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Michelle Brooks: 47, never married
Occupation: Federal international agency executive
Location: Alexandria, Virginia
A typical month might find Michelle Brooks conferring with congressmen, senators and ambassadors, attending White House briefings and embassy events and jetting to foreign countries to meet dignitaries and community leaders. She owns her own home, works out regularly, goes to church, volunteers at a local philanthropic organization, dates actively and has what she describes as "tons" of friends. In every way but one she's living the life she dreamed of when she fell in love with politics as a child and determined, she says, during a family vacation to Washington, D.C., that someday she wanted "to live here and make a difference."
Her path to the nation's capital started in California politics. After graduating from college in San Luis Obispo with a degree in business administration, she held a few local political posts -- working for a state legislator as a staff assistant and later as a lobbyist. After volunteering on several state-level campaigns she even flirted with the idea of one day running for office herself.
Instead, when she was in her mid-30s Brooks decided to fulfill her dream of moving to Washington. She phoned someone she knew there, sent him her resume, flew in for an interview and within a week of her original call had nabbed a job as a lobbyist. In 2002, after volunteering in George W. Bush's presidential campaign, she was appointed to her current post.
Brooks had always imagined she'd get married, but none of the three serious relationships she'd had in her late 20s worked out. "It boiled down to having different life passions," she says. "The kinds of activities and people we liked became increasingly different as time passed." Her political aspirations were another issue. One boyfriend was worried about the scrutiny to which candidates and their associates are subjected, she recalls.
Brooks assumed that in Washington she'd meet men with whom she had more in common. At first that seemed to be true. "When I got here I was the new face in town, and there was a flurry of activity," she says. But work remained a consuming passion and she eventually found herself more focused on it than on romantic relationships.
Seven years ago, at age 40, still single and childless, Brooks says she began a grieving process. "It sometimes involved tears," she confesses. At times it would be difficult, she explains, to get invitations -- including to the 2004 presidential inauguration -- for "Michelle Brooks and guest" and to not have someone to bring with her. "I had to remember that my value as a person wasn't based on my marital status and to let go of some old expectations," she says.
Part of that letting go meant fully enjoying her life rather than waiting for a better one to come along. She started to increase the number of vacations she took abroad, then began shopping for real estate. Recently she's begun thinking about adopting a child internationally.
"I've been blessed in a lot of ways," she says emphatically. "I'd love to be married, but I enjoy my life. Being single has enabled me to pursue a dream and take chances I might otherwise not have risked."
Barbara Simons: 44, divorced
Occupation: Physician's assistant
Location: Seattle, Washington
Every morning my little girl and I stand by the window and sing our 'morning song,' " says Barbara Simons. "I'm so thankful for this time. It's the happiest of my entire life." For Simons, not being married has not meant forfeiting the experience of motherhood. She became pregnant with her child, now 4 years old, during a brief relationship she had in her early 40s and chose to raise her daughter alone. By mutual choice her daughter's father, who lives in Europe, has not been involved in her upbringing.
Her sense of financial security enabled her decision. When she decided to become a single mother, she knew that as a physician's assistant she could find a job almost anywhere in the country. "I had no doubts at all," she says. But Simons's journey to this independent stance was not an easy one.
Simons was a child of divorce: Raised by her mother, she had no relationship with her father. In her early 20s, while still in college, she fell in love with a young man about to return to his hometown, thousands of miles away. Simons wanted to go with him, but not as a girlfriend. "Getting married was important to me," she says. "I felt that when you're married, you're someone."
After the wedding, however, she discovered that living in places where she knew no one -- first Georgia, then Texas -- was harder than she'd expected, despite being married. "It was a very passionate relationship, so when things were good, they were extremely good," she remembers. "But when they were bad, they were very, very bad." She describes her ex-husband as domineering and not supportive of her professional goals. For her part, she says she was too dependent to figure out how to leave the relationship. And there was the simple fact that she believed in marriage. "I took my vows seriously," she explains.
Eventually Simons became a nurse and then a physician's assistant. A turning point in her marriage came when she was 35 and she and her husband began discussing having children. "I realized I didn't want to bring a child into this kind of home," she recalls thinking. "So why was I putting up with it?" She divorced her husband and afterward "felt nothing but relief."
She stayed in Texas but began taking intermittent several-weeklong vacations from her emergency-room job, which had great flexibility. "I traveled a lot -- to Indonesia, Africa, Europe, Central America. I went all over the world alone, sometimes with no more than a carry-on," she says. These experiences taught her how capable she was: "Traveling helped me learn to problem-solve, plan, be independent."
She had one more important lesson to learn, though. Right after her divorce, she admits, she began looking for another partner: "The perfect person, someone to fill that empty spot. It took a lot of soul-searching to realize that happiness was within myself."
When she did, says Simons, "I stopped actively looking." When she discovered she was pregnant in 2004, four years after her divorce, her relationship with the baby's father had already ended. Simons had no reservations about becoming a single mother, however. "It was meant to be," she says. "I was 40, had a good job and was comfortable with who I was." While visiting a friend in Seattle she fell in love with that city and moved there in 2006 with her daughter, Samaira, then a year old.
Simons does admit to occasional qualms. "Being on my own means I have no one to share my worries with," she says. Still, she insists, she made the right decision for her. "It's so much better to be happy alone than miserable together."
And if she finds a partner someday? "I know I will have to compromise if I ever decide to let someone into my life," she says. "It may be difficult because what I have is absolutely perfect."
Judy Cole: 50, cohabiting for 15 years
Occupation: Writer and editor
Location: Gastonia, North Carolina
Judy Cole has no intention of marrying her partner, Monty Monaghan, even though they are more committed to each other than some married people she knows. She considers him to be her family; his relatives, her in-laws. "I'll stay with him as long as we love each other and are good for each other," she says.
Cole learned that love doesn't necessarily last forever back when she was about 18 and her parents' union "imploded." Throughout a suburban New York childhood she describes as idyllic, she'd thought her advertising copywriter father and painter mother had a perfect marriage. "When the marriage ended, it was like a bomb dropping," she says.
In college Cole majored in English, worked a variety of jobs after graduation and eventually developed a career as an editor and writer. She describes her love life during her 20s and 30s as one of "serial monogamy." One serious relationship, with a man who'd also lived through a devastating parental divorce when he was a teenager, seemed to be heading toward the altar. "We had a lot in common," she remembers. "I wanted to marry him, have kids, do the picket-fence-and-family thing. But he was always looking for something else."
Most of her serious liaisons involved cohabiting for a time. "If you love someone, you want to be with him," she explains simply. That didn't mean the next step was tying the knot, though. "I didn't see living together as necessarily leading to marriage," says Cole.
Cole met Monaghan, a musician and native of Ireland, in 1993, when she was 35 and still thinking about the possibility of having children. "He didn't want to make parenthood a part of his life, and I knew that if I stayed with him, that would have to be my choice, too," she says. On the plus side, being childless meant the two felt freer to live together without marrying -- a state Cole thinks of primarily as a way to provide stability for children.
Until recently Cole and Monaghan lived near New York City, where she was the couple's primary breadwinner. "My job has always been a big part of who I am," she explains. "I like being responsible."
The two kept separate bank accounts and found it easy to split up their expenses. "It's according to what each of us can afford," she says. "Neither of us has ever had a problem with that. We trust each other."
Several years ago the couple made the decision to move someplace warmer and found the big old house in Gastonia, North Carolina, that they now share with a menagerie of cats and dogs. Then Cole lost her job, and Monaghan went to work at a local radio station, making him the breadwinner. "Slowing down for a while has been good," admits Cole. "I finally have time to cook, but I'm a dreadful housekeeper."
Cole's only dissatisfaction with cohabiting is that it has put them in a social and legal netherworld. "If Monty became ill, I couldn't decide what would happen to him, and vice versa," she says. "We need to see a lawyer and figure out what we must do to be able to make these choices for each other." And she sometimes feels uneasy when she has to introduce him in social situations. Whereas he's comfortable calling her his girlfriend, she often refers to him as her husband since it's easier than having to explain. "What else do you say? There's just no good term."
She admits to moments of regret about not having had children. "Over the years it's been hard when old friends got married and had kids and that was all they talked about," she says. "It was as though they got on one bus and I got on another. But every era that passes in your life includes something you'll never do. It was sad, but not tragic."
Overall, she says, the choices she has made have given her a happy life. "This is the right relationship for me," she says. "I'm not opposed to marriage, but I don't need it. Monty and I are together because we want to be."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.