Are you destined for the childless path in life?

Johnson, Fenton. At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2020.

Growing up, Fenton Johnson saw three paths for his future: marriage, the priesthood, or a solitary life. He chose the third option because he felt he was always destined to be alone and that the solitary life would allow him the time and quiet to pursue his writing and become his best self.

In this book, he looks at famous people who made the same choice. Some were married but still chose to be “solitaries.” Among them are writers Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry David Thoreau and Rabindranath Tagore, artist Paul Cezanne, photographer Bill Cunningham, and singer Nina Simone. Each believed they needed to be alone to follow their destiny. Given the choice of love or work, they chose work.

Fenton, who as a solitary gay man has always felt like an outsider, explores solitude in depth. This is a dense, slow-reading book which takes a few too many side trips for my taste, but it makes a good point: We are not all destined for the family life.

Johnson talks about how sometimes people feel sorry for him because he’s alone, when he’s eating at a restaurant by himself, for example. They don’t understand that he is actually happy to be on his own, that he feels he is living his best life. I, too, really enjoy sitting alone reading a good book and being served a great meal. I also enjoy having lunch with friends, but that’s a completely different experience.

Johnson notes that while the church preaches family as the only way to go, most saints are solitaries.

It’s not always easy. He quotes Zora Neale Hurston: “Oh, how I cried out to be just as everyone else! Even as I hoped, I knew that the cup meant for my lips would not pass. I must drink the bitter drink.”

Sometimes I feel that I too was meant to be alone. Where Johnson calls it his destiny, I call it my default position. Even when I was married, I spent a lot of time alone, and now I’m back to where I was between marriages. Perhaps I was meant to be mostly alone to focus on my work, which I do most of my waking hours. When I’m not writing, I am reading, attending classes and readings, networking, and researching.

I would love to eat, sleep, and have fun with other people, but they’re not here, so I work, and I have no plans to “retire.” I have mentioned before on this blog that while I sacrificed children in my marriages, I would never give up my work for anyone. So perhaps things have turned out the way they’re supposed to, and I’m where I’m meant to be. Like Nina Simone, I cry out to be like everyone else, but I suspect the solitary path is the one I’m meant to walk.

I have interviewed artists, writers, musicians, priests, and medical professionals who sacrificed family for their work or their art. I have known of others who had the family and either neglected them horribly or eventually gave up their work to take care of them.

What is your default setting? Are you a born mom or dad destined to be surrounded by family, or do you have another calling that being childless would make easier to follow? Can you have both? What is most important to you to accomplish in this life? Only you can answer these impossible questions.

*****

Tomorrow night I will be reading a piece about childlessness at Coffee and Grief #19 at 7 p.m. PST. You can find the Zoom link on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/883771512396349.

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7 thoughts on “Are you destined for the childless path in life?

  1. Hi Sue. I enjoyed reading and reflecting on this post. I am married and childless by chance (we’ve ‘met’ through Gateway) and find as I’ve gotten older, I often prefer doing things solo rather than with friends, and even sometimes sans my husband. Covid has forced couples to spend a LOT of time together, which is a blessing and a curse, for obvious reasons.

    But even before Covid, starting in my 40s I realized I preferred going to movies alone. I have rather weird taste in cinema and found most of my friends and my husband weren’t crazy about my choices. This was manifested with a lot of squirming, sighing, and in the case of my husband, sleeping. Alone in the theater I was able to focus on what I liked (or didn’t) without the distraction of wondering/worrying if my mate was unhappy about being there. When I lived in NYC, it wasn’t uncommon to see singles in the movies, but when I moved to the suburbs, it was almost unheard of. I once attended a movie alone in Greensboro, NC and was subjected to two women behind me exclaiming how very odd it would be to go to a movie alone. (Hello! I’m right here in front of you! I can HEAR you.)

    I also prefer shopping alone. Who needs somebody else telling me what they think of my choice of funky boots (“at YOUR age?!”) or a comfy pair of jeans (“they make you look heavy”). I’m in my sixties. I know what I like, thank you very much.

    Thanks for writing. I signed up for Mail Chimp emails. Will the content be different than what’s on your blog?

    Cheers.
    Sue C.

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    • Hi Sue,
      I so agree with you about movies and shopping. Much better alone, although I know women who can’t imagine shopping by themselves. Thank you for signing up. The content will be different, mostly news about whatever’s going on.

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  2. Thanks for this interesting article. The word “destiny” vis-a-vis childlessness is a hard pill for me to swallow, though. In fact, my throat is tightening as I type this. For me, the word “destiny” automatically brings up the concept of fairness i.e. a person pre-disposed to love of solitude and creativity is “meant” to be alone and childless. Which begs the question: “meant” by Whom or What? Is there a Fate or God that doles out children by whim, regardless of the hurt and pain caused? A Fate or Universe that says, “oh, ‘she’ can do without family and company…she’s a loner, so withholding children in her case is justified. She can write books or play the guitar. She was rewarded ‘enough’ in life.’” Those who love some degree of solitude and creative work (like me) may be better equipped to adapt to childlessness, but that’s not to say that there is pain in my life that will never go away. (I am older and single and so never even got the partnership or marriage that could have helped a lot. A. Lot. So I would say that solo-creatives may be better equipped to deal with involuntary childlessness (once they’ve healed to a certain extent—-we can never ever heal fully). However, to say that we were meant and destined for a life we didn’t want does not bring much comfort, at least not to me.

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  3. Hi Sue, such a lovely crafted piece and a complex question? Is our life an expression of who we are or are we shaped by the flow of life, our choices or something else? how does this interplay work? My suspicion is that all the parts are in motion. I’m learning, however ungainly my natural inclination, to flow more gracefully with it all. There have certainly been some blessings in this unexpected child-free life, especially as time passes. This hunger for solitude to hone my craft is one of them. As is the realization of the preciousness of the time allotted to me. Wishing you blessing and joy for those deeply inhabited moments. Thanks, sarah

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  4. I think as humans we are conditioned to find our destiny in the paths we walk – whether we found ourselves on those paths out of choice or otherwise. I know plenty of mothers (and fathers) who love and crave solitude, and plenty of No Kidding women who are extroverts or who love being surrounded by people and who are therefore struggling with the pandemic.

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