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.

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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.

 

 

Put These Childless Books on Your Christmas List

Dear friends,

This week I offer two new books that you might want to put on your Christmas list. Both look at the challenges of not having children in a world where everyone else seems to be obsessing over their babies.

The Childfree Society Club by Jaclyn Jaeger.

I resisted this novel because I’m not part of the happily “childfree” gang. I wanted kids and feel bad about not having them, but the author, who requested that I review it here at Childless by Marriage, insisted it would be all right because one of the characters is dealing with infertility. Well, okay. Actually, there’s plenty of anguishing about the baby-or-no baby decision in this story.

It begins with two 30ish women deciding to form a club for childfree women because their other friends are so busy with their children. The club consists of five women: Samantha, an unmarried divorce lawyer; Ellie, who is married to Phillip, an older man; Sabrina, married to Raj, whose Indian parents are very upset that they have chosen not to have children; Maddie, a gay woman who never wanted kids, and Hannah, who has been trying to get pregnant for five years and would do anything to have a baby.

As the story progresses, Samantha acquires a boyfriend with a child, Phillip suddenly gets the urge to adopt a child, Sabrina and Raj are having marital problems over the baby issue, Maddie finds a new girlfriend, and Hannah gets offered donor eggs.

It’s hard to know what to say about this book. The grammar errors and clichés drove me nuts, the text was nearly all dialogue, and I had trouble keeping the characters straight, BUT I read the whole thing in two days and seriously wish there was more to read. It has kind of a Sex and The City vibe–if you add a younger gay woman to the mix. Great literature it’s not, but it is entertaining, and if you’re struggling over the parenting decision, especially if you and your partner disagree, you might want to read it. Or you might want to start your own club.

Motherhood Missed by Lois Tonkin, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia.

You definitely want to find this book in your Christmas stocking. Finally, finally, finally, someone besides me has written about the many complex ways of being childless “by circumstance,” including being childless by marriage. Tonkin is not childless herself, but she gets it. In this book, after a brilliant overview of the situation, she offers the stories of women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who for one reason or another do not have children. You are bound to find stories you can identify with here. We have women partnered with men who already have children and don’t want more, women who had abortions when they were young and later could not get pregnant again, women for whom the fertile years simply slipped away, and so many more. They tell their stories in their own words, gently edited. This book is beautiful done. It includes a foreward by Jody Day, founder of Gateway-Women and author of her own book, Living the Life Unexpected.

If these books don’t send you, I still have copies of my own Childless by Marriage book. 🙂

Remember, books are easy to wrap and easy to mail.

I’m working my way into Christmas very slowly this year, not feeling the motivation to go nuts with cards, presents, decorations and the rest. I’m not depressed, just not feeling the need to do it all. Maybe if I had children, I’d feel differently. Or maybe I’d let them do it all. How are you doing this holiday season?

‘Motherhood’explores childless questions

Motherhood by Sheila Heti, Henry Holt & Co., 2018

Should I have a baby or not? That’s the question the narrator asks in this new book which is billed as a novel but reads more like a 300-page essay. The unnamed narrator is divorced and living with a man named Miles, who already has a daughter and is not eager to have more children. But he leaves the decision up to her. If she really wants a child, he says he’ll go along with it.

So many readers here have partners who have stated very clearly that there will be no children with them. What if instead they said, “I don’t want them, but if you do, go ahead.” What should you do?

The woman in the book has always leaned toward not having children, so you and I may not identify with her feelings. But now, as she approaches 40, she asks all the questions the rest of us ask. Once I stopped thirsting for a story, I became interested in the narrator’s musings.

As a childless woman, I have asked these questions of myself. For example: What is a woman’s purpose if she does not have children? Is our work as important as having children? Will our lives be diminished if we never experience motherhood? Should the instinct to procreate overrule everything else? Why do we have uteruses if we’re never going to use them? Do I really want children, or do I just feel left out because my friends and relatives have them? Why is it okay for a man not to have children, but “the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for.”

The narrator seeks answers in dreams, psychic readings, talks with her friends and dialogues with the coins of the I Ching. She finds her answer in the end.

I don’t enjoy unusual book forms. There are places in Motherhood where I’m not sure what’s going on, and I personally hate that. I like my novels straightforward and easy to understand, but you might disagree. Heti has gotten as many five-star reviews as one-star ratings.  If you read it, please share your thoughts on this book.

Meanwhile, let’s consider just one of the questions asked here: What is a woman’s purpose if she doesn’t have children, if she doesn’t connect one generation to the next?

***

Last week’s post, which included the question of whether people who have children should be allowed to participate at Childless by Marriage, drew some heat. No way. Keep those mommies out of here, a few readers indicated. They feel this is our private space where we shouldn’t have to deal with people who don’t understand how we feel. You’re right. I don’t want to mess that up.

But I would counter that the woman who sparked the question was childless for a long time and does understand, that she didn’t forget everything when she gave birth. But I hear you. I approve or disapprove every comment that comes in. I will be very careful and aware of your feelings before I click “approve.” I treasure you all.

Is it worse to lose a child or to never have one?

Bialosky, Jill. Poetry Will Save Your Life. New York: Atria Books, 2017.

I just finished this book, and it made me think about some things I want to share here. Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir in this book. She pairs short passages about her own life with poems that she connects with those times. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem.

If poetry is not your thing, don’t worry. That’s not my point today. Although the book covers a lifetime of other topics, Bialosky includes a chapter on motherhood that sparked two ideas I want to talk about here.

1) Bialosky offers Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem “The Pomegranate” and quotes Boland as saying that motherhood changed her whole perspective as a poet. “I no longer felt I was observing nature in some Romantic-poet way. I felt I was right at the center of it: a participant in the whole world of change and renewal.”

To be honest, I barely understand the poem, but I do understand the point Boland made about motherhood and finding our place in what one of my college professors called “the great chain of being.” Being a child and then having a child secures our place in that chain, but if we don’t have children, where do we fit? A lot of people who choose to be childfree poo-poo the whole “becoming a parent changed my life” conversation, but I disagree. How could creating a new human being in your body not change everything?

What do you think?

2) Bialosky’s own story of motherhood was not all joy and poetry. Her first daughter and son were both born prematurely and died shortly after birth. This section of her book is heartbreaking. Imagine feeling a baby grow inside month after month. Imagine talking to it, planning for it, dreaming of all that child will become, and then watching it die shortly after it leaves the womb. Awful. After the first baby dies, Bialosky is constantly afraid she will lose the second one as well. And then she does. She and her husband use a surrogate for their third child. He is born on time and healthy. But they are so afraid, they don’t buy anything or prepare a nursery for fear they will lose this baby, too. It takes them a long time to believe they might get to keep this one.

After her babies die and before her son is born, Bialosky feels the loss of her children constantly. Perhaps you can identify with this quote: “For years, I burn with envy every time I see a newborn child. It is impossible to be around friends with young children without inhabiting the spaces where my own losses and desires lay. . . . It’s like being hungry all the time and never invited to the feast.”

I know some of you have struggled with infertility and miscarriages, and these words hurt. I can’t imagine going through that. I think it might be easier to have never been pregnant at all than to lose one’s babies during pregnancy or at birth. Perhaps I am lucky that, having never had a child, I will never suffer the grief of losing a child.

It goes back to that famous quote, “It is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.” Does the same thing apply to having children?

What do you think? Have I just ripped off all the scabs and left you bleeding? I’m so sorry, but it’s an important question. Is the desire for children worth the pain of possible loss? Most pregnancies in the developed world turn out fine, but there’s always that chance.

Tell me what you think. And if you like poetry, check out this book.

Can a childless novelist write about moms?

An early reader of my new novel Up Beaver Creek, coming out in June, thanked me for writing about a woman who has no children. My protagonist, who calls herself PD, is unable to conceive with her husband. They are starting to look into adoption when he is diagnosed with cancer. He dies, and she moves west to the Oregon coast to start a new life as a musician. Lots of things happen along the way to make it interesting, but none of it is about having babies.

PD meets a colorful group of new friends, including a lesbian couple, a bipolar man who has created a garden out of glass and cast-offs, a young soprano who becomes her best friend, and a music store owner who likes to jam.

Most of the characters don’t have children. Even for those who do, the children do not play a big role in this book. Did I do this on purpose? No, I think it’s the just the way I see life. I do not live in the circle of mothers and grandmothers. I occupy the circle of women who live alone. Occasionally those circles cross. Is this a handicap? Can I write about something I have never experienced? I worry about that sometimes.

Ages ago, I wrote a never-to-be-published novel titled Alice in Babyland. I was still fertile back then. Our main character, Alice, is surrounded by people having babies. It’s driving her nuts. It’s not a very good novel, but it’s how I was feeling at the time.

My published novel Azorean Dreams ends with Chelsea and Simão getting married and preparing to “start a family.” You just know they’re going to have a flock of Portuguese kids. But readers will have to imagine that part.

I have been rewriting another novel I’m calling Rum and Coke. The characters do have children. One of them is pregnant. I’m struggling to get it right, to make the children real people and the relationships and challenges among parents, grandparents and kids authentic. I will never know how it feels from the inside, only from the outside. There are a lot of other things I have never experienced. I count on research, observation, and imagination to write about them. Can I do that with motherhood? I sure hope so.

Think about the books you have read or, if you don’t read books, the movies and TV shows you watch. How often are people portrayed as permanently childless by choice or by chance? We see a lot of single parents and a lot of couples with kids, but how many do we see without children?

The book I just finished reading yesterday, Hot Season by Susan DeFreitas, has no children, but the characters are mostly college students under age 25. Presumably, they’ll think about that later. In the book before that, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, nobody was talking about babies, either, but Louisa was very young, and Will was a quadriplegic contemplating suicide. The focus was on making him want to stay alive. I have ordered the sequel, After You. We’ll see if babies show up there. (If you have read it, don’t tell me.)

Is the tide turning? Are we getting more books where the characters are not moms and dads? Is fiction beginning to reflect the fact that one out of five women in the U.S. and other developed nations is not having children and the number seems to be growing?

I’m pleased to offer PD as a strong, childless woman. I hope that not being a mother doesn’t mean I can’t write about mothers or anyone else.

Your thoughts?

Book Review: The Female Assumption

The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story: Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate by Melanie Holmes. CreateSpace, 2014.

I started out feeling that everyone who reads the Childless by Marriage blog must read this book. It’s loaded with information we all need to know while deciding whether or not to have children. Now I’m not so sure. Despite the fact that Holmes has three children, it leans heavily toward the childfree viewpoint and doesn’t much address situations where women who want children are unable to have them. Still, there’s a lot to gain from reading this book. I’ll let you decide.

The Female Assumption includes:

  • Convincing testimony that motherhood is hard. Holmes writes about the lack of personal time and space, the financial cost, and the opportunities lost while providing full-time care. Even though she tries to reassure her own children that she’s very glad to have them, I’d be wondering about that if I were them.
  • Clear information on birth control, including the various methods and myths about how they work. She also goes into abortion and “morning after” options.
  • A list of questions women should ask themselves before considering motherhood. If nothing else, read this section and think about how you would answer these questions, things like: why do you want to be a mother, how much are your feelings about this being influenced by other people, and how would you manage childcare and career if you did have a baby?
  • A discussion of how even in the 21st century, women still do most of the childcare and housekeeping. Until partnerships can become equal, women will still bear more of the burdens of motherhood.
  • “Dirty Little Secrets,” things mothers don’t admit out loud for fear their peers will hate them and their children will feel unwanted. Two examples: “Mothers yearn for time alone,” and “Your ‘stuff’ will never be your own again.”
  • How women are held to a different standard than men. Who questions the validity of male leaders or achievers who don’t have children, yet it happens with women all the time. Holmes suggests women are given an impossible choice: give up everything else to be mothers or live alone, childless, with work as sole consolation.
  • How the American workplace is behind the times, offering lower wages for women and failing to offer paid family leave.
  • The often-negative effects of parenthood on marriages.
  • Examples of successful women who never had children.

As I said, Holmes does not spend much time on infertility or women whose partners are unable or unwilling to have children. She seems to be encouraging readers to remain happily childfree. However, this book does contain a lot of useful information. Holmes really did her research. Read it and use what you need. Skim the rest.

As always, I cherish your comments. Go back and read some of the comments from last week’s post, “Are You Delaying Parenthood Until Conditions are Perfect?” We got some great ones. You can still join the discussion.