"So do you feel you've been called to be single, then?" a friend asked me recently, after I'd mentioned the fact that I'd written a blog entry about being single in your thirties.
In answer to my friend's question, I would say that God has called me to Paraguay, to the work I am doing and the life I am leading now. Part of that life is being single, so yes, I am called to be single. For now. I certainly don't feel it is a lifelong calling and I very much hope to get married at some point (preferably sooner rather than later, from my point of view!) However, my life is in God's hands and I trust him to provide everything I need and to work all things together for my good.
That leaves me with the issue of being a single missionary. Generations of women have had to deal with this issue, so I don't pretend to have the definitive take on it, nor in my short experience do I consider myself to understand it better than the thousands who have trodden this same path before me. For the few single men on the mission field who may be reading this, I apologise that this article is definitely written from the female point of view, but the fact is that the vast majority of singles in mission are women.
God or Marriage?
As a little girl, you grow up hearing fairy tales and pop music which encourage you to assume that you'll get married one day and that you will find your own "happy ever after."
Then at some point, God comes along with a new proposition. You have a choice to make: do you want to stay and perhaps have the life you always dreamed of or do you want to follow God on a new adventure?
At the point of decision, it may well feel (it certainly did for me at the time) that you are saying "yes" to God and "no" to getting married. You are choosing to give up the dream of a cosy, normal life, for the uncertainty of a new and exciting venture. And you know that leaving your own culture for a different one means you are leaving behind a world of many possible future husbands for one of very few, if any. Don't underestimate the significance of that decision. At the moment of making that choice, you know you're following God and that makes it very freeing, but living with the consequences is extremely hard (see my blog entry for more on that topic).
When you arrive in your new country you may find that the culture is very family-orientated. Everyone in Paraguay is married by the age of 26. Okay, I have met two exceptions to the rule. But really, that's all. So you're already an oddity in the fact that you look so different from everyone else and you sound different. Add onto that the fact that you're not married and you become a real rarity. In addition, most, if not all, of your fellow missionaries are probably married too. Many of the married couples on my team are younger than I am and somehow, that accentuates the fact that I'm (still) single.
Challenges and Rewards
One of the biggest challenges as a single person in a new culture is that you are alone in a way no married person is. You have no-one who really knows who you are, who can comfort you in times of stress and who can reassure you that you're not going mad. This can lead to feelings of being misunderstood because you perceive that people are only seeing the stressed version of you and are assuming that this is who you really are. Neither do you have anyone you can automatically bounce ideas around with when making ministry decisions. These things mean it is particularly important for singles to have a mentor on the field; something married colleagues do not always appreciate.
"singles can adapt quicker to the host culture"
Of the rewards I have experienced, the biggest one is the freedom to make friends and get involved with the local culture, without having to worry about who's going to look after the kids, or whether your spouse will feel left out. You also have more need to get "out there" and get to know people, because you don't have that close companionship at home. In this way, singles can adapt quicker to the host culture than married couples, who have to spend time with each other and may be more tempted to hide away at home. You also only have your own culture stress to deal with, rather than carrying the burden for both yourself and your spouse.
Stability or Adventure?
Last winter, I was on home assignment in the UK for a couple of months and was faced with my lack of a real home once again. I was visiting friends and supporters in different parts of the country, so there was a lot of travelling and staying in other people's homes, which left me feeling very transitory and quite unsettled. There's a Billy Joel song called 'You're My Home', which expresses exactly what I felt I was missing: "I'll never be a stranger and I'll never be alone; wherever we're together, that's my home." It's hard when you feel you have neither a place to belong nor a person to belong with.
At the same time, I was confronted with the reality of most of my friends' lives of stable domesticity; marriage and children, a mortgage and digital TV. I was struck by the real contrast of their lifestyles with mine.
But would I want to give up my lifestyle to have theirs?
I came to the conclusion that actually, I really would not. I feel that God's put something inside me which just fits so well with being where I am at the moment and if I try to imagine myself in my married friends' shoes, it feels as though a part of me would die if I didn't have the adventure of living in another culture. I really do thank God every day for the abundant blessings in my life. I also really do look back on these years of being single, and thank God for the singleness which has enabled me to follow him on this amazing and exciting journey. Now, if he were to provide a husband for me to enjoy the adventure with, I wouldn't exactly mind...