A Childless Life Well Lived

Jill Baker
Jill Baker photo posted by Maureen Little on Facebook

Dear readers,

One of the women I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book passed away last week. Jill Baker had been suffering from heart problems for years. She was married once in her youth, divorced and never remarried. She never had children. But none of that defines who Jill was. Full of life, even when her body was failing, a large presence even though she was a small woman, Jill stood out wherever she went. She was funny, opinionated, and loaded with talent.

I first met Jill at the Central Coast Chorale, a singing group that I joined shortly after I moved to Oregon. Jill was the one always raising her hand with suggestions or laughing loudly from the alto section. We were both chosen to sing in a smaller ensemble that used to be called Octet Plus and is now Women of Note. You could count on Jill to hold down the low notes while the rest of us warbled up above. She was also a talented flute player. After I moved on to other musical endeavors, Jill rose to assistant director of the chorale.

Jill taught music—piano, flute, voice, and more. She sang in small groups and professional choruses. She had also worked in bookkeeping, accounting and computer software because it’s hard to make a living with a music degree, but she was finally able to focus on music after she moved to the Oregon coast.

Back in the 1960s, she was engaged to be married when she discovered she was pregnant. Her fiancé took off as soon as she told him. She had an abortion in a motel room. “She was some kind of a nurse and did illegal abortions and it was awful,” Jill said. “I hemorrhaged for six months, during my final six months of college.” Once the baby wasn’t an issue, her fiancé came back, and they got married. He refused to even discuss having children. Eventually the marriage ended. She said she never found another man she felt strongly enough about to marry.

Before our interview, Jill had never told anyone about the abortion, but she had reached a point where she was willing to share her story and happy to have me use her real name. Telling me meant she would have to tell her family, she said. She was a brave woman.

Jill never knew for sure whether that abortion affected her ability to have children. Suffering from fibroid tumors, she had a hysterectomy in her 40s. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she said.

When I asked how she felt about never having children, she said, “I felt lucky in that I didn’t have that massive craving to have a child. I would have liked to have kids, but only if I was in a marriage where the husband could be a father. I never wanted to have kids just to have kids.”

Instead of having her own children, she dove into the role of aunt to her siblings’ children and dog mom to her precious canine companions. Jill was the one holding her sheet music with one hand and petting her dog with the other in the chapter of my book about dog moms. Asked if she felt left out when her friends talked about their children, she laughed. “No. I get ‘em back; I talk about my dog.” She added, “I get irritated when people feel sorry for me. I really detest that because I think I’ve had a good life. I don’t believe you have to have a husband or kids to be happy.”

As for old age, she was determined to live on her own as long as she could, moving into a retirement home if necessary. She never had to. As she left this life, her hospital room was full of friends who loved her like family.

Rest in peace, Jill.

Beyond childlessness, life goes on

“Remember me?” The woman had come rushing up to me at an event for writers. I was in charge and trying to do three things at once, but I stopped and stared into her gorgeous face framed by blonde braids. “Gretchen?” It was one of my former students from the community college. Somehow in the 10 years or so that have passed since she took my class, she has gotten more youthful than ever. She has also done quite well with her writing, one of my success stories. I see her byline everywhere. She told me she has quit her day job to focus full-time on writing. I know she will succeed.

She reminded me that she had wanted to be one of the women in my Childless by Marriage book but had shown up too late to be included. She was childless because of her marriage and had really struggled with it. I invited her to write for the blog and maybe she will someday, but I share this story about her with you because she seemed so happy with her life. She absolutely glowed with energy, proving that childlessness doesn’t have to be a life sentence to perpetual misery.

I share my day job with another childless woman, Mary. Her first husband was abusive. Her second husband, like mine, was older and already had all the children he wanted. But what a guy. Except for my late husband, he’s the sweetest man I have ever met. He had three children, as did my husband, but that’s where the similarity ends because Mary has a great relationship with those grown children and the grandchildren. In fact, this week, a bunch of them are visiting and sleeping downstairs at Mary’s house. They talk, visit, sing together and feel like one big family.

As you may recall from previous posts, that’s not the situation with my stepchildren. I don’t see them or talk to any of them, except on Facebook. One of them is having a birthday this weekend. As I prepared a card to send, I realized I wasn’t sure where she lives now or whether she will appreciate the card. It’s sad. She’s a grandmother now, and I will probably never meet her grandchildren, my step-great-grandchildren. Or are they any relation to me now that my husband is gone? I don’t know.

But back to Mary. Her life is full to overflowing with music. She teaches, plays, sings, and directs several choirs. Not having children has given her time to live her manic life of music. She enjoys other people’s kids and sends them home. And she enjoys her life, with no regrets.

Our church choir has two other childless women, both about my age now. Neither of them is suffering from her lack of children.

All I’m trying to say is it’s possible to get past the grief, anger and uncertainty and accept a childless life that is happy and fulfilling. Do I still wish I had children? Yes, although I don’t know how I would have fit them into my life of writing and music–and giving up my work was never an option.

Do you know people who are living happily without children? Are there lessons you can learn from them? I look forward to your comments.


I’m childless and strong

I’m turned 57 years old last week. Don’t panic, book editors. I look 47 and have the energy of 37, as you will see. My age is not the point—or is it?

If you had dropped by my house recently, you would have seen me shovel ice from the driveway and sidewalk, move 600 pounds of wood pellets, assemble and transfer a dog crate almost as big as I am from garage to car and back again, take the pellet stove apart and clean it, shovel dirt for two hours in my back yard, walk one big dog for a mile and turn around and walk the other big dog for another mile, pretzelize my body in yoga class twice a week, plant eight cement stepping stones in my back yard, scoop about a hundred pounds of dog poop, fix my own toilet, stand at the top of a ladder moving boxes, and arrange for construction of a new fence, plus all the girl stuff one would expect, the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

When my mom, God rest her soul, was 57 or even 37, she could not do any of these things. She had no idea how, and she barely had the physical stamina to walk to the end of the block. My father and my brother handled all the “guy jobs.” With all her needlework, Mom probably had the nimblest fingers in California, but she never exercised the rest of her body, never really took good care of herself. She was too busy taking care of Dad and my brother and me. It was what women in her family did. If Dad had died first, she would have had to call my brother or a neighbor to help the “poor widow.”

I refuse to play that role, even though I’m alone now. My husband, who has Alzheimer’s, is in a care home, and I don’t have children because he had his share before I met him. When the job is truly too big for one person, I do call for help, but I’m smart, I have muscles, and I have no sons to call on. If I don’t know how to do it, I can learn.

Part of this comes from being my father’s daughter. At 86, he is strong and stubborn. But part of it comes from being childless. I think we have to be more self-reliant. Perhaps I have mentioned my Aunt Edna here before. She celebrated her 100th birthday on Dec. 29. She has been widowed for about 50 years and never had children. She was well into her 90s before she needed help from anyone, and she had already made arrangements to move into a senior residence. Likewise, her sister Virginia, who is 92, lived on her own until she fell last year and broke her neck, but darned if she isn’t up and ornery as ever, even though she still has some health challenges to conquer. In Grandpa Fagalde’s day, he would have called Edna and Virginia “tough old birds.” Well, that’s what I want to be, too. I want a big crowd like the one that gathered for Aunt Edna’s birthday to talk about how strong Aunt Sue was, not about how sad it was that she never had children.

Now I’m not saying that moms can’t be strong. Raising children is hard work, but some mothers just don’t learn to be independent or physically fit. I have a close mom friend who is my age and can barely walk. She says she’s “old.” I’m just saying there might be a connection.