2020 was the year I was supposed to ramp up my commitment to dating, push myself outside my comfort zone, and finally pencil in the time and energy required to meet someone. Instead, I found myself newly unemployed and moving home to live with my parents. I landed in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by bookshelves displaying 9th grade reading material and picture frames parading friendships I no longer kept up with.
Meanwhile, quarantine seemed to be driving everyone around me to get serious about their relationships. I watched as friends went from “casually dating” to moving in with their partners in a matter of weeks. Zoom wedding invites filled my inbox. I, on the other hand, was spending summer afternoons with my widowed grandmother, dangling our feet in the pool and trading book recommendations. And without the distraction of my typically bustling calendar, I’d never felt my singleness more acutely.
Making matters worse, the same COVID anxieties that were encouraging my friends to settle down made dating feel impossible. During the one “socially distanced” date I went on, I was so stressed by people getting too close to our outdoor table or not being able to hear my date properly from six feet away that I could barely focus. And with my roots growing out to the point where my hair was unintentionally ombre and my sweatpants seemingly fusing themselves to my body, I didn’t feel particularly flirty or thriving.
Dating during the pandemic wasn’t fun, and it didn’t feel worth it to continue to force myself into these uncomfortable (and potentially unsafe) situations. But the idea of taking a dating hiatus now, at what felt like such a critical juncture in my mid-twenties, scared me.
I had always been an overachiever — a dedicated student, an extroverted networker. None of that mattered in the face of the pandemic, though. It had upended the entire trajectory that I’d been working toward, and had stripped away any sense of control I had over my life, including my ability to search for a romantic partner. Though I’d probably never be thrilled about unpacking the boxes from my NYC apartment into my parents’ garage in Ohio, there was a far-reaching, future-oriented twinge to my panic… a sense that I was “losing a year.” For the first time in my life, it felt like I was falling behind.
That’s when I began to realize just how absurdly tied I still was to a certain timeline, one that I’d made up years ago: as a kid who heard the romantic-enough-for-a-rom-com story about my parents falling in love at 16 years old; as a tween who spent many weekends flipping through bridal magazines at Barnes & Noble; and as a teen who loved Sex and the City and self-identified as a Charlotte. Somewhere along the way, I’d internalized the idea that a successful life meant graduating college, getting the dream job, meeting my person by 25, getting engaged by 28, having a wedding before 30, buying that house out in the country, and raising our kids on matzo ball soup and bluegrass music.
Deep in my psyche was a small voice gnawing away at me, telling me that failure to complete these steps would equal failure to access my truest version of happiness. I may have been ignoring it with my rational brain — which was concerned with building my career, deepening my friendships, and reading all the literary fiction I could get my hands on — but there was another part of me that had to admit that while biologically, the clock was not yet technically ticking, mentally, it was sounding off (real sexy, I know).
I’d had many other childhood dreams — becoming a fashion designer, mastering the art of oil painting — that were painless to let go of. But this “married by 30” timeline had stuck. And with the pandemic throwing off my plans, I felt stuck, like I was swimming through a pool filled with peanut butter.
Naming the source of my anxiety and recognizing that these timelines were manufactured, self-imposed, and essentially meaningless didn’t make it any easier to detangle myself from them. But finally, after several months of wallowing in a sense of stasis inside my parents’ house, I decided it was time to get outside and out of my head. The listless non-activity was compounding with my fears of not doing enough, not working hard enough, not moving forward.
For some reason, I was drawn to a bicycle. I had never learned how to ride one. As a child, I’d cry anytime my parents wheeled it out to the driveway. As I got older, I embraced my non-athleticism as a silly personality trait; not knowing how to ride a bike became a self-deprecating “fun fact” I could whip out for ice-breakers during college orientation.
But with nothing but time in front of me, I decided to give it one more try. My father, two decades older than he intended to be when taking up this task, eagerly agreed to be my coach. That first day, he ran behind me the whole way, never taking his hand off the back of the bike seat. The second day wasn’t as smooth. He tried leading me around the cul-de-sac — what was barely even a downhill, I’d convinced myself was a seventy-five degree angle. I was stuck in my head, refusing to pedal, at one point, yelling “fuck” in front of my grandmother.
I was holding on too tightly. My wrists were aching, my elbows were locked. The space in between my right pointer finger and thumb was sore from clutching the brake.
My little brother kept telling me the key to staying balanced was to keep pedalling, and finally, his words clicked. Within a week, I could ride for a hundred yards or so before my overly aware brain caught up with my body. Within two weeks, I could make turns without stopping and traverse multiple streets on my own. Within three weeks, the entire neighborhood was mine. Each evening, I’d hop on my bike for a pre-dinner ride, reveling in the sunset and the shifting of my feet.
In less than a month, I’d rewritten an outdated narrative: I would no longer think of myself as the desperately uncoordinated girl who couldn’t figure out how to ride a bike. It sounds like a small thing, but I’d been more attached to that particular image than I’d realized. And I began to see that there were other stories I told about myself that I could start to loosen my grasp on, too. I’m not the tween cutting engagement ring photos out of magazines anymore, either. I’m not even the city girl I was less than a year ago, who was dating as if it were something to tick off her to-do list. I had gained a sense of forward momentum again — literally and figuratively.
I still feel stressed about not being able to date right now. If I had a crystal ball and could see that my future self will have all the things I’ve always hoped for, I’d be able to breathe easier as I move through this moment of uncertainty. But since I can’t, I’m trying to become more comfortable in the in-between. I’m working on broadening my conception of what the next 10 years could look like. And I’m pushing myself to stay present and celebrate the unexpected joys I wouldn’t be able to indulge in if I was still on my pre-pandemic path — to enjoy the time with my family, to read more, to learn new things.
If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s to prepare for the unexpected. Maybe I won’t have all the boxes checked by the time I reach 30 — but neither did Charlotte York, and she still got her happy ending.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.