Can You Answer the Hard Questions About Childlessness?

Jo Vraca

Do you get stuttery when people start asking questions about your childless situation? I sure felt like I did last night when I was being interviewed for an upcoming podcast. And I’ve published two books and over 700 blog posts on the subject. Jo Vraca of the UnRipe podcast from Melbourne, Australia asked some tough questions that I found difficult to answer.

I have told the story of how I came to be childless many times. First husband didn’t want them, second husband had a vasectomy and three kids from his first marriage. But she pressed for more.

When did I know for sure that my first husband didn’t want children? There was that comment, when I thought I might be pregnant, that if I was, he’d be gone, but did he actually say, “I never want to have children.” No. Why didn’t I press him on it, get a commitment one way or the other? Why didn’t I threaten to leave? I was only in my 20s. Why didn’t I take my fertile eggs and find someone who wanted more than a sex partner?

I don’t know. I was young. It was the 70s. We were Catholic. I thought we had to stay married. I thought no one else would want me. I thought eventually he’d give in. After six years, a few months after he announced that he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay married, I caught him cheating. I moved out and filed for divorce. The Catholic Church annulled the marriage based on his refusal to have children.  

I haven’t seen my ex since 1981 (I know, longer than many of you have been alive.) Through his sister and through searching online, I know he got married two more times and never fathered any children. So maybe I have my answer.

But why did I let him take motherhood away from me? I wish I had a good answer for that.

Then came Fred. I knew the facts, and yet I didn’t face my future as a childless woman for a long time. When did I know for sure? Again, I can’t say. I guess I knew it as I approached 40 and saw no Disney movie magic making my dreams come true. Was there a day when I said, well, if I’m married to Fred, I’m never going to have any children? Not until after I went through menopause in my early 50s. Why not? Was I hoping the stepchildren would fill the gap? I guess I was. Did they? No. Maybe if their father had been more involved, if I had tried harder, if my family had been more welcoming . . .” They’re not in my life, and I feel this big knot of guilt when I think about them.

Finally, knowing everything I know now, would I still stay with Fred? Yes. I never met anyone else I’d rather be with. I just wish childlessness had been a more conscious decision and that we had talked about it more.

Jo Vraca asked really challenging questions. She’s a good interviewer, and she doesn’t waste time on nonsense like so many podcasters do. She forces people to think, and that’s a good thing.

My UnRipe interview will be online in a few weeks. I’ll share the link when it’s available. Meanwhile, give some of the other interviews a listen.

Jo, an author, dog and cat mom and chef in training, is childless herself. At first, she and her husband both agreed they weren’t interested in having children. But as the biological clock ticked down, she changed her mind. He went along with it, but they couldn’t conceive. They tried IVF, but it didn’t work. Finally, he said he really didn’t want to have a child or to go through any more fertility treatments. So they stopped.  

Life happens, and often we don’t note the moments that change things. Years later, we look back and wonder: How did that happen?

Does this stir up some questions for you? I’d love to read your comments.

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Do We Have to Defend Our Childless by Marriage Choices?

I love Jackie Shannon Hollis and I love, love, love her book, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story. [I wrote about it previously; read that post here].

When I saw that she was going to be on The Childfree Girls podcast, I decide to listen. You can see and hear it here:

She was of course wise and wonderful, and I envy her rich radio voice. The interviewers were lovely and smart, but they were all definitely in the don’t-want-babies-ever camp. That’s fine. They have the right to choose. One of the wonderful things about this era as opposed to earlier times is that women have a lot more choices for their lives.

Jackie told her story of how she didn’t feel the craving to have children when she was younger, although she had been raised to believe that’s what people did when they grew up, but then in her 30s, married to her second husband, she started to long for children, even though they had agreed not to have them. Her husband remained firmly in the no-baby camp.

She felt something missing in her life. She had dreams about babies and was fascinated by pregnancy. She asked her husband repeatedly, “Why don’t you want to have a child?” Although he respected her feelings, he did not change his mind. Ultimately she asked herself WHY do I want to have a baby and decided she would let go of that dream.

Now, she says, “I am quite content with my life, and I also have times when I am quite aware of the otherness of not having children.” Being in a world of pronatalism, celebration of pregnancy and childbirth, she feels, as we all do, caught between those with children and those without.

The women on the podcast talked about interacting with their parent friends and dealing with the questions we all get. When people ask why she doesn’t have children, Jackie says she likes to turn it around and ask why they do. Everyone agreed that too many people become parents without asking why they’re doing it.

It was a good session, but something bothered me. I felt like Jackie was being pushed to share the childfree point of view, to fit in with them and not admit to any doubts, regret or grief over her decision. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe I’m just defensive about my own choices.

I have know women who claim that they have moved from “childless” to “childfree.” I don’t see that ever happening for me. I wanted children, and I still wish I had children. Although I appreciate the time and freedom I have had all these years and I know I might have missed a lot of wonderful things, I do not like going into old age alone.

And it is alone. As I listened, I kept talking back to the computer saying, “But you’re not alone. You have your husbands.”

Of course they couldn’t hear me. But sometimes when I’m around people who never wanted to have children, I feel like I’m being shamed for not embracing the joys of the childfree life, like the childfree folks are the cool kids and we’re the old-fashioned mommy wannabes. I suspect even those who embrace the childfree name might sometimes feel a little twinge, maybe a little doubt, but won’t admit it to their peers.

We’re all different. Even those of us who have moments of total heartbreak over our lack of children are probably okay with it a lot of the time. In the end, we’re all people whose state of mind varies constantly and who all deal with the nosy questions about why we don’t have kids or why we don’t “just” adopt. We feel left out of activities designed for “families,” grit our teeth through baby showers and grandma talk, and wonder who will help us in our old age.

A person in my life with whom I don’t get along very well told me once when I was feeling sad about not having kids, “Well, it’s your own damned fault.” Is it? Is that what she really thinks? Is that what other people think? Do we have to defend our choices and constantly explain that we’re not infertile but we’re also not joyfully childfree?

Jackie did great on the interview. She was able to turn the discussion around and ask questions of her three young hosts so the focus was not all on her. I don’t feel confident enough to put myself in that situation, even though I think we should all embrace the right to feel however we feel and say it out loud to anyone.

Maybe I’m all wrong, maybe I’m just conflicted about my choices, but do you know what I mean? Do some people make you feel like you have to defend yourself for accepting your childless-by-marriage situation and being sad about it? I’d love to hear what you think.

BTW, I get my podcasts about childlessness via an app called listennotes.com. It works like Google alerts. Type in your topic and you’ll get regular emails about podcasts that mention the subject you request. It costs $5 a month, but it’s worth it to me.

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Advice for the Potentially Childless by Marriage

What would you tell a young person facing a childless-by-marriage situation? I was interviewed last night for the UnRipe podcast from Australia. Interviewer Jo Vraca and Mina  Sedgman kept asking me this question, pushing for a concrete answer. What I wanted to say was “I don’t know” or “Every situation is different.” I said, “Talk about it,” “Make a conscious decision,” “Don’t do what I did.”

I felt like what I did back in my 20s and 30s was so wishy-washy. I never made an actual decision, even after we considered the options and Fred told me he really didn’t want to have any more children. I never told him, “Hey, I really want to have children and you need to step up.” I never said, “Okay, if I marry you, I accept that I will never have my own children.”

I just went ahead and got married, tried to bond with his children, and gradually decided I had been ripped off. I had not. I was just doing my usual denial of facts. Way too many Disney movies had convinced me that if you just wish hard enough for something, it will come true. Queue the music for “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Sometimes you don’t get your wish. I don’t think I really got that until I was in my 50s, when menopause, my mother’s death, Fred’s fatal illness, and my father’s years of major health problems pushed all thoughts of parenthood way into the past.

So, now that I’ve had time to think about it, what would I advise?

1) Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. If you have always wanted children, start the discussions early. A few dates in, it’s okay to mention that you look forward to having children and ask how they feel about it. As the relationship progresses, keep checking in. As we have seen in many posts and comments here, people change their minds. You and your partner need to be a team, not adversaries.

2) If the person you’re falling in love with offers a hard no to kids and you can’t stand the idea of never having them, walk away. I know that’s hard. In the interview, they asked me if I thought about walking away from Fred. I did not. I was obsessed with my career, and I had my stepchildren, who I thought would fill the gap. I was so in love and so sure no one else would ever love me like he did that leaving didn’t seem like an option. But it was. I was 33 when we got married; I still had time. I was wrong to think I’d been ripped off. Consciously or not, I chose this. So I advise you to make a conscious choice: Is this a deal-breaker? Then go. Are you willing to live with it? Then stay. I know many of you feel trapped, but you do have a choice.

3) Having children is huge, but many of us are called to do other things with our lives. Consider what else you are besides a potential mother or father. What talents and interests can you pursue full out without the constraints of parenthood? Consider the possibilities instead of the impossibilities.

4) If you accept the childless life, let yourself grieve the loss of the life you thought you would have. Don’t be silent about it. Tell your mate, family and friends what you’re dealing with, and don’t let them shame you into thinking you’ve done something wrong or that you have no right to grieve.

Dear readers, having come this far in your childless journey, what would you advise someone facing a similar situation? What would you do now if you had it to do over again?

My interview on the UnRipe podcast will be online shortly. I’ll let you know where to hear it. My thanks to Jo Vraca and Mina Sedgman for a fabulous conversation and for their continuing efforts to support childless women.