You Don’t Have Children, So You Go

As the daughter with no children, I seem to be the one expected to drop everything to take care of her parents. It really came home recently when I was sitting in my father’s hospital room talking to the social worker about his future. Dad and I had both told her that I lived in Oregon and couldn’t stay in San Jose forever.

“Of course you have to get back to your family,” the social worker said.

“No family,” I corrected. “Just me.”

Which seemed to mean that I had no excuses, nothing to hurry back for. If I didn’t have a husband, children and grandchildren, how dare I claim that I was not available for as long as I was needed? It’s hard to argue that even with myself.

My bills aren’t getting paid. Do it online.

I miss Annie. She’s just a dog.

I miss my clothes. Buy some new ones.

I miss my bathtub. You’ll get over it.

I miss my music. Trivia. This is real life.

I need to get back to work. Another person is handling it.

I don’t know what to do. He’s your father. He’s going to die pretty soon.

“Stay here and I’ll pay you,” my father said. This was when I was taking care of him at home, before he went to the hospital and the nursing home. But it was not about the money I was losing by not being at my job. I love my work. I’ve spent 50 years building up to this place in my writing and music careers. “People are counting on me,” I said, even as I knew that another woman had stepped in to do my church music job.

There’s a certain amount of sexism to this. My brother, who has children and grandchildren, has a job that my father brags about to everyone. “Don’t bother him,” he tells medical personnel. “He’s working.” In my brother’s defense, he has been driving six hours round-trip every weekend to be with our father and do what he can to take care of his bills and his house. He’s doing more than his share, and he does understand what it’s like for me. But I’m the one who gets the phone calls from the hospital and the nursing home, the one who in theory does not have to be in Oregon when her father needs her in California.

Mothers routinely give up a lot to care for their kids. If they complain, they’re considered bad mothers. Now I wonder if I could ever have been so self-sacrificing. My writing and music are like my babies. I refuse to abandon them. I have often thought about how I gave up motherhood for my husband, but I would never marry a man who wanted me to give up my work. What does that mean? Even though it hurts not to have children, was I never cut out to be a mother? Why does it feel wrong to say that?

Back at the dad situation, am I a bad daughter because I wanted to limit how much of myself I sacrificed? Part of me wanted to stay with him. I had his house to sleep in, food to eat, family to be with. It was sunny and warm while it kept raining back in Oregon. I was writing all the time. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no distractions, except for Dad. Shoot, it was like a vacation, except for all the worry, caregiving, and lack of sleep.

There are days when I wish I had taken Dad’s offer or that I had a childless child to help me deal with my own problems. One day last week, the nursing home called. While I was trying to understand what the Asian worker with the thick accent was saying, the washing machine repair guy arrived. Then I got an email from my publisher who needed an immediate response. At the same time, the dog was bugging me for a walk, the house was cold because the heater had died again, I was dealing with a stolen debit card number, and I had to be at church in three hours to direct a choir that seemed to like my substitute better than me. I had been gone for a month, and everything had gone to hell.

My family wants to know when I’m coming back. Soon, I say.

It’s not that I don’t love my father. If he needs me, I will be there. But when I’m taking care of him, my own life falls apart.

If I said, “I miss my kids,” no one would expect me to stay. That’s just the truth of it. In some situations, motherhood seems to be the only acceptable excuse. Maybe if I had a heart attack . . .

What do you think? Are you expected to babysit, take care of ailing relatives, run the errands, etc., because you don’t have kids? How do you react to that?

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Book Review: A Childless Love Story

This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story by Jackie Shannon Hollis, Forest Avenue Press, 2019.

I want to share this new book with you. For a lot of us who are—or might be—childless by marriage, it’s exactly what we need to read. The book isn’t out yet. The publisher gave me a pre-publication copy to review. But you can pre-order it now, and I highly recommend it.

Finally someone has told the story of what it’s like to be childless because your partner doesn’t want to have kids. Not childless by choice, not childless by infertility, but childless because of who you love. It happens more than people realize, especially when you marry someone who has been married before.

I told a similar story in my Childless by Marriage book, but I took a more journalistic approach, with lots of research and interviews. Shannon lays it out there in a beautifully written love story.

As a farm girl raised in eastern Oregon, Hollis expected to become a mother someday. But, after several failed relationships and a failed marriage, she met Bill, a man who didn’t want children. She pushed as hard as she dared to change his mind, telling him very clearly, “I want to have a baby,” but in the end she had to accept that she needed to enjoy the life she had with the man she loved. It is a life in which they are free to travel, to explore their passions, and to enjoy their many nieces and nephews.

Through the years, she had lots of doubts. Everyone else in her family had children. Her mother warned that she might grow up to be a bitter, lonely old woman. That fear haunted her, even as she began to realize she might be all right without children.

Hollis shares the frightening story of being sexually assaulted when she was 20. She also talks honestly about the friendships she lost because she found it hard to be around while her friends were having babies. The doubts, disappointment, and grief of childlessness are all here, along with the joys and possibilities. If you’re childless or looking at the possibility of being childless, read this. Even people with children and grandchildren will enjoy this book because it’s a good story, the first I hope of many terrific books by my sister Oregonian Jackie Shannon Hollis.

This Particular Happiness will not be released until October, but it is available for pre-orders at https://www.jackieshannonhollis.com/ as well as at Amazon.com. You can enjoy a lot of her writing as well as videos at her website. Check it out.

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Thank you for your kind words and prayers for my father and me. (See last week’s post) At this moment, he is out of the hospital and back at the skilled nursing facility. I’m back in Oregon, so we can only connect by phone. His voice sounds stronger and clearer than it has in months. He seems to have overcome his recent infections, but he still has a lot of issues. Plus, the nursing home lost all his possessions in the upheaval of going to the hospital and coming back to a different room. I ache to be there, so I can tear that place apart looking for his clothes, his bathrobe, his glasses and his electric razor. Grr.

In my post, I compared caregiving to being a mother. In the comments, most readers have insisted it is not the same, not at all, even if both involve diapers, feeding, and sleepless nights. Do you agree? There’s still plenty of time to join the discussion.

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Mother’s Day is Sunday in the U.S. I’m trying to pretend that isn’t happening. It will be hard to ignore when the moms are getting blessed at church. I can’t skip Mass because I’m leading the choir. But you do whatever makes you comfortable. Reach out to the moms in your life, go camping, or watch videos till your eyes hurt. Be good to yourselves. It will all be over on Monday.

Caregiving is a nonstop rollercoaster ride

Suddenly my life was all about diapers, wipes, laundry, and sippy cups. I slept in spurts between cries from down the hall. I ate my meals on the run. Instead of showers, I dashed deodorant on my armpits and hoped it would keep me from stinking. I could not leave the house without finding someone to sit with the one for whom I was caring. My life back in Oregon faded into distant memory.

Had I acquired a baby? No, for most of April, I was in California helping my father, who went to bed on April 2 and has not gotten up on his own feet since then. After nine days of the most intimate caregiving at home, the pain in his legs and back got so bad I called 911. Since then, my father has moved back and forth between Kaiser Hospital and a skilled nursing facility, with me, and sometimes my brother, at his side, signing papers, interacting with doctors and nurses, and keeping track of his belongings. As if we were his parents.

It has been a rollercoaster ride, with brief ups and steep downs. Shooting pains sent Dad to bed. Then he had an inflamed gallbladder. Then the doctors were watching his kidneys and liver and monitoring a cough that might turn into pneumonia. Suddenly doctors and social workers were pushing me to decide what to do if the worst happened. Resuscitate? Tube feeding? “Ask him,” I insisted, even though Dad’s mind drifted in and out.

He recovered enough to go back to the skilled nursing facility. I came home to Oregon, hoping things would calm down for a while. I wasn’t even all the way home before a nursing home employee called to say they were testing him for a virulent gastrointestinal infection. The next caller said the test was positive. At this moment, he is still in the hospital but might be discharged to the nursing home today.

My father is tough. Yesterday he turned 97 in the hospital. In the last decade, he has survived heart surgery, a broken hip, a shattered leg, and too many falls to count. Up until April 2, he was living alone in the home where we grew up, with a caregiver coming just a few hours a week. He moved around with a walker. Everything, from getting dressed to carrying a cup of coffee from the coffeepot to the table, was difficult, but he kept going. Now we don’t know what’s going to happen, or maybe we do know, but not when. I’m not going back yet, but I’m keeping my suitcase handy.

Many times I have wondered how God could thrust me into caregiving again after all I experienced with my late husband, but I also think maybe it was always his plan that instead of caring for babies I would care for the sick and dying in my family. It’s a hard job, perhaps the hardest. If I had been a mother, would I have been better prepared? At the least I would know how to feed someone without getting it all over his face, how to open the stupid plastic container of wet wipes, and how to clean his most personal parts. I could pick up a baby and carry him to the ER instead of calling 911. And yet I find I’m getting pretty good at this caregiving business. If I don’t know how to do it, I figure it out. Isn’t that what mothers do? Or so I hear.

It’s not the same, of course. With luck, a baby grows up and learns to care for himself. A baby does not have the language to complain and criticize. Nor is there so much history. This is the man from whose sperm I was created. Hour after hour, I sat with him in that same bedroom, studying the flowered wallpaper, the crucifix over his head, and my mother’s dresser with the same perfumes, pictures, and music box that were there when she died almost 17 years ago. I wanted to be the “good girl,” taking care of everything. But time and again, I failed. He was wet, hungry, in pain. The coffee was cold. Gritting my teeth, I did my best to take care of it, but there’s all this baggage. When he yelled, I was still the same scared kid I was long ago.

When Dad was in the mood, he talked about the ranch, WWII, his career as an electrician, and people who had died. He said he was not afraid of dying, that he looked forward to meeting my mother and the rest of the family in heaven. I treasured these talks, knowing how precious they were, knowing this might not happen again. We cried hard when I said goodbye last week.

So that’s where I have been. You can read more at my Unleashed in Oregon blog. I have never missed so many weeks of blog posts. I hope to get back on schedule now, but I make no promises. I may disappear again. Caregiving is 24/7, and Dad has no Internet connection, even though he lives in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Have you been in situations like this where you used your parenting energy in other ways? Please share in the comments.

God bless you all. Mother’s Day is coming. Prepare to duck and cover.

Would You Wear a Ribbon for Childlessness?

CNBC Ribbon TransparencyDear readers:

How do you feel about wearing a ribbon showing the world that you are childless not by choice? Brandi Lytle of the NotSoMommy website and blog has asked if I would be willing to display this olive green ribbon in a show of sisterhood with hers and other sites for people who are involuntarily childless. Many of these sites focus on infertility. Here at Childless by Marriage, some of us are perfectly fertile but have other issues, such as uncooperative partners. So I said I’d ask you before I agreed to add the ribbon to my site. So far the ribbon is just a “virtual” one. There’s nothing to pin on our shirts, but Brandi is hoping to work that out.

Why olive green, you ask. Well, Brandi says, it’s not being used for another cause, it stays well away from the baby-oriented pink or blue, and she has found in her research that olive green is the color of peace and wisdom. “It does not stress the eyes, it relaxes the nervous system, calms the spirit, and enhances one’s mood and behavior, and studies show it can decrease fatigue, depression, and anxiety.”

Brandi continues: “Now, it’s time to start the campaign so that the Childless Not by Choice Awareness Ribbon will be recognized by our tribe, as well as the public. Fabulous ones, I pray our CNBC community connect with this new olive green awareness ribbon, share it on social media, and wear it proudly. Because we have endured much heartache and yet, are finding a way to create a new, beautiful and courageous existence. We should be proud of that! We should show the world what it really means to be childless not by choice…”

Read her whole post here.

Whether or not we go with the ribbon, I encourage you to explore Brandi’s NotSoMommy website. She has a great list of resources and a steady supply of engaging stories on her blog. Brandi’s on Facebook, too.

I’m not a real fan of ribbons and outward displays. If one were to wear an olive green ribbon, people would inevitably ask what it’s for, and then would come the questions we all hate. But perhaps in certain circles, it could be a wonderful sign of solidarity.

So, dear friends, what do you think?

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While I was friending Brandi on Facebook, I saw that my stepdaughter’s son just got married. I watched the wedding video on Facebook. My husband’s ex and other people I don’t know were there. It was a small courthouse wedding. As far as I could see, the groom’s sister and uncles were also missing, but it still gives me a pang. I was part of the family for what feels like a minute (25 years), and now I’m not. Big sigh.

On to happier things!

My friend Theresa Wisner just published her book about her life working on fishing and research boats. Titled Daughter of Neptune, it’s wonderful. Check it out and enjoy this story of a childless woman who has made a fabulous life for herself.

There’s more than one way to be a parent

I still had a little rant left over after last week’s “We Don’t All Have Kids!” post, so I wrote what follows. Either this is very strange or it makes total sense. You can tell me in the comments.

These days, especially here in uber-liberal western Oregon, we hear a lot of talk about “gender fluidity.” With the whole LGBTQ alphabet (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), some folks decline to identify as just one gender or stick to one flavor of sexual partner.

My mother, God rest her soul, would have shut down the computer in horror by now. No fluidity in her gender world. I’m all girl, Mom, although sometimes I think it would be swell to be a guy and never have to shave anything.

Unlike my mother, I’m okay with a spectrum of gender identities, rather than just boy/girl. Be who you want to be, love who you want to love.

Wikipedia offers this definition: “Genderqueer, also known as non-binary, is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are outside the gender binary and cisnormativity. Genderqueer people may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither, in their gender expression.”

In this article by Dr. Laura McGuire, who identifies as queer, she talks about how people didn’t always see gender as such a black and white, male or female, penis or vagina, thing. Some cultures had more than two genders and attributed special powers to those who showed traits of more than one. Even today, she notes, while most people are born with either one x and one y (male) or two x chromosomes (female), a significant number have a different combination (like the folks with Klinefelter Syndrome, which we have discussed here before). It’s quite interesting and surely a comfort to those who are not comfortable in the male or female identity they were given at birth.

What does this have to do with childlessness?

If the world can accept fluidity in gender, why can’t it accept fluidity in maternity and paternity? Rather than saying the only way to be a mother or father is to combine human sperm and egg and grow it in a uterus for nine months, maybe we should look at all the other ways we act like parents, whether it’s as godparents, aunts and uncles, friends, teachers, caregivers, doctors, artists, priests, zookeepers, animal lovers, or people who plant trees. Of course, it’s not same as making and raising a human baby, but is it not nurturing and loving in a similar way?

Perhaps we’re not all mothers or fathers in the traditional sense, but why can’t the definition be just as fluid as the modern-day definitions of gender?

Just a thought. What do you think?

News Flash! We Don’t All Have Kids!

Why do people still assume everyone has children and grandchildren? I’m reading this new book called Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher, which is supposed to help women in their 60s and 70s get a grip on the changes happening in their lives in those years. Our bodies are aging, we might be retiring, friends and relatives are dying. I heard the author on NPR and ordered it right away because . . . I’m in that age group and thought it would be interesting.

It is interesting and somewhat helpful, despite an overage of psychology advice along the lines of “develop an attitude of gratitude” and “learn to treasure the precious moments.” I know all that. Tell me how to manage my finances when I don’t have a massive retirement nest egg, and what to do about my disappearing eyebrows. But that’s not why I bring up this book today.

In all 252 pages, not once does Pipher acknowledge the fact that some of us are not mothers. When she talked about “six generations” of family stories, it took me a while to realize she was including the generations from our grandparents through our grandchildren. But . . . She spends entire chapters talking about the joys of family and the wonders of being a grandmother, how the kids carry on the family name, help you in times of trouble, make you happy and proud and so on. But what if you don’t have any? What if it’s just you and the dog, or you and your husband, if you still have one? I would love to cuddle my grandbabies, bake cookies with them, and attend their graduations and weddings. But I can’t.

It’s not a bad book, and Mary Pipher is not a bad writer. If your mom or grandma is in that age group, she might enjoy it. Pipher is just immersed in the mom world and does not see the 20 percent of us out here without offspring. If only she had added sections that might begin along the lines of “and if you don’t have children . . .”

This author is not the only person who seems blind to the fact that some people don’t have children. We have all met people who think that way. I go for a mammogram and the technician asks me, “How many pregnancies have you had?” She seems surprised when I offer a big fat zero. A kindly church woman asks, “how old are your kids?” “Um, well . . . My dog is 11.” Other people hand me toys or candy “for your kids.”

Know what I mean? The older we are, the more people assume we’re mothers and grandmothers. I know they can’t tell by looking, but I wish they wouldn’t assume we’re all alike.

So, how about you? When you encounter books, shows, or real-life situations where it’s assumed all females are moms, how do you react? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Miss these Childless by Marriage posts?

Dear friends:

Yesterday, I got a comment from someone who wondered if the discussion of Klinefelter’s Syndrome (males with two X chromosomes) was still going. He has it and was looking for someone to talk to. I got another query on the subject a few weeks ago from a woman in a relationship with KS. So let’s take another look at that post and see if there’s more to say. Men born with more than one X chromosome (along with the usual Y chromosome) have underdeveloped sexual organs, along with emotional and physical problems, including a tendency toward heart disease. Many struggle to establish and maintain relationships with women. Read more about it and the comments here.

Speaking of men, I often worry that I’m shorting the male side of the childless story. I’m a woman, most of the people in my book are women, and most of the readers who comment here are women, but childlessness by marriage is an issue for men, too. It might be even more difficult because they can’t bear children. I wrote about this a year ago and got some good comments. I’ve love to read some more about how it is for men when their women can’t or won’t make babies with them. Here’s the original post. 

Then there was Richa, whose husband told her on the second day of their marriage that he didn’t want to have children with her. So now what should she do? (Screaming comes to mind). You all responded to that one with a vengeance. Let’s take a look back and see what you all said. And Richa, if you’re out there somewhere, what happened after that?  Readers, what would you do? Here’s the link. 

That should keep you busy until my nose stops running and the first weekend of Lent is over. This feels like a lazy post, but I’m sick, plus the woman with whom I’ve been sharing my “day job” doing church music for the last 16 years just quit without notice, leaving a lot of undone work for me to do, including two Ash Wednesday services yesterday and planning all of the music for Lent and Easter. She had good reasons, and I sympathize, but yikes.

BTW, all those medical tests I had a while back showed nothing. The gastroenterologist has given up. Apparently I just have a wonky stomach. Luckily, I’m feeling better on that front. I thank all of you who expressed concern.

Oh, and it’s my birthday Saturday. It sure would be nice to have grown kids doing something special for “Mom.” Oh well. I’ve got you guys and Annie, my non-child-substitute (see last week’s post).