Motherhood didn’t used to be a choice

Prescribing birth control for unmarried women was not legal in the United States until 1972, the year I lost my virginity and started taking birth control pills. It only became legal for married couples as I was entering high school in 1965. When Roe V. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, I was 21.

A lot of things were different when I was growing up. In 1974, the year I married my first husband, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Before that, it was difficult for women to secure credit cards or loans or buy their own homes. Can you imagine that now? What do you mean I can’t have a credit card in my own name?

I know most readers here are considerably younger than I am. In your lives, birth control and abortion have always been legal. As for women being able to run their own financial lives, how could it be any other way? But it was. Consider this: We weren’t even allowed to wear slacks or jeans when I was in school, only skirts. With pantyhose.

I’m reading a new book titled All the Single Ladies. Author Rebecca Traister takes us through the history of the women’s movement and the stories of a persistent percentage of women who choose independence rather than be bound by marriage. It’s heavy reading but fascinating. I will tell you more about it when I finish the book. I want to talk about people who prefer independent lives over married life, but what I have read so far sure makes me think about how things have changed.

Through most of history, women have not been considered equal to men, and they have not had the same rights as men. Traister quotes so-called experts from the 19th century who maintained our brains were not as big as men’s brains and who also said that if we stressed our brains doing jobs not suited to women we would damage our reproductive organs. Craziness, right? But women as recently as my mother’s generation truly saw few other choices in life besides being wives and mothers. Even when I came of age, I expected every relationship to turn into marriage and that would lead to having children. That’s what everybody did. I just wanted to be a writer, too. I’d do it while the kids were at school.

When women found themselves pregnant before marriage, it was a scandal. They had to get married in a hurry or go off somewhere to give birth in secret and give the baby up for adoption. Abortion was rare, dangerous and illegal until 1974, four years after I graduated from high school, four years after several of my classmates found themselves “in trouble.” Being a nerd with no social life and hyper-protective parents probably saved me from that.

I got married two weeks after I graduated from college. If my ex hadn’t put a monkey-wrench into the baby plan, I’d be a grandmother now. Early in our dating life, he hustled me to the student medical center for birth control pills. Those pills were a disaster. They made me sick, fat and depressed. I tried various types of pills. On some, I bled almost all month long. Others caused giant painful bumps to break out on my legs. I experienced the mother of all yeast infections because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t dare tell anyone I was having sex before marriage. But I didn’t get pregnant. What if I had been born just a few years earlier?

Shortly before the wedding, I switched to a diaphragm. Every time I bought the contraceptive jelly for it, I felt like everyone in the store was looking and judging. Even after I got married.

And yet, I had so many more options than my mother did. I don’t know if she had sex before marriage. I don’t want to know. I do know she and my dad used condoms to stop having children after they had my brother and me. My snoopy brother found them in a drawer, but we never discussed it. God no. For us, The Talk about sex consisted of one word: Don’t.

Birth control took away the fear of pregnancy, both in and out of marriage. Plus, because the times were changing, I was able to work as a newspaper reporter, doing work that men used to do. I was always in debt, but I could manage my own affairs. My mother, perhaps your grandmother, did not have that freedom. She lived in a world where men controlled women’s lives and women’s destiny was motherhood.

Things have changed so much. It’s good, right?

We have so many choices now. Sometimes that makes it more difficult, especially when we find partners who don’t feel the same way as we do about having children. It used to take some doing to prevent the babies from coming. Now we have to fight for the right to have them. It doesn’t seem fair. Or is it more fair than it ever was before?

What do you think about all this? How have things changed in your lifetime? How has the availability of birth control and abortion affected your situation? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

You’ve got to ask the hard questions

Two days ago, Richa wrote:

I am going through the worst pain of my life. On second day of my marriage my husband told me that he already has two kids so he would not want kids from me. It came to me very shocking. He just announced his decision and never thought what I wanted. Today after 4 years of marriage I keep fighting for kids but he just turns a deaf ear. I have started having menopause and he never ever discusses anything about my pain of being infertile. Many times I talk abt out adoption but he doesn’t even wanna do anything about it.
I loved him but I hate him for this. I am really not a risk taker and because of insecurities that life offers I continue to live with him. But it is really difficult to forgive him for all this.

On the second day of their marriage???

As someone far removed from the situation, I’m thinking I’d be screaming, “Annulment!” But then I try to put myself in her situation on that day. She loves this man. For months or maybe years, she has been planning this wedding and this life together. Now, with the wedding dress not yet put away, the gifts not yet all opened, the ring still new and shiny on her finger, her new husband drops this bomb. She feels stuck. Heartbroken. Disbelieving. Surely he doesn’t mean it. He’ll change his mind.

He didn’t.

Why didn’t he say something sooner? Did he just realize he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of becoming a father? Was he afraid he’d lose her if he told her the truth? Is he just a jerk?

What would you do if you were that woman? From the comments I have received here at Childless by Marriage, I know that some of you ARE that woman or that man who found out after the wedding that you did not feel the same way about having children.

If you’d like to respond to Richa, go to (https://childlessbymarriageblog.com/2013/02/26/sometimes-childless-grief-is-too-much-to-handle-alone/) and scroll down to the comments.

There are certain questions that need to be asked before a relationship goes too far. Maybe I’m influenced by the finale of “The Bachelor” TV show that happened on Monday. I hope I’m not spoiling anything, but Nick chose Vanessa. Unlike the usual “bachelorettes” who swoon into their engagement as if it were the happy ending of a fairy tale, Vanessa still has lots of questions and concerns and is not ready to plan a wedding until she knows some answers.

I’m with Vanessa. Love is great, but you’ve got to get some things straight before you make a long-term commitment. The following is a list of things you really need to talk about. If your partner refuses, see that as a giant red flag.

  •  How do you feel about having children with me? Do you want them? How soon? How many? What if we have fertility problems? Would you be willing to try in vitro fertilization or other techniques? Would you be willing to adopt children?
  •  Where do you want to live? Would you be willing to relocate? Are there places you would never want to live? Would you be willing to change jobs so we can live where I want or need to be?
  •  What are your goals in life? What do you dream of doing? Do you have a secret desire to be a singer, mountain climber or astronaut? What would you regret never having a chance to do?
  •  Are you religious? What church do you belong to? Would you be open to changing churches or expect me to convert?
  •  Republican or Democrat?
  •  Have you ever been arrested?
  •  Do problems with alcohol, drugs, mental illness or domestic violence run in your family? Do certain diseases run in your family?
  •  How will we handle money? Who will be in charge of the checkbook?
  •  Dog or cat?

It’s funny. We learn our sweethearts’ favorite foods, favorite music, and favorite football teams, but we don’t always know about the things that really matter. If I don’t eat sweet potatoes or okra, so what? But if I won’t set foot in the church that means everything to you, that’s a problem. Likewise, if I say no to the children you have always wanted. Sometimes we don’t ask because we’re afraid the answers will destroy the relationship. They might, but better now than when it’s too late.

So ask the hard questions. Sometimes people will give you the answers you want to hear instead of the honest truth. But push for real answers. It will save a lot of heartache later.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

**************

Advertising makes me squirm, but I need to tell you my birthday month $6.50 sale is still going on. You can buy brand new paperback copies of my books Childless by Marriage, Shoes Full of Sand, Azorean Dreams and Freelancing for Newspapers for just $6.50, including shipping. Such a deal! Click here for details. Don’t go to Amazon for this sale (but do go there for the e-books). This is just between you and me and Paypal.

 

 

Sunday brunch with the grandmas

Dear friends: I’m sharing a poem today. Perhaps you know the feeling, when you’re surrounded by friends sharing pictures of their children or grandchildren and you don’t have much to contribute. To the women with whom I shared this meal, I had a good time, really. I love you both, your grandkids are adorable, and I hope to do it again soon. Just  . . . well, it’s a little different for those of us who don’t have kids.

At Georgie’s on Sunday after church,
my friends, both grandmothers,
shared photos on their phones
while I ate my eggs Benedict,
nodding and cooing words of praise
for little Raegan and Jaxon
and Jackson with a K and Dylan
and Damon and Madison.

“They’re getting big so fast.”
“He’s such a handsome boy.”
But I couldn’t quite melt the way
real women who’ve had babies do,
that catch in the voice, that
“Isn’t she precious? Oh my Gosh.
Look at those itty bitty hands”
as they remember another baby’s fingers
touching their breasts as they nursed
or squeezing their daddy’s giant thumb.

My eggs were cooked just right,
not too runny, the hollandaise
creamy around the ham, so thick
I scooped it up with my fork.
I was tempted to lick the plate.
Out the west-facing windows,
the winter ocean thrashed,
all white froth and gray
one shade darker than the sky.

A grandma flipping through her phone:
“Did you see my grandson’s fiancée?”
“No,” said the other. “Oh, she’s beautiful.
Would you look at that gorgeous ring.”
My plate was empty now, but they
had barely touched their food,
feasting instead on grandmother pride.
I sucked the ice left in my glass.
When our waitress brought our separate checks,
they finally put their phones away
to eat blueberry pancakes and sausages.

“So Sue, how’s your dad?” a grandma asked.
“Doing really well at 95.”
And that was all I had to say.
My phone is full of dogs and trees
I could have shared my baby niece
if my phone weren’t sitting in the car,
but I have to admit it’s not the same,
this stranger who lives so far away,
whose pictures I save from Facebook posts,
but you have to offer what you’ve got
when you’re sharing a booth in Grandma Land.

 

I’ve Got the Qualified for Medicare Blues

This morning, after I changed my calendars to the new month, I slipped my shiny new Medicare card and my new Blue Shield Medicare prescription card into my wallet. Although my birthday isn’t until next week, the change in health insurance starts today. This is not something I volunteered for. I was perfectly happy with regular Blue Shield. When you turn 65, the U.S. government requires you to switch whether you want to or not. Now I don’t know what is covered and what is not, and I’m not thrilled with the implication that as of today I am old.

Having no children or grandchildren, I don’t have the usual markers of aging. Surely experiences like raising children or watching your daughter give birth mark your progress along the track of life, but that hasn’t happened. No one is coming up behind me with my name and my DNA, nudging me into seniorhood. In many ways, I don’t feel grown up at all. When I see an accurate photograph of myself, I think there must have been a mistake. I get that I’m not the slim, long-haired vixen of 1972, but who is this motherly-looking person staring back at me? And why is she two inches shorter than she used to be? I can tell myself all day long that our bodies are just containers for our spirits, which are ageless, but it’s hard to believe when I’m pretty sure everybody else sees the old woman, not the young spirit. They also think I’m “retired,” but that term is meaningless in my profession.

My birthday, next Thursday, scares the hell out of me. Will I end up celebrating it alone? God, please, not again this year. When I was young and married to a man with a day job, I would typically run away somewhere for the day, a park, a historical monument, a zoo, someplace to explore on my own, then reunite that evening with husband and family for birthday dinner, cake and presents. If this blasted winter weather ever clears up, I could still run away for the day, but there’s no one waiting for me when I get home. That, my friends, is the hell of being childless, widowed and alone.

But nobody knows what’s going to happen in life. I could have had six children and 13 grandchildren and had none of them stick around. Fred could still be alive but not healthy enough to do anything. Or I could be the one who is not healthy and not able to enjoy my birthday. My father will turn 95 on May 1, two months from now. If my brother and I can’t get away from work to make the trip to San Jose, he might be alone, too, despite having two children, two grandchildren and a growing flock of great-grandchildren. You don’t know. Nobody knows.

One of the comments on my recent post about religion noted that the writer believes her life is turning out the way God planned it. I suspect mine is, too. And so will yours. I don’t know if you believe in God or destiny or anything that controls what happens in your life. (Do you? Tell us about it in the comments.) But nobody gives us a copy of the plan, the one that says, at 22, she’ll marry and at 28, that marriage will end in divorce, or at 33, he’ll announce that he doesn’t want kids and you’ll have to decide whether or not to leave him, and you will decide . . . what will you decide?

My therapist, who recently retired, urges clients to do what they’re “drawn to.” In other words, what feels right, what pulls you in, what does your gut say? People ask me what they should do when their partner waffles on the baby question. I really don’t know. I know what I did. Was it a mistake or was that the plan all along?

I know without question that God made me a writer and a musician. I was doing both from a very young age, even though I came from a working class family that did not understand or support the arts. I’m still a writer and a musician with a long history of achievements in both areas. I am not at all sure I could have done those things while raising children. Perhaps I am living the plan, and my solitude at 65 will lead to my best work yet.

Back to you. If you don’t have kids, you could wind up alone. Or you could wind up surrounded by friends, family, stepfamily, co-workers, neighbors, and fans, so many people you wish they would leave you alone. Nobody knows. However it turns out, you will deal with it. Will you regret it if you don’t have children? Yes, sometimes you will. But will there be other rewards? Yes, I’m sure of it.

Because it’s my birthday month, I’m offering you a present. A native American friend of mine has demonstrated the glory of the potlatch, where she showers her friends with gifts on her birthdays. I could never match her generosity, but I am offering a major book sale. For the month of March, you can buy paperback copies of Childless by Marriage, Shoes Full of Sand, Freelancing for Newspapers, and the original edition of my novel Azorean Dreams for $6.50 each, including shipping and handling. That’s less than half price. The first five people to order will also receive a copy of The Dog Ate It, a limited-edition chapbook full of poems and photos about dogs. To order these books at the special price, go to this page at my suelick.com website. Do not go to Amazon.com, where they are still charging full price. This does not apply to my e-books. They are already deeply discounted. Help me clear out the old books to make room for the new ones to come.

Thank you for being part of the conversation here. You are a wonderful gift to me every day of the year.

Neighbors unite to find a dog named Donut

Annie and I came around the bend, and there was old Tom. He was holding a empty leash.

“She got away?” I asked.

He nodded, his ancient face working with tears and frustration. His black Lab, ridiculously named Donut, broke through a fence and escaped. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. She keeps taking off.”

5cac1-chicomay08
My puppy Chico in the early days

I sympathized. I once had a black Lab-pit bull mix named Chico, Annie’s brother, who was always running away. I couldn’t build a tall enough fence to keep him in. I remember the fear that filled my heart as I walked the streets of our forested Oregon coast neighborhood with an empty leash in one hand and a box of Milk-Bones in the other. What if he never came back? What if he got out on the highway and was hit by a car? Why doesn’t he come when I call? Ultimately I had to take him to a shelter. I couldn’t keep him in, and he was fighting with other dogs. One neighbor threatened to shoot him. The day he bit a dog and then bit me while I was trying to stop the fight, I knew I had to give up my baby, whom I had raised from seven weeks old. I still have a scar on my leg and a pain in my heart.

“Is that her?” Tom asked, pointing way down 98th Street where I could just make out a black dot next to a green garbage bin.

“I think so.”

Just then, another neighbor drove by the dog, and Donut started running west toward Highway 101. Please God, I prayed, let her turn on Birch and go toward my house where it’s safe. The neighbor, Shirley, stopped and rolled her window down.

“Is that my dog?’ Tom asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Shirley and I, both widows, talked for a minute about how glad we were to see a break in the weather, some blue sky instead of constant rain. “It’s depressing,” she said. “And I never get depressed.” Oh, I could tell her things about being depressed, but Tom was already walking toward where we had last seen Donut. Tom will be 80 this year, and his legs seem to miss a beat with every step. I feared this chase was too much for him. Annie and I hurried to catch up.

You see, dog owners understand each other. When a dog is in trouble, we all jump in to help. I may not be part of the Mom club, but I’m deep into the dog lovers’ club. I think Tom has children and grandchildren, one of whom may have chosen Donut’s name, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. There were no kids around. It was all about our dogs.

We caught up. Tom leaned down to pet Annie. “You’re a good dog,” he told her. I shared that she had been throwing up earlier and seemed a little sluggish, but now she seemed better. He rubbed her tawny head. “Not feeling so good, huh?” Donut and Annie are both nine years old, starting to feel the aches of old age.

We walked down Birch to where the resident dogs would have been barking if Donut were nearby. Nothing. Annie had been sniffing the trail where Donut had urinated, but she didn’t find anything on Birch.

It was getting late. Annie was limping. I had to be at church in an hour to lead choir practice. But all I could think about was Donut. Tom was hoping Donut had come home by now. We parted at the turnoff to my street.

As we got to our house, Pat across the street was just getting out of his truck.

“Have you seen a big black dog?” I asked.

“Well, yes.” He said he had seen Donut prowling around his yard at 3 a.m., but he didn’t know where she was now. He shook his head. His own yellow Lab named Harley barked at us from inside the house.

Twenty minutes later, I was at the piano practicing when Pat pounded on my door. He and another neighbor had gone looking for Donut and found her on Highway 101 heading south. The running dog did not respond when they tried to capture her.

Oh no. I ramped up my prayers. She could get killed out there.  I called Tom’s house. No answer. I left a message, but that wasn’t enough. What if he was in his yard or still walking around with his empty leash? I drove to his house. Nobody home, garage open, car gone. Clearly he had gone to look for Donut.

Please God, please God. Should I get in my car and try to catch her? But Pat and the other neighbor had already tried. Donut didn’t know me. I could cause a wreck or cause her to run into traffic. Tom was already out there somewhere. I had to get ready for church.

A half hour later, my phone rang. Tom. He and yet another neighbor named Larry had found Donut up near the airport, a half mile north of here. I was afraid to ask. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s a wonder she didn’t get hit.”

I let out my breath. Thank you, God. I could picture their teary reunion, Tom scolding and hugging his dog at the same time. This morning, writing with Annie asleep beside me, I’m still saying thank you. I’m grateful that Donut is safe and grateful to be part of a caring neighborhood that will unite to save a dog with a stupid name and an urge to run.

Tom is no doubt working on his fence and cussing out the dog that almost broke his heart.

When you don’t have kids around, your dogs mean everything.

I told you last week I’d offer a dog story to counter the recent heavy posts about abortion and religion. I didn’t know the Donut story would happen.

I welcome your dog stories. I know dogs are not children and it’s tragic when a child disappears, but we love our dogs and consider them family. I did not bake a cake or throw a party for Annie’s birthday last week, but I did sing to her and give her lots of Milk-Bones. Her vet sent an e-card which I shared with her.

Keep the comments coming on the other posts, too. Take a minute to look back at what other readers are saying. We have a great community here, and I’m grateful for all of you.

 

What’s God got to do with childlessness?

Since I tiptoed into a tricky topic by writing about abortion last week, let’s take it a step farther and talk about religion. I know you all have different beliefs, and that’s good. This post will not challenge what you believe, just perhaps how we all apply our beliefs.

We know that Catholics believe abortion is a mortal sin, grounds for excommunication. But do you also know that when couples get married in the Catholic Church they promise to accept the gift of children from God? To refuse could mean not being allowed to marry in the church.

The church maintains that sex should only happen between people who are married and that its only purpose is procreation—making babies. Birth control is not allowed. Do millions of Catholics break these rules? All the time. So did I. It’s hard to ignore the fact that if I had followed the rules of the church back when I could have gotten pregnant, I would probably have children now. And grandchildren. My whole life would have been different. I would still have gotten divorced from my first husband and God knows how I would have supported myself and the kids, but I would be a mom.

So you could say religion, or ignoring my religion, is a factor in why I’m childless. But when people ask me why I don’t have kids, I rarely mention my religion or God or the church. And neither do most of the people I talk to, even though most religions see children as a blessing if not a requirement. I can’t name one faith that suggests we don’t have babies. Not one. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be part of the decision.

With all the people I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book and the countless folks who have joined the discussion here at the blog, any mention of religion is rare. Why is that? Is it that our culture seems to make fun of people who are visibly religious? Try bringing it up with somebody you meet today and watch for the uncomfortable reaction.

Or is it that our faith doesn’t factor at all into our decisions about having children? I get comments every day about what he wants and what she wants, what I need and what he needs, will I regret it in my old age, and who will take care of me, but not a word about what God wants us to do. If you don’t believe in God, that makes sense. But a July 2016 Gallup poll shows that 89 percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a higher power. So where does God fit into our decisions about children? Do we consult Him/Her/It at all? If we don’t, why not? And if we do, why don’t we talk about it?

Are we afraid of being mocked? Afraid we don’t want what God wants? Do we figure it’s none of God’s business, part of our right to free will? When I was using birth control with my first husband or the men who followed; when I married a man who had a vasectomy and didn’t want more children; when I was feeling bad because I didn’t get to be a mom, did I think about God? Not much. Oh, I’d shake my fist and ask how He could let this happen to me, but that’s  not the same thing.

How about you? I know religion is an itchy uncomfortable subject for lots of people, but let’s try to talk about it. How does/did your belief in God or a higher power fit into your decisions about having children?

I promise to write about something easy, like puppies, next week. Tomorrow’s my dog Annie’s ninth birthday! But we need to look at the big issues sometimes. And maybe sending up a prayer will help someone who’s trying to figure things out.

‘He forced me to have an abortion’

“I was forced into several abortions and wish now that I was still running in fear. At least I wouldn’t be childless.”

A woman calling herself Mary included this sentence in a comment sent in earlier this week. It was a long paragraph full of information about how she had always wanted to be a mother, and she tossed this in like oh yeah, probably should mention this. Dear God, what was she running from?

It’s not the first time I have heard this. Although women cannot be forced by law into aborting a pregnancy, they frequently feel forced into it by disapproving family or partners who threaten everything from abandonment to physical harm if they keep the baby.

I was already shocked by this comment, and then I was shocked again by the statistics on abortions. The numbers vary, with anti-abortion groups reporting far more than government groups that I hope are unbiased. The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s most recent report says there were 664,435 legal abortions in 2013 in the United States, that there are approximately 200 abortions per 1,000 live births every year, and that 91.6 percent take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. National Right to Life reports over a million abortions in the same period. 

Let’s just say there are a lot and get back to the question of forced abortions.

Abortion, always a touchy subject, is particularly volatile right now, with the new president looking to topple Roe v. Wade and people marching both for and against a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. I’ll say right now that I am Catholic and I’m not keen on abortion. But I believe governments should keep their hands out of our vaginas.

I was even more shocked when I read this article, “The Reality of Forced Abortion in America” by Kristi Burton Brown. Take a moment to read it, if you want, knowing that toward the end it gets a little anti-abortion preachy.

Okay, now. Why would a woman let anyone tell her what to do with the baby that is in HER BODY? Why wouldn’t she holler, “No!” if she really doesn’t want an abortion, if she always wanted to be a mother, and she wants this baby?

Think about the many situations we see here at Childless by Marriage where a person, usually the woman, does not have children because her partner says no. So many readers are struggling to decide whether to let their partner make that decision for them. This week, I got a comment from a woman whose husband was fine with kids until two weeks after their wedding. Suddenly he didn’t want any. Grrr.

But when there’s already an actual baby being created, maybe only the size of a grape now, but still a baby, isn’t a forced abortion the same thing at a more intense level?

I understand that the woman may be afraid to lose the guy and perhaps end up broke and homeless with a baby. Perhaps she’s afraid of a scandal or of raising a child alone. But does she want to stay with a man who would force her to have an abortion? Isn’t that some kind of abuse?

There are some situations where abortion seems almost necessary: when the mother is too young, when she has been raped, or when the pregnancy threatens her health, but when it’s just a partner who doesn’t want a baby, I cry bullshit. How can he do this to someone he allegedly loves? And where was his condom if he was so set on not having kids?

Perhaps my Catholicness is showing here, but I think the right to choose includes the right to choose to have the baby rather than ending its life and regretting it forever. If you both agree that you need to have an abortion, then that’s between you and God, but don’t let anybody force you into an abortion if you don’t want it.

And please don’t stop reading this blog because you disagree with me or hate Catholics. We’re all just trying to figure this out together.

So let’s have your comments.