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?

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.

Step-parenting is No Fourth of July Picnic

Dear Readers,

I have been on the road again this week helping my father. He is 95 years old, and he broke his upper leg very badly in March. He went from the hospital to a terrible nursing home to a somewhat better one.

On Tuesday, we saw the orthopedic surgeon again. After three months, the leg still isn’t healing much, but the doctor believes the hardware he installed around the bones will hold him up. He says Dad can start walking with a walker AND he says Dad can go home. This young ortho expert doesn’t know what he’s saying. Dad lives alone. His will is strong, but his body is fragile. My brother and I both live far away. This situation is wearing us out. We’ll both be doing some commuting while we figure out how to get things organized. Moving Dad from his three-bedroom house in suburbia to some kind of senior residence would be much easier on us, but it’s Dad’s life, and he has the right to live it the way he wants to. He wants to go home.

I arrived in the middle of a heat wave. Driving Dad’s car through the horrible traffic in San Jose, sweating, tired and hungry, I told myself taking care of Dad–and my dog Annie, who just had knee surgery three weeks ago–is my job now. Perhaps I was denied motherhood so I could devote myself to caregiving for my husband and our parents. It’s not really what I want to do, but it’s the job God has given me. I would so much rather focus on my writing and music and maybe take an actual vacation. Someday.

Meanwhile, it’s that time of year when we’re forced to look at pictures of everybody’s kids in graduation gowns or on vacation. Babies seem to be everywhere. Right? And, those of us who have stepchildren may suddenly find them arriving for extended visits, disrupting our usually childless lives.

A 2012 post, “Stepchildren Add Stress to Childless Marriages,” has drawn a barrage of comments this week. You might want to read them and join the conversation. Step-parenting is tough, and folks who think they’re a perfect substitute for having your own kids are wrong. It’s the not the same.

What do you think? What’s bugging you these days? Thanks for being here.

Sue

 

 

Childless readers, I need some inspiration


Dear readers,
I know I’m late with this week’s post, but I’m coming up empty. Usually by the time I set fingers to keys on Wednesday morning, something has begun to form in my mind, but right now, Thursday evening, I’ve got nothing. I can tell you a few things:
1) It’s spring break here on the central Oregon coast, and the place is swarming with tourists, half of whom seem to be either babies, young children, or pregnant women. I mean, everywhere I look. It’s bumming me out. Most of the time, I don’t see that many kids or pregnant people because the population is so heavily slanted toward the over-60 crowd, but wow, they’re all over my world this week. Kids, parents, grandmas and grandpas in my face every time I leave the house.
2) I seem to be doing a lot of caregiving lately. No, my dad is fine, but a good friend had heart surgery last week, so I’m back to sitting beside a hospital bed. Also, my elderly neighbor needed someone to sit with her husband, who is suffering some serious mental and physical problems after his heart surgery turned out badly, so I hung out at their house. And now, my dear dog has Kennel Cough/aka Bordatella. Every time she starts coughing, my heart stops. The drugs seem to be working, but all of my mom cells are engaged in taking care of her. And yes, she did get vaccinated.
3) The childless news is full of the usual stuff: somebody’s leaving their fortune to their pet monkey, the Pope says childless couples are selfish and sad, pollsters are predicting a lot more seniors living alone in the future because fewer people are having children. The childfree crowd is still claiming you don’t need children to be happy. And I keep getting comments from people who claim a spellcaster has solved all their problems and now they’re happily married with children.
Help me out, you guys, send me some ideas. I might even accept a guest post or two. Let’s keep the conversation going.