black and white etch style drawing of a woman sitting on a couch, with a sense of loneliness and sadness
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COVID-19

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Have You Checked on Your Single Friends?


Vice-President Kamala Harris has. Because as someone who was single till she was nearly 50, she understands it can be isolating to live alone — so imagine doing so through the Covid pandemic.



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At 10:04 p.m. on Christmas Day, then–Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris tweeted a holiday reminder we don’t often hear from politicians: “Check in on your single friends.”

This wasn’t the first time Harris singled out single people on social media. On March 10, she released a video urging her followers to reach out to their friends who were at home alone during the early days of the pandemic. A month later, during an interview with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace about staying emotionally connected during the pandemic, she reminded viewers to “talk to your single friends.” Come November, she encouraged folks to “check in on your single friends” in a Thanksgiving Day tweet about the emotional strain of the upcoming holiday season. Across both her personal and official Senate Twitter accounts, one thing is clear: Kamala Harris cares about single people.

Our new Vice-President’s tweets immediately struck a chord with me as a 31-year-old woman navigating single life in the pandemic, and it makes sense that she would have my back. Kamala Harris didn’t marry her husband––Second Gentleman, and total mensch, Doug Emhoff––until she was 49, 21.2 years older than the national average age of marriage for women in the United States. We only know bits and pieces of Harris’s relationship history, but I’d bet that the former senator has walked into a dinner party solo only to find herself amid a sea of couples who eventually pepper her with questions about her dating life. Instagram didn’t exist when Harris was in her 30s, but if it did, I imagine she’d know what it feels like to scroll through a feed filled with wedding photos and baby portraits. With decades of unmarried experience under her belt, it makes sense that Harris would be sensitive to the unique challenges of being single in a pandemic.

Harris’s shout-outs didn’t go unnoticed. “I’ve seen her tweets urging others to check in on their single friends and I felt seen and validated by that,” Lauryn, 32, told me over Twitter DM. “I think her own personal history has been an unconventional one for women in national politics … It was a really welcome feeling to be like ‘wow, the future Vice President knows how lonely this can feel for some people.’” Lyndsey, 42, who told me she’d just spent her first Christmas alone, echoed a similar sentiment. “I was so touched and honestly felt appreciated and seen for the first time in a long time.”

Many single people I spoke to were grateful just to be mentioned in a news landscape that often focuses on parents and the struggles of juggling jobs and homeschooling. Though this attention is understandable—and warranted—leaving uncoupled people out of the conversation altogether can suggest single adults are doing OK simply because they’re not stuck at home with children. “How many reminders have we heard to check in on friends who have kids at home? Single folks have their own unique issues and it feels like people are finally paying attention,” says Diana, a single woman who lives in Milwaukee. Pooji, 31, who told me it’s been hard to be single during the pandemic, said she often feels forgotten. “Sometimes, I think society forgets about us. Just because we don’t have kids or a significant other doesn’t mean this time has been easy for us.”

Kamala Harris’s tweet acknowledges something real—it’s tough to be single right now. The lack of immediate support systems in our living environments didn’t affect people the same way before we were forced to live our whole lives in our homes. “Single people face a lot of unique stressors in the pandemic that are often not talked about out loud,” says Dr. Jessi Gold, psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “I hear from patients that they often feel not seen as a group and that their circumstances or mental health are somehow ignored when statements are made, like: ‘Well, just do the holidays with your household, we all have to make sacrifices this year.’ There are risks to their mental health to actually being alone this long.” The effects of pandemic isolation on mental health are already proven.

A recent study of 8,000 French students found that living alone during the pandemic was associated with increased risk for depression symptoms and distress—and it’s not just our mental health that’s at risk. Social isolation has been linked to poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, unfavorable cardiovascular function, impaired immunity, and more. People around the world have been grappling with historic rates of loneliness due to social distancing and increased social media use, but for unpartnered people, especially those living alone, there’s also the issue of isolation.

Despite the weirdness of moving to my parents’ home in my 30s, I’m eternally grateful for the company my family has provided me since mid-April. “We are not often alone alone for long periods of time,” says Dr. Gold. “This isn’t a retreat—there are reasons those are time-limited. It can become very challenging to your mental health and that is what we are seeing now. Even people who actually did fine at the beginning of the pandemic and practiced self-care are only able to journal and do Peloton for so long.”

Nearly a year into the pandemic, single folks living alone are feeling the strain. “As months went by, I felt loneliness I never experienced before,” says Shannon, 30, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t realize how heavily I relied on in-person relationships, whether with friends, family, or co-workers.” Leigh, a 30-year-old single woman in Arizona who lives 1,800 miles away from her parents, feels some have dropped the ball on their support. “Almost all of my friends are married or have significant others, and it kind of hurts me when they don’t acknowledge how hard this has been for those of us who are alone,” she tells me.

There seems to be a misunderstanding that single people are living it up in the pandemic, but a lot of what’s better for singles is surface-level satisfaction around what to order for dinner or watch on Netflix. I have experienced firsthand the incredible amount of freedom that comes with being single, but for many, no Bravo marathon or take-out order can replace a partner to hold onto through a deadly pandemic, civil unrest, and one of the scariest elections in modern history. “I think the No. 1 thing that’s misunderstood about being single during COVID is that single people have just been luxuriating without any responsibilities during the lockdown,” said Lauryn. “I see and absolutely empathize with parents … [but] just because we don’t have kids to look after or a partner walking into our Zoom shot doesn’t mean that we’re not dealing with the emotional fallout of COVID—we’re just doing it without an immediate support system.”

A support system is what most single people I spoke to craved most. Alexis, 29, didn’t realize how much she wanted a partner until she moved back in with her parents last year: “The stress of the pandemic and the stress of my mom’s declining health and taking on more caregiving responsibilities has really made me feel the lack of a romantic partner,” she says. “I find myself wishing I had someone who’s not my family who was in this with me and in my corner no matter what. Trying to find that in the midst of a pandemic feels impossible.” Shouldering emotional burdens on your own, especially those as big as a global pandemic, can be exhausting and lonely. “There’s no one with whom to share the mental load of day-to-day life,” laments Diana, 33. “All household/car/health/pet maintenance, chores, and tasks are mine.” Noting the difficulties of everyday life without a support system, Lyndsey says, “During normal times, it’s hard enough to ask neighbors or friends for things like help moving furniture or getting a ride when your car breaks down. Now I never reach out for that kind of help because I feel like it’s not worth a potential exposure for either of us.”

That risk of exposure is front of mind for those dating while coronavirus continues to rage across the U.S., but for those unwilling to take the risk it can feel like personal lives are indefinitely on hold. “The uncertainty of everything is what upsets me,” says Sarah, 28. “I don’t feel comfortable dating in person right now and online dating just isn’t my thing. So I truly don’t know when or how I’ll meet someone. I know I want to be a mother one day and I just feel this internal angst of the timeline of all that happening.” Many women I spoke with echoed Sarah’s concern over lost reproductive years. “For some of us, (okay yes, me) there’s this constant anxiety and awareness of fertility and it’s being lost or draining away as the pandemic drags on,” says Jessie, 35. I received comment after comment along these lines, as if being a single woman in her 30s wasn’t already fraught.

There are many who do not want children and do not need a romantic partner to enter into parenthood—in fact, a significant number of people I spoke with noted that the pandemic has only confirmed their decision not to reproduce. But for the 42% of childless adults who do want children and the 34% who aren’t sure, it’s been challenging to watch friends and family speed off into the next life phase while we’re trapped in this one. “I’m happy for my friends who are getting engaged or having children during the midst of all this,” stresses Alexis, “but when they say things like ‘we’re still young’ or ‘you still have time’ I don’t think they grasp that we’ve basically lost a year of going out, dating, and meeting people.” There’s nothing wrong with being single, but there’s also nothing wrong with not wanting to be single, and for those looking to change their relationship status the waiting game is getting old. “I wonder if people already entrenched in relationships understand just how hopeless it is,” says Justine, a 26-year-old in L.A. “Choosing safety essentially means acknowledging that you’re going to stay alone for the foreseeable future.”

There’s no arguing that childless single folks can’t possibly understand what parents are facing right now, but the misery is relative. “There’s so much legitimate discourse about the burden on parents, that sometimes being single feels not only insignificant in comparison but also sort of inappropriate,” Jessie, 35, confesses. Shannon in D.C., says it’s hard to discuss the challenges of single life because “I felt bad for the people I knew who had to shuffle work with childcare and school or the couples spending an inordinate amount of time with their partners. I was actually jealous because even though it could be harder, at least I wouldn’t be alone.” This reticence only further shows how uncommon it is for single people’s experiences to be validated in the media.

“Most of this pandemic is spent comparing our problems with everyone else,” explains Dr. Gold, but “in actuality, it is important for us to realize that everyone is struggling … The hardest experience is our own and anything we are feeling is valid. We are allowed to feel any of our feelings and ask for help for any of them as well.” I saw the Vice-President’s tweet as an acknowledgment that single people are struggling too, and it’s OK to say that  out loud.

Kamala Harris’s tweets are just a small gesture of support, but they made me and many others feel a little more OK to feel our feelings about being single. As Shannon, 31, points out, it’s really lovely to “have people in positions of leadership exhibit empathy and compassion.” I for one hope to see a lot more of that over the next four years.

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