My mother never got over my moving to Oregon. Reading through old journals for an essay I’m working on, I read over and over about how depressed she was after we left, how she suddenly seemed old, how she spent half my visits in tears. If I had known she would die of cancer a few years later, would I have moved?
My father was devastated, too, although he expressed his feelings mostly by criticizing our decision to give up our good jobs and our nice house in San Jose to go live by the beach where we had no jobs and didn’t know anyone. The thing is, I didn’t know it would hurt them so badly, or that it would hurt me, the perpetual daughter with no kids, so much to be away from them. When we said goodbye, my tough-guy father sobbed.
I have never stopped feeling guilty. Every day. If my parents had been able to wish us luck and be happy with their own busy lives, it would have been different. But no, they made it clear we were fools who were breaking their hearts. I thought they would visit often. They didn’t. We visited them. I was just there two weeks ago. At the airport, my tearful father wanted to know when I was coming back. I walked into the terminal trying not to cry.
Why have I never moved back, especially after my husband died? Because it costs too much to live in the Bay Area, and because I like it here. I have built a life in Newport, Oregon that allows me to do the writing and music I have always wanted to do. The air is clean, the traffic is easy, and I meet friends everywhere I go. When I cross the Oregon border coming back from my visits to San Jose, I feel a burden lift. I honk the horn and shout because now I’m in my own place where I can shape my life the way I want to.
What does any of this have to do with not having children? Simply this: If I had children, even adult children, living back in the Bay Area, I would never have left. I would not want to be separated from my sons and daughters and grandchildren. The beach is swell, but they would be too important a part of my life to leave. At least I hope so. I have seen families in which the parents stayed for their children’s sake and then the children moved away. Heck, Fred and I were the kids who moved away.
I did not have children of my own, but I did have three stepchildren and two step-grandchildren by the time we left. They did not factor into our decision. I figured we wouldn’t see them much less than we already did because Fred was not involved in their lives. He had always been a hands-off dad. He didn’t seem to consider them at all in our decision. We did invite the youngest, who had been living with us until shortly after he graduated from high school the year before, to come with us. He declined. The older two offspring were angry at us, much more than they told us about at the time. But here’s the thing: The guilt I feel about them–and I do feel guilty–is considerably less than the guilt I feel about moving away from my parents. Is this because I never grew up and became a mom? Because I don’t know what it’s like to have your children live far away?
Most of my friends here are parents and grandparents. Nearly all of their children live somewhere else. In this rural area supported by tourism and fishing, you have to leave to go to a university or get a good job. So the kids move to Portland or Seattle or another major city. And the parents visit. Everything they do here takes a back seat to the kids and grandkids, and you can’t argue with that. But they have their own lives, too. They don’t pour on the guilt like my parents did. Fred’s parents never did that either. They were happy to send their three sons into the world and get on with their own lives.
How long do you need to stay near your parents? If you have adult children, is it okay to move away from them? If you don’t have children, does that make us wonderfully free to go wherever we want? Are you tied down by your partner’s children, and do you resent it? What do you think about all this? Please share in the comments.