We childless might end up okay in old age

My mind is a bag of mixed M&M’s this morning, so that’s what I’m giving you today.

I finally finished reading Rachel Chrastil’s How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life without Children.  I have mentioned this book a lot here lately. I could glean a dozen posts from what’s in this book. It’s not easy reading—lots of big words and footnotes. The second half goes deep into philosophy. For me, the gist of the whole book is two-fold: Childlessness is not new; there have always been people who for various reasons did not have children, AND, whether or not childlessness is a tragedy that you will always regret depends on how you look at your life. Being a mother or father is only a small part of who you are, Chrastil insists.

A few other tidbits from How to Be Childless:

* Pre-20th century, a lot of people who did have children still wound up alone in old age because so many people died of illnesses and injuries that people survive now. So giving birth was no guarantee the parents would have someone to take care of them.

* Scientists are looking at some wild ways to extend fertility to age 50 or 60 or 100. For example, a company called OvaScience is working on cultivating new eggs from a woman’s “egg precursor cells,” which are actually stem cells. These eggs would be more viable than the ones getting old in the mother’s ovaries. Scientists are also working on creating artificial wombs in which a baby could be grown outside the mother’s body. Can you imagine that?

* We worry about being alone—and broke—in old age, but Chrastil writes that childless people often have done a better job of making friends and building support networks all along than people who spent most of their lives focused on their children. As for finances, she tells stories of childless people who wound up with more money because they had more time to develop their careers and more freedom to invest, so hey, we might be just fine.

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A couple years ago, at the NotMom conference, I got to watch a preview of Maxine Trump’s (absolutely no relation to our president) movie “To Kid or Not to Kid.” It is fabulous. The completed movie has just been released to theaters and will be available online on Dec. 3.

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I have updated the Childless by Marriage resource page. There are enough websites and books to keep you busy for . . . possibly forever.

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My music director job at Sacred Heart is over. Not a word of goodbye from our pastor. I’m sure he’s a good person inside, but he does not relate well to people. We were blessed with a visiting priest last weekend, Fr. Amal, who, although he had just met me, thanked me for my years of service. Then I joined my fellow ex-choir members for a party. It was so much fun. No mention of kids.

After a break in California, I’ll be taking my music south to St. Anthony’s in Waldport.

Meanwhile, my father’s house, the place where I grew up, has just been sold, my poetry chapbook Gravel Road Ahead is out, and I just read the galley proofs for my next book, Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic, coming out next March from The Poetry Box. I’m having work done on the house, giving my dog Annie four different medications for her arthritis and an ear infection, and I’m writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’m also going through all of the posts and comments here at Childless by Marriage from 2007 to the present in the hope of compiling an ebook. I’m up to September 2015.

So yeah, mixed M&M’s. I don’t know when I’d find time for children.

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Thanksgiving is a week from Thursday. Look out! Family time! I’ll be at my brother’s house, where it’s going to be all about his grandkids. It’s going to be so weird without my father, who has been my sidekick for these events for many years. I really miss him. We’ll all survive the holiday. Pet the dogs, hug the kids, eat the turkey and pumpkin pie. Let’s try to be grateful for everything we have. I’m grateful for you.

 

Our Biggest Childless Fear: Regret

Regret: defined in the Urban Dictionary as “A feeling often accompanied by sadness, shame, and guilt; regret is when you wish you had done things differently in your past.”

Other dictionaries talk about regret as wishing things had turned out differently—whether or not you had any choice in the matter–but to me, regret is looking back on a choice you made and wishing you had made a different choice. You said yes when you should have said no. You bought spiky shoes when flats would have been a lot less painful. You decided to paint the house green, and now it looks like a leprechaun lives there.

The word “regret” comes up a lot at Childless by Marriage. Mostly we’re worried about future regret. Will we regret our choice if we never have children? Will we regret staying with this person? Will we regret leaving him? Of course, we have no way of knowing. We can list the pros and cons and know how we feel about it today, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future?

In her book How to Be Childless, which I mentioned last week, Rachel Chrastil cautions readers to be wary of the “fear of regret.” It may cause us to focus too much on what we lack instead of what we have. It may cause us to think that having children is the only way to be happy. It may cause us to miss the good things we have in our lives right now.

On page 113, she writes, “Fear of future regret suggests that we will not figure out how to cope with life’s disappointments, that our older selves will not be wiser than we are now, or that the wisdom of age entails a rejection of the person we are today rather than compassion for our present selves.” No matter what choices we make, she adds, there will be regrets. “Our decisions bear consequences, and some of them will carry sadness.”

“Instead of worrying about making the right choice, we ought to make the most of our choices,” she concludes.

I thought about this in the hot tub last night as the clouds gathered to hide the full moon. What do I regret in life? Do I regret marrying Fred and staying with him? Definitely not. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. I do regret not putting more effort into getting closer to his kids.

Do I regret marrying my first husband? No. It was probably a dumb thing to do. We had troubles from the start, but we also had a lot of fun. Do I regret divorcing him? No. The marriage was over. Do I regret dating the abusive guy I spent three years with between marriages? Yes. I knew he was bad news. I should have dumped him.

Do I regret that when the magazine option at my college was canceled, I wound up shunted into a career in newspapers? No. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted, but I was damned good at it, and it prepared me well for the writing I do now. It also gave me a way to earn a living when my first marriage ended. If I hadn’t gotten that degree, and if I’d had a child or two, I’d have wound up still divorced, working for minimum wage and living at my parents’ house.

Do I regret not having children? I feel bad about it, but I don’t regret my choices. I’m shocked as I write this. Do I really believe this? I’m pretty sure I do. My life is full of so many other things that I barely have time for my dog. So maybe this is the way it was supposed to be. Don’t get me wrong. I really would love to have children and grandchildren, but you can’t everything. Chrastil makes that point, too, although I should note she is childless by choice, a choice made firmly and at a very young age.

Will you regret your choice? I don’t know. We’re different people. If all you ever wanted to be was a mother or father, then by God you should be one, if at all possible. But if you’re also sure that you will never find another partner as good as the one you have, I don’t know what you should do. I want to say go for the kids, but I didn’t, and it turned out all right.

Did you hope I’d have an answer? I wish I did. What do you think about regret? Have you already made choices that you regret? Are you afraid you will regret the choices you’re making now? Can we live our lives in the present without worrying about future regrets? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

Childlessness is Not a New Thing

Childlessness is not a 21st-century aberration. It turns out couples and single women have gone without children for as long as anyone has been keeping track. The Baby Boom was an anomaly that made us all think the way our parents did it was the standard by which all things should be judged.

Oh Lord, you’re thinking. Sue has lost it now. Big words, history lessons. Bear with me. I am reading a new book titled How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children by historian Rachel Chrastil. As you might guess, it’s the kind of book that’s slow reading, with lots of charts, footnotes and a source list that goes on for days. But I am learning so much.

As early as the 1500s, Chrastil writes, women delayed marriage for varying reasons. Some were trying to save up for a sufficient dowry to attract a husband. By putting off marriage and childbirth, women then, like now, could work, save money, and claim a place in society. Of course, if they waited too long, they might end up childless. Some decided they did not ever want the constraints of marriage. In those days, married women gave up all their rights to own property or manage their finances to their husbands. So-called “singlewomen” had more independence.

In the early 20th century, wars, the great flu epidemic, depressions, and other problems also caused couples to bear fewer children. Couples who suffered from infertility did not have the options available now. But those were not the only reasons. Women were claiming more rights, more autonomy. Remember, the suffragettes were marching for the right to vote.

Chrastil charts a drop in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like now, one in five women did not have children. Why have we not heard about this? The answer is simple: They had no children or grandchildren to pass on their stories. “They fade out of our family history,” she says.

Even those who did have children were having fewer because they wanted more out of life than motherhood. But people didn’t discuss any of this in public. Even as recently as the 1960s, when I hit puberty, folks didn’t talk about pregnancy or periods or why “Aunt Jo” never had any children.

What about being childless by marriage? I’m halfway through the book. In the parts I have read so far, Chrastil doesn’t address the subject head-on, but she does note that there are “many gradations of voluntary childlessness.” Among fertile couples, she classifies couples as those who agree to have children, who agree to postpone having children, or who do not agree on the subject. I assume most of us here fall into that third category. I hope she writes more directly about this in the later pages.

Meanwhile, did you know birth control did not start with “the pill?” It might not have been as easy, but people had ways to prevent conception–besides pulling out before ejaculation or the ever-popular “Sorry, not tonight.” In the early times, women also used various herbs and prolonged breastfeeding to space out their children.

In the 1800s, couples used soapy douches, dried gut condoms, diaphragms, vaginal sponges and pessaries (a device that blocks access to the cervix). They were illegal in some places, but people used them and didn’t talk about it. Check out this website for more on early birth control. 

None of these methods were as reliable as today’s birth control pills, but they did slow the process, especially when combined with the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse with the woman’s least fertile periods. If those failed, there was abortion, not legal but definitely done. Chrastil writes, “In the United States in the early twentieth century, estimates range between 250,000 and 1 million illegal abortions a year.”

The baby boom, which happened in a period of economic growth and post-war happiness, was not the norm.  Looking back on those “Leave It to Beaver” years, we’re likely to think that’s how it always was. June and Ward got married young, bore their standard two children, and raised them in a big house with a white picket fence. Ward never said, “I don’t think I want children,” and June certainly didn’t rip off her apron and declare she’d rather have a career than bake cookies for their sons. But that’s not the way it always was, and it’s certainly not the way it is now.

We have more factors to consider these days. We have reliable birth control, and abortion is legal. Far more couples divorce and remarry, creating blended families and situations where one spouse has children and the other does not. Women have more career options. Both men and women are inclined to delay marriage and childbirth until they have finished their education and gotten their careers established. It’s a new world, but it’s also an old one.

We’re not the first childless generation after all.

So, what do you think about that? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking back at Childless by Marriage after 12 years

If I were to rewrite my Childless by Marriage book, what would I change? That’s the question I asked myself recently. That book, which I published in 2012, started long before it was published. I have interview notes and pre-Google research from the 1990s. Are the stories I told there still valid? I think they are. Would I write them differently now? Definitely. And that’s the reason I don’t plan to rewrite this book. I might change the cover and work harder on marketing, but I will not be rewriting it.

When I started working on Childless by Marriage, I was much younger. I was still fertile, still married, and actively trying to parent my stepchildren while wondering if I could/should try to have a baby of my own. I was where most of you are.

Years have passed. Now I’m widowed, living alone in the woods with my dog, and old enough for every senior discount that exists. I can deal with other people’s babies. What makes me cry and kick things is not having adult children and grandchildren. Would I want to be pregnant now? No. Too late. The dog and my 97-year-old father are enough to deal with. So no, I couldn’t write that book now, although I can tell you all about this phase.

On the other hand, I believe I’m a better writer, and I know a lot more about childlessness from reading, networking and doing this blog since August 2007. WordPress tells me this is my 671st post. I find it hard to believe. How could I come up with 670 different posts? Is there that much to say? Some days I think it has all been said. Then something else comes to mind. I believe not having children affects every bit of our lives, so maybe we’ll never run out of topics.

With so many published posts, I have an urge to arrange them by topic and put the best ones together in a book. There’s good stuff here. I have dug deeper and deeper to tell my stories, and you have enriched the blog with your stories. Would it be okay to publish your comments? Most readers use made-up names, so you would be anonymous. Shall we call it Childless by Marriage II? If it was a $5 ebook, would you buy a copy?

I have no plans to quit the blog, although it is getting more difficult. I hope people keep buying Childless by Marriage. I’m glad it’s not the only book on the subject now. So many good books have come out in the last five years (see resource list), most self-published because publishers don’t see the audience for such a book. They’re wrong. The number of people without children is large and growing. One out of five ain’t nothing. Maybe it’s time to put our voices out there again.

What do you think? I welcome your comments. And thank you for being here.

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.

An Interview with Kate Kaufmann

Kate Kaufmann

I promised last week to tell you more about Kate Kaufmann’s book, Do You Have Kids: Life When the Answer is No. It won’t officially come out until April 2, but you can pre-order now. I highly recommend this book. Most books on childlessness sound pretty much the same, but this one gets past the why you don’t have kids and dives into how our lives are different without them. Examples: We can live anywhere we want, with no need to worry about schools and places for kids to play, so how do we decide where to live?  Without children who might take care of us, how do we cope in old age? With no biological heirs, what do we leave behind when we die and whom do we leave it to? What do we say to those nosy people who ask dumb questions or who think they understand what we need between than we do? Kate offers some great answers.

Kate agreed to be interviewed for Childless by Marriage. My questions and her answers follow. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

SFL: As you probably know, our focus here is on partnerships where one is unable or unwilling to have children while the other wants them or is not sure. In many cases, including mine, the unwilling partner already has children from a previous relationship and does not want any more. Did you meet many women who were childless because their partners didn’t want to be parents? What are your general thoughts on this situation?

KK: In my own marriage, I was the one who advocated for children, then went through years of infertility treatments. I called it quits when IVF was the next step. While I know it’s worked for many, I wasn’t prepared to take that step. Part of that comes from my former husband’s reluctance to try for kids in the first place. He was never comfortable around kids; I believe he was more than a little afraid of them.

One woman I interviewed was so sure she didn’t want children, she ended a deeply committed relationship so her former partner could go on to have them (which he did). I also interviewed several women whose partners had previously had vasectomies after having children with other partners. In one case the attempted reversal surgery was botched, effectively ending their chance to conceive a biological child. When I met her, they were still trying to decide whether to try for adoption.

SFL: Many of my Childless By Marriage blog readers are struggling to decide whether to stay in a childless relationship or take their eggs and hope to find someone else. They fear they will regret it if they never have children but don’t know if it’s worth leaving the person they love. Do you have advice for them?

KK: That is such a challenging situation. A dear friend of mine is in the midst of this no-win angst. I think when we visualize being a mom, the good stuff is front and center, and the less positive fades into the background. Same with relationships. What’s guaranteed, though, is that whatever the decision, in tough times there will be misgivings, in good times delight, and most of the time will hopefully be spent in the in-between. Not very helpful, I know, but there’s no good or right answer for this dilemma.

SFL: Many childless women find themselves dealing with stepchildren. It can be a tough situation where you get all the responsibility and none of the privileges of motherhood. What have you learned in your research about these situations? Can stepchildren be a true substitute for your own children? What advice do you have for our stepparent readers?

KK: I was sad to learn that only about 20 percent of young adult stepchildren feel they have a close relationship with their stepmother.

Both my knowledge and my advice come from the stepmoms I’ve interviewed. The best advice seems to be to take time to decide who you want to be as a stepmother. Define your desired role and talk it over with your partner in an open way. One of the women in the book describes a tense interaction she had with her new husband. “I don’t want to be their mother!” she said. “That’s good,” he replied, “because they already have a mother.” That reinforced her desire to be the kind of stepmom she wanted to be and let her husband know what her goals were.

Step-grandmothers have told me that their partner’s children are just that. But especially as they get older, they consider any grandkids as really their grandchildren, because the kids don’t know anything different.

SFL: If a couple disagrees on having children, how can they avoid poisoning the relationship with grief and resentment?

KK: I’d suggest something from a mediator’s toolkit. Listen to each other’s point of view carefully, repeat back to your partner what you heard, and keep doing that until your partner gets it just right. That helps with resentment, since from the outset you know what’s of concern to the other. In a perfect world, the couple would look at ways to work with the other’s concerns. Like Mother’s Day used to be very hard for me. My ex would be extra kind to me (usually :-)) when the second Sunday in May rolled around. It helped a lot to be acknowledged.

SFL: Your section on elder orphans is wonderful and unnerving for me because I worry all the time about my 96-year-old father and about my own future now that I’m in my late 60s. I notice you don’t say much in your book about husbands and other partners. Are you assuming that we will end up alone? What is the most important thing we can do now to prepare for our elder years?

KK: You’re right! When it comes to aging, I try to be pragmatic. If you’re partnered, someone will probably go first. I think single people, especially those without kids, benefit because we know for sure our kids won’t be watching out for us. Parents can go into denial and discover too late that their kids either aren’t well-suited to the task or they live far away.

What we do is gradually shift from being so independent (at which most of us are excellent) and layer in interdependent actions and choices. Ask for help, even when it feels like you’re a bother or can do it yourself. Make a pact with other friends who don’t have kids and support each other when someone needs a ride to the doctor or the airport. Start looking at retirement housing options before you need them.

SFL: You talk about the legacies childless women can leave. We may not all have money to leave behind for charities, scholarships, and such. What else besides money can we leave behind?

KK: Agreed about the money part. That’s what most of us think of first when we hear the word “legacy.” I think about legacy differently now. It’s rare we hear the ways we’ve impacted other people’s lives, so I like to make it a point to tell others when they’re still alive. Sometimes it comes my way, but even if it doesn’t, I take comfort knowing there are people who have benefited from me having walked this earth. I can’t know how much a child I helped learn to read enjoys books, but I know they’re out there. I try to develop friendships with people of all ages and consciously share what’s important to me with them—ideas, material stuff, experiences.

SFL: I love your collection of responses and conversation starters for childless women talking to parents or other non-moms. What is your response when people ask why you wrote a book on this subject?

KK: Thanks for mentioning the Afterword. Once I finished the book, I realized people might well want to talk to others and exchange ideas and experiences. But since most of us don’t pursue these topics very often, I thought it might be helpful to offer suggestions. I’ve gotten great feedback on this section.

I wrote the book to address the stigmas and stereotypes that many people hold about those without children. A recent study found there’s been no perceptible change since first studied back in the 1970s. That’s crazy! We’re part of our communities, we add value. Always have, always will. There’s plenty of room for us all to coexist, in fact to thrive, by including the full range of adulthood.

SFL: What will you write next?

My goal right now is to continue opening doors to conversations and understanding by speaking in most any venue that will have me. I’ve been surprised at the warm reception and frankness exhibited by many men when they find out about my project. If no man steps up to write the male perspective, I guess I might have to.

SFL: Thank you!

You’re so welcome, Sue. Thanks for asking.

There you have it. Readers, please add your comments and keep the conversation going.

They don’t have kids either. Your reaction?

I’m still waiting for my ultrasound results from last week. The kind technician took a tour through my non-reproductive parts. This is your liver, your pancreas, your spleen, your gall bladder . . . We skipped the uterus and ovaries altogether because . . .  irrelevant. I will never hear, “This is your baby.”

While I wait to hear why my stomach is giving me a hard time, trying to join my dad in thinking that no news must be good news, I have some questions for you to ponder today. They’re sparked by the book I’m reading, Do You Have Kids: Life When the Answer is No by sister Oregonian Kate Kaufmann. This book, coming out April 2, is amazing. I’ll tell you more about it next week, and I’m hoping to bring Kate in for an interview and/or guest post.

Kate’s last chapter offers some great responses to the questions people ask. We have all dealt with nosy questions from people who have children, but I’m wondering how we react when we meet other people who don’t have children? Let’s talk about it.

1) How do you react when you meet others struggling with partners who are unwilling or unable to have children? Do you feel glad to have found someone caught in the same dilemma? Do you feel sorry for them? Do you urge them to get out of the relationship ASAP or to stick with their partner and enjoy the childless life?

2) How do you feel when you encounter someone who is militantly childfree with no regrets? Glad? Angry? Sorry for them? Do you feel tempted to hide the fact that you want/wanted children?

3) When you meet people who have lost their children to death, divorce or something else, do you think at least they had children or feel grateful you will never experience the pain of such a loss?

I could ask questions all day, but these should keep you busy for now. As they say in school, read and discuss. I look forward to your comments.

Do pre-order Kate’s book. It is jammed with great information.