Childlessness is Not a New Thing

Childlessness is not a 21st-century aberration. It turns out couples and single women have gone without children for as long as anyone has been keeping track. The Baby Boom was an anomaly that made us all think the way our parents did it was the standard by which all things should be judged.

Oh Lord, you’re thinking. Sue has lost it now. Big words, history lessons. Bear with me. I am reading a new book titled How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children by historian Rachel Chrastil. As you might guess, it’s the kind of book that’s slow reading, with lots of charts, footnotes and a source list that goes on for days. But I am learning so much.

As early as the 1500s, Chrastil writes, women delayed marriage for varying reasons. Some were trying to save up for a sufficient dowry to attract a husband. By putting off marriage and childbirth, women then, like now, could work, save money, and claim a place in society. Of course, if they waited too long, they might end up childless. Some decided they did not ever want the constraints of marriage. In those days, married women gave up all their rights to own property or manage their finances to their husbands. So-called “singlewomen” had more independence.

In the early 20th century, wars, the great flu epidemic, depressions, and other problems also caused couples to bear fewer children. Couples who suffered from infertility did not have the options available now. But those were not the only reasons. Women were claiming more rights, more autonomy. Remember, the suffragettes were marching for the right to vote.

Chrastil charts a drop in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like now, one in five women did not have children. Why have we not heard about this? The answer is simple: They had no children or grandchildren to pass on their stories. “They fade out of our family history,” she says.

Even those who did have children were having fewer because they wanted more out of life than motherhood. But people didn’t discuss any of this in public. Even as recently as the 1960s, when I hit puberty, folks didn’t talk about pregnancy or periods or why “Aunt Jo” never had any children.

What about being childless by marriage? I’m halfway through the book. In the parts I have read so far, Chrastil doesn’t address the subject head-on, but she does note that there are “many gradations of voluntary childlessness.” Among fertile couples, she classifies couples as those who agree to have children, who agree to postpone having children, or who do not agree on the subject. I assume most of us here fall into that third category. I hope she writes more directly about this in the later pages.

Meanwhile, did you know birth control did not start with “the pill?” It might not have been as easy, but people had ways to prevent conception–besides pulling out before ejaculation or the ever-popular “Sorry, not tonight.” In the early times, women also used various herbs and prolonged breastfeeding to space out their children.

In the 1800s, couples used soapy douches, dried gut condoms, diaphragms, vaginal sponges and pessaries (a device that blocks access to the cervix). They were illegal in some places, but people used them and didn’t talk about it. Check out this website for more on early birth control. 

None of these methods were as reliable as today’s birth control pills, but they did slow the process, especially when combined with the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse with the woman’s least fertile periods. If those failed, there was abortion, not legal but definitely done. Chrastil writes, “In the United States in the early twentieth century, estimates range between 250,000 and 1 million illegal abortions a year.”

The baby boom, which happened in a period of economic growth and post-war happiness, was not the norm.  Looking back on those “Leave It to Beaver” years, we’re likely to think that’s how it always was. June and Ward got married young, bore their standard two children, and raised them in a big house with a white picket fence. Ward never said, “I don’t think I want children,” and June certainly didn’t rip off her apron and declare she’d rather have a career than bake cookies for their sons. But that’s not the way it always was, and it’s certainly not the way it is now.

We have more factors to consider these days. We have reliable birth control, and abortion is legal. Far more couples divorce and remarry, creating blended families and situations where one spouse has children and the other does not. Women have more career options. Both men and women are inclined to delay marriage and childbirth until they have finished their education and gotten their careers established. It’s a new world, but it’s also an old one.

We’re not the first childless generation after all.

So, what do you think about that? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The parent/nonparent divide grows wider

Certain occasions emphasize the divide between parents and non-parents. I guess it’s unavoidable. At the reception after my father’s funeral, his Iranian neighbors were trying to figure out which of the young adults were my children. I had to tell them, “I don’t have any children.” They seemed confused and shocked. It was like I’d told them I had just been released from prison or maybe that I used to be a man. They clearly didn’t know what to say. I excused myself to get some more food.

They were probably talking about me that night. Poor thing, no children, no grandchildren.

I’m sorry to keep talking about my dead father, but his passing has brought up all kinds of feelings about being childless. At the church, I sat at the end of the row by myself next to my brother’s family. Even my father, my “date” for most family events in recent years, was gone. When my niece carried her sleeping one-year-old up to the altar to do one of the readings, I wished with all my heart that I could do that. I’m well into menopause, but the longing hasn’t gone away.

Did I want to deal with her poopy diaper later? No, but I’d take the smelly with the sweet.

I kind of hoped at least one of my stepchildren would come. No.

Now my father’s house is being cleaned out for sale. It’s the house where we grew up, and this feels like another big loss, even though it’s unavoidable–unless I want to move back to San Jose and live in it, which I don’t. There’s so much stuff! I have brought home many treasures, and I’m glad for the things that my brother’s kids are inheriting. But I feel sad that my own children and grandchildren aren’t here to share the memories and keepsakes. Then I look around at my own house and think where will all this stuff go?

When you don’t have a child, you don’t lose just one person. You lose that child’s partner, in-laws, children and grandchildren, too. Think about it.

Forgive me for being gloomy. I’m grieving. I need to you carry the conversation this week.

  1. Have you had moments when people were shocked to find out you didn’t have children? What did they say? How did you deal with it?

2. Have you felt like the odd duck at family affairs?

3. Can you tell me something to make me smile?

This morning I received a comment on an old post that was sexist, racist and just plain mean. I’m not sure whether or not the guy was serious. I think he was, which is horrifying. I did not approve that comment. We are not having that here. But I am happy to hear from anyone who does not spew hate and stupidity. Or those who try to sell products, especially magic potions and spells to get us pregnant. So many of you have written wonderful comments, and I look forward to reading more. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childless couple gives it all to charity

“Childless adults make huge impact with charitable donations” is the title of a recent article in The Toronto Star. Writer Marsha Barber talks about how a childless couple, Margaret and Charles Juravinski, are creating an endowment fund of $100 million to support health research.

One of Barber’s friends, also childless, willed her house and land to the Indigenous community in her area.

Barber goes on to discuss how childless people give far more to charity than those without children. Parents are focused on providing for their families, both during their lives and after they die.

My first reaction to this was, ha, childless or not, I don’t have a fortune to donate to anyone. But wait. I give regularly to my church, the Alzheimer’s Association, and agencies that feed the poor. I have enough to spare a bit every month. Maybe if I had children, I’d be using every penny of my income for them. Whatever I could save might go for their education. Isn’t that what parents do?

In my will, I leave most of my “estate” to my stepchildren and my niece and nephew. I also specify that my instruments and music supplies go to needy music students and my books to the local libraries. That’s something. Honestly, except for my writing, I don’t care where it goes when I die.

If I had a fortune, I’d love to give it to a charity that can really help people in need. I won’t have children who are counting on an inheritance.

I talk about this in my Childless by Marriage book, noting some of the crazy things childless people do with their money. For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw is said to have bequeathed millions to anyone who could devise a new alphabet that made more sense than the one we have. It should have 40 letters, he specified. Louis da Camara, a Portuguese man with no family, picked strangers out of Lisbon phone book to receive his wealth. Ruth Lilly, a poet, left $100 million to a poetry magazine that had repeatedly rejected her work. She also gave millions to various charities.

Without children, if we are lucky enough to make some money and keep it—no natural disasters, health crises, or investments gone awry—we can do whatever we want with it, including giving it away.

Or we could not worry about making any money because we don’t have any children to support. Investments? What for? Life insurance? Why?

Our choice.

How about you? Does not having children enable you to give freely to charity now or when you die? What do you say when people state that childless people are selfish? If you could give money to anyone, who would it be?

Did you resolve your childless dilemma?

Dear friends,

I have been working on compiling 12 years of Childless by Marriage blog posts and comments for an ebook containing the best of the blog, organized by topics. Being a longtime editor, I’m trying to fix all the typos, mine and yours, and check the links to make sure they still work. Don’t you hate it when you get excited about a link and then it doesn’t go anywhere? With almost 700 posts, it’s a slow process. But I think it’s a worthy endeavor. At least everything will be up-to-date.

Speaking of up-to-date, I am finding lots of comments from readers who were in the throes of figuring out what to do about their childless situation. Leave or stay? Try to get pregnant or not? How do they manage the unbearable grief? Now that years have passed, I really want to know what happened.

Here are a couple of examples from an Oct. 9, 2009 post titled “Is He Worth It?”

Anonymous

Nov 12, 2009

I left my homeland, a good job and great friends to be with my partner. I’ve known from the start that he will probably never want to have children. It never used to bother me, as I used to feel the same. But the older I get and in particular now that I’m living in a country where I have no family of my own and no close friends, I’m starting to feel slightly different about motherhood. I would never pressure him to have a child with me to satisfy my needs. But sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. I do love him. What are my options? Stay with him and hopefully have a good life with him, even if childless? Leave him, and perhaps find a man willing to have a family with me? How could I though, when my partner is the one I love. I really thought I was more or less decided against the idea of having children. So why am I starting to feel differently . . . ?

torn

Nov 30, 2009·

I am so glad to have found this website, as all the other blogs seem to tell me to leave my partner. I love him to pieces and he loves me, but he is not considering having other children. He had an unwanted child at a very young age and does not feel he is capable of truly feeling in his heart that he wants to have another child. He says he prefers to not have another child if it is not something he truly wants as he knows how hurtful this would be to the child. He also feels like he has given so much so young that he wants to become stable in life before engaging in such a hard decision. I understand and I never really had the pull to have children before I met him. I don’t know if I would have that desire with another man. So I am left with this dilemma within myself. What is more important, risking possibly wanting a baby with someone that I don’t know that I would want one with or staying with the man that I love? At present, I am happy, but I don’t know if that will change. I guess the question is do I live for the present or for the future. I have made the decision to see a psychologist on this issue before making a decision. I hope you will all find peace with your decision.

So what happened? Are they still with their partners? Have they found a way to be mothers? If you’re out there, Torn and Anonymous, and you recognize these comments as yours, please bring us up to date, either at the old post, this one, or tell me at sufalick@gmail.com.

If you did not comment on the subject at the time, you still can. Scroll down to the end of the comments on that post and add your thoughts.

If you commented on any previous post and would like to bring us up to date, please do so, whether everything or nothing has changed, whether you have several children now or none. Hearing how things turned out for others helps the rest of us decide what to do.

I look forward to reading the rest of your stories.

Sue

P.S. Reading the comments from the period before and after my husband died in 2011 touched my heart. You were all so kind. I thank you for that. I’m grateful for every one of you gathered here.

 

 

 

Lower U.S. birthrate sparks warning

Auguste Meyrat, a Dallas English teacher and conservative writer, says the U.S. birthrate has fallen to 1.7 children per woman, well below the 2.1 replacement rate, and that’s going to be a problem. His article, “How a Shift to Majority-Childless Adults Will Deeply Change American Culture,” was published in The Federalist on June 5.

Meyrat writes, “Not only does low fertility lead to a society dominated by the elderly, with young people shouldering a heavier economic and cultural burden, but it also means a society increasingly dominated by childless adults. This latter development warrants far more attention than it normally receives, because it will determine the character of American life.”

“Not having kids makes you a different kind of person,” Meyrat says. Parents are required to sacrifice for their children, to work to support them, and to schedule their lives around their needs.

Apparently those of us without children are free to do whatever we want. We are more selfish, more liberal, and more anti-social. We can spend our days binge-watching Netflix and playing video games, spend our evenings in bars, and throw money around like it grows on trees. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Meyrat notes that kids connect their parents to the community. The childless rarely go to libraries, parks or community events. Politically, parents “shun controversy and activism and embrace the status quo.” Not like us crazy folks without children.

He concludes that we need both the stability of parents and the energy of non-parents, but if things lean too far in the childless direction, “communities start to dissipate and people become disconnected from one another, their immediate surroundings, and even themselves.”

I’m paraphrasing. You might want to read the whole essay. Then come back and discuss this. Do you think people without children are really that much different from people who are parents? Are we more liberal, less responsible, and less sociable? Or are we a mixed bag like everyone else?

As more people remain childless, how do you think it will affect our society? Will it make a difference besides the obvious lack of younger people?

I welcome your comments.

Are single, childless women happier?

Some days I feel as if I have said everything I could possibly say on the subject of childlessness. Then I realize that I can’t ignore these articles that keep showing up in my Google alerts claiming that single, childless women are happier than married women with children. I read the headline, think “baloney” and move on, but I guess we need to talk about it.

The articles are based on a book by behavioral scientist Paul Dolan titled Happily Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life. Dolan says that marriage is good for men because it “calms them down.” But women are less happy in marriage because of the added responsibilities they take on, including doing the lion’s share of childcare and housework. He bases his conclusions on “The American Time Use Study” published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Well, we know women still do most of the work at home, but isn’t there some way to balance the responsibilities instead of remaining alone for life? I don’t think people are meant to be alone. One article shows a photo of Oprah Winfrey, single, childless, and successful, with Ava Duvernay at a Netflix premiere. Sure, they look happy. But ask most older women with no one coming up behind them or standing beside them if they’d rather have a family. I think they would.

This article in The Glowup, one of many on the subject, offers this: “We do have some good longitudinal data following the same people over time, but I am going to do a massive disservice to that science and just say: if you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother,” Dolan said.

“[Men] take less risks, you earn more money at work, and you live a little longer,” said Dolan. “She, on the other hand, has to put up with that, and dies sooner than if she never married. The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.”

Although he admits that some women are unhappy because they want to be married and have children and are having trouble making that happen, Dolan cautions that marriage is not as glorious as people think. “You see a single woman of 40, who has never had children—‘Bless, that’s a shame, isn’t it? Maybe one day you’ll meet the right guy and that’ll change.’ No, maybe she’ll meet the wrong guy and that’ll change. Maybe she’ll meet a guy who makes her less happy and healthy, and die sooner.”

Well sure, maybe. Or maybe she’ll met someone wonderful. Maybe her husband and children will make her very happy.

Check out this article on the subject:

Then read this editorial offering the reasons why wives and mothers are not thrilled with their status.

Then try this YouTube discussion that looks at both sides of the argument.

Your turn. What do you think? Are single, childless women happier? Is marriage better for men than for women? Does this make you feel any better about not having children? Please comment.

 

Would You Wear a Ribbon for Childlessness?

CNBC Ribbon TransparencyDear readers:

How do you feel about wearing a ribbon showing the world that you are childless not by choice? Brandi Lytle of the NotSoMommy website and blog has asked if I would be willing to display this olive green ribbon in a show of sisterhood with hers and other sites for people who are involuntarily childless. Many of these sites focus on infertility. Here at Childless by Marriage, some of us are perfectly fertile but have other issues, such as uncooperative partners. So I said I’d ask you before I agreed to add the ribbon to my site. So far the ribbon is just a “virtual” one. There’s nothing to pin on our shirts, but Brandi is hoping to work that out.

Why olive green, you ask. Well, Brandi says, it’s not being used for another cause, it stays well away from the baby-oriented pink or blue, and she has found in her research that olive green is the color of peace and wisdom. “It does not stress the eyes, it relaxes the nervous system, calms the spirit, and enhances one’s mood and behavior, and studies show it can decrease fatigue, depression, and anxiety.”

Brandi continues: “Now, it’s time to start the campaign so that the Childless Not by Choice Awareness Ribbon will be recognized by our tribe, as well as the public. Fabulous ones, I pray our CNBC community connect with this new olive green awareness ribbon, share it on social media, and wear it proudly. Because we have endured much heartache and yet, are finding a way to create a new, beautiful and courageous existence. We should be proud of that! We should show the world what it really means to be childless not by choice…”

Read her whole post here.

Whether or not we go with the ribbon, I encourage you to explore Brandi’s NotSoMommy website. She has a great list of resources and a steady supply of engaging stories on her blog. Brandi’s on Facebook, too.

I’m not a real fan of ribbons and outward displays. If one were to wear an olive green ribbon, people would inevitably ask what it’s for, and then would come the questions we all hate. But perhaps in certain circles, it could be a wonderful sign of solidarity.

So, dear friends, what do you think?

***

While I was friending Brandi on Facebook, I saw that my stepdaughter’s son just got married. I watched the wedding video on Facebook. My husband’s ex and other people I don’t know were there. It was a small courthouse wedding. As far as I could see, the groom’s sister and uncles were also missing, but it still gives me a pang. I was part of the family for what feels like a minute (25 years), and now I’m not. Big sigh.

On to happier things!

My friend Theresa Wisner just published her book about her life working on fishing and research boats. Titled Daughter of Neptune, it’s wonderful. Check it out and enjoy this story of a childless woman who has made a fabulous life for herself.