Dear Sasha: Will I Regret Being Quirkyalone in the Future?

photo by Natalia Brasil

Dear Sasha,
I’m 27, and I’m so thrilled to be a quirkyalone. I think it makes for a far more conscious, expressive and spontaneous life. Quirkyalonedom rules! But I struggle with thinking about what quirkyalonedom will be like in the future. How will it feel when I’m 50…70? Will the “this rules!” feeling that this is how life is meant to be lived dull over time? Will I look fondly on my quirkyalone twenties but think of myself as being naive to the future?
Thanks for the newsletter and the thoughts. Im happy to be part of it.
Alex
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Hi Alex, Thanks for writing in with this excellent question. You sent this question two years ago and it took me two years to answer you because the question is so profound I only wanted to answer you when I was good and ready.

The first question I have for you is, What does quirkyalone mean to you?

To me, the essence of being quirkyalone is being true to yourself.

It’s hard to imagine how you can ever go wrong when you are true to yourself.

Being quirkyalone includes the possibility of being quirkytogether. So you really can’t go wrong when you stay true to your north star.

On the other hand, lots can go wrong when you lose touch with yourself: you might regret staying in a marriage with someone you’re not in love with because of your fear of loneliness, staying for years in a job you don’t believe in, or not taking the chance to express yourself to people you love.

What do people regret when they are on their deathbeds? Bronnie Ware is a palliative care nurse who spent years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She published a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, and the most common regret was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Another common regret: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

From an exhibit “Signs of Regret” in Washington DC based on Bronnie Ware’s book exploring regrets of the dying

Back to your pitch-perfect question. Is it possible to be naive about the future in your twenties? Sure, we are all naive when we are in our twenties. That’s the nature of being twentysomething. You don’t know yet what’s to come because you’re not there yet.

When I was in my twenties, I remember feeling that life was like Christmas Eve. The best was always to come and I didn’t have to make any limiting decisions yet. I remember an older man telling me at a party that I would not feel so romantic about being quirkyalone in my thirties. At the time I thought he was a jerk but when I got into my thirties, I thought, you know, he was right. My mid-thirties brought some rocky times. When I hit my mid-thirties most of my friends were getting married, buying homes, and having children. I wondered where I stood with all those life milestones and if I was being left behind.

Now I know that I wasn’t alone. The mid- to late-30s can be a stressful, dark passageway of the soul for single women–especially if you might want to have children but haven’t found a partner. People are starting to call this trend “social infertility” and it’s a problem that doesn’t get much attention. We only have so much time to find a partner and we have to decide. There are forks in the road: especially, have children or not. By 39, it can feel like time to pull the red alarm.

Men face their own pressures but men don’t usually perceive themselves as having the same biological clock pressure or “expiration date” in dating.

But just because life doesn’t happen on the prescribed timeline doesn’t mean life won’t happen. I wish I could have soothed my 35-year-old self from the position of where I stand now. I was really terrified about being aged out of the dating pool and being unloved for the rest of my life. I also worried my life would get dull without children, but that hasn’t been true at all. If anything my life has gotten more rewarding and my mother-friends convey their admiration for my more varied “selfish”(self-ful) life. (They love their children, but there are tradeoffs.)

I am proud of my life because I have been very intentional about my choices. I dug deep to ask myself what really matters and acted accordingly, even when it meant surfing with massive amounts of self-doubt. But because I am always checking in with myself on the why of what I’m doing at the deepest level I have no regrets. Here I’m talking about big decisions like where I put my creative energy, whether to be a self-employed entrepreneur or take the safer path of a job, the relationships I choose to invest in, and where I live.

If you don’t find someone to marry and have children by the end of your thirties turning the page into your forties may be a relief. If you were ambivalent about having children and it didn’t happen, now it’s no longer an option. There’s freedom in that clarity. You can go forward not scrutinizing every date to see if he will be “the one” to pop out a baby in the next two years–that’s a lot of pressure for dating! If the kids and marriage thing don’t happen, your forties can be a kind of rebirth. (I’m not saying this is easy. Many people go through grief over not having children and luckily there’s Jody Day’s Gateway Women community to help with releasing the grief.)

Then come the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and who knows how long? I haven’t gotten to my fifties yet but I asked some of my newsletter subscribers to respond to your question and I love the nuanced responses I got from older women.

Leslie said:I turned 71 on October the 6th. I live on Cape Cod with my three elderly dachshunds and I am truly a Quirkyalone and have been since 1976 when I divorced my husband of only 6 years. I left him in Minneapolis and drove back to New England with a four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, $100 in my pocket, no job, and no place to live. The rest is a very long story and I am now a grandmother of two, work part-time in the car business, sing in Sweet Adeline, an a cappella chorus, own a small dog-sitting business, am a hospice volunteer, and take courses in anything that interests me and am never lonely. 

I have had four or five serious relationships over the years but none ended in marriage. To the young lady who wrote you I truly believe that keeping your heart open may lead you to the perfect person but if not, a very satisfying life lies ahead if you stay true to yourself and never stop moving and learning.”

Sheila says:
“In response to Alex:
You can’t possibly predict anything about feelings that far ahead. You can’t predict next year, let alone decades in advance. 
I am 64 and quite like the label and status of quirkyalone. I’ve a sister, other family, friends and business associates, church community, customers, social media, God (not the least). So I’m not alone.
My husband died a few years ago and I’ve developed and adventured, wept and laughed, played and got myself into messes left right and centre, hated my singleness and aloneness sometimes BUT I would not have it any other way. So there.
love you all.
Sheila x”

Maybe you were asking, will I regret being quirkyalone now if I stay perpetually single?  I want to speak to you if you have this fear. It’s easy to shut down and give up on love because it hurts and it’s fatiguing to be on the lookout for a partner for years when you don’t find someone. This is a fatigue and angst that doesn’t get talked about much! On the other hand, if you really want a deep experience of love  don’t give up. Know it’s possible and maybe you just need to give it time and believe in yourself, your lovability, and your unique path in life.

Sara Eckel (author of the fantastic book It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single) argues that single women are far too likely to berate themselves with criticism to explain why they haven’t found a partner (with messages we pick up like lint from our culture like “you’re too picky, or desperate, or independent”) and I couldn’t agree more.

But I can say sometimes there may be particular reasons why we may find forming trusting, long-lasting healthy relationships challenging, based on who we are and the experiences we’ve had. It’s always time and energy well spent to reflect and do personal growth work to have better relationships. That’s been my story and the story of a number of my clients, and that’s some of the most valuable work you can do in a lifetime: to open yourself up for deeper love. People who have been in long relationships also often need to do healing relationship work–just because you have been in a long relationship doesn’t mean it’s particularly healthy.

Finally, I hear in your question one more question. Will I regret being quirkyalone if I wind up alone when I get to my 70s? Who will take care of me if I’m old and fragile? This is a topic we are going to have to address as a society because so many of us are going to be single in old age, whether we marry or not.  Our society is going to need new models for health care, mutual support, community and caregivers who receive a living wage.

It’s impossible to predict the future. You could meet the love of your life now and he or she could pass in his or her 50s. You could have children who are not suited to be caregivers. I understand wanting to control for the future. Certainly I do. But all we can really do is live and love moment by moment.

I hope these words have been more reassuring than scary as you think about the road ahead. I think avoiding regret is really about honesty and the courage to take risks. If you do cozy up with another human in a long-term relationship, you know you are with your partner because of love and desire, not fear of loneliness or to fulfill societal expectation. In every area of your life, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what you want. Ask your body what it wants. If you put your heart into your life and relationships (of all kinds, including your relationship with yourself), even if you don’t get exactly what you wanted you will have nothing to regret. We don’t have total control over what happens in life. But if you get clear about what you want and live from your desires rather than fears, there can be no regrets, only lessons learned.

Do you have thoughts or a story for Alex? Please share with us in the comments.

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Searching for new models of commitment

Birthday night back in Buenos Aires

It’s my birthday week, so I send you greetings from a new year. I’m back in Buenos Aires (I’ll fill you in on the rest of the Forever Young European tour later!).

For my actual birthday, I was able to have an intimate dinner at my apartment with a few close friends in Buenos Aires. My friends are scattered all over in California, the Northeast, Brazil and Europe. On birthdays, I’m nostalgic for times in San Francisco when my birthday parties were full of long-term friends. But really I am lucky to be able to have dinner with a few dear souls here in Buenos Aires.

Over the birthday dinner, I read my hopes for the next year, what I accomplished over the last year, and “what I know” – it was wonderful to be witnessed in my hopes and dreams and also for what I’ve accomplished in the last year. I recommend this kind of reflection–and sharing it with others to be witnessed–as a ritual for your birthday.

Over the dinner we had a fabulous conversation about what it’s like to be single expat without children living far from family or our roots. We were talking not only about our own personal situations but about this historical moment that we find ourselves in.

For those of us who are not following the traditional formula of what it means to be a woman (being a wife and mother, the caretaker of others) our lives can feel a bit off the map of the media and social media—the pressure might be as much internal as external when you don’t see your own reality reflected back to you very often. Facebook and Instagram can be a confrontational landmine with all those happy family and kid photos from friends. Even though I am well aware of how hard it is to be a mother, and I generally feel at peace with my decision, I still sometimes wonder, hmmm, am I missing out? Am I way off track here? What about MEEEE?

My anthropologist friend pointed out that it’s extremely recent in the history of humanity that any great number of women have been free to construct lives outside of the identity of caretaker. (Let’s say women’s participation in the workforce really took off in the last half of the 20th century. It’s not as if this revolution toward equality is complete—women still earn less than men and we assume women will be the primary caretakers of children and aging parents, or that women have an instinctive relationship with babies. If a woman doesn’t relate to babies or her baby, that’s seen as weird; a father doesn’t bond with a baby, well, that’s not his thing.)

It’s no wonder that a lot of us feel self-doubt about our paths through life, even if we come off as confident and having it all together.

We are pioneers in the big picture of herstory.

That’s what conversations like these are so valuable. That’s why we need each other.

I’ve been thinking a lot about companionship and community lately. As much as I love and need solitude, I also need committed relationships that provide companionship. Loneliness has become the modern epidemic. (Read this fantastic story on “All the Lonely People” for more.)

Facebook aims to fill the gap with “presence” and “community” but actually I find Facebook often tends to make us more distant from each other because people send a chat message or leave a comment rather than call. Social media can facilitate in-person connection but it can also create a lot of shallow relationships. (I believe that some more authentic online communities such as Gateway Women, o or online classes I have taught, can cut loneliness and bring people together—but it has to be an online community where you feel safe to be authentic and real.)

We all need to have some degree of companionship and commitment from others. One big attraction of a committed romantic relationship is that it’s committed. It’s not casual. It’s not, hey, I’ll show up for you if it’s convenient. It’s, I will show up for you. You show up for each other in times of need. If I get cancer, if I need help financially, and so on.

Many people–50% at any given time–are single in the US, for example.

Even if we really do want to be in a committed romantic relationship, how can we also create those kinds of commitments with friends? How do we create a feeling of being loved and solidly held with our friends too? What forms of support do you have in place and treasure, what do you appreciate?

We need other models for committed relationship. We are the pioneers, so what will those look like? One person won’t have all the answers. Many people will. I wonder what thoughts you have on the topic. What works for you in terms of companionship and support, or what do you wish for more of in your life?

I’m also going to be exploring the concept of a private, supportive online community–quirkytogether, if you will, where important and nourishing real conversations like this can take place and people can also meet each other, online and off. Having met many of you as my clients through coaching, my online classes, and the Tango Adventure, I know this is an ideal community for such supportive, nourishing, life conversations–and I’ll be asking for your thoughts on what a community could provide soon too.