Untethered: On Living Alone, Reimagining Family

Welcome to Untethered, a new column by me, a person who has basically never been single in their whole adult life. Herein, I’m publicly committing to, above all else, dating myself and building community around me not based on the relationship escalator — for the indefinite future. I’m curious about what that looks like, genuinely, and hope you’ll explore that with me!


It’s not like I don’t have role models for people in my family living alone. I do, in fact — and they’re, specifically, women. My parents divorced when I was 15, and my mom never remarried. I spent my high school years living with my single mom and little sister, and because of my dad’s deployment, it felt like that had been the case for years before then, anyway. My grandma never remarried after my grandpa died when I was six. For most of my life, she lived alone, alleging that she was content with her own company, getting help from her three sons and her daughter (my mom). My sister lives alone and likes it. Now, I live alone. Now, my mom takes turns with my uncles and various aides to go to my grandma’s house and cartake. Her dementia’s advanced to where she doesn’t recognize her kids anymore. I said hi to her over the phone the other day, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t know who I was either. My mom’s fallen deeper and deeper into a mix of alt right conspiracy theories and white lady appropriative hodge podge mysticism. By the time this publishes, she’ll have probably gone through with her plans to flee to a park during the national security alert test because it’s supposed to activate a microchip we all got injected in us when we got the COVID vaccine. You’ve been warned. I don’t know what I’m warning you about. Zombies, probably.

I’ve been dredging through the remains of my life since my ex and I started living in this house four years ago. It feels like shoveling shit from one pile to another. It’s hard work putting this right, cleaning up debris from home reno and just the inertia that can occur when two people with ADHD cohabitate. I have garbage bags on my garbage bags. And because cleaning is distinctly not a preferred activity for me, I spend a lot of time screaming and yelling at the trash while I throw it away, bringing all the drama and elaborate sighs to my little all-by-myself huffy fits, and trying to find things to listen to while hauling boxes and garbage bags around. It might sound like the house is very, very messy, and while it is by my standards, it’s also that I can only piece together an hour here, a couple hours there. Life is hauling me forward. There’s work, of course, and that is many hours a week. Sleeping, working out, cooking, friends and dates and sex and writing all take up time. And then there’s the way that cleaning gives my mind space to think. When I’ve strung together a few evenings in the house, alone, cleaning and cleaning and sorting and throwing things away, I have ample opportunity to start to process past traumas, to really think things through and see how they’re popping up again for me, to watch the cycles winding and unwinding themselves through my current timeline. This may have resulted in my gladly accepting an invitation for drinks at a punk bar only to burst into tears at the counter in front of everyone about something that had bothered me for…decades? You think you’re going to settle into finally living alone with a cup of tea, to gaze out of the window into the middle distance, but instead it turns out your inner child is waiting in the closet, and they’re dual wielding hammers.

Is that one of the reasons so many people would rather stay in a relationship than face being alone? Because if you’re by yourself, there’s no one to take up the space, so then it’s up to you to fill the room with chatter and thoughts, and the thoughts can twist into all the things you were pushing deep down into your basement. There’s that, and the fact that being alone feels dangerous in a hyper-literal sense. I’ve gotten used to the creaks and moans of the house, the occasional ghost seen walking behind me in the room in the reflection of the kitchen window, the way my leaning against something can cause the wood to sound like footsteps. But I’ve also become more and more aware of my position in my neighborhood, where the houses neighboring me are vacant, and the best I have are neighbors a few blocks down. I know them, but my part of the block is eerie in its quiet, dark and unlived-in. Next to me, a vacant house’s front yard has grown thick with thistles. The sun is setting earlier each day, and the time we’ll be spending in the dark is getting longer and longer. One night, while I walked up the 20+ stairs to my front door, past the scraggly and sharp and deep thistle patch, a pair of yellow eyes flashed at me. It was just a city deer, one of the several that flit in and out of my yard with regularity, but it made me want to jump out of my combat boots for a second. I tuck little weapons into pockets, look around a lot, check spaces I feel a less paranoid person would ignore, and wear shoes I can run in. With this, I think about what I said in my conversation with Stef Rubino about strength training about the way I want to move through the world, how I want to be physically stronger because of how I live my life, because I’m “visibly queer” (whatever that may mean), because I don’t orient my life around cis men or their “protection” and also because I’m by myself a lot and I value my solitude, not just in a way where I’m doing my own thing in well-populated areas, but alone in a only-person-I-can-see-around-me-for-blocks-and-blocks kind of way. I don’t know, maybe you think I’m silly. How do you deal with it?

Haunting me, still, though, and making me think of my grandma’s fate, my mom’s future, my sister’s, my own, is something someone said to me recently, in conversation. I’ve been thinking about my age, and regardless of however I may feel about it on a gender level, my uterus, and the potential that hollow little organ holds for having a kid. I brought up the fact that I was considering having a kid in this conversation, and my friend said, “Do it. You should.” They went on to tell me about an elder lesbian they’ve been helping to care for. I’m unclear on the details of how this got started, but apparently her wife died and my friend’s been helping her clear her yard. More sudden alone-ness. More clearing and cleaning of debris. But this lesbian, according to my friend, drinks a 12-pack of beer or more a day, is having trouble recovering from her surgery, and acts out in frustration and rage at times. According to my friend, she pulled a gun on them at one point during a heated altercation where the lesbian raged at my friend for leaving for the day, telling them she knew they were abandoning her. My friend tells me to have a kid because she’s seen too many old dykes with no one. It’s a reason. A single reason to consider it, but also, not the best reason to have at the top of the list when thinking about bringing a whole child into the world.

And then I think forward to how I might want my life to look when I’m 50, 60. Do I want younger family members? With mindful choices and a lot of luck, having a kid could mean having a good relationship with said kid for years and years, for the rest of my life, even. With my ex gone, so is, too, the fact that she never wanted to have a baby, and that I didn’t want to either at the time. I’m still not sure about it, but I’m making myself sit with the possibility, as a choice a person can make for themselves, outside of monogamous relationships or marriage or cohabitation, outside of cishet or capitalist expectations, but just as a thing to consider on its own merits. When I think about throwing wrenches into the gears of the relationship escalator, I also think about what it might mean to grab hold of one of the cycles my family’s in and to see if I can crack it, break myself free — and what it might mean to do that not through completely rejecting a part of life as though it’s bad in and of itself, but by considering what I can do differently.

One of the reasons my grandma might be in such steep cognitive decline is her isolation. Family lore says that she was cruel to her kids. I’ve also witnessed it to a certain extent. She also was stubborn and wouldn’t socialize much. She kept to herself like an anchoress, walled up, doing less and less each day. Her kids have mixed feelings about her, or my mom certainly does. To my knowledge, they made little to no effort to seek out memory care, to do any research, to do more than maintain her physical body. Then, my mom, too, makes little effort to bridge the gap with her brothers, with her kids. She’d rather be right, be vindicated, be a bigot than have closer family ties, than maintain friendships. To consider trying to make family is to consider reimagining family from the ground up, to summon into being a healthier approach I’ve never really lived in, only seen from the outside. It would take a ton of effort and faith and queer magic and sacrifice and who knows what else. And the clock is moving steadily forward, always, while I think about not just the possibilities I saw when I first entered onto this journey — moving my body and making new friends and reveling in the heat of a slutty summer — but also the ones that have come knocking, ghostly knuckles on a pane of glass in the back of my mind, with the turn of the seasons into fall.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 227 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Wow, I love this 🖤

    And yes, isolation is a big reason for cognitive decline as we age. Having an active social/community life is the best way to counteract isolation. I’ve seen this play out very starkly in the lives of elders I know.

    And of course, raising a tiny human is one way to develop community ties. Also you can just be involved in community orgs. There’s no wrong way to go about it, it’s just whichever route you think you’d enjoy more!

    • Thank you! And of course — I’m decently involved in my community locally — it takes up a decent chunk of my life outside of this space, and it’s definitely a great way to build ties and found family over time <3

  2. “Is that [inner child dual wielding hammers] one of the reasons so many people would rather stay in a relationship than face being alone?”

    In my experience, yes, absolutely, very yes. And not only relationships . . .

    Also I don’t know your age (nor do you need to say) but something that surprised me about hitting my forties is the way all the childhood stuff came back, again, once more, so vividly and it indeed felt like shovelling shit from one pile to another until eventually it didn’t and then another piece, another shit shovelling. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say, except I feel you on the hammering inner child (what an image!), and I wish you well with it; it’s hard.

    • BFP thank you! I’m in my mid-30s. I don’t mind saying. But yeah, that stuff has been coming up in a big way, so it’s probably a convergence of factors. Thank you for your well wishes. Sending you love and thank you for reading!

  3. Nico, I am really enjoying this series! I love seeing people’s winding paths through life, and reflections on what is one’s best life and how it can change.

    Aside from one long term relationship, I’ve generally been happily single. For me, I love single parenting and having a house full of kids. It’s definitely a full time, forever commitment. Best wishes as you ponder life and family!

    • no longer nice, thank you for saying so!! It’s also really cool to hear from single parents as I consider all my options. I’m really glad that a house full of kids brings you joy! You’re so very appreciated <3

  4. I had a lot of thoughts like this when I was alone in the house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by debris my ex left behind. (When they were still there and we’d fight I used to leave the house and drive around the dirt roads past the cornfields until I’d hit a dead end.) But anyhow I’d be alone out there in the house thinking about my mother, who also lives alone, and preferred to (at the time she was in a relationship, her girlfriend wanted to live together, she didn’t), and wanted to stay living alone for as long as she could. and maybe the only reason i wasn’t more scared was because i was too sad to care about my own life? but it sure got dark at night, i didn’t know the world could be that dark, and there wouldn’t be a sound for so many minutes or miles. knowing i was living alone and so was my mom — even though she wanted to, even though she was in a relationship — did make me feel like maybe there was something wrong with the whole family line, that nobody wanted to be around us forever? thoughts like those was why i always had my headphones in, books, podcasts, or watching tv, or on the phone. but all of those thoughts were better than the fights we used to have and that empty feeling of living with someone who makes you feel so alone. i think if anybody tries to mess with you, you’ll win.

    • Riese, wow. Seriously. Living alone in a house out in the country would be its own thing. It sure does get dark at night, even here, and without city lights, it’s even darker. And you survived it! I do wonder that. Like, am I capable of living with another person like that? Is it okay to acknowledge that I’m not into trying anymore? But yes. Just about anything is better than being alone in a relationship. Solitude has so much more potential for joy than that <3

  5. Hmm. I’m also living alone for the first time, though my mom was a single mother since I was probably 8 years old (she died last year). I’m adopted, but also was raised in literally the most bizarre and isolating fashion where I don’t have a relationship with any of my family members, adoptive or otherwise. I’ve always liked the idea of adopting a child…. but I am absolutely not there. I’ve been struggling even to reconcile my feelings on the morality of keeping as many pets as I could from the breakup despite not being able to provide them the level of care, attention, and exercise I’d wish for them. But I think I’m getting better.

    My biggest hangup is that, I don’t have an emergency contact anymore!!!! It’s never not been a partner as an adult. My ex was also my primary plan for care and help when I got top surgery. So I’ve been forced by necessity to rely more on friends than I’ve ever really felt comfortable with.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Pryce! It does sound like you’re hanging in there and doing better and better! As far as relying on friends goes, I think that learning to both care for others and accept care within platonic relationships is a really radical act. We’re trained by our capitalist society to center a single romantic relationship and to rely on a partner for so many of our needs, but friends can be emergency contacts, too! I’m also always trying to untangle the expectations around platonic friendships vs what they have the potential to grow to be, and I am wishing you a ton of luck and sending you love as you navigate the world while living alone for the first time.

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