What Do the Childless and Childfree Have in Common?

A friend who never wanted to have children said the other night that she knew I wrote about childlessness, but that had nothing to do with her because she chose not to have children. But we actually have quite a lot in common, I said. When I started naming some of those things, she responded, “I never thought of that.” 

Let’s think about it today. How do the childfree and the childless differ and what do we have in common? 

The obvious difference is that the “childfree” have chosen not to be parents. Their reasons vary. They want their freedom, they don’t think they’d be good parents, they can’t afford it, they’re giving their all to their career, or they’re doing their part to save the planet from overpopulation. They reject the term “childless” because they don’t feel “less” anything. 

The childless also come to their state in different ways, from infertility to disability to lack of a willing partner. Some spend years trying and failing to give birth. Some agonize over whether to leave their partner and try on their own or with someone new. They grieve the loss of the life they might have had. They dream about having babies and ache when they see families with children. They do feel “less” a great deal.

These two groups sound very different. But there is a gray area. Some of us chose partners we knew would not give us children. Consciously or not, we made a choice. In some cases, we may even come to feel “childfree.”

What do we have in common? More than you might think. 

  • Most of us do not hate children. We may or may not want to be raising them, but we find them lovable and entertaining and don’t mind hanging out with them.
  • We get bombarded with questions and comments, particularly in our fertile years. “When are you going to have children?” “Why don’t you have children?” “You’ll change your mind.” “Who’s going to take care of you in old age?” “You’re not getting any younger.”
  • We find that our old friends are so preoccupied with their children and later their grandchildren that they don’t have time for us. Besides, they have new friends they met at their children’s schools, soccer team, ballet classes, etc., friends with whom they have more in common now. 
  • We have more freedom because our lives are not tied to the school schedule unless we work in the schools. We never need a babysitter, although we may need a pet-sitter.
  • People ask us how many children we have because it doesn’t occur to them we might not have any. 
  • We worry about who will care for us in old age. My friend is in the process of setting up her will and advance directives. Single and childfree, she is not sure whom to entrust with her health-care and financial decisions when she is incapacitated. She has half-siblings whom she does not feel close to. I have a brother I love dearly, and I have given him the power on all my documents, but I know we think differently about some things. Will he do what I want in the end? What happens if he dies first? 
  • We all hate Mother’s Day. 

A few years ago, I attended the NotMom Summit in Cleveland. NotMom founder Karen Malone Wright had the radical idea that women who are not mothers, whether by choice or by chance, could congregate in an atmosphere of mutual love and acceptance. It worked beautifully. By the end, I had made new friends, some of whom never wanted to be moms. I sat with one of these new friends on the plane ride home and we talked all the way back to the West Coast about everything but motherhood. It was a joy, and we are still friends. The fact that we came to be NotMoms in different ways doesn’t matter. 

I don’t want to downplay the horrible pain of infertility or the rudeness of some people who are militantly anti-parenting, but we do have quite a bit in common, whether we’re childless by choice or not. As for those of us who are childless by marriage, aren’t we making a choice not to have children every day we stay with a partner who can’t or doesn’t want to give us children?

Let’s talk about it in the comments. What do the childless and childfree have in common? What is different?

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AT LEAST THE KIDS WON’T BE BOSSING US AROUND

“Mom, don’t go out. Get somebody else to buy your groceries. It’s not safe out there with the coronavirus and all. At your age, you’re in the high-risk group. Just wait till I can come and take care of it.” “You did what? Don’t go walking alone! What if you fall and break a hip?” “Are you wearing your alert button?” “You can’t keep living in that house, Mom. I know this nice senior community . . .”

You, being younger, may be the one saying these things. I understand. I have been the child bossing the parent. Well, in my case, more like cajoling, playing “good cop” while my brother was the bossy one. Our father ignored us both until he literally could not move on his own and had to give in. Before that, if you pushed too hard, he’d bite you like a rattlesnake.

He can’t, you can’t, you’re too old, you have to stop driving . . .

What makes people do this? I think we get scared. We see our parents failing and we don’t want to lose them. We also see our responsibilities increasing and want to lighten them.

If I had a grown child—or my late father—watching me as I climbed on a chair to fix the clock the other day, they would have had a stroke. Dad was always sure I’d fall. “I’m fine,” I’d say, but he would remember that one relative who fell off a chair in her kitchen, struck her head, and went blind.

Now, I know that I’m the same aging woman with osteoporosis, arthritis and a raging bout of plantar fasciitis who was using a cane to get around earlier in the day, but I was warmed up now, and who else was going to adjust the damned Mickey Mouse clock my late husband left behind?

When we’re little, we think our parents can do anything. Then we grow up and think we can do everything. One day, we realize we’re all faking it. Then we find ourselves standing on a chair feeling our legs shake as we move the minute hand a little farther down Mickey’s thigh. But we won’t tell our kids because we want to adjust our own clocks. What if the son or daughter doesn’t like the Mickey Mouse clock and thinks we should get rid of it?

That’s if we have a son or daughter, which we don’t. I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful not to have grown children telling me what to do.

I’m rambling while I sit in the sun with a robin on the nearby fence preening his red chest feathers—and maybe taking a break from his own children. I hear another robin singing from the tree across the yard. His mate?

Back to those imaginary children of my own. They would scold me for not putting on suntan lotion and a hat. They’d be right, too. I’m getting burnt, but I wanted to get to the writing. And it’s worth it. Sitting here next to the purple foxglove with the robin nearby and the sun warming me to the marrow feels glorious.

Not having children means enjoying old age without grown offspring telling you what to do. Your friends might nudge you a bit, but they’re just as stubborn as you are and dealing with the same challenges, so unless you have dementia, God forbid, they’ll let you make your own choices. I like this. I know that’s what my father wanted, which is why he lived at home alone for so long, to 96. He got hurt quite often—the paramedics knew him well-—but in between, he could sit in his patio watching his own robins, tending his geraniums and his artichoke plants, and feeling the sun warm his bones. He was still king of his own domain.

The robin is looking toward the tree now. Maybe he’s thinking about checking in. Maybe he’s waiting for me to move so he can go back to pulling worms out of the grass. I will. I’m hot.

So it’s good that we don’t have adult children bossing us around. In these coronavirus days, I hear about more bossy sons and daughters than ever, but most of the time they’re communicating by phone or Facetime so they can’t offer any concrete physical help. That means my parent friends are in the same situation as we childless folks have always been, depending on friends who live nearby.

I don’t want babies these days, except to visit with as Grandma or Great-Grandma. I like my sleep, and I like my antique glass collection, but there are certainly times when I wish I had an adult child or two to help me with things, whether it’s moving furniture or figuring out what to do about the health insurance company denying my claim. The chores pile up, I am constantly behind, and . . . But wait, are my friends’ children really helping with any of that stuff? Not that I can see. They’re busy with their own lives.

It would be nice if I had kids to throw me a birthday party and make me a cake with “Mom” written in gooey frosting. I’d like to know that someone was around to take over when I died. I’d like to look at someone and see my mother’s eyes, my father’s chin, hear my husband’s deep voice . . .

But I don’t want to be bossed around. I fully intend to be one of those stubborn old ladies who watches out for herself as long as she possibly can. And then?

Let’s just watch Mr. Robin pull worms out of my raggedy lawn and listen to Mrs. Robin sing to her chicks.

Your thoughts?

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: As I have mentioned before, I’m putting together a “Best of Childless by Marriage” book from the blog. I am including many of your comments, all anonymous or by first names only. Many of you are better writers than I am. If you have any objection to having those comments in a book, both print and online, please let me know at sufalick@gmail.com, and I will remove them. I don’t want this to be an issue later, so please speak up soon. I am almost finished with the book. Thank you. 

Taking care of "Mom"

My husband’s nursing home invited families to a meeting Saturday to bring them up to date on what’s been happening with the company and talk about issues such as security, finances and a new system for ordering adult diapers. The staff served a wonderful brunch in the cozy lobby. As I looked around the room, I noticed two things: I was the youngest spouse in the room, and half the people there were children of two of the residents. They came as teams, working together to make sure “Mom” has everything she needs. The residents didn’t even know we were there. We were working behind the scenes. And I wondered, who will be on the outside advocating for me if, God forbid, I wind up in a care home without enough healthy brain cells to watch out for myself?

One can argue that people’s children don’t always step up when they’re needed. They may live far away, be too busy or just not feel up to the task. I know that’s true. Fred’s children don’t get involved in his care. You hope your spouse will be around, but it’s all a roll of the dice. Who’s going to make sure you have enough Depends in your drawer?

In modern Western society, we don’t bear children for the purpose of taking care of us in our old age, but it sure is nice when they do. If you still have time to make the decision to have children or not have them, think about that.