The Newly Single Woman’s Guide to Independent Living

Somewhere around 3 in the morning, my eyes flew open yet again. I lay staring at my ceiling, wondering what threatening noise had awoken me this time. Was someone prowling around the house? Had a wandering spirit finally decided it was time to show the skeptic in me that ghosts really did exist?

After a bit of investigation, I discovered the culprit. There were no prowlers or banshees. The cat had just decided that 3 am was a good time to use the automatic litter box.

With a sigh, I gave myself a mental kick and climbed back into bed, wondering when I had become a woman who could be frightened out of a sound sleep by cat poop. I had always been the type of person who could sleep through anything, including an earthquake or an alarm clock. Waking up with a start at every little noise was just one more inconvenience in my new life.

My husband and I made the painful decision to divorce shortly after my 35th birthday. Among the many other changes this decision brought to our lives, I found myself living alone for the first time ever. I’d gone from my parent’s home to an apartment full of college roomies to living with my husband. I had never bothered to consider how I’d feel about living alone, and suddenly I found myself just doing it.

The fact that it scared the heck out of me made me feel like an idiot. I was 35, after all. I was a successful career woman. I had owned my own home for 10 years. Suddenly, I was acting like a kid who had moved out of her parent’s home for the first time.

You can do it, I told myself. You have no choice. So I did, and here’s what I learned along the way:

1. I’m Not a Freak. Okay, I Might be a Freak, But Not Because I Hate Living Alone

Many of my friends had been single forever. They’d grown to love coming home to their quiet domains after a long day at work. I was used to walking through the door and having someone to complain to about my day. Never mind that all that complaining might have lead to my divorce.

When I admitted that I’d taken to talking to my computer, my washing machine and other assorted appliances, they looked at me like I’d gone insane.

“Talk to your cat instead,” one advised. “At least he can hear you.”

Others in my social circle found my newfound lifestyle something to envy. When I talked of my late-night-loneliness, they reminded me that living with a husband and three kids wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“You can go take a pee without anyone bothering you,” a co-worker told me. “Do you know what a luxury that is?”

I didn’t bother to explain that my bathroom door wasn’t latching right, I no longer had someone to give a honey-do list, and I didn’t know how to fix it, so the cat rarely let me have private bathroom time.

Some people like living alone. Others think they’d like it because the chaos in their own households is driving them insane. Just because you’re struggling with it doesn’t make you weaker or dumber than anyone else. You’re just learning something new.

2. There’s a Reason You Couldn’t Wait to Escape Your College Roommate. Remember?

I’d been on my own for about a week before I started considering renting the spare bedroom to someone else, preferably someone who could do yard work. The extra money and another human being in the house at night seemed worth the hassle in my confused state.

Then I visited someone who had roommates. He showed me the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink, the scum on the floor of the bathroom he’d just cleaned, and the pair of dirty underwear that had been hanging on the shower for a week.

I went home thinking that sometimes not going with your impulses is a good thing.

3. Jack Tripper is Your Best Friend. Leatherface is Your Worst Enemy.

I had the whole bed to myself. No one was stealing the covers or farting and pulling them over my head. No one else’s alarm clock was rousing me from sleep on my days off.

It seemed like the recipe for some good shut eye. But I’m one of those people who likes the warmth and security of having someone sleeping beside me. I sleep better through snores than I do silence.

I quickly learned that a TV in the bedroom could lull me to sleep if I let it. I wasn’t alone. At midnight, I was hanging out with Jack, Janet, Chrissy and Mr. Roper or the Facts of Life gang. The old sitcom friends of my childhood got me through the darkest hours.

Who says inanimate objects don’t have personalities? I quickly realized that my TV is something of a prankster. I’d doze off to the sounds of canned sitcom laughter, only to awaken a few hours later because your typical horror movie co-ed was about to hacked up with a chainsaw and was screaming bloody murder.

Lesson learned: Know what the late night programming is on the station you choose. Comedy can take the edge off an empty house. But the 2 am horror flick that comes on after you’ve fallen asleep can leave you wide awake all over again. I love Stephen King, but I don’t want to sleep with him.

4. It Wasn’t Him. It Was Me. So What?

I gave myself all sorts of mental pep talks about the benefits of living alone. Never again would the bathroom be littered with dirty laundry because my husband wouldn’t throw his boxers in the hamper. There would be no more scraping crusty spaghetti sauce off a plate that had sat in the sink all night after hubby’s midnight snack. Magazines and mail would be organized and in their appropriate containers instead of strewn across the kitchen table and the living room couch.

For the first time ever, my house would be clutter-free.

A month into my new life, I came home and took an objective look around. There were no dirty underwear on the bathroom floor, but makeup and hair products were strewn everywhere. The sink was free of crusty spaghetti, but three used coffee cups sat there crying for a good washing. And the kitchen table was covered in a motley collection of bills and work-related papers.

I thought about straightening things up. Then I went to read a book in the bathtub instead.

One of the benefits of living with a partner is that you can always blame the disarray of your home on him. In your eyes, his bad habits are worse than your own. It is only when you have no one else to blame for the clutter and disorganization that you learn to accept and embrace your inner slob.

So you’re out of coffee cups because you haven’t felt like doing dishes this week. You’ll wash one the next time you make a pot. There’s no one else there who wants a cuppa java anyway.

5. You Can Do It. Really, You Can.

I have prided myself on my independence since I was a teenager. I am woman, hear me roar.

I can roar with the best of them. But that didn’t stop me from living my entire adult life as a female stereotype in many ways. I did the laundry, scrubbed the bathroom, and vacuumed. But it was hubby who dragged the lawnmower out of the shed every weekend and kept our yard from turning into a jungle. It was hubby who figured out which switch to flip when we had a power outage. And it was hubby who dealt with home improvement, whether that meant morphing into Bob Villa himself or calling a repairman.

I spent the early part of summer cursing at my lawn, but learned quickly that giving grass the middle finger doesn’t stop it from growing. So I finally bit the bullet and dragged the lawn mower out of the shed. My ex and I had parted on friendly terms. He’d given me lawn mowing lessons before he moved out. I stared at the machine for a few minutes before firing it up hesitantly. When it didn’t spring to life and cut off my fingers or toes, I decided we might be able to work together.

I’ve got a big yard, full of little suburban-sized hills and valleys. It took me three hours, several coffee-and-ice water breaks, and a new swear-word vocabulary, but by the end of the afternoon my lawn was manicured.

Lots of women mow the lawn, of course. Some actually enjoy it. I had just never been one of them. After my first lawn-cutting venture, I called all my friends to tell them I’d just done something major.

“Did you finish that book you’ve been writing?”

“You finally got a promotion! Awesome!”

“Don’t tell me you got a date already. I’ve been single for five years and I’m still looking. I hate you.”

“No, no, no. That’s not it. It gets even better than that. I mowed the lawn!”

“Oh. That’s nice. Listen, I’ve got an appointment at the salon in an hour. I’ll call you later, okay?”

Your little accomplishments may seem like small potatoes to people who have been doing them forever. But if they make you feel good, do a happy dance. Mowing the lawn does make you the queen of your jungle, so roar away.

6. Sometimes You Can’t Do It. That Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person.

My euphoric high at the realization that I could operate a lawnmower lasted throughout the summer. Then the weather turned colder, and my furnace broke.

My husband was good at home repairs, but he knew better than to try to fix potentially explosive things like furnaces himself. Still, he could call a repairman with the best of them.

I spend hours a day on the phone at work, negotiating and facilitating and making things happen. But when I sat shivering in my cold living room, blowing a space heater on my half-frozen toes, I actually wondered if I could get through the whole winter this way so I wouldn’t have to deal with calling someone to fix my problem.

When I finally did make the call, it went something like this:

“Umm … my heat’s not working.”

“Can you explain the problem a bit?”

“Ummm … okay. I tried to turn it on, and it told me to go crap in my hat.”

“Your furnace spoke to you?”

“Well, not exactly. It just sort of made a rumbling noise, like when you haven’t eaten all day and your stomach growls. Do you think it’s hungry? Should I give it a cheeseburger?”

“No ma’am, we’ll be right over.”

Things will go wrong, and you won’t be able to fix all of them yourself. Don’t feel bad about that. You’re helping the economy. If everyone had a car, cab drivers would be out of work. If everyone knew how to troubleshoot their own computer, the geeks of the world wouldn’t be able to afford the latest alternate reality games. And if everyone knew how to fix their own furnaces, air conditioning, and plumbing, the world would be full of incredibly bored and poor skilled repairmen.

7. Housepets Don’t Pay Rent, So Put Them to Work.

So far this year, I’ve learned to mow my own lawn and paint my own walls. And I’ve learned to find and hire the right guys and girls to repair my broken heat and my internet connection. But there are some problems that require a bit more finesse to solve.

My husband was always the Bug Killer in our family. I’m one of those squeamish girly girls who just can’t deal with household pests. Part of it is that I hate killing anything. I get sad if I accidentally step on an ant. But when it comes right down to it, I just don’t like bug guts.

I came home one night dreaming of a warm bath, only to find a tarantula in my tub. Okay, it wasn’t a tarantula. It was just a very big spider.

“You don’t live here. You don’t pay rent,” I told him. “Why don’t you scoot along now?”

He responded by wiggling a spindly leg at me. I think he was telling me to get him a beer in Spiderese. I gave the tried-and-true method of turning on the water to send him sloshing down the drain a try. He sprang to life and scuttled to the far end of the tub, then wiggled one of his other legs at me.

I retreated to the living room and sat there flicking my remote and fuming. When you live alone, you’re supposed to be able to use your bathroom whenever you want, right? Being welcomed home by an 8-legged-freak wasn’t on my list of things to accomplish in my lifetime.

As I sat and stewed, my cat leapt up and brushed himself against me. I absently stroked his fur and let his purring soothe my ruffled spirits. He got bored when it became clear that I’d rather sulk than play, and he headed off to explore. I heard him rattling around the bathroom not long after. He’d been known to knock over shampoos I hadn’t closed properly and leave a huge mess, so I went to investigate.

The shampoo bottles were fine. The cat was in the tub, whapping away at a now very-dead spider.

So what if I didn’t have a man in the house to perform bug-squishing duties? The cat had realized that times had changed and we all had to pull our weight around here, and shown me that he could be the man of the house. The bug was dead and he was entertained. Everyone was happy. Well, everyone except the spider, and he was freeloading anyway.

You can call someone to fix broken appliances or take care of your yard work. But if you flip through the phone book, you aren’t likely to find Bug Stompers for hire. Unless you have a pest problem on a scale that requires an exterminator, you’re on your own.

That is, of course, unless you’ve got a cat.

I was thinking about teaching him how to unclog a toilet next. Lucky for him I ended up seeing someone, falling in love again, and sharing my household with someone who’s good at that kind of thing before I ever got around to it.

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