If We Don’t Have Kids, What Else Can We Give Our Parents?

Playing for my grandparents in 1990

I’m going to share an embarrassing part of my past today. Maybe you’ll identify with my younger self.

I used to write a lot of songs. I performed and recorded many of them, some for public consumption, some just for me. I was listening to one of my old tapes (yes, cassette tape) from the mid-1980s and came across this song called “Mama Be Proud.” It’s a terrible song. I hope I didn’t play it for anybody else back then.

I wrote it in my early years with Fred, when I was still trying to accept that by marrying him, I would never have children.

My mother was the best. She never nagged me about having grandchildren. She never said, “Why don’t you find someone else?” or “Why don’t you adopt?” or “How could you not give me any grandchildren?” She may have thought those things, but she never said them. She and my dad loved Fred and were happy I had found someone good after the first marriage blew up.

As for Fred’s parents, they already had more grandchildren than they could keep track of, so it was fine with them.

But still, I felt guilty. Raised when I was, I knew the two things I could do to make my parents proud were 1. Find a good husband and 2. Have children. I suppose keeping a clean and orderly house might be number 3. I was trained to be a clone of my mom. I needed to keep the family line going. As for all the other things I was interested in doing, they didn’t really count as much in my family. But those other things were all I had to offer.

Thus I came to write this song in which I begged my mother to accept my music as a replacement for grandchildren.

Here’s the chorus:

I could write you a ballad to comfort your old age,

I could write you a jig to make your heart dance.

I could pass on your name in a hundred sweet songs.

Mama, please love me. Mama, be proud.

Gag, right? Actually the tune is pretty good, but the words make me cringe, both because they’re so smarmy and because I was so needy of my parents’ approval. They didn’t support my music and writing much, but I have to say that on my 50th birthday, my mother made the most beautiful speech about how proud she was of my accomplishments.  

A while later, my cousin dropped my birthday cake in the parking lot. Splat. Isn’t real life fun?

Mom died of cancer three months later. In the end, I think it wasn’t so much that I was letting her down as that she was worried I might end up alone. That’s why she and Dad were so glad when I married Fred. But you can’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

I tell you all this to suggest that maybe I’m not the only one who feels like we’re letting our parents down, like we’re failing to live up to their expectations. The ultimate decision about having children is between us and our partner–and our bodies, but do you sometimes think that if you don’t have kids, you’re blowing it and nothing else you do will be good enough?

Or is it a good thing that I’m about to start seeing a new shrink? 🙂

Let me close with some thoughts from a book that was so gripping I read the whole thing last Saturday. In Flesh & Blood, a memoir about childlessness and a troublesome uterus, author N. West Moss writes on p. 229, “I’ve always felt that I let Grandma Hastings down (in particular) by not having kids because it is the end of not just my own story but of her hard-fought story as well, and of her mother’s and her mother’s . . . . My hope is that writing them down here will cast her line into the future, will be my attempt at securing her story, and possibly mine as well.”

But she concludes toward the end, “I know I’m not technically fertile or anything, but shit, I feel fertile, feel overflowing with ideas and love for the world. I stick a sprig of mint in a glass by the sink and two days later, there are roots reaching an inch into the water. I do the same with a branch of basil from the grocery store. Same thing. Having kids is one kind of fertility, but it’s dawning on me that there’s more than one way to be fruitful.” p. 245

[Trigger warning about this book. If you are planning to have a hysterectomy in the near future, you might not want to read this yet.]

What do you think? Are we letting the family down by not having children? Do we struggle to make up for it in other ways? Please share your comments.

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8 thoughts on “If We Don’t Have Kids, What Else Can We Give Our Parents?

  1. I have a fractious and sometimes-fractured relationship with my mother, but there is one thing for which I frequently give her credit: I have only once heard any comments about grandchildren. (Neither my brother nor I have kids.) Other than that, she takes delight in her grandcats and in the other things we do.

    A belief that there is no right to children — something the Catholic Church actually does teach, if not loudly — necessarily has to mean there’s no right to grandchildren either. We don’t owe that to our parents. What we owe them is fidelity and honor, and if we can’t have a relationship in person due to abuse or whatever, we can at least give them our prayers.

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  2. OMG, yes! This is all so triggering. I completely get your song, knowing that I was feeling similar at that time in my life (trying so hard to live up to my parents’ expectations). Still working on embracing my own brand of “fertility” and “fruitfulness” (must get N. West Moss’s book). Thank you for putting our feelings into words.

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  3. I understand the fear or guilt that we might feel about not providing grandkids. I felt that way about not helping with a grandson for my father, who had three daughters, and then three grand-daughters. But I got over it!

    We are absolutely not letting our families down by not providing grandchildren, and if they make us feel guilty, then they are letting us down, and in a far more personal and hurtful way!

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  4. My parents gave me a good life full of education and experiences. I know I can give them the gift of using what all has been given to me to help others. Helping others is what makes them happy.

    I remember crying and apologizing to them for not giving them grandchildren and my dad hilariously commented that it was okay, that nobody really cares about anyone else’s kids except their own. Ha! It was such an unexpected reply that it actually made me laugh out loud amidst my tears. He assured me that he has me and my sisters and that’s all that mattered to him. So I honestly think I was more concerned than they were. I wish everyone’s parents were supportive in that way. It would make a very, very hard thing a little bit less hard.

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  5. I’ve been following this blog since I saw Sue on a Gateway Women panel in the fall. So first just hi and thanks for sharing yourself with me/us. It’s so nice to hear your story and questions and struggles along with the wisdom and perspective!
    Thankfully my parents also have never made me feel bad about being childless. I have 3 siblings but only 2 have children, and they seem perfectly fine with that. And while they love their grandkids, I know that they are particularly proud that their children like each other and enjoy each other’s company. They mention it almost every time we get together and especially when they have recently visited with friends with similarly largeish families whose children are estranged from each other.
    I will add that not having children has made it harder for me to relate to my siblings who do have them, and required us all to work a littler harder at finding common ground and being forgiving of each other’s foibles. But maybe that has actually been good at strengthening those sibling bonds and been a bit of a blessing.

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