Childfree or Childless, We’re All NotMoms

“Are you childless by choice or by chance?” That was the question women asked each other at the NotMom Summit last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. For once, no one was asking how many children we had or when we were going to start having babies. We already knew that the answers to those questions were none and probably never.

A vast gray area exists between women who have never wanted to have children and women who would give anything to have them, between women who rage about how difficult it is to get a doctor to tie their tubes for permanent sterilization and women who spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments in the hope of getting pregnant. Keynote speaker Jody Day, founder of Gateway-Women, has published a list of “Fifty Ways Not to Be a Mother”  and says she could probably list another 50.

We shared stories of troubled childhoods; physical problems such as fibroid tumors, endometriosis and cancer; spouses who did not want to have children; choosing art over motherhood, and women who just plain didn’t want to have any babies. We laughed and cried at different places depending on where we were in our childless “journey.” When you desperately want a child, it’s difficult to applaud someone who just got her tubes tied or who boasts about being happily childfree.

In her talk, Day told us about an abortion she had early in life when she truly didn’t want to have a child. Later, when she wanted to conceive, she was never able to get pregnant again. Over the years, she said she has worked through her grief and come to a place where she can embrace being childfree.

The other keynote speaker, Marcia Drut-Davis, a bit older than most of us, told us about how she was vilified when she admitted on television that she did not want to have children. Her presentation was hysterically funny, and yet I knew that we had opposite views. Not only do I still wish I had children, but I’m oh-my-God Catholic and actually agree with Pope Francis and his views on family life. And yet, I loved her, and she was sweet to me when we met.

I heard later that Drut-Davis was criticized by some as not really being childfree because she had stepchildren. That’s nuts. Stepchildren are not the same. I expected criticism to come from the childless side. I keep thinking about the woman from Montreal who froze her eggs before having surgery for cancer and has never been able to get pregnant. I see her tears and think, hold on Marcia, do you know how hard it is for her to hear what you’re saying?

We had a pajama party Friday night to view a rough cut of a film titled “To Kid or Not to Kid,” produced by and starring Maxine Trump (no relation!). In the opening scene, she lifts her shirt to show us the scars from surgeries in her teens on her Fallopian tubes and uterus. She is not even sure she can get pregnant, but she wants to make sure she never does because she does not want to be a mother. In the film, she tells her husband and her mother how she feels about having children. We watch as her husband has a vasectomy. She meets with a young woman who has seen one doctor after another trying to have sterilization surgery. No one will do it.

The film is very pro-childfree. I considered going to bed instead of watching the whole thing. After all, so much of it clashes with my religious beliefs and my personal desires. And yet, I was mesmerized and sympathetic. Maxine, sitting there with us in her pajamas, has clearly suffered over this issue and knows how risky it is to open herself up to how the world at large might react in our pro-motherhood society. Her film uncovers many issues that nobody ever talks about.

By choice or by chance? Once we have made our choice or accepted that we will never have children, we have a lot in common. People say stupid things to us: “Why don’t you just adopt?” “You’ll change your mind.” “Women without children are immature and selfish.” We all feel left out when our parent friends are too busy with their kids to spend time with us. We all get sick of looking at other people’s baby pictures. We all worry about ending up old and alone. We’re all minorities in a world full of mothers.

There was considerable talk about the journey from “childless” to “childfree,” about reaching a place where one can celebrate the freedom that comes with not being a parent. I don’t expect to ever declare myself “childfree.” I wanted children and I still feel bad about not having them. The best outcome for me is simply to be at peace with how life turned out and enjoy the many blessings that I have.

At the end of the conference, motivational speaker DeLores Pressley, childless by early hysterectomy, got us dancing and shouting affirmations along the lines of “I am wonderful.” Then she had us form two circles facing each other. Oh boy, one of those touchy-feely exercises, right? We were to look directly into the eyes of the woman across from us for 10 seconds, until DeLores rang a bell, then move to the next woman. At first we giggled and squirmed, but then tears appeared in many of the women’s eyes and we started hugging each other before we moved on. As instructed, I tried to send a silent message. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” My eyes filled with tears, too. It’s okay to cry. It’s also okay to dance.

I will be posting thoughts from the conference for weeks to come. There’s so much to talk about. I gave a general overview of my trip on this week’s Unleashed in Oregon blog post. Read it here.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this childfree/childless situation. Can you be friends with someone who is happy to never have kids? Or does it hurt too much? Could you ever reach a place where you declare yourself happy to not have children? Let’s talk about it.

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NotMoms Meet to Talk about Childless Life

Tomorrow I’m flying to Cleveland, Ohio for the NotMom Summit, a conference for childless/childfree women. I have never gone that far from home without a husband, but at this point I’ve been alone so long I don’t even remember how to travel with another person.

It might be nice to have a companion, but I like my space and my freedom. I can’t imagine traveling with children. It’s hard enough getting myself organized and arranging for my dog’s care. Foods, pills, dog-sitters, feeling guilty for leaving her.

My dear departed husband would have wanted to come along. If he had, I would have spent the whole conference worrying about him. He’d be asking, “How long is this workshop going to take?” “What took you so long?” and “Why can’t I come to the pajama party?” And that was before he got Alzheimer’s. If he stayed home, I’d make myself crazy preparing his meals in advance and checking in with him by phone every day.

Being unfettered is nice. I’m trying not to feel like a weird person because I like to travel on my own.

I will have to call my father and pray that he stays healthy until I get home. He doesn’t understand what this conference is about. NotMoms?

It’s a little strange for me, too. I’m used to writers’ conferences, where everybody’s asking “What do you write?” and stressing about pitching their books to editors and agents. Keynote speakers tell their stories of how they went from rejection to the best-seller list. Workshop leaders talk about plot, characters, marketing, revision, etc. The books in the bookstore are all about how to be a writer–because every other writer is writing a book about how to be a writer. I wrote one, too. Took it to conferences, taught workshops, sold copies to wannabe writers, of whom maybe 2 percent might actually write and publish anything.

But this conference is so different. We’re going to talk about real life. We’re not all writers. The thing we have in common is not having children. What we do for a living is irrelevant, except that maybe not having children allows us to follow our passions more freely. I’m not sure what the opening question will be. “Childless by choice or by circumstance?” “Are you infertile, too?” At least, for once, we won’t be the only ones in the room without offspring.

I’ll be selling my Childless by Marriage book, and I will probably buy several other people’s books about being “notmoms.” But we’ll talk about relationships, money, aging, health and other real-life topics with people who understand. How often does that happen in our day-to-day lives? Where else can we be totally honest about this childless business?

I’ll take lots of notes and share what I learn. If you’re going to be in the Cleveland area this weekend, you can still reserve a spot. For information, click here.

 

 

Are you ready to accept childlessness?

I don’t live every day thinking about being childless. I know it has a huge effect on my life. While my friends are busy with their children and grandchildren, I spend my days writing, playing music, and maintaining myself, the dog, my home, and my elderly father. They post pictures on Facebook of their family gatherings. I post my latest publication. Come the holidays, most people my age expect to be with their kids. I usually play music at church, then go home to an empty house. But I don’t think about it all the time. I don’t wake up in the morning weeping because I’ll never be a mom. I used to, but not anymore. I promise a time will come when you won’t either.

I pray the first four lines of the Serenity Prayer every morning. My lack of children is definitely one of the things I cannot change that I need to accept. I wanted children, but it’s too late now. I have a good life as a non-mother. I’d love to be one of those grandma ladies, but you know what? I feel much younger and freer than most women my age who have children and grandchildren. I like that.

Then I read this quote from Jessica Lange in the August/September issue of the AARP magazine.

“Having children gives you a perspective you didn’t have before. You are no longer the center of the universe. It opened my heart, made me a different person. Every move you make is with someone else in mind. I loved being a mother more than anything else in the world, and being a grandmother is even more fun. There’s the chance to do it again. It’s in the perfect order of nature: You raise your children, and then the next generation comes along They are the redemptive force in nature. Plus, it’s easier!”

Here’s the thing. I believe what she says. Every word of it. But I don’t dare dwell on it or I’ll go nuts. I tell myself I’m supposed to do other things with my life, and that’s that. I need to accept my situation. That works better some days than others.

How does it make you feel? I apologize if I made you cry, but you don’t have to hide your tears here. What percentage of your life do you think about not having children? Is it something you can change or something you need to accept? Let’s talk about it.

 

 

Treasure the Childless Life You Have

Earthquakes in Mexico. Hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other places, wildfires burning up the western United States, terrorist attacks everywhere. The news keeps bringing more shades of awful. Is the world ending or what? We’re safe so far on the Oregon coast, but the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if the long-feared tsunami came today.

At the beginning of September, people now dealing with natural disasters were alive. They had homes and jobs. They shopped, ate out, went to church, played sports, and made love. Now it’s all over. Many of those who survived have lost everything, including loved ones. Life is short and unpredictable, my friends.

A woman named Nita recently wrote on the Childless Not by Choice Facebook site that her husband had passed away this year at 64. A few months later, her sister-in-law died, and now her brother-in-law is dying, all of cancer, all too young. In the midst of her grief, she urged people, “Please make the most out of your lives now, do things you enjoy together, laugh together, love together, make amends with family members whether or not children are involved because after it is all over with, you won’t get another chance.”

She’s so right. We don’t know what’s going to happen. If we spend all our days grieving for what might have been, we never get around to appreciating what—and who—we already have. Sometimes we just have to curse a little and move on. You didn’t get the life you expected, but take a look at the life you have. Don’t waste it. I know how hard it is. I was mired in anger and self-pity for years. But give it a try. The water could rise or the earth start to shake any minute.

I hope you’re all okay. If you’re in one of the disaster zones, you’re in my prayers. Consider this: If you don’t have children to take care of, you’re freer to help those who do. Please be safe.

Me, I’m taking care of my dog, who is huddling close, frightened by the thunder and lightning happening right now in our first big storm of the season.

***

On a more cheerful subject, I leave for the NotMom Summit in Cleveland, Ohio in two weeks. Imagine a conference where nobody is talking about their kids because they don’t have any. I’ll be speaking about aging without children. If you have thoughts about what I should include, please share them in the comments. And, if you’re feeling adventurous, join us Oct. 6-8. Tickets are still available.

Another Man Drops the No-Kids Bomb

Yesterday at lunch I heard that a friend’s daughter’s fiancé has announced he does not want to have children. The person telling me this didn’t want me to say anything about it, and he quickly changed the subject. He was probably supposed to keep it a secret. And he probably didn’t understand why I got so angry.

Why does this happen so much? People keep writing to me about mates who won’t procreate. They share heartbreaking stories, and I don’t know how to comfort them. They ask whether they should leave and look for someone else to make babies with or stay and remain childless. Or will he/she maybe change their mind? They tell me about forced abortions and failed fertility treatments, about parents who complain about not having grandchildren, and about how awful they feel at baby showers and other child-centered events. I remember how I felt in my 30s and 40s. So hurt, so angry. Age has made it easier, but it still hurts. Just last week, I saw a young man down the street and realized I could have had a grandson that age, and oh God, I wanted so bad for it to be true.

I realized that my lunch companions knew nothing about my Childless by Marriage book or this blog. They knew I didn’t have kids, but they didn’t know why. They were both great-grandparents with pictures on their phones to show me. In their world, everyone has children, including people who probably shouldn’t.

I could see they were not following me, so I shut up, but I’m still angry. I have known this young engaged woman since she was little. She’s smart, beautiful, funny and loving. She lived with her fiancé a long time before he proposed marriage. She left her home and family to live on the other side of the U.S. with him. The wedding is soon. She has already made the arrangements, already bought her dress. Now he tells her he doesn’t want children? What is she supposed to do now? I want to throttle the guy. What right does he have to take motherhood away from her? I hope he changes his tune, but the fact that he said it will always be hanging out there. He’s not old, does not have kids from another marriage. So what’s the deal?

I hate that this keeps happening.

I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell, but I can’t help it.  It’s just not fair.

I know you understand.

Sometimes childlessness physically hurts

When you have children, you won’t have cramps anymore. That’s what my mother used to tell me as I sat bent over double, sharp pains slicing through my lower abdomen. Every 28 days, waves of hurt would leave me gasping. Gynecologists never found anything wrong; it was just “cramps.” They’d get better when I grew up and had a family. Except I didn’t.

From age 13 to menopause at age 53, I suffered horrible cramps. My best friend stayed home when she got her period, but my mom did not believe in babying me. I took those cramps to school and work. I suffered through algebra tests and physical education classes, through interviews and deadlines.

You might say, “Why didn’t you just take something for it?” I took what was available at the time. Aspirin did nothing. We took the ’70s version of Midol, really just aspirin with caffeine, which wasn’t much help either. I tried getting drunk, which left me bombed and still hurting. I didn’t just need a pain reliever; I needed an “anti-inflammatory” drug. Ibuprofen was not available until near the end of my first marriage. And then I needed a prescription. The first time I felt the relief from that miracle drug, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to hug my doctor. And when it became available over-the-counter, oh my God. I still experienced cramps, but at least I could do something to mute them a little.

What I’m saying is my cramps were horrible, and I never experienced the permanent relief that childbirth might bring. Toward the end of her life, my mother confessed that she had never had cramps, so she didn’t know what I had been feeling or whether giving birth to me made any difference for her.

Dysmenorrhea is the formal medical term for painful periods. The sharp pains are caused by the uterine muscle constricting and tightening. Most experts say that the stretching of childbirth eases the cramps. An article at Parents.com http://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/changing/benefits-of-pregnancy/ suggests that childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins are the hormones which direct the uterus to contract during labor and may also be involved in monthly menstrual pain.

If there’s something wrong, such as endometriosis, periods can become absolute agony. It’s important to get medical treatment, but for plain old cramps, the only hope seems to be medication and motherhood.

I’m no medical expert. I have read comments online from women whose periods have gotten worse after pregnancy, but in general it seems to offer relief—relief we will not experience if we never have children.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Have you experienced killer cramps? Have you seen relief via childbirth? I would love to hear your experiences in this area.

BTW, menopause was a picnic compared to my monthly periods and now my cramps are gone, so that’s something to look forward to.

Male readers, I know this is one of the girl subjects you don’t want to hear about, but maybe someone you love is having cramps right now. Give her some love. They hurt like hell.

Motherhood–the Hero’s Journey I Didn’t Take

Pregnancy fascinates me. It has all the elements of great fiction: In the opening, something has changed: She is pregnant. Ups and downs follow: joyful anticipation, morning sickness, picking out a name, daydreaming about what the baby will look like, emergency room trips with break-through bleeding, baby showers, Braxton Hicks contractions, the beginning of labor. Pain mixed with euphoria, fear, and suspense. Will the baby be all right? will the mother survive? And then the happy ending. Or not. Either way, it’s a heck of a story.

In her book The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart compares pregnancy and childbirth to the Hero’s Journey, the basic plot that literature teachers insist lies underneath every classic tale. Like a knight on a mission, the mother travels into a strange land on a quest. There is no turning back, and once the journey is completed, her life will be changed forever.

Childbirth is the ultimate rite of passage, Maushart says.

And I missed it. But reading about pregnancy and childbirth, at least now, when it’s too late for me, is not all too different from following the story of a team climbing Mount Everest, a couple crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, or that guy who sawed his own hand off when he got trapped alone on a mountain-climbing expedition. It’s fascinating. I want to know about every cramp and scrape. I want to read about how they were starving, how they carried on despite injuries, and how they hallucinated and thought they saw angels. Yeah, yeah, tell me more. Let me share their joy when they reached the top of the mountain or the sandy shore or when the rescuers came and he knew he was going to live. Tell me about how miraculous it felt to finally see and hold the baby that had been growing in the mother’s belly all these months.

But at this point in my life, I don’t want to actually DO IT. Of course I want the happy ending, but I’m not about to climb a mountain, row across the Atlantic or have a baby. Let’s see, nine months of being sick, fat, and out of whack–and wait, no caffeine?–followed by being torn inside out while expelling a little person who will need constant attention for the next 18 years. I’m just too old for all that. Sometimes taking care of my dog is too much.

Obviously the trick is to have children early in life, before you really understand what you’re getting into. Just like they send 18-year-olds off to war. If they were in their 40s or 50s, they might refuse to go. Hey, I might get killed, it’s 120 degrees in the Middle East, and I’m too busy doing other stuff. Maybe in a way, that’s why some of our partners who are already in their 40s hesitate to have babies with us. They see how hard it will be, especially if they’ve done it before.

I think what I feel bad about now is that almost everyone else took that baby-making hero’s journey, and I didn’t. Every day is another reunion of the I-made-a-baby club. “See, here he is. I made a life. You made a, what? A book, a quilt, a pie, a PhD? Yeah, but I made a person. My grave will say ‘beloved mother.’ Yours will just have dates.”

Good point. Even if the moms complain that their babies have turned into bratty teenagers who argue and slam the door in their faces or adults who forget to send them a card on Mother’s Day, there’s that underlying shared experience that I will never share. I didn’t climb the mountain, didn’t cross the ocean, didn’t slice off my hand to save my own life. I have no stretch marks, no episiotomy scars, and no child.

We women still have a lot in common. We can talk about work, PMS, clothes, aging parents, food, houses, etc., but sooner or later, they’ll start talking about Cub Scouts or swim team or school clothes, and all I can contribute is, well, nothing. As they make plans for play dates and sleepovers, I wander off to talk to the childless friend who has dogs or the old lady whose kids are all grown up and moved to Minnesota or the guy watching football on TV.

It’s a gigantic sorority for which I will never qualify, any more than I belong with the mountain climbers or ocean rowers. So I have to pursue other quests, take other journeys. That’s not so terrible, not from the perspective of later life. Perhaps if we’re not having babies, it’s because we’re meant to do something else. Or we’re meant to embark on the pregnancy journey later. There’s no reason you can’t pursue more than one quest in a lifetime.

If you never become a mother or father, what might your mission be?