Maybe I shouldn’t have used my real name

Dear friends,

I have been reading old posts and your wonderful comments in the hope of bringing everything up to date and putting together a “Best-of” Childless by Marriage book. So many of you say nice things about my blog and about me. I am so grateful. You have no idea how much your support and your comments help me. We’re all in this situation together.

I wish I could be anonymous like you. Some members of my family have taken great offense at my posts. Maybe I should have chosen a pen name, ala Dear Sugar or Dear Abby. Too late now. To all of them, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please don’t hate me, but you who have spouses and children and grandchildren have no idea what it’s like for those of us who don’t. Lucky you.

Enough. Read the Dec. 10 comments on my Nov. 29 post if you are curious about what inspired this.

Meanwhile, I want to pay homage to some of the people who have been commenting here for years. Anon S., SilverShiloh, Candy, loribeth, Tony, Marybeth, Crystal, Mali, Jenny, and so many others, including many Anonymouses whom I can tell apart by the way you write, a million thank yous. To those who have bravely used their real names, you rock. To those who have just started reading, welcome. Let’s take a minute to picture ourselves in a big room together and thank each other. C’mon, group hug. Pass the hot toddies around. Ooh, and the fudge.

Ah, yum.

Can you all come to my house next Christmas?

***

So, the old church choir director job is gone :-(, and I have moved to a new church, where I can sing, play guitar and tambourine if I want, and shout “Hallelujah” if I feel so moved. 🙂 There’s no pay, and I’m not in charge of the music, but I feel welcome there. Like my old church, this one is also Catholic, but it’s a less repressive version which most of my friends escaped to before I did.

Joining a new parish means filling out a registration form for my “family.” That paper is going to have a lot of blank spots. Spouse? Employer? Children? Yikes. However, on the other side is a list of tasks people can volunteer to do. I can check off a whole bunch of them—music, bulletin, stitchery, bazaar–maybe more than others because of all those blank spaces on the “family” side. Something to be grateful for.

Just like I’m grateful for you.

Hang in there. Christmas will be over in two weeks. In three weeks, we get a bright shiny new year. And a new decade. Isn’t that amazing? We are already 20 years into the 2000s. And we’re still here.

 

Beneficiaries? No Easy Answer

I’m filling out forms to receive payments from one of my late father’s investments. The man had money in many pockets. I wish he had spent some of it on himself and my mother. It’s too late now, and I know I am blessed to have it. The monthly payments will make up for the job I no longer have. (See previous post) BUT the forms want to know who my beneficiaries are in case I die before the money runs out. What to put in these blanks is obvious for people who have spouses and children. It was easy for my father, but I’m stumped. Can I leave it to my dog?

These are the sorts of things in life that stump the childless widow. That and questions like “Why are you saving all the this stuff?” and “How many grandchildren do you have?

It’s the same thing when I have to fill out medical forms listing who to call in case of an emergency. I don’t know. My brother lives too far away to be any immediate help. I list friends who I hope are in town and in good health when I get in trouble. So far, that has worked out.

How I wish I had children whose names and contact information I would know as well as my own to plug into those blank spaces on the forms.

I’m reading a novel that takes place in a Native American community where all of the older women are “aunties,” no matter whether they gave birth or not. I think that is my role, too, at this point. I am going to list my niece and nephew as my beneficiaries. After all, they are my father’s grandchildren as well as my closest younger relatives.

Having some money to give away offers a chance to be creative. Who could I surprise with extra money if I die? Some of my friends could definitely use the cash. But I can’t surprise them. I need their social security numbers for the form, and they might be insulted if I decided to play benefactor. Can I leave it to an institution? Which one? I need to do some research and consider some options that might not be available to parents because, as a childless auntie, I can.

How about you? Are there situations in which your lack of children sends you into a brick wall that parents sail right over?

 

Do some people just not ‘do’ children?

Thanksgiving had barely started when my sister-in-law told her grandchildren, “Don’t bother Aunt Sue. She doesn’t do kids.”
What?
I couldn’t let that ride, especially when I really wanted to get to know my great-niece and nephew better. I responded, “Just because I don’t have any of my own doesn’t mean I don’t like them.”
No reply.
But as much as I hate to admit it, she might be right. The little ones, ages 1 and 2, are a handful. Add four dogs, one of them a tiny pup that got attacked by one of the bigger dogs early on, a confused great-grandma, and my late father’s gaping absence, and things were a little hectic.
While I was there for Thanksgiving, I had a project: going through boxes of photos and memorabilia taken from my father’s house. Try doing that when a two-year-old thinks it’s fun to grab papers and rip them up. I was not amused when he tore a notebook with some of my grandfather’s writing. Or when he insisted I pick him up and kept launching himself at my back. It reminded me of the overgrown puppy my husband and I kept for only a few weeks before we took him back to the animal shelter. Too much energy! When I discovered the boy had a cold, I was even less appreciative. Dang it, I don’t want to get sick.
With the dogs, however, I felt comfortable. I could talk to them, pet them, hug them, slip them snacks, and take them out for walks. Even when I discovered one of them sleeping in my bed because that’s where she usually sleeps, and even though I knew her long fur would stir up my allergies, I was fine with it.
But the children. That was like trying to jump into a conversation in a language for which I only know a few words. I winced every time I heard something crash, begged off the third time the boy tried to climb on me because I have a bad back, and did not even think to offer to change a diaper or give them food. I’m not sure I know how.
I got scolded when I got my grandfather’s accordion out of the case, just to see what it looked like and maybe figure out how to play a few notes. “We have sleeping babies!” Oh yeah,  naptime. Now that everyone’s awake, I don’t know why the grownups still don’t want to hear me figure out “La Tarantella” on the old accordion that has been sitting in my dad’s closet for at least 25 years.
Maybe some of you have lots of experience with children, but I just don’t. I was terrible at babysitting, which I only did for a little bit. When my brother was a baby, I was too, and I have not had much to do with my stepchildren or their children. I never worked hands-on with kids—singing at them doesn’t count. I wanted to be a mother, and I think I could have learned to be a very good one, but all these years after I was fertile, maybe my sister-in-law is right; Aunt Sue doesn’t do kids. She does dogs. Parallel universes.
Why do I feel so guilty about it?
Eventually my niece took her kids home. My sister-in-law’s brother took their elderly mom home, and it felt like midnight when it was not even prime time yet. Holidays get my time clock all messed up. But the food was good, and we got to hang out together for a while. I’m sure my headache will fade eventually.
In the stacks of photos, I found a woman who apparently was my paternal grandmother’s aunt, whose name was Aunt Sue, and boy, she was ugly. I wonder if she had any children.
Who will spend Thanksgiving figuring out what to do with my old photos when I die?
I can’t worry about that today, but I am inspired to make sure my pictures have names on them. We have bags of photos of people whom we can’t identify. The last person who might have known who they were is gone. We’ll probably end up throwing them away. Label your photos, my friends.
How was your Thanksgiving? Please share. You are welcome to be as ungrateful as you want in the comments.

We childless might end up okay in old age

My mind is a bag of mixed M&M’s this morning, so that’s what I’m giving you today.

I finally finished reading Rachel Chrastil’s How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life without Children.  I have mentioned this book a lot here lately. I could glean a dozen posts from what’s in this book. It’s not easy reading—lots of big words and footnotes. The second half goes deep into philosophy. For me, the gist of the whole book is two-fold: Childlessness is not new; there have always been people who for various reasons did not have children, AND, whether or not childlessness is a tragedy that you will always regret depends on how you look at your life. Being a mother or father is only a small part of who you are, Chrastil insists.

A few other tidbits from How to Be Childless:

* Pre-20th century, a lot of people who did have children still wound up alone in old age because so many people died of illnesses and injuries that people survive now. So giving birth was no guarantee the parents would have someone to take care of them.

* Scientists are looking at some wild ways to extend fertility to age 50 or 60 or 100. For example, a company called OvaScience is working on cultivating new eggs from a woman’s “egg precursor cells,” which are actually stem cells. These eggs would be more viable than the ones getting old in the mother’s ovaries. Scientists are also working on creating artificial wombs in which a baby could be grown outside the mother’s body. Can you imagine that?

* We worry about being alone—and broke—in old age, but Chrastil writes that childless people often have done a better job of making friends and building support networks all along than people who spent most of their lives focused on their children. As for finances, she tells stories of childless people who wound up with more money because they had more time to develop their careers and more freedom to invest, so hey, we might be just fine.

***

A couple years ago, at the NotMom conference, I got to watch a preview of Maxine Trump’s (absolutely no relation to our president) movie “To Kid or Not to Kid.” It is fabulous. The completed movie has just been released to theaters and will be available online on Dec. 3.

***

I have updated the Childless by Marriage resource page. There are enough websites and books to keep you busy for . . . possibly forever.

***

My music director job at Sacred Heart is over. Not a word of goodbye from our pastor. I’m sure he’s a good person inside, but he does not relate well to people. We were blessed with a visiting priest last weekend, Fr. Amal, who, although he had just met me, thanked me for my years of service. Then I joined my fellow ex-choir members for a party. It was so much fun. No mention of kids.

After a break in California, I’ll be taking my music south to St. Anthony’s in Waldport.

Meanwhile, my father’s house, the place where I grew up, has just been sold, my poetry chapbook Gravel Road Ahead is out, and I just read the galley proofs for my next book, Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic, coming out next March from The Poetry Box. I’m having work done on the house, giving my dog Annie four different medications for her arthritis and an ear infection, and I’m writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’m also going through all of the posts and comments here at Childless by Marriage from 2007 to the present in the hope of compiling an ebook. I’m up to September 2015.

So yeah, mixed M&M’s. I don’t know when I’d find time for children.

***

Thanksgiving is a week from Thursday. Look out! Family time! I’ll be at my brother’s house, where it’s going to be all about his grandkids. It’s going to be so weird without my father, who has been my sidekick for these events for many years. I really miss him. We’ll all survive the holiday. Pet the dogs, hug the kids, eat the turkey and pumpkin pie. Let’s try to be grateful for everything we have. I’m grateful for you.

 

Our Biggest Childless Fear: Regret

Regret: defined in the Urban Dictionary as “A feeling often accompanied by sadness, shame, and guilt; regret is when you wish you had done things differently in your past.”

Other dictionaries talk about regret as wishing things had turned out differently—whether or not you had any choice in the matter–but to me, regret is looking back on a choice you made and wishing you had made a different choice. You said yes when you should have said no. You bought spiky shoes when flats would have been a lot less painful. You decided to paint the house green, and now it looks like a leprechaun lives there.

The word “regret” comes up a lot at Childless by Marriage. Mostly we’re worried about future regret. Will we regret our choice if we never have children? Will we regret staying with this person? Will we regret leaving him? Of course, we have no way of knowing. We can list the pros and cons and know how we feel about it today, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future?

In her book How to Be Childless, which I mentioned last week, Rachel Chrastil cautions readers to be wary of the “fear of regret.” It may cause us to focus too much on what we lack instead of what we have. It may cause us to think that having children is the only way to be happy. It may cause us to miss the good things we have in our lives right now.

On page 113, she writes, “Fear of future regret suggests that we will not figure out how to cope with life’s disappointments, that our older selves will not be wiser than we are now, or that the wisdom of age entails a rejection of the person we are today rather than compassion for our present selves.” No matter what choices we make, she adds, there will be regrets. “Our decisions bear consequences, and some of them will carry sadness.”

“Instead of worrying about making the right choice, we ought to make the most of our choices,” she concludes.

I thought about this in the hot tub last night as the clouds gathered to hide the full moon. What do I regret in life? Do I regret marrying Fred and staying with him? Definitely not. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. I do regret not putting more effort into getting closer to his kids.

Do I regret marrying my first husband? No. It was probably a dumb thing to do. We had troubles from the start, but we also had a lot of fun. Do I regret divorcing him? No. The marriage was over. Do I regret dating the abusive guy I spent three years with between marriages? Yes. I knew he was bad news. I should have dumped him.

Do I regret that when the magazine option at my college was canceled, I wound up shunted into a career in newspapers? No. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted, but I was damned good at it, and it prepared me well for the writing I do now. It also gave me a way to earn a living when my first marriage ended. If I hadn’t gotten that degree, and if I’d had a child or two, I’d have wound up still divorced, working for minimum wage and living at my parents’ house.

Do I regret not having children? I feel bad about it, but I don’t regret my choices. I’m shocked as I write this. Do I really believe this? I’m pretty sure I do. My life is full of so many other things that I barely have time for my dog. So maybe this is the way it was supposed to be. Don’t get me wrong. I really would love to have children and grandchildren, but you can’t everything. Chrastil makes that point, too, although I should note she is childless by choice, a choice made firmly and at a very young age.

Will you regret your choice? I don’t know. We’re different people. If all you ever wanted to be was a mother or father, then by God you should be one, if at all possible. But if you’re also sure that you will never find another partner as good as the one you have, I don’t know what you should do. I want to say go for the kids, but I didn’t, and it turned out all right.

Did you hope I’d have an answer? I wish I did. What do you think about regret? Have you already made choices that you regret? Are you afraid you will regret the choices you’re making now? Can we live our lives in the present without worrying about future regrets? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

Childlessness is Not a New Thing

Childlessness is not a 21st-century aberration. It turns out couples and single women have gone without children for as long as anyone has been keeping track. The Baby Boom was an anomaly that made us all think the way our parents did it was the standard by which all things should be judged.

Oh Lord, you’re thinking. Sue has lost it now. Big words, history lessons. Bear with me. I am reading a new book titled How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children by historian Rachel Chrastil. As you might guess, it’s the kind of book that’s slow reading, with lots of charts, footnotes and a source list that goes on for days. But I am learning so much.

As early as the 1500s, Chrastil writes, women delayed marriage for varying reasons. Some were trying to save up for a sufficient dowry to attract a husband. By putting off marriage and childbirth, women then, like now, could work, save money, and claim a place in society. Of course, if they waited too long, they might end up childless. Some decided they did not ever want the constraints of marriage. In those days, married women gave up all their rights to own property or manage their finances to their husbands. So-called “singlewomen” had more independence.

In the early 20th century, wars, the great flu epidemic, depressions, and other problems also caused couples to bear fewer children. Couples who suffered from infertility did not have the options available now. But those were not the only reasons. Women were claiming more rights, more autonomy. Remember, the suffragettes were marching for the right to vote.

Chrastil charts a drop in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like now, one in five women did not have children. Why have we not heard about this? The answer is simple: They had no children or grandchildren to pass on their stories. “They fade out of our family history,” she says.

Even those who did have children were having fewer because they wanted more out of life than motherhood. But people didn’t discuss any of this in public. Even as recently as the 1960s, when I hit puberty, folks didn’t talk about pregnancy or periods or why “Aunt Jo” never had any children.

What about being childless by marriage? I’m halfway through the book. In the parts I have read so far, Chrastil doesn’t address the subject head-on, but she does note that there are “many gradations of voluntary childlessness.” Among fertile couples, she classifies couples as those who agree to have children, who agree to postpone having children, or who do not agree on the subject. I assume most of us here fall into that third category. I hope she writes more directly about this in the later pages.

Meanwhile, did you know birth control did not start with “the pill?” It might not have been as easy, but people had ways to prevent conception–besides pulling out before ejaculation or the ever-popular “Sorry, not tonight.” In the early times, women also used various herbs and prolonged breastfeeding to space out their children.

In the 1800s, couples used soapy douches, dried gut condoms, diaphragms, vaginal sponges and pessaries (a device that blocks access to the cervix). They were illegal in some places, but people used them and didn’t talk about it. Check out this website for more on early birth control. 

None of these methods were as reliable as today’s birth control pills, but they did slow the process, especially when combined with the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse with the woman’s least fertile periods. If those failed, there was abortion, not legal but definitely done. Chrastil writes, “In the United States in the early twentieth century, estimates range between 250,000 and 1 million illegal abortions a year.”

The baby boom, which happened in a period of economic growth and post-war happiness, was not the norm.  Looking back on those “Leave It to Beaver” years, we’re likely to think that’s how it always was. June and Ward got married young, bore their standard two children, and raised them in a big house with a white picket fence. Ward never said, “I don’t think I want children,” and June certainly didn’t rip off her apron and declare she’d rather have a career than bake cookies for their sons. But that’s not the way it always was, and it’s certainly not the way it is now.

We have more factors to consider these days. We have reliable birth control, and abortion is legal. Far more couples divorce and remarry, creating blended families and situations where one spouse has children and the other does not. Women have more career options. Both men and women are inclined to delay marriage and childbirth until they have finished their education and gotten their careers established. It’s a new world, but it’s also an old one.

We’re not the first childless generation after all.

So, what do you think about that? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving the Mom and Dad Talk

Well, miracles can happen. I went to a party last night with my church friends, men and women in their 60s and 70s. They spent at least an hour talking nonstop about children and grandchildren, and I didn’t mind.

Maybe it’s because I know and love these people so much. I was truly interested in their stories: the grandson who was expected to read in kindergarten, the adult daughter who has finally gotten pregnant via in vitro, the adult son who got hooked on drugs, the foster children struggling in high school. We talked about some of the kids we knew from religious education at church, kids we all care about. I contributed tidbits about my stepson and about the new baby the postmistress is bringing to work with her, and I did not even think about my own lack of children. Nor did anyone mention it.

I think they all knew I don’t have kids. It was just not an issue. I’m the writer, the choir director, the one who made the heavenly salad, and the one whose father recently died. I’m just Sue. Not classified by my not-mom status.

Maybe that delicious glass of Cabernet Franc helped, but I was okay. So I’m telling you that if parent talk is unbearable now, someday it will be okay. God knows I couldn’t deal with it in my 30s and 40s. I was hurt, sad, and angry. But I’m okay now. Do I wish I had grown children and grandchildren of my own? I sure do, but last night I felt like we all cared about all the kids.

It was also nice to be with these good people who really care about each other instead of at home with the dog in a house with no heat. Yes, the pellet stove died again. It has been that kind of week. Check out my Unleashed in Oregon blog for more on that.

I almost didn’t go to the party. I made an emergency visit to the eye doctor in the afternoon. On Monday I started seeing flashes of light that weren’t supposed to be there. After a few hours, I saw black blobs and what looked like a Halloween spider hanging from a black web. Not good. This being a small town where the doctors visit from larger cities only on certain days, I couldn’t see a doctor here until yesterday and not even my regular eye doctor.

Meanwhile, I immediately started thinking what if I go blind? I won’t be able to live here alone. Who will take care of me? Will I have to go to a retirement home? Oh God, oh God. I had to keep reminding myself that I could still see; I just had these spooky additions to what I was seeing.

I’m not going blind. I have a “posterior vitreous detachment” in my left eye. I had one once before, but this time it’s worse. What happens is pieces of the gelatinous fibers around the retina break off and cause “floaters,” those dark spots and streaks I’ve been seeing. It’s a common part of aging. In time, the flashes stop and the black things become less noticeable. That’s not so bad. The danger is a tear in the retina itself, which the doctor did not see. However, he did see some hemorrhaging (bleeding) in that eye, so he is having me see a retina specialist next week. It’s probably no big deal. Right?

But it’s hard not to think about what happens if something in my health changes and I suddenly can’t live on my own. Maybe I should be grateful I don’t have children who will insist on putting me in a nursing home. But I certainly need to be prepared, just in case.

My dilated pupil was close enough to normal by 6:00 that I could drive to the party, and I had fun with my friends, even though we talked about kids a lot. The stars last night were amazing, and I was grateful I could see them. The spider in my eye is just one more Halloween decoration.  

I got my first copies of my poetry chapbook, Gravel Road Ahead, yesterday, and I have been busy packaging copies to send to people who helped me with it or were kind enough to pre-order them months ago. You might say I have another book baby. Number nine. I’m Catholic, you know.

So that’s why the blog is a day late. Thank you to those who added to my “If you are childless, you will never . . . list from last week.

Keep ‘em coming.

We talk a lot about how uncomfortable being with the mom and dad crowd can be, but do you sometimes find yourselves in situations where you actually enjoy it? Please share in the comments.