When people assume we have children

I sit in a windowless conference room at a Doubletree Inn listening to yet another speaker talk about finding time to write. Children, especially little ones, seem to be the biggest obstacle for most. So needy, so 24/7. You can get up before sunrise or write late at night. Write while they’re at school or napping. Write in waiting rooms or on the bleachers during their sports events. Hire a babysitter for an hour. Steal whatever time you can.

My mind wanders off. I know all that. I just never needed to worry about it. I never had a baby to take care of. By the time my youngest stepson moved in, he was old enough to take care of himself—and he preferred it that way. In one of my favorite memories, Michael trooped through the house with his friends. As they passed my office, where I was writing, he said, “There’s my mom. She’s a writer.”

Sure, there were school activities, Boy Scouts and such, but they were no big intrusion on my work. I wrote for three different newspapers and worked on the novel du-jour unfettered. Ironically, the walls of my office those first few years of full-time step-motherhood were wallpapered with Care Bears. I suppose the room was intended as a nursery. I enjoyed looking at the bears while I nurtured words instead of babies.

Husbands can be a bigger interruption. They need attention, too, but for me, husband number one was never around, and husband number two found it amusing when I raced off to throw words on paper. He had his own work during the week and on weekends, it was football all day long. When he got sick with Alzheimer’s Disease, finding time was more difficult. I wrote after he went to bed, while he was watching football, or while his caregivers took him to lunch. I talked my stories into a voice recorder in the car. I got it done.

Back at the Doubletree, the speaker drones on and on. He assumes we all have children and spouses to care for, that we are all just like him, but we’re not. We might wish we were, but we didn’t ease into a “normal” family situation like he did. We don’t have family dinners, soccer games, and trips to the beach. We don’t buy school clothes, throw kid birthday parties, or nurse children with chicken pox. It’s just us, writing, and we’d like him to please change the subject.

People assume. A childless Facebook friend recently told about how an older woman started talking to her at a coffee shop. The woman gushed about her six grandchildren, then asked the writer how many grandchildren she had. She had to admit she had none, which brought the conversation to an awkward halt. She found the encounter terribly unsetting. You all would understand. But the grandmother didn’t mean any harm. She just assumed that all women of a certain age have grandchildren.

We don’t. With one out of five of women not having children, there are a lot of us who don’t have grandchildren either. Hey world, stop assuming.

A few days before Easter, I made the mistake of going out to lunch at one of our most popular local diners. It was spring break, and people were lined up waiting for tables. Lots of kids. So many kids. When I went to the restroom, I found myself waiting with a woman in her 30s. We could hear a mom in one of the two stalls talking to her kids. We heard yelling and whining. It took forever. When they came out, the other woman and I stared. She had three girls under the age of four in that little stall.

When the door shut behind them, the woman said, “My worst nightmare.”

I nodded. “Really.” This was not the time to explain my childless situation.

We rushed to use the empty stalls. She probably assumed I was a mom. I assumed she didn’t want children, but when I came out, her husband and son were waiting for her.

Never assume.

The good news is I’m free to write here in my bathrobe for as long as I choose and then share it with you while my dog takes a nap . . . Oops. Here’s the dog, needing attention. Yesterday she chewed half a pen, and I still don’t know where the other half went. Gotta go.

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Childless and Keeping My Secret

So, we’re at this restaurant, sitting outside, a big happy group of writers attending a workshop at the University of Arizona. Each of us submitted a prize-winning essay to get here. All day, we have been discussing the craft of writing and the writing life. We feel like equals despite varying ages and the fact that we come from all over the U.S. But now, the workshop on break, cocktails in hand, I realize that everyone is talking about their children. They’re talking schools, toddlers vs. teens, funny and frustrating things their kids do. They’re showing pictures on their phones. Suddenly I don’t fit in.

Seated in the corner, I smile and nod as if I too left a house full of kids at home. I do not want to confess that I am different, so I eat my salmon and cornbread and pretend I’m not. I also don’t admit that I do not struggle to find time to write. I struggle to fill the bottomless well of time I have at home when it’s just me and the dog. They know my husband died because that’s what my essay is about. Bad enough that I’m a widow and I’m one of the oldest people here. I am not going to tell them I don’t have children.

After dinner, I volunteer to walk the two miles back to the campus with the young, fast-walking group. I struggle to keep up, but I’ll be damned if I say it. I can do this. I can fit in.

Are you ever embarrassed because you don’t have kids? Do you ever pretend you do? It’s easy when you’re among relative strangers. Everyone assumes people of a certain age are parents until you tell them otherwise.

I’m not proud of being childless. I feel like I messed up. Truly. I didn’t make motherhood happen. No matter how successful I might be otherwise, there’s this moment when a colleague asks, “How old are your kids (or grandkids) and I have to admit that I never had any. I’m not one of the childless-by-choice people who boast about not having children, who say, “I never wanted any, and I’m happy with my life.” With the implied if you don’t approve, that’s your problem.

To be honest, most people don’t react much when I tell them. They go back to their own conversations, and I go back to smiling and nodding. I can share a little bit in the conversation. I helped raise my stepchildren, I do have a niece and nephew, and hey, I was a kid once. But it’s not the same.

As I was getting on the plane to come home to Oregon, I overheard a conversation in which two strangers discovered they were both going to Portland to welcome new grandchildren. Sigh.

Do you ever feel like you need to hide the fact that you don’t have children? When does this happen? Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad and gotten caught? Please share in the comments. Let me know I’m not alone.

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In spite of a few awkward moments, I had a wonderful trip to Tucson. The weather was perfect, the workshop was wonderful, and I got to spend time with my husband’s cousin Adrienne and her husband John, delightful people I look forward to seeing again soon. They gave me a room, a car, and food and let me bask in the sun after months of Oregon rain. For more about my Arizona adventure, visit my Unleashed in Oregon blog.

Thank you to Lisa Manterfield for enriching the blog last week with your great post about aging without children. Let’s all support Lisa by following her Life Without Baby blog and buying her book. I’ll be posting a review soon and adding it to our resource list.

 

 

A Tale of Two Childless Writers

Have you ever heard of May Sarton? Sarton, who lived from 1912 to 1995, was a poet, novelist and memoirist in an era when most women stayed home and had babies. She published more than 50 books. I recently read her Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973. It describes a year she lived alone in a small town in New Hampshire. Although she battled loneliness and depression, she was convinced that solitude was essential to her career as a writer. She did not see how she could have succeeded if she were married and had children. The demands of motherhood did not allow the necessary time, energy or focus. Although many friends visited and she often went out for public appearances or to spend time with a mystery lover she called X, she was always anxious to be alone again.

A wonderful list of Sarton quotes at Goodreads.com includes this one: “It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented… the cry not so much for a ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”

I found myself having a lot in common with Sarton, except that I still believe it is possible to write and raise children. The early years might be difficult, but once the kids start school, you have guaranteed hours when someone else is taking care of them. It worked for me those years when Fred’s youngest son lived with us. He was just turning 12 when he moved in, and he was a self-sufficient kind of boy, so I was able to work all day on my own writing and my job writing for a local newspaper. I could have become more involved in Michael’s life, volunteering at school, baking cookies, or whatever, but my work was always a high priority. I often think God planned for me to be childless, so I could be a writer. Too often I burn dinner while I’m engrossed in my work. How would I care for a baby?

Of course, many moms these days need a job outside the home, and that makes it hard to do anything else. Sarton was wealthy. She had a maid, gardeners and a handyman taking care of things around the house while she spent hours perfecting a line of poetry.

Then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for Eat, Pray, Love and several other books. Readers of her work know she chose to be childless. In an interview for Omega, she says she struggled with her decision. Motherhood seemed to be the natural path, but it didn’t feel right for her.  She finally decided, “Okay, this is my path. I’ll take it with its risks and with its liberation because it’s mine.” Her decision, which left her free to travel, write and explore, feels more right every year, she says.

A lot changed between 1973, when the women’s movement was just beginning to blossom, and 2015. Women have more choices these days in lifestyles, careers, and reproductive decisions. Perhaps if they switched eras, Sarton and Gilbert would have made different choices.

What do you think? Can you devote yourself completely to your career and be a mother, too? Has not having children given you freedom to do things you wouldn’t have been able to do if you were raising a family? Or have you put everything on hold while still hoping to have children? Please comment.

Authors speak from the gray area between childless and childfree


I have read just about every “childfree” book ever published. Some are better than others, but they all dwell on the same theme: “We have wisely chosen to live our lives without the burden of children and those who do have children are sheep who have let themselves be brainwashed into the mommy-daddy track.” This book is different. These writers do not offer pat answers or smug assurances that childfree is the only way to go. Each has struggled with the question of why they don’t have children and how their lives would have been different if they had.
The writing is superb. Daum has done a masterful job of putting this anthology together. Its authors include Sigrid Nunez, PaulLisicky, Michelle Huneven, Pam Houston, and others just as talented and accomplished. They wrestle with issues such as childhood abuse, mental illness, the AIDs epidemic, abortion rights, infertility, and the different ways childless men and women are treated. I borrowed this book from the library, but I need to buy a copy; it’s too good not to own.
A few tidbits to ponder:
Sigrid Nunez writes about how she comes from a line of cruel preoccupied mothers. She did not want to repeat that. But also she did not want to give up her writing. She talks about famous women writers who did not have children or who did and neglected or resented them. She shares a quote from Alice Munro in a Paris Review interview: “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other . . . this was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”
Paul Lisicky, who is gay, writes about how in the midst of the AIDS crisis, men like him were just trying to stay alive and would not even consider spreading the virus to their potential children.
Pam Houston focuses on the right to choose whether or not to have children and why she chose freedom.
Elliott Holt, a woman, suffers from depression and fears she could not manage being a mother. But she loves being an aunt.
Tim Kreider notes that humans are the only creatures that deny the natural instinct to reproduce. He looks at possible reasons, including global conditions or evolutionary adaptation. In his own case, he says, he’s afraid he would love his children so much he would be perpetually terrified of something happening to them.
The stories are fascinating and raise many interesting questions to ponder. Best of all, they don’t pass judgment on anyone. Many of these writers have gone back and forth on the question of having children, just as many of the readers here at Childless by Marriage have. Their words offer comfort and insight into the troubling questions we are all dealing with.

Is a childless writer handicapped?

Is a writer–or any artist–without children lacking an important component for her art? Can she ever portray a complete human experience without having experienced giving birth and raising children? On the other hand, can a mother ever be free to fully pursue her art?

This discussion, which never ends, came up recently after the death of bestselling Irish author Maeve Binchy. Most of the news articles mentioned her childlessness. In an essay in the Daily Telegraph, writer Amanda Craig argued that Binchy would have been a better writer if she had been a mother, giving her a “deeper understanding of human nature.” Binchy, who struggled with infertility, had written about how much she wanted children but was unable to have them. It wasn’t a choice for her. But did it make her less of a writer? Many famous authors of the past, including Virginia Woolf, the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen, were childless. In their day, it was believed you couldn’t be both a successful writer and a mother. Which argument is right?

For me, I admit I have some gaps in my knowledge. At a meeting last night, things moved into talk about doing a program at the local schools. Suddenly the parents in our group had all these suggestions that obviously came from their experiences with their kids. I felt like a guy must feel in a discussion about makeup: clueless.

Although I haven’t had the same experiences, I have been a child, growing up with other children. I have been a stepmother, and I have been around other people’s kids and families all my life. That has to count for something. If I wanted to volunteer at the school, I could learn what those people at the meeting know. I have also raised dogs–which makes parents of humans roll their eyes–but this week, as I’m treating Annie’s third ear infection this year, I feel pretty darned motherly. (It’s getting much better, thank you.)

Let’s look at the other side of the equation. Because I live alone with my dog, I have been able to spend my day like this: I got up when I felt like it, did a little accounting before eating a leisurely breakfast with no one else to feed, spent over an hour playing the piano and starting to write a new song before going to a doctor’s appointment, decided on the spur of the moment to take myself to lunch at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the ocean, then came home and spent the next three hours finishing the song. Even without children, I have never had so much uninterrupted time. For songwriting, I need complete concentration. I need to be able to keep going over the song, smoothing out the bumps until I can sing and play it with confidence, and that takes hours.

Whether it’s writing, music, art or whatever our passion, it is easier without children. Of course, when we’re done, we wish we had somebody to share it with, but let’s be honest. A childless woman has a lot more freedom to create. Whatever grief or loss we might feel, that is a blessing for which we should be grateful.

Your thoughts?