as if that would convince me: They have a stable career, they own a house, they have a 401k and like to travel.
They sounded perfectly fine, these men I hadn’t actually met. But they wanted to get married. They wanted to have kids. That’s exactly why she’d chosen them. The more she told me about them, about her ideas for my life, the surer I became that wasn’t what I wanted. I imagined myself in that life she described: the husband, the children, the school schedules and soccer pick-ups, the birthday parties and play-dates; and I could feel my lungs tighten.
So I told her again, “That’s not the life for me.”
She said, “I just want you to be happy.”
“I am happy,” I said.
“No, like, really happy,” she said.
We had a similar conversation for years. The easiest way to end it was to say, “Thank you.” To hug her and understand that she only wanted the best for me. To hold my tongue and let the doubts linger under my skin. To pretend her words didn’t make me feel guilty about my choices.
But then, in Paris, something changed. It was like I felt a switch flip inside me, and I knew that I didn’t want to keep having the same conversation anymore. There had to be a different way.
I stepped closer to the painting that drew me in the most: a young woman standing on a balcony with a garden behind her. She looked right at me. I understood it was a painting and she had been looking at Morisot, probably not thinking anything about a future audience. But something about that look—direct and confident—stopped me from walking on to the next painting. That look was what I needed. That determination and confidence.
I realized in that moment that I needed to stop pretending my life just happened to me, to own my choices with pride. Maybe I haven’t been saying it loud enough or clear enough, or with enough conviction to stop the outside expectations from creating doubts within. Maybe by pretending that my life is a consequence instead of a choice, I wasn’t allowing myself to accept it. To accept me.
When I stepped out of the museum, I left behind my need to pretend. I let go of the doubts. My life isn’t an accident; being unmarried and child-free is a choice. This is the life I planned, and I love it. I don’t need to feel guilty about that. And now I am going to say it, up front and direct.
Like the girl in the painting with her chin up and her eyes clear, her attention focused on what’s ahead and not the world at her back. No more fear. No shame. This is who I am.