Without Children, We Need to Find Different Milestones

Milestones mark the seasons of our lives. They come quickly when we’re young: first teeth, first words, first steps, preschool, kindergarten, puberty, driving, graduation, first job, leaving home, falling in love. Traditionally, marriage and children would follow. But if we were living that traditional life, we wouldn’t be reading this blog, right?

Merriam-Webster defines a milestone as either an actual stone marking a milepost in the road (we have green numbered signs here in Oregon) or a significant point in development, such as graduating from college. I interpret that as meaning something changes at that moment. It’s a turning point. But if we don’t have children, what changes, aside from getting old? Where are our milepost markers?

Our parenting peers mark their adult years with their children’s progression through the milestones of their lives. You know you’re fully an adult when someone is calling you “Mom” or “Dad,” and you know you’re getting older when a little one calls you “Nana” or “Papa.” You know you’re truly old when your first great-grandchildren are born. For each child, you note the milestones, the first steps, graduations, weddings, and babies. As for your own milestones, what’s left except retirement and Medicare?

I don’t feel as old as the numbers say I am. I don’t feel as old as people my age who have children and grandchildren. Although the mirror tells me otherwise, in some ways, I’m a perpetual child. I’m not complaining. I like that. But sometimes my life feels kind of formless without the framework of a family progressing through their lives. I’m not “Mom” or “Nana.” I’m still just “Sue.”

So how do those of us without children mark off the years? Romantic relationships? Career achievements? Places we have lived? Trips we have taken? Concerts we attended? The year we put a new roof on the house?

Do we mark the years when we were fat, skinny, blond or brunette? Or do we go by what was happening in the world: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Obama elected president, Covid-19?

I find myself marking time by the losses. That’s when I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease. That’s when we moved to Oregon. That’s when my mother died. That’s when my father had heart surgery. That’s when my husband moved to the nursing home.

Aside from my age and the people who are gone, my life is the same as it was 10 and 20 years ago. I’m still sitting here at my desk, writing. How do I mark the passing years?

It’s your turn. What are your milestones if you never have children? Maybe we can make a list.

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11 thoughts on “Without Children, We Need to Find Different Milestones

  1. Sue,

    This is a very deep question. For me it
    was college graduation. Getting married and quitting drinking and smoking. And turning 70. I’m sure there’s many others.

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  2. My milestones have been when I’ve changed jobs, endured losses, or taken trips. I have a birthday ending in zero this year, and I guess that’s been a milestone. And of course, the pandemic. I’ve taken lots of overseas trips, and remember their dates pretty easily, so manage to judge dates by that. I remember reading a blogger talk about “no more major milestones” in life once she had her second child, except for losses. I thought that was a terribly negative way to look to her future.

    Also, you may be a “perpetual child” (your description) but it’s not because you don’t have children! I know plenty of childish parents, and fully adult people without children. Their childishness or maturity has nothing to do with whether they have children or not.

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  3. This is interesting to think about!

    My milestones since knowing I wasn’t going to be raising children include my divorce and all of the moves and jobs I’ve had as I’ve tried to build a new life for myself. I bought a house last year and hope to never move again, and I just got two new jobs and I’m hoping they will work out for many, many years.

    So I don’t know what my milestones will be from now on… I went back to school, so graduation next summer will be a milestone. Other than that, maybe each quilt I finish will be a milestone.

    Or maybe I’ll design my own milestones and include an overseas vacation and learning a new language… I guess it’s up to me to figure out what I want and what I want to do about it. Although honestly, I could go for some simple living, working, and resting for the next several years. I’m a little tired after this past decade lol.

    My niece and nephew are grown so I can’t really go by that anymore. Besides, I don’t want to live my life through other people’s children’s milestones. I want to live my life according to my own mile markers. I think I’m a “Girl Scout for Life.” Even though there are no badges for adulthood, I think I just do better (mentally, physically) if I’m working toward something.

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    • Great comment, Phoenix. Thank you. I think there should be Girl Scout badges for adults. Maybe badges for setting up new computers, figuring out Social Security, surviving COVID . . . The possibilities are endless. I love the quilts as milestones.

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  4. I really want to ditch the word “traditional.” This is a deep question. As I sit here thinking, I get: birthdays ending in 0. We recently have been marking our puppy’s growth with monthly photos. Honestly, I also “borrow” the milestones of nieces and nephews, including bar mitzvah, graduations (from every level), getting driver’s licenses, and other coming-of-age markers. I want to start setting new goals for myself that will become my own milestones: mastering the perfect chocolate mousse (I have like six recipes I want to try and compare); taking classes and practicing until that moment when I can have an actual conversation in French (not just “One croissant, please.”); breaking down steps and reaching my ideal weight. Okay, not that last one. 😉 You’ve got me thinking. Thank you for the prompt!

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  5. Long time reader but never commented before.
    Thanks for covering this as it’s not really talked about. Recently I’ve been feeling this lack of milestones, that there’s nothing to look forward to, no celebrations to plan. What a sad state of affairs for a 31 year old woman to just be marking time until retirement and death.
    Thank you Sue for your writing. It really is comforting to know there is a community of others out there who are also muddling through a childless life.

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    • Anna,
      I’m glad you’re here. Without the usual milestones, we just have to make up some different kinds of milestones for ourselves so are not just marking time. I hope you can find them for yourself.

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  6. I, too have been marking time lately by the losses. But Sue, you mentioned that you are always writing. Surely, you can now mark time with your books 🙂

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