Childlessness needn’t define who we are

“Childless is one of the many things I am.”

A year ago last weekend, I was at the NotMom Summit in Cleveland, Ohio, listening to Jody Day say this. At the time it was one of many things the founder of Gateway-Women and author of Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life Without Children, said as I scribbled madly to capture it all in my notebook. But this one line alone gives me a lot to think about this week.

Last Sunday at church, we listened to a visiting priest preach that sex is only allowed in marriage and only for the purpose of creating children. Furthermore, all forms of contraception and in vitro fertilization are sins. What do you tell the men who insist on having sex before, during and after marriage? What if you can’t have children? What if you and your partner disagree about whether to have children? This young bearded priest, presumably celibate all his life, has no idea how complicated real life can get. It is never black and white, more like a rainbow of colors.

And what does he say to those of us in the pews who have not used our bodies as vessels for children? Are we then worthless? Once again, I’m saying things that might get me in trouble at my church job, but they need to be said. It’s not just the Catholic church either. I’m hearing preachers of other denominations on the news saying women should be content with their role as mothers. But what if we can’t be mothers?

We are not worthless. Childless is just one of the things you and I are. It’s a big thing. It makes us different from 80 percent of the adults around us. It affects everything else in our lives. That’s why I wrote my Childless by Marriage book. I wanted people to know how different our lives are because we never had children. But Jody Day is right. It’s not everything, and we should not miss all the good things in our lives because of the one thing we missed.

I am not just a woman without children, any more than I am just a woman whose husband died. I’m a dog-mom, musician, writer, homeowner, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I have a family history I’m proud of. I’m the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree, and the bookshelf bearing my published works is getting full. I like to cook, travel, take long walks, do yoga, learn new songs, watch movies, and read books. I dabble in needlework and make quilted wall hangings. If I could do it over, I might be a mother, too, but I can’t waste my life dwelling on what I don’t have or letting people make me feel like damaged goods because I failed to procreate.

How about you? What else are you besides someone without children? Even if you’re still hoping to have children, there’s more to be proud of. Let’s make a list to remind ourselves that childless is not all we are.

I look forward to reading your comments.

 

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Birth control decision not so simple

As most of you know, I’m Catholic. I’m not only a parishioner but an employee, so what I’m about to write might get me in trouble, but I woke up this morning knowing I needed to say something.

Basically what I want to say is that too many people and too many institutions, especially churches, don’t even try to understand that some people who would like to have children do not have them, for various reasons, and that our lives do not fit into their neat little boxes. And that it hurts.

Tucked into last week’s church bulletin was a handout about the evils and dangers of birth control. It discusses the physical risks of oral contraceptives, contraceptive patches and IUDs: cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, septic shock . . . scary stuff. Plus, the handout, produced by the U.S. Conference of Bishops (all men), says these methods are actually forms of abortion because they kill the embryo before implantation in the uterus. It doesn’t mention “barrier methods,” such as condoms and diaphragms, but those are also forbidden.

The bishops blame “the pill” for women having sex outside of marriage, out-of-wedlock births, and single mothers living in poverty.

In contrast to these horrors, they offer the “fertility awareness” method, whereby couples abstain from sex when the woman is most fertile. This, of course, takes total cooperation by two horny people and assumes the woman has regular, predictable cycles. As I mention in my Childless by Marriage book, one of my friends named her “surprise” son after the priest who prescribed this method for her and her husband.

All of this assumes that we can avoid sex outside of marriage and that within marriage we have husbands or wives who will follow the rules. I don’t know about you, but my partners inside and outside of marriage, including the Catholic ones, would not have gone along with either abstaining or having a bunch of babies. I used birth control—pills, condoms, diaphragms–right up until I married a man who’d had a vasectomy. A vasectomy is also considered a sin.

Despite the church’s mandate, a majority of Catholics use artificial birth control. Numbers vary, with sources offering from 72 to 98 percent of American women. Honestly, the church puts us between a rock and a hard place. How many of us are lucky enough to marry someone who will agree to take a chance on the “natural” method? How many people here at Childless by Marriage are with partners who do not want any children, period? How many are not sure about it so they aren’t willing to take any chances? How many of us would be delighted to throw away our birth control and have a baby, but we fear we’d lose the man or woman we love if we did?

Being alone and past menopause, I no longer have to worry about this, but I know most of you do. I’m not going to preach for or against. Just be aware of the risks and make your own decision.

I don’t want to be excommunicated or lose my job, but I worry about the lack of understanding shown in documents such as this. For some of us, life cannot be boiled down to being alone and chaste or being married and happily making babies. It’s just not that simple.

For more on the Catholic viewpoint, visit www.usccb.org/respectlife.

It’s not just the Catholic Church that doesn’t seem to understand the variables in our life situations. We see it in our government, in our society, and around the dinner table.

What do you think? Have I ruffled some feathers? How do you feel about this? Please share (and don’t tell my pastor).

Reunion Raises Questions About Babies

Cleaning house on Saturday, I came across the video from my 20-year high school reunion. Blackford High School, San Jose, California, class of 1970. I shoved it into the VHS player (yes, I still have one) and settled in, mesmerized. The sound and picture were not good, but after all these years, it was fascinating. Look at those hairstyles, those clothes, and the facial hair on the guys. Look at how gorgeous I was with my big permed hair, contact lenses, stage makeup, and the sexy black velvet dress I used to wear for concerts. Where did that woman go?

As the cameraperson went from table to table, people answered a questionnaire about their lives. Most were married with children. Even those who were single had kids. Many referred to “having a family” instead of saying they had children. Only a few said they had no children. They said it almost apologetically. Randy, bless his heart, said, “I have no kids, but I still have a family.” Rosanne, a school principal said, “No kids, but I have a darling dog, Molly.”

I cited my three stepchildren and two step-grandchildren. Gosh, my family plate appeared to be full, didn’t it? I also talked about my writing and music, but that part was fuzzy on the tape. Fred, my handsome new husband, sat beside me, sipping his wine. He may have been the oldest person in the room, just as I was probably the youngest at his reunions, except for the servers.

After a while, the video got boring. We had 375 students in our graduating class, and I didn’t recognize most of the people at the reunion. The people I was close to in high school did not attend. We were not the popular kids; we were the nerds before that word became popular.

I got to thinking about how times have changed. It’s not just the hairstyles and music. In the ‘70s, having children was the norm, but now one in five women never have children, either by choice or by circumstance. Those 1970 grads started their families early. At 38, quite a few were already parents to teenagers. One woman was a grandmother. Today’s 38-year-olds might not yet have started having children, and some will wonder if they ever will.

Birth control, although legal, was a lot trickier to get in the ‘70s, and the girls in my class who got pregnant before graduation disappeared in shame. Nearly everyone in my neighborhood was white and Catholic. Yes, things are different now.

At 38, most of us were peaking in our careers. Our families were blossoming, and we were still healthy and attractive—more attractive than we were in high school. Several, like me, had gone through heartbreak and were in the first blush of new love, but most were still enjoying their first marriages.

Only one person talked about hard times on the video. He said he was finally sober after many years of being an addict. God bless him. A half-dozen grads had died, mostly in Vietnam. But overall, we were doing well. I guess if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be there. I missed the 10-year reunion because I was in the middle of getting divorced and I couldn’t afford a ticket to the reunion.

I also had the video from the 25-year reunion, which I did not attend. A lot of people skipped that one. More were divorced. More admitted to not having kids. Several talked about their pets. One said she adopted a daughter. A prize went to the grad with the most children—five–but at 43, we weren’t likely to produce more babies. People talked about sons and daughters in the military and grandchildren on the way, but most of the emphasis was on their careers. These were some accomplished people. Or maybe it’s just that only the successful ones showed up.

The 50-year reunion is two years away. I imagine those grads who are still alive and able to get back to San Jose will be talking about grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Most will be retired. I will still be the one talking about her work because I’m not retired, I have no children, and the stepchildren are no longer part of my life, except for Facebook posts. I’ll still be the nerd.

Enough about me. I want to know about your reunion experiences. What is it like for people who graduated in the 80s, 90s, or 00s? Did you go? Did you feel left out because you didn’t have children, or did you find others in the same situation? Did you/would you stay home for fear you’ll feel bad among all the moms and dads?

Looking at those reunion tapes led me to thinking about what I have done with my life. When the camera focused on them, the grads summed up 20 or 25 years in a few sentences. What would you say?

Please share in the comments. I really want to know your thoughts on all of this.

Who will we teach our favorite songs?

I lay awake half the night trying to figure out how to write this without seeming totally sorry for myself and bumming you out. How do I put a positive spin on it, show how you and I can make the best of our childless situation? I can offer some suggestions, but you and I know anything we do as a substitute for what we might do with our own children is just a . . . substitute.

Friends had been urging me for months to play at a local open mic that happens on Friday nights in a nearby small town. I finally hauled my guitar down there. It’s in the former cafeteria of a former middle school that got moved up the hill due to tsunami worries. Now a program for the poor uses the building.

When I walked in, a man I knew stood at the mic with his three-year-old son next to him pretending to strum a yellow ukulele with a smiley face on it. I have watched this child, Evan, grow from a swaddled blob to a boy who can walk, talk and sing. His dad, Tom, a banjo player, has brought him to song circles and open mics and always included Evan in the act. Evan still can’t really play, but he knows all the old folk and bluegrass songs that Tom plays.

Shortly after Tom and Evan, Tony, a man my age, took the stage with his grown son. I didn’t even know he had a son, but there he was, handsome, with a good voice, singing in harmony with his dad. That’s what got me.

I have been a solo act forever. My parents didn’t do music, rarely came to hear me perform. I became a musician in spite of them, not because of them. When I hear about families that do singalongs in the car or go caroling at Christmas, I am so jealous. I always thought if I had children, I could share my love of music with them. We would do the singalongs. I’d pay for whatever lessons they wanted, teach them all my songs, and create my own little band.

I had a taste of it when my husband was alive and my youngest stepson spent time with us. Fred and I sang with a vocal ensemble. For our Christmas gigs, Michael would put on a white shirt and a red bow tie and join us, singing next to me, his little-boy voice higher than mine. Oh, that was sweet. I tried to teach him a little piano, but his mother didn’t agree that he needed lessons.

Oh, and there was the Christmas when the step-granddaughters sat with me at the piano to do the “Little Drummer Boy” and other carols. They were as enchanted by the music as I was. It was heaven. I don’t know where either of those girls is now, but I’m lucky we had those moments.

Back at the open mic, watching Tony and his son, I wanted to cry, even though overall I enjoyed the evening and plan to go back this week. I will continue to be the solo act.

I know children don’t always share your interests. They might reject them altogether. And I might not have the patience to deal with little kids spoiling my act, singing off key, and repeating the same phrases over and over while they learn. They might be more interested in their smart phones than in anything I wanted them to do. But how sweet it would be if we could sing in harmony together.

I would also want to share my religion, my politics, and my ways of doing things. But children are their own people. You hope that a little rubs off, but there are no guarantees.

Enough fantasizing, right? We don’t have children, but we can share our talents and our joys with other people’s kids. It might not be music; it might be football, classic cars, art or graphic novels.

For me, it’s music. This school year’s religious education program begins tonight at our church. I will lead the singing and teach the kids some songs that are new to them but were old when I learned them. I didn’t learn them from my parents but from the nuns at St. Martin’s Church.

We can pass what we know to unlimited numbers of children and young adults by teaching, leading, coaching, and being their older friends. They won’t be our own, but it’s still our legacy, and it still counts.

I thank you for being here and welcome your comments.

Book Takes the Worry Out of Aging Without Children

Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults by Sara Zeff Geber, PhD. Mango Publishing, 2018.

Oh boy. I have a lot of work to do. But this is a clear-cut guidebook to getting things in order for old age, making sure you have enough money, good health, good friends, a happy retirement, and a plan for what to do when a crisis hits. These are not cheery topics, but Geber, a certified retirement coach, gives you all the facts, everything from how to retire in another country to “green” burials, along with charts and questionnaires to help you get organized. She includes the success stories and the less-than-successful stories of seniors who faced the challenges of aging. It’s all well-written, sympathetic and realistic.

Geber does not talk much about childlessness. When she does, she emphasizes childlessness by choice, not by marriage. Her couples are happily dancing through life without kids. But she makes it clear that with or without children, with or without a spouse, sooner or later most of us will end up alone. Especially women. Almost half of women over 65 live alone, she says. While 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, 2,000 of them don’t have children.

Although we all know having children is no guarantee you’ll have someone to take care of you in old age, Geber writes that blood relatives have always been the only source of “morally obligated support in later life,” and most do get involved. Lacking offspring, we need to seek other options.

One thing that struck me was the set of diagrams near the beginning of the book that show two types of networks readers might have. One, for parents, shows the parent in the middle, with circles branching out listing children and grandchildren and their spouses and in-laws, siblings, nieces and nephews, and other family, with just a few other circles for friends. The network of a “solo ager” (does anyone else hate that term?) has far fewer circles for family, most of the circles occupied by friends and community. In my heart, I immediately wanted the parent network, but that’s not going to happen.

Geber stresses that if you don’t have a lot of people in your circles, you need to get some. They should be younger than you are so they’ll still be alive and well when you need help. She offers suggestions for connecting with new people. It sounds crass, like purposely networking to recruit helpers, but I guess we need to think about it. If we have a handful of friends who will take care of things for us, who needs children?

I know. In a perfect world, I’d have children and so would you. No amount of retirement planning will take away the sting of times like the funeral I attended yesterday where the widow sat with her beautiful children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, enough to fill three pews in the church. Who will sit at my funeral? My friends, that’s who.

I know most of you are much younger than I am and don’t even want to think about this stuff yet, but someday you’ll need to. This book can help you get everything set up so you don’t have to worry about aging without children. As you struggle to decide what to do about babies, this can be one less thing to worry about.

As always, I welcome your comments.

I also really thank you for the great comments you have been submitting about my last post, “Would Just One Child Be Enough?” Follow the link to check out what people have been saying and keep the discussion going.

 

Would Just One Child Be Enough?

Something has been niggling around in my mind this week. So many times here, we talk about having “a child,” about trying to get our partners to agree to have one baby, or about struggling with IVF to have “a baby.” But when we were young and dreaming about having “a family,” didn’t that include multiple children? Don’t most people who want to be parents have least two? We didn’t fantasize about being a mother duck with just one duckling swimming along behind us, did we?

What if, God forbid, something happens to that one little duck?

While many of us are just trying to deal with the fact that we’ll never have children, others are fighting to have at least one child before they’re too old, with partners who are reluctant at best. I started this at 3 a.m., but now in the bright morning light, I’m thinking this is nonsense. How can we stay with someone who has such a drastically different view of life? But maybe that’s just my lack of sleep talking.

Think about it. If we succeed in squeezing one baby out of this relationship, that child will be an “only child.” Much has been written over the years about the disadvantages and advantages for children with no siblings. Experts warn they may be selfish and self-centered loners who identify more with adults than with other children. Others say it’s great because they get all of their parents’ attention, and there are plenty of other kids in the world to hang out with.

I have one younger brother. He drove me nuts when we were growing up, but he’s a treasured friend now—and the person I have entrusted with my care and finances if/when I become disabled or die. He has carried a lot of the burden of caring for our father. I wish I had more siblings, especially a sister, but my parents felt their family was complete once they had one girl and one boy. My brother is the only person in the world who shares the same history and the same family, and I can’t imagine life without him.

So why are we weeping and grieving as we try to convince our mates to have just one child when what we really want is at least two? Often the discussion is happening so late biologically that our only hope is to have twins.

In “The Case Against Having Only One Child,” Elizabeth Gehrman, herself an only child, reports that the percentage of mothers who have only one child has doubled, from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent. She credits dual-career couples, the cost of raising a child, and having only one child becoming more accepted. But she advises parents considering having just one not to do it. There is no relationship like the one has with siblings, and it can be a lonely life with no brothers or sisters.

On the positive side, Carol Burnett, Laura Bush, Chelsea Clinton, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, Joe Montana, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, and Robin Williams were all only children, and they turned out pretty well.

So I have to ask. Maybe one child works for you, but is it fair to the child, especially in these days when couples are waiting longer to have children, which means their offspring will lose their parents at a younger age and may not have a chance to know their grandparents at all? Who will they turn to?

Perhaps this is a non-issue. Perhaps some of you reading this are “only children” and glad about it. I’m just saying it’s something to consider when you’re struggling to get acceptance of even one child. What would it take to have more than one? Is that even an option? And if you have to beg your partner, why are you with him or her? We come back to the essential question: which do you want more, him/her or children? We shouldn’t have to choose, but sometimes we do.

Remember Heavy Heart, the reader whose comment we discussed a couple weeks ago? She had decided she would ask her husband one more time if he was willing to have a baby, and if he said no, she was going to leave. Well, she reported that he “wasn’t 100 percent,” but he agreed to start trying to get pregnant. So that’s good news, but I think her situation is what got me thinking about this only child business.

So it’s your turn. What do you think? I know many of you are thinking you would be over-the-moon just to have one baby, but would you feel bad about not having more?

Please comment.

Here are some more articles on only children:

“Raising an Only Child”

Thirteen Things Everyone Should Know About Only Children”

“A Note to Mothers of Only Children–from an Only Child Herself”

 

 

 

Can a not-mom get teenagers singing?

I’m in big trouble, I thought. As part of my job as a church music minister, I was asked to lead “campfire songs” at a bonfire party Sunday night for the teens in the religious education program. “You know, campfire songs,” I was told. But I had no idea what to sing. Not only had I not gone to camp as a kid or as a parent chaperoning kids, but I had no idea what songs young people sing today.

I had only a brief mothering experience back in the ‘90s when my stepson and his friends wandered in and out of the house. I visit the middle school only for the annual quilt show and haven’t been in the high school since I stopped teaching adult ed writing classes there a decade ago. I knew I couldn’t do the little-kid songs I sang with the kindergarten-fifth-grade group, and they probably wouldn’t like the old folk songs I did with my grandparent-age friends. They’d be looking for something off the radio, and I’d be offering “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.” Did they know “This Land is Your Land” or “Funiculi Funicula”?

If I had teenagers in my life—they’d probably be my grandchildren at this point—maybe I’d know what songs they sing. I might even have taught the songs to them. But childless as I am, I was screwed.

Wrong. It was a blast. (Do kids still say that?) It wasn’t quite a bonfire. It rained, unexpected on the Oregon coast in August, so we met indoors in one of the church classrooms, sitting in a circle. I had brought my Rise Up Singing songbook with a long list of possibilities to try, and one of the tech-savvy teachers projected the words on a screen. It turned out this group, all boys, was willing to try anything. I may not have known them, but they remembered me singing to them when they were little. They knew some of the songs, but sang along even with the ones they didn’t know. They were horrified at the violence in “The Cat Came Back,” slogged through all 12 verses of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” slaughtered “La Bamba,” and cracked up at “Drunken Sailor.” We simmered down with “Prayer of St. Francis.” The time flew by. My face hurt from laughing. I never once thought about being childless.

After the music, it was time to make S’mores on a barbecue grill under the overhang outside the building. The boys walked around with flaming marshmallows and competed to make the tallest, most outrageous combination of graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows. Did I need to chide them about fire or the mess they were making? Heck, no. I’m not their mom.

They don’t know I don’t have kids, nor do they care. I’m just Sue, who does music. I don’t mind that at all. In fact, I want to do more of this.

I share this story because I know we all worry about what we’re missing, how we might have regrets, and how we might end up being clueless around young people. Don’t worry. It will work out if you let it.

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We have gotten many great comments on last week’s post in response to Heavy Heart’s struggle to decide whether or not to leave her husband after he changed his mind about having children. Please take a look and join the discussion. This is essence of what being childless by marriage is all about.