Peter McGraw hosts a “Truth or Truth” conversation with Suzette Smith, where they ask each other questions about being single and living a remarkable life as a Solo.
Listen to Episode #151 here
Truth Or Truth With Suzette Smith
In this episode, I have a discussion with a remarkable solo and contributor to the SOLO movement, Suzette Smith. She is a professional organizer with years of experience. She’s a member of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, and the Owner of White Space. She enjoys swing dancing, motorcycle riding, and spending time with her 21 nieces and nephews. My experiment with the game, Truth or Truth, continues where Suzette and I ask each other questions about single living and living a remarkable life as a solo. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Welcome back, Suzette.
It’s good to be back and in person.
In person at The Mind Under Matter Festival at the Lakeside Retreat in Raleigh, North Carolina. You are more of a festival person than I am.
I think so, yes.
Everyone is more of a festival person.
I’m a Ren Fair, Scottish games person, so I’m into this flavor. There are more extremes here than perhaps I am. I would say this is very Hippie Granola, but also heady with all of the intellectual talks that we have been listening to.
There are some music and talks, but then there’s also mysticism and comedy. It’s quite a festival and it’s done by Shane Mauss, my good friend, and his partner, Ramin, on the Mind Under Matter Podcast. You were here. I was here. I said, “Suzette, let’s do a Truth or Truth.” This is a new format. Let me know what you think of it at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. You can sign up for the SOLO community.
The way Truth or Truth works is each of us share two questions in advance. It could be about single living or remarkable living and beyond. Then at the end, the third round, we surprise each other with a question. We have a chance to prepare or not. Before we get to Truth or Truth, members of the SOLO community know who you are. You are active on the channel.
On the channel, which is a lot of fun.
You do reviews and thoughts of episodes.
I’m a couple of episodes behind but I have thoughts, so I’m excited to be posting them.
No worries. I love it.
You have been a previous guest on the Tidying Up episode.
Yes, which was also fun. It was great to do it.
That’s something that both of us care deeply about.
You are also a solo.
Yes. Lifelong solo or lifelong single. Now solo.
Let’s talk about that. You have a big story. How did you transition? You weren’t always solo.
That’s true. I had aspects of soloness, but I never identified with them until more recently. Growing up in our culture, we feel like coupling is very normal. Most people do couple. People have kids. I grew up with a mom and a dad who were together in monogamous with lots of siblings. I was always taught and felt like this is what people do. They couple up. It’s the right thing to do. I also grew up in a fundamentalist high-demand religion.
Aren’t all religions high-demand?
No. Some are more high-demand than others. Because of my religious upbringing on top of the culture, I have a pair, a man and a woman together. A heteronormative pair. That is the way you get to heaven. That was one way and that is the way it goes, and it never occurred to me that there might be another way.
I have a distinct memory at being age sixteen driving to a girl’s camp with my best friend. We were talking about, heaven forbid, should we reach the age of 25 and not be married, what would we do? That seemed unthinkable to us that we would get to 25 and not be married, but what if that happened? We were playing out these different scenarios.
I remember thinking that. I never could imagine myself hitting 25 without being married. Here I am and I have had some great relationships, but never married. As I grew, at first you are very hopeful. You are dating a lot, and then you enter, at least for me, into this desperate phase where you are like, “This needs to happen.” I wanted children at the time in my 30s, and so as a woman, you know that you have a limited amount of time. The desperation is even deeper because you want to have kids and get married. You’re looking and praying for somebody.
Were you literally praying for people?
I was literally praying, fasting, and making bargains with God to say, “I want to be a righteous daughter. I want to make this happen.” I thought I would be a good partner. I also did many things.
You are delightful. You’d be so much fun.
I didn’t sit around while I was waiting. I went to college. I had many adventures. I was certainly a very happy single person in the sense that I did many things. I had many friends. I felt like I would be a good match for someone, but there was also this underlying like, “We’ve got to get this done. It’s not happening.” You move as you get older. Even for me, I ended up having cancer when I was in my 40s. Since it was ovarian cancer, that took kids off the table completely.
This was before people froze their eggs and did all these kinds of things.
I thought about it, but I thought about it too late. That was expensive. It’s like $10,000. I certainly began to identify more and more as a single person. I began to see how society viewed single people with either pity or disdain, and I did not like that. I pushed back against that norm and said, “I would like to find someone, but I’m doing fine.” As I began to identify as a single person, the solo transition began.
Before we get into that transition, a comment and a question. I received a text message from a very close friend who is single and at a wedding weekend. She’s a bridesmaid, and she’s in that time of life. She sent me this text message. She said, “I feel so unloved here because everybody is taking so much pity on me for not having someone in my life. I know that I am loved, but this culture has me feeling this way.”
Especially pronounced because of all the con conversation about love, matrimony, and foreverness and everybody’s there with their dates and their partners, boyfriend, girlfriends, husbands, and wives. It was such an interesting cultural commentary for her as someone who’s comfortable with where she is in her life and how even being comfortable about it is hard in these situations because of the focus.
I get that feeling. She’s not even in a demanding religion and not thinking that her chances of a happy afterlife are in balance here. You had difficulty in your 20s or 30s finding a match. What was happening there? These stories about why this didn’t work and they range from bad luck to the wrong standards.
I have thought about this question a lot. What was going on? I had the love of my adult life. His name is David when I dated him in my late-30s, and we talked about getting married. I thought that he was my match. With each relationship, I can see reasons why it broke up but then I start thinking, “Why did I choose that person?” There are all these different layers and single people have the misfortune or luxury to overanalyze some of those.
Married people do this too. They don’t talk about it. They are just lying in bed.
I have learned something new. I always assumed married people are like, “This is the choice I made and I will go with it.” I thought of it. My personal take on why people end up single, who would rather not be is the bell shape curve. We all fall into a bell shape curve. I think that some people fall out on the wings for a variety of reasons. I can’t think of my single friends and say they have more or less problems than the people who get married. They are different. Sometimes, it’s just the bell shape curve and some people fall out on those wings.
That’s what I have come to when I think about it because I know some married people that talk about problems. We all have problems but single people know more or less than married. I could certainly sit down, which I’m not going to do right now, and pinpoint a few of my issues that may have led to some of those breakups. Nothing that jumps out that’s bigger than somebody who got married. Although it’s good that not married people have to rethink their choices.
Some of them. Same as we all do.
That’s what I think. I did date some great guys and we had good relationships. For one reason or another, which is a whole another episode. It didn’t work out and I ended up 40 and single and celibate hence the religion thing. It was not a good place to be.
You started to have this change. Now, it’s been several years. Was there some force or insight? What was happening?
There was nothing in particular that happened except that I was maturing, growing, and realizing there was nothing particularly wrong with me. I was evolving, so I became more confident in attending a wedding by myself and saying, “I’m going to roll with this. I love people. I’m going to go and I’m going to be by myself and it’s going to be fine.”
I’m embracing and enjoying it, and the more I would embrace it, the more I enjoyed it. The more I enjoyed it, the more I embraced it. Also, the deconstructing of the religion and pulling away from that helped me to step more confidently into it, because then, I didn’t feel like my salvation was at stake anymore and I could say, “Life has been single, which is not what I would have chosen, but it’s been pretty great.”
You do seem to be enjoying yourself.
I am. Now, I just own it. The last time, when I locked my keys out of the car, the guy that came to unlock the car was like, “Are you with your partner or your kids?” I said, “I am flying solo this weekend.” He’s like, “Wow, really?” I said, “Absolutely.” It’s fun to be confident in that. For me, nothing particular. Owning it little by little as I matured.
I like how mundane that story is in some ways. You go, “This was a process in that I discovered a new way to see the world and I realized that I am good with myself.” It forced you to reckon with your religious beliefs in a sense. I’m more of a spiritual person probably. Even then, I’m not advanced spiritual but I pay attention.
It’s a full moon now. I have some sage. We could enhance your spirituality.
It’s true. I’m much more open to these ideas than ever was. I don’t believe a God, a higher being, or whoever it is going to omit people from the kingdom of heaven or Valhalla, or wherever it is based upon their relationship status.
If there is an afterlife at all, which none of us know. We know that we are here and we should be happy here.
Let’s get into Truth or Truth. Share two questions in advance and surprise with a third. Let me start by asking you a question. As part of your evolution, you became a professional organizer.
Yes. The quick two sentences on that are I was doing a lot of project management. I got laid off in cancer in the same year, and so I hung up a shingle to be an organizer in order to do the cancer treatment and organize. I loved it and I ended up doing it for ten years. Now, I’m back in the professional world and still doing professional organizing on the side.
Those two jobs are very similar in some ways.
They are very similar. They are both organizing jobs.
One’s with stuff and one’s with people ideas, schedules, and so on. You help people tidy up their physical space. We did a popular episode about it. Frequent readers of the show know how I talk about how single people benefit from having a team or a group of personal and professional connections to draw support. This could be from your barber or hair stylists to deep friendships. What I want you to do is take some principles or perspectives of tidying up that you might use on your physical space and apply them to someone’s relationship space. Is there something to be learned about tidying up your team?
I think so and the two are similar. When I help people tidy up their physical space, I often start by asking them what they want. What do you want to feel like in your space? What do you want your space to look like? I would do the same thing with someone’s life. I had a great therapist. She still is, but I don’t see her as often.
She had me do an exercise which was, “A year or two in the future, what do you want to be doing? Think about that. I want you to sketch out a week of that futuristic life in hours. How many hours will you sleep? How many hours will you work out? How many hours will you be doing your job? How many hours will you be doing a certain hobby or a project? Sketch it out roughly, and then see how much time it’s all taking. Think about the people in your life and how much time it will take to cultivate and nurture those relationships, and does that fit I see into the life you want?”
That’s taking time and space and breaking it up like you would do when you are organizing your own space. It was interesting to me. I have many friends. I love being an extrovert. I love being around people, and she was trying to help show me that I was draining myself in spending so much time and energy texting and touching base with everybody.
I realized that if I wanted a certain life, accomplish certain goals, take care of my body, and all these things, I wasn’t going to have as much time to spend on touch-pointing with lots of friends. For me, it was very illuminating when I realized this is how much time I would probably have in a week on average to spend with people.
This sounds like an indirect way for her to point out to you that you are giving a lot and you are not filling up your cup enough.
We did what I call a social haircut, and I gave myself a social haircut.
Is it similar to creating piles of clothing that you are going to get rid of?
I don’t like thinking of people as things and piles, but there was a little bit of that. What I did have to make some decisions about is who is feeding me and who am I pouring time and energy into, but it’s not being reciprocated. This is what I would encourage other people to think about, “What do you want out of your life? What kind of people then do you need around you to help support and sustain that?” For me, I had to let some people go or spend less time. I don’t like to cut people out of my life officially and write a breakup letter to them, but let it go. When you are the one doing the heavy lifting, you lift less with some people.
Other people as you and I talked about earlier may need to bring people into their life and say, “I’m going to need more support if I want to accomplish the following goals.” Maybe I should spend time developing and cultivating relationships. What I would tell people to do is figure out what you want and then decide whether you need to cut people out or bring people in, and then have those conversations.
I had a conversation with someone and I told her, “I want you in my life more. How does that look for you?” It’s like the whole relationship design that you often talk about. I did it with a friend and said, “How do I get you in my life more? How does that work for you? Do we text? Do we set aside a day every six months? How does that work?” Being thoughtful and intentional about that can help enhance your life.
Sometimes you have to set boundaries with people and say, “I love hearing from you on text and I will always try and respond, but I probably won’t pick up the phone maybe ever because I have other goals.” You can say that you care about these people and that you’ll love to text them and have dinner a couple of times or whatever. You can do it with kindness and draw those boundaries and bring some of the people that take your life away from you and bring them down to a different place.
That is a vulnerable thing to say because you risk the person saying no or they say yes, but then they don’t follow through.
This is a stream. You would have to constantly reevaluate and if the person says, “Yes, I’d like that,” but they are not following through with what they are doing. Maybe you have to be fed by someone else.
I congratulate you for asking for what you want.
Thank you. It’s not easily done.
It’s not. We are told not to do that. It sounds to me that applying some principles of tidying up to your relationships is specific to the person because a lot of people don’t have a big enough or good enough team. It’s like the person who hires you to tidy up, you don’t ever show up and go, “You don’t need me.” It’s like the bachelor who has the lazy boy, side table, and television in the living room. They need to add some stuff. Those are the people who need to add to their team.
They need to hire an interior designer.
I think that that’s right.
It is very personal. I hate to break people into extroverts and introverts because it’s a sliding scale but some people need time alone, more time alone than they might think. You have to factor that in. How much time do you want of being with yourself, especially if you are trying to grow and reinvent as you like to say? That’s also something to consider when you are thinking about your social network and tidying up your team.
It is interesting that the exercise of spending some time thinking about, “What will an ideal week in the future look like?” You have to do the math on the number of hours and how much you want that to be solitary pursuits, self-care, professional endeavors, and then social endeavors, friends, and family if you decide to date or not. That’s great. Your turn.
If you could reach out to all monogamous couples and teach them one thing about solo life, what would it be?
I get on the monogamous couples’ message board where they all are. What I would want to do is to teach them how they could benefit from it. In a previous Truth or Truth, one of the questions was, “Do you feel bad for married people?” I do in some ways. I think marriages are difficult. The best marriages are better than ever, but we live in a world where the people who are struggling with marriages are struggling big time.
What I’d like to say is being solo is independent of relationship status. I think that it helps to be single to make the transformation, but once you’ve made the transformation, you can move in and out of romantic relationships with a plum. My first thing is be comfortable. Solos are very comfortable with their solitude. They don’t all want it. They don’t all demand it, but when they are alone, they don’t feel lacking in any way because they see themselves as a whole person. They are a good company to themselves.
I think that there’s something enriching in a relationship for the two people to be able to have their own lives, pursue their own endeavors, and then come back to that partnership with new ideas, new perspectives, rejuvenated, fresh, and excited. I have had times with girlfriends where we decided we are going to watch a movie. We have different tastes in movies and that’s fine. Rather than have a compromise movie, maybe we shouldn’t do a movie or we should go see separate movies. People find that ridiculous idea but I’m like, “You don’t have to do this thing together.”
We both love going to museums, so then let’s do a museum together, but if we are going to do a movie, you watch what you want to watch. I watch what I want to watch. I had done a previous episode on doing things alone and it’s shocking how few things married people do alone. I think about the loss of culture, entertainment, and enjoyment because I want to go to this concert. What ends up happening is either you don’t go because your partner doesn’t want to do it. You drag along this person who doesn’t enjoy it and would be better off going off doing whatever they want to do and then, “Let’s talk tomorrow morning,” type of thing.
I have mentioned that episode about doing things alone to several of my married friends and some of them are shocked. They are like, “Why would I do that?” I was like, “You might like to do something by yourself that might be enjoyable.” It was a good episode.
The research bears this out. People think doing things alone is not going to be that enjoyable and it ends up being quite enjoyable. I’d like the idea that even within a relationship, you can be a complete person. What I would say to them is that solo living is on par with married living. They are two different paths, and so should you become not a partnership anymore. Yes, there might be sadness and so on, but you don’t become less than as a part of that. The other thing I would say is that solos tend to be anti-jealous.
Tell me more about that.
If you live in a monogamous world, you are taught that jealousy is the norm.
You almost deserve to be jealous if your partner does something without you or wants to be polyamorous.
Whatever it may be. The issue is, “He was flirty with you.” Even something like that thing where you are constantly looking to protect this capsule that exists here, but solos tend to be anti-jealous. They are eager to celebrate their friends, families, and other people’s successes in life they are close, and then they also tend to commiserate. It doesn’t, in no way, diminishes me when something good happens to you and it doesn’t enhance me when something bad happens to you. The issue is because let’s suppose there isn’t asymmetry, and then you make tons and tons of money in a sense. That doesn’t threaten me in any way. I’m thrilled for you in a sense, but this idea that this other person is having something too good happening, that might put us at risk.
It’s not a zero-sum game. That’s what I tell people often.
I love this idea of anti-jealousy and we use it with our friendships, but can we use it beyond in a sense? I think that’s a very powerful idea that we are not in competition with each other and that when a partner does well, then both of you do well.
I like the idea of journeying together because when you journey with someone, you don’t have to hold their crap, so you can empathize without holding and you can also celebrate. You are walking alongside them and journeying with them.
I talk about one of the elements of being solo is being self-reliant. The nice thing about being self-reliant is that it allows you to make better decisions. You are not making fear-based decisions. You are not having to compromise your integrity. You don’t have to work a job that you don’t want to work. I recognize how aspirational this can be and it’s a matter of degree sometimes. Some cultures make it easier than other cultures to pursue this.
What ends up happening is that a solo, unlike a single person, better chooses to become non-single versus has to do it. There’s an unfortunate dynamic that happens within relationships when you need the other person too much. It creates a power imbalance. It can create resentment. It certainly allows you to not engage in free choice.
You are in constant fear as well. If you lose that person for any reason, you don’t have a peaceful settle that you could make on your own or you could be your own person.
You have to bring something else to the table besides a wallet or the ability to cook a meal depending on what the roles end up being. I have an ex who I was dating. She’s a lovely woman and I cherish the time with her. I got to meet her mother and her mother, the nice way to say it, is pragmatic. The not-nice way to say it is mean. The mom came out for the weekend and spent the weekend with the family. I wasn’t present for this, but my girlfriend at the time told me that her mother said to her, “He doesn’t need you,” and it was true. I didn’t need her to survive or thrive. I can do my own laundry, feed myself, and all those things.
At first, that seems like a good thing, but her mom did not mean it in that way. She was like, “You are never going to be able to keep him or capture this one because you are not essential to his survival.” First of all, it broke my heart to have her told this thing because I thought it was a mean thing to do. It’s a different time. It’s a different way of thinking about partnerships that’s very agrarian in a sense where like, “You need him to plow the fields and he needs you to make supper.” You make it work in that way versus we get to opt into this, have fun, and have this delightful relationship.
I also think it gives the impression that if you can’t capture someone you’ve failed. You clearly speak very well of the time you shared together. Why is that a failure? It’s because you are not together now. You can simply enjoy time with someone or a relationship with someone. That can end and it can still have been a successful time.
I can’t speak for her, but my memories of that relationship are all pond. They are all positive and it simply didn’t work out because we wanted different things. She wanted the escalator and I didn’t want the full escalator. I hate to say it but it’s that simple. This idea of not having to rely on your partner for everything strengthens relationships and can make you stronger.
It’s your turn to ask a question.
This is a shorter one. As a single woman, what do you wish you’d known in your early life that could have improved your current financial situation and/or current career path?
Women need to mentor each other. Now that I’m older than I was, I like to think that I could mentor people younger than me. I was happy to have female mentors although they were far too few. That’s why I like thinking about my younger self because there are many people out there who are in the same position as when I was younger. I’m going to take some liberties and move on a little bit beyond the financial.
One thing that I would tell my former self or tell people who are younger than me would be what you were talking about earlier, which is to be healthy. Be healthy in your body and your emotions. Be a healthy person on your own two feet. If you end up moving into a relationship, you’ll be a much better partner. If you end up solo or you end up a little bit of both back and forth, you are going to be able to be more grounded. Think of your life as being healthy with yourself. I feel like I did a fairly good job of that, but I was always fraught with worry over it. I wish I had worried a little less and enjoyed the moment.
I will say, “Healthiness is hot on all levels.” Someone who takes care of themselves, their mind, body, and soul is the sexiest thing. You could spend 45 minutes putting makeup on or you could spend 45 minutes exercising. The latter is going to make you way hotter than the former.
Make sure women, you have a bra that fits you. I can’t emphasize that enough. You can wear whatever T-shirt you want, but underneath, it’s got to work. I digress. Financially, this is where this is centered. I made choices and I know many women in my age range in college made choices about their future careers based on the belief that they would have another income and/or a supporter. They would be financially supported or have a second income. I made choices and many other people did because of that belief, which was taught to us by my religion, but also by society. They teach women that.
Especially this generation. Your generation and my generation are the crossover generation. It was a surprise to some of our generations that not everybody got married or stayed married.
All of my female friends who stayed single to age 30 went back to graduate school because we all realized that we could not support ourselves in a financially stable way with the jobs that we had. We undereducated ourselves and we were under-ambitious in moving into the career world. Every woman that I knew that hit 30 and single went back to school to earn more. That put us at least a decade behind our male counterparts.
Now that I’m in this age, I feel like many of my female friends have done well and fine, but that catch-up was no joke. What I would tell younger women now or would have told my younger self is figure out how you want to live and how much that’s going to cost. Choose a career path that will match those ambitions and be ambitious. If you find someone you can always meld your life or not meld your life but you go for that. I feel like many single women, especially Gen X-ers, maybe Millennials as well, undereducated ourselves and we were under-ambitious, and financially, it played out badly for us.
That’s excellent advice. It stands in stark contrast to the experience that men have. I was telling a story when I was living in LA, I dated a woman very briefly. She’s exactly the same age as I am and we ended up becoming friends. Spark wasn’t there. She worked in finance and her company was going under, but she had some pretty strong boundaries. She didn’t want to leave the neighborhood that she lived in and so on. She wasn’t, at a point, where she was able to be financially independent. She was telling me, “Maybe I can find an older man.” I was flabbergasted by this. This was a possibility. She was brainstorming different possibilities about how to make her way.
Here’s this person who has been career-oriented and has good skills, and even in that scenario, she’s like, “Maybe I can rely on a man to bail me out of this situation.” If you are a man, you may be looking for women to solve your problems in various ways or solve your celibacy problems. We are talking from a heteronormative standpoint obviously but solve other problems like sprucing up the house and taking care of all these kinds of things.
Men are taught to achieve and it’ll work out. You’ll become more appealing in part because of that achievement. When I’m honest with myself, part of the reason I have achieved what I have in life was because I wasn’t good with girls when I was young. I’m glad I wasn’t because it made me work harder. I became an academic. You don’t become an academic to make the women impress. It’s a high-status profession. It agreed with me. There are many reasons why I did it, but when I’m completely honest with myself, part of the reason was to be impressive in a sense. That happened to create financial security, thankfully, in a sense. You are highlighting the other side of this.
I’m not saying that men have it easier, but I do think that there are different challenges on what our society places on us.
It’s not easier or harder.
I’m going to add and sneak in one more point under what I would tell younger women or what I would have told my younger self. That is think very carefully about children. Women have a limited time in which they are able to have children. If they want them, there are many ways to bring children into your life. To think about how that might go and how that might be, there are ways to bring children into your life if you do not find a spouse.
Many people who are married and want children are not able to have them. I wish I had thought earlier about what lengths would I be willing to go to. Would I freeze my eggs and have a child on my own? Would I go to a sperm bank and have children on my own? Would I adopt a child? Would that be something on my own? If I was in a couple, would I adopt a child? Those things cost money and they take time in their big decisions. If you start thinking about it younger, I thought, “I will have five kids. How hard can it be?”
My mom had seven, and all my siblings have had multiple children. Save one and she’s single like me. She’s a good solo. To be thoughtful about it, think about it earlier. Think about what links would you be willing to go to. If you say, “I’m not willing to go to any of those links and if it doesn’t work out, then I won’t have children.” Know that will be a grief that you have to grieve at some point. That would be the only other thing I would add. Be thoughtful about children and how you might want to bring them into your life or what you are not willing to do. If the perfect doesn’t work out, will you be able to grieve it?
Those are all excellent. I like how those last two complements each other well where if you plan for various financial eventualities, maybe you do have a second income or you don’t, you are going to be okay. You never are going to face financial desperation or ruin or have to pivot later in life. Also, if you do that then if you decide to become a solo parent, you have better resources to do that. As you’ve pointed out, it’s expensive to freeze one’s eggs. It’s expensive to do these various fertility procedures and so on. I like that idea a lot. That’s a perfect segue into my secret question for you.
Your second question is if you could talk to 25-year-old Peter about sex, what would you tell him?
I would say it’s going to be okay. I was so hapless as a 25-year-old. I had so many good things going on with my life, but my sex life was not one of them. Let me set the stage a little bit for people to understand. I’m sure they are reading like, “I don’t believe it. I’m sure you are a ladies’ man.” What’s interesting is if you had asked people, “Is Peter a ladies’ man? Is he a womanizer? Is he all these friendly pejoratives?” They would have said yes.
The reason was I had rich friendships and female friends. I was even a little bit of a flirty individual much like I am now, but I just lacked confidence in myself. I didn’t believe that women would want to spend time with me. Some of it was because I was a late bloomer. I was an awkward teenager. I never thought of myself as an attractive man. I was inexperienced and I had terrible role models.
I didn’t have a loving set of parents. Culturally, it was a pretty terrible time for sex. My teens and twenties were a time of HIV and herpes. It was a scarier time. I was like, “I was born too late,” and all this stuff. This will blow your mind. I remember my mom sitting, my sister, and I down to have the talk about the birds and the bees.
Did she have diagrams?
I was raised by a doctor. We had diagrams.
I envy you because I would have loved to have something even clinically accurate. My mom began our conversation about sex asking us if we knew what rape was.
That does blow my mind.
I’m upset about this now just even to say. I have never told people about that before. The entire conversation was about avoiding that experience. That’s my starting off point.
How old were you?
I wish I could remember. My sister remembers all this for us. We were old enough to know a little bit about stuff and there was no internet back then. It’s not like this is something that happens between two people who love each other and it’s all these things. It’s about how do you avoid this terrible thing happening to you.
That was my mom’s world. My mom’s world was how do we keep these kids safe? How do we keep them alive? Everything that she did was about keeping bad things from happening rather than pursuing good things. There was no conversation about how wonderful it can be, how exciting, and how can bring you closer to someone. There are risks and you have to do this in a smart way.
You start putting all this stuff together. Terrible role models and approach-avoidance ideas with a bit of low self-esteem. I took myself out of the game in a sense. In my late bloomer sense, into my 30s, I started to gain more sexual experience and more comfort with it. That was fun but I wish I could tell myself, “You need to do this right.” When you figure out enough confidence and you realize that there are, “Pete, most women will never have any interest in you, and that’s okay. The ones who do will like you and they are going to want to have that experience with you. It can be delightful and you are going to have a great time, but you have to be very careful.”
The embarrassing thing for me was I wasn’t always truthful. I wasn’t always acting with the highest integrity because I would sometimes date a woman to who I was attracted but I didn’t see us having a relationship. I wasn’t willing to say, “I’m sexually attracted to you. I like spending time with you. Would you be interested in having sex with me?” I don’t want to be your boyfriend type of thing. What I did was I didn’t lie. I didn’t be like, “I want to be your boyfriend.”
You love them to believe certain things.
An act of omission and I’m incredibly embarrassed that I did that. Those relationships are painful because people feel hurt. They feel misled and so on. Also, it’s bad for the dating pool in general because now you are like, “I don’t know whether I can trust this guy or not because the last guy wasn’t acting with full integrity.” That’s what I would say to my younger self. Thankfully, I figured that out pretty quickly and I learned that it’s better to go without. Whenever I do have a sexual partner, it’s 100%. It’s full consent. We both agreed.
You understand what the situation is.
Are this romance and sex or is this just sex?
There are less hurt feelings. Because of my religion, I did not leave celibacy until I was in my 40s. I did talk to a therapist and said, “Have you seen people make this transition and how does it go well?” She told me basically what you were saying. “If you and your partner agree on what it is, you tend to do very well.” It’s when there’s a misconception. One person thinks it’s a relationship, the other person thinks this is a fun night then things get a little dicey. If both parties agree, this is what this is about. Most people do very well, whether they are polyamorous or monogamous if they identify what the sex is. That was good advice for me.
I hesitate to bring this up because it’s embarrassing. It’s not something I’m proud of. It happens a lot and in part because within a heteronormative dynamic, the tendency is men give love to get sex, and women give sex to get love. It’s a generality and stereotypical but there is some of that there.
I have found that what people want more than sex and more than love is they want honesty. They want to be able to trust the person that they are spending time with. To do that, you have to be honest about what your intentions and desires are. You have to ask for what you want and recognize that you might get a no, but that’s good. You might get a yes, that’s better. They are both wins in that sense, and people will surprise you.
They go, “This is an attractive person. I know that I can trust this person. I’d love to have some romance.” To recap, it’s going to be okay. Sex can be healthy, fun, and natural, and you can mitigate the risks to a reasonable extent. In order to get that healthy sex, you have to be highly communicative. You have to be perfectly honest, and it only becomes worthwhile when you reach that level.
Well said. Good advice to the 25-year-old Peter.
Let’s get back to the tease. You were saying advice that you would give to a younger self or to younger women about getting their finances together especially, and then also making a plan with regard to kids and the various eventualities that may happen. You were saying earlier that you never had children. You expected that you would. How did you work through the sadness that you felt when you realized you would never have children? My guess is it’s this slope and then there was that drop-off that’s there. How did you deal with that grief?
It’s a hard thing. Many singles and other people have expectations that are not realized and they have to grieve those things alone. Hopefully, my thoughts can reach many different situations. I have a very good friend who’s two years older than I am and I was very fortunate that she and I were going through this. We are not going to have kids.
That’s heartbreaking to us because I was the girl that literally bought the children’s books and figured out how to build tree houses. I wanted to be a good and fun mom. I spent time and energy thinking and figuring out how I would do that. Carrying a child is a very ubiquitous experience for women. Most women have a child and so they have that experience of being pregnant.
When you are outside of that, you feel outside of womanhood. You feel like you are looking at other women and they all have had this experience. It’s very ubiquitous, but they are a very small percentage that doesn’t have that experience. You feel very outside of your sex as in your gender. It’s so fluid now. it’s my woman-ness.
She and I talked a lot about it and we realized we are dealing with private grief in which there is no acceptable public show. If someone dies, you go to a funeral and people grieve with you. There’s this community that comes together if you lose a child or lose anyone, and we have rituals in which the community comes together and grieves.
When you don’t have a child, it’s as if you are burying a child that never was because, in my mind, they were real. I had names picked out and all of these things. This is a real thing and it’s not happening. My friend and I decided to do some rituals around it. We sat around a few campfires. We burned some things and we talked about it. It is a gradual process. Hope is the thing with feathers that purchases in the soul, but it’s so elusive and it almost kills you because you are like, “When do I give up hope? When do I stop?” For me, because I had a radical hysterectomy when I had my cancer, that’s when I knew for sure it was over.
I did have some good cries and it’s okay to cry and to grieve, but I also told people why I was sad. I said, “I’m grieving because of this thing that I had wanted.” I can even feel the emotion rising while talking about it. Is not going to happen. It’s okay but I want to let it out. I want to sit here. Can we cry together? I wanted to tell you about the treehouses, the twin girls, and their names. For me, it was about talking with other people and grieving in a public way as I could and then I filled that spot. You can never fill motherhood, but I have what you call niblings. I have 21 of them and they are a joy to me.
Do you know all their names?
I know all their names and their birthdays. Shout-out to my nephew Spencer. Happy birthday, Spency. Filling your life, but recognizing it’s not a replacement. You don’t replace that, but you can fill your life with neighborhood kids, church kids, friends’ kids, and niblings. That’s how I work through it. If they are conscientious and intentional about their grief and work through a great many kinds of griefs that are more private that you can say, “I want to grieve this with my community.” You can ask friends to come over. You can sit around a fire and burn whatever you want to burn or whatever. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a ritual around it.
That’s the first time I have ever heard of this, and it makes perfect sense. I know you are familiar with and perhaps a fan of Melanie Notkin. She was on the Otherhood episode. She used very similar language to you in terms of this. She even wanted twins herself.
When I listened to her, I was like, “She is speaking my language.”
Thank you for sharing that. That’s probably helpful for some people because there isn’t a culturally sanctioned way to deal with this loss. It is a loss and it’s a profound one.
I also don’t think that our male counterparts are as aware of what we are going through. If you are a 30 or 40-year-old man and you have female friends, this is what they are going through. They are thinking about this. Maybe reach out to them and ask them, “How are you doing with this? Can I support you in any way?” I don’t think that the male counterpart is going through the same thing at the same age.
They may realize at some point they are not going to have kids, but I think it’s different. You can speak to that. If you are a 30 or 40-year-old man out there, maybe reach out to your single female friends that you have friendships with and support them. Some people don’t want children. There are plenty of women who don’t grieve this because they don’t want children. That’s fine too.
A friendly addendum. If you are a 30 or 40-year-old man and you don’t have any female friends, you need at least one. You are missing out on life by not having that experience. That’s my PSA.
In the episode that dropped, you, Peter, were very vulnerable and you talked about a date in which you were stood up. I was happily surprised that you showed so much vulnerability. I wondered as I listened to it if I would have said that. It’s hard to say, “I liked this girl. I was excited about her and she didn’t show up and she’s gone,” but that’s what makes you real.
Being vulnerable and sharing those kinds of things makes you a real person. I think that we all would do better in our relationships if we were more vulnerable. My question to you is how did you decide to do that and show that level of vulnerability? What advice would you have for others in being more vulnerable and deepening relationships?
I was struggling with that scenario. In some ways, I felt like I shouldn’t have been. I’m supposed to be this guy. I’m the solo guy. Dating is optional and all this stuff, but I had coincided with a time where I found myself wanting a little more romance in my life. It’s very hard to make that happen. It’s very easy to make it not happen. I caught myself wanting a little bit and then here comes this person who captured my attention. I don’t think my interest was out of the ordinary. I don’t regret the interest in any way because it’s nice to be excited about someone. It’s nice to be able to have that.
It feels good. When you said that, I related. I was like, “It feels so good to be excited.” That’s a great word. You get ready for the date or the excursion and be excited.
This is not limited to romance and sex. This is excited to meet a new friend or excited to go on an adventure or whatever it is. Having something to look forward to makes the day-to-day a little more interesting. I have always been a little future-focused but less so now. Savoring is a nice part of that. I’d say I’m sneaky sensitive. If you get to know me, you might figure that out, but it’s not obvious. I do have a sensitive side that I keep for the people very close to me. I’m not a crier but I’m not afraid to cry. This idea of vulnerability and how important it is is a relatively new concept to me.
I have been influenced by Brené Brown. I don’t know much about her work, but I know she has this saying about to be vulnerable is to be brave. As a man, there’s never a conversation around this. You ask a man, what does it mean to be brave? It’s to be brazen and able to put yourself at risk in physical ways.
To be brave is to put yourself in physical danger in a sense. Bravery doesn’t have to be about that. It’s about may be putting yourself at risk in some way, and it may be about doing it for some good, but it can be emotional and psychological. You can be brave by tackling a difficult idea and saying, “I was wrong,” is a brave thing to do.
By extension to be able to say, “This hurts me. This makes me sad,” is a brave thing to do. The nice thing about it is that you’re like, “I find that the more vulnerable I am, the more I get rewarded for it. That is the more I’m able to change my mind about something that I’m able to get support for it.” That episode has gotten a very positive response. I have gotten more text messages and emails from people.
You have touched them. You exposed yourself as human, and that relates to people and they want to draw close to you.
It was nice because some people have had that experience before and they don’t know what to do with it. We talked at the beginning of this about Shane Mauss. Shane is a comedian. He’s a very good friend. One of the things that I have learned from him specifically and from comedians, in general, is when something bad happens, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to create jokes and new material. The act of doing that helps you deal with that negative thing.
It felt right to try it because I was struggling with it and I didn’t know what to do. I could have pushed it down and I could have manned up. I could have gone and talked smack about this person and so on, but I was a little bruised from it. I was like, “Let me start writing this out and see how it feels.” Here’s the interesting thing about it. Once I was done writing it out and recording it, I didn’t need to release it.
You’d already processed it.
I got so much value out of working through, “How could this happen? Who would do this? Why would it do it? What can I learn from it,” and so on.
The gift you gave to the rest of us was allowing us to think through those times that happened to us. It’s like, “Did we do it well? Did we do it badly?”
Thank you for that. It was a good lesson. I’m feeling a little vulnerable telling the story about my sexuality. As I said, I’m deeply embarrassed by some of my behavior, especially in my early-30s time was there, but that was me. That’s what I did. I’d rather be embarrassed about it and have someone hear it and go, “That’s not okay.”
It’s to say, “I feel embarrassed about that too, but I wouldn’t admit it. If Peter can admit it, maybe I can too.” Talk a little bit more openly about it.
I find that I’m rewarded intrapersonally and interpersonally when I embrace my vulnerabilities.
That’s a good thing and we should all do more of it.
The last thing I will say here is the launch of this show was an incredibly vulnerable thing for me. If you read that early episode, I am not as unapologetic as I want to be in a sense.
I haven’t worked my way back that far, but I’m working on it.
I’m not saying it’s worth it. The evolution of it and it’s easy to forget that because it’s taken on. It’s an overwhelming force in my life now.
You are probably thinking about it all the time. You’re planning it, what’s coming up, what’s going out, and responding.
It’s crowding out so many things in my life in a good way. I’m compelled to do it, but all of this came from an act of vulnerability in it. I think it’s worthwhile.
We are at a festival. We could be at meeting people, although it is raining and here we are, the two of us talking into microphones.
Suzette, I am so glad you came to this festival.
It’s been good so far.
Thank you for not only your thoughtful questions but your thoughtful responses.
This was fun.
I look forward to seeing you again on the Slack channel in the SOLO community, and if not some other events, including someday SOLO salons.
Someday, I will come to Denver.
- National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals
- White Space
- How To Tidy Up – Past Episode
- How To Do Things Alone – Past Episode
- Otherhood – Past Episode
- Shane Mauss – I’m Not Joking Past Episode
About Suzette Smith
Suzette Smith is a professional organizer with ten years of experience. The owner of White Space, she is a member of the National Association of Productivity. A proud single she enjoys swing dancing, motorcycle riding, and spending time with her 21 nieces and nephews.