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(The Root) — You can read this essay in its entirety — plus the thoughts of 40 other prominent African Americans from the worlds of the arts, medicine, religion and academia — in the anthology Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African American Community, available online and wherever books are sold. Find more about the book at wheredidrlovego.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.

In My Time, on My Terms

Two decades before Maya Rudolph and her zany crew brought the laughs in Bridesmaids, I spent a lazy afternoon watching a made-for-television movie of the same name. Though the specifics are a bit fuzzy now, I recall that the plot centered on a quartet of besties who return home for a friend's wedding. Each woman has her own personal dramas going on, but my attention was drawn to a character named Caryl. She's the single girl of the group. As soon as her backstory revealed that she is driven by her career — hence not obsessed with landing a husband — I thought, I know her. That's going to be me.

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I'm the first to admit that I've been focused on blazing my career path, but more than anything, I'd consider myself a dreamer. As an only child, I spent a lot time daydreaming about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be once I left the nest. Needless to say, I had many, many dreams.

My first bright idea was to be a pediatrician, but when I realized that what I actually wanted to do was care for newborns, I thought being a maternity-ward nurse might be a better fit. Then I wanted to be a dancer and a model and a writer and a fashion buyer and an advertising executive, and so on and so on. Oh, and I should also mention that I wanted to live in a different city every year, which my grandmother thought was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard. I wanted to do it all, but in none of my childhood fantasies did I ever envision myself as a "Mrs."

When I was in high school, a senior classmate of mine arrived at school, hysterical and in tears. Since graduation was soon approaching, I couldn't imagine why she was so upset. Then she told me what was going on at home. Her father had announced that he was leaving her mother, which was devastating enough. The bigger blow was that her mother had never held a job and had no means of supporting herself.

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Sadly, my friend was even more upset by the fact that at 18, she had more marketable skills than her mother. I was speechless. I felt terrible for her, but deep inside, I couldn't imagine how such a thing could happen. I knew I would never find myself in such a situation. Never.

I am my mother's daughter. She blessed me with her middle name and fortified me with the strength and freedom to conquer the world. She raised me by herself, from the beginning, and sacrificed to provide for me and expose me to as much as possible. She had a plan for herself, too. As a kid, I accompanied her to registration for her college courses, watched as she studied at the kitchen table and cheered her on when she walked across the stage to get her degree. She was also the head of our household and earned every dollar.

My father, to whom she'd been married before I was born, wasn't in the picture, so I didn't have much of a concept about what marriage entailed. I didn't have an understanding of what it meant to share the joys and weight of life. What I saw, what I knew, was that my mother did everything, so I thought that's how it worked. I also knew, at a very young age, that I would have to rely on myself. I was to be my own savior.  

As much as marriage was a foreign concept to me as a young woman, I naively assumed that all married couples were happy. Since I'd never seen my parents together, I didn't understand how circumstances and dynamics of a marriage changed over time or how people changed and, ultimately, grew apart. I also didn't know what it took to stay united.

I continued to be in the dark about such matters, even as I watched many of my friends get hitched. Just as I was focused on making my dreams come true, I believed that getting married was the final frontier for those who wanted to be married. What I later learned is that life is not so simple. I would also learn that many people — including a handful of my friends — believed that being single was a social crime.

The first time I walked down the aisle was in the wedding of a dear family friend. I think I was about 7 years old, and I was beyond thrilled to be the flower girl. My mother was a bridesmaid, and she, along with my grandmother, made all the dresses for the bridal party. I remember being so excited to be wearing baby's breath in my hair and of course, posing for pictures. I loved the bride and groom, who are still married today, and I was so happy to be included in the festivities. 

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Over the years, I've surely done my fair share of bridesmaid duty. I've worn the standard, pastel dresses and those horrid, dyed-to-match shoes with pride, and adorned my lobes with dainty earrings of the bride's choice. Though I'm embarrassed to admit it, I still have a few of the dresses tucked in the back of my closet because I drank all of that Kool-Aid about being able to "wear the dress again." I now know that to be a lie that most brides tell their bridesmaids, but back then, I happily played along.

I've also bought bridal-shower gifts and wedding gifts, hosted baby showers, shipped care packages across state lines and celebrated my friends as their lives expanded. Ironically, sadly, what I often received in return was judgment and even misdirected resentment. Although nobody wants to fess up to it, relationships get tricky when your friends get married, especially when you're single. Things change quickly and in rather excruciating stages.

Regina R. Robertson is the West Coast editor of Essence. She shares her thoughts about being single and living life on her own terms in the bestselling relationship anthology Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African American Community.

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