In a society where parenting is expected, some of us do not have children because our partners are unable or unwilling to make babies. That's what this blog and my book, Childless by Marriage, are about. Let's talk about what it's really like.
This morning, I’m going to the hospital for an ultrasound test. It’s the same kind of test women look forward to having to see their babies growing in the womb. Oh look, there’s his fingers. I can hear his heartbeat! They go home with a picture to show everyone. Of course sometimes, the test turns tragic, showing no baby or a baby that is deformed or has died. To me that’s worse than never having a baby.
But it’s not that kind of ultrasound. Whatever else might be inside me, there is no baby. The technicians will be seeking the cause of my persistent stomach problems. I’m torn between hoping they find something—finally an answer!—and hoping they don’t. At least I’m pretty sure this will not be the kind where they stick a wand up your vagina. Been there, hated that. Let’s keep it all on the outside, please.
It’s not my first ultrasound, but I’m always a little sad that I’ll never have the one where I see my baby. Not that I’d know what it was. In my experience, it’s all a bunch of fuzzy dots that don’t make any sense to me. When I did this three years ago for basically the same problem, it was a fascinating tour through my parts. There’s your liver, there’s your gall bladder, there’s your kidneys . . .
Anyway. I’ll be going alone. I won’t be anesthetized, so there’s no reason I can’t drive myself. But this morning, hungry from fasting, headachy from lack of caffeine, and a bit scared of what they might find, I wish I had someone to hold my hand. I wish my late husband Fred was still here.
Lately I’ve been getting a taste of what it’s like to be single and childless at 66. I drove myself to the ER when this started with incredible pain one night in December. A friend took me for my colonoscopy/endoscopy three weeks ago. Afterward, I was back to being alone, even though the instructions said to have someone with you for 24 hours. There is no family member nearby to whom it would naturally fall to take care of me.
Would having children solve this? Not really. My friends’ grown children live far away, work full-time and are busy with their own children. Besides, I’m not sure I’d want a grown-up child treating me like an old person and telling me what to do. In fact, I’m sure I don’t want that.
So what am I saying? Having an ultrasound for something other than a baby makes me sad. And build up your support network, whether it be family or friends. No matter how independent you think you are, you’re going to need it.
I’m confident that whatever they find, I’ll be okay. If I can survive my daily speed walks with Annie up and down the hills here, I’m pretty healthy. We both are.
This week I have asked my friend Kristin Cole to tell us her story and discuss and the Legacy Project she is working on. Says Kristin: “There are many reasons women have children. There are even more reasons why women do not. I’m interested in focusing on one aspect of not having children, either by choice or circumstance, and that is the concept of legacy. What legacy do childless women leave behind? I want to explore this subject and facilitate the creation of legacy through the sharing of women’s stories through images and words.”
Kristin is childless by choice, but her words about what we will leave behind certainly apply to all of us, whether or not we chose to live without parenting.
What will Your Legacy Be
By Kristin Cole
I began to think about my life and the larger impact it could have in my mid-twenties. Through my role at the National Credit Union Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, I met people from all over the world who were living both big and small, yet passionate and meaningful lives. They had the most inspiring stories of travel, volunteerism, cultural experiences, and good will. They were affecting real change in real people’s lives.
It was difficult not to take a hard look at my own life at that point and see that I had been going down a rather insignificant path, that there was so much more I needed to do.
I first considered the idea of “legacy” a few years later. Keeping true to my new vision of what I wanted for my life, I started a new career as the manager of a small animal shelter. Because I had never done this kind of work before, I reached out to other shelter leaders. One of them asked me something that has stayed with me ever since: “What do you want your legacy to be?”
The dictionary defines the term “legacy” as “a gift or a bequest that is handed down, endowed or conveyed from one person to another. It is something descendible one comes into possession of that is transmitted, inherited or received from a predecessor.”
There are all sorts of ways one leaves a legacy. Some people do it through their children by passing down traditions, history, and values. Loudon Wainwright III did an excellent job of portraying this type of legacy through a recent Netflix special entitled Surviving Twinin which he intertwined his music with his father’s writings and letters to show the story of four generations in his family.
Others may leave their legacy through their careers or political work and some by their societal contributions or art. Think of women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Emily Dickinson, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Goodall.
I can’t help but wonder when I’m gone, what my life will have meant, if anything at all? I hope that I am remembered as someone who was passionate and who unapologetically lived her dreams. I’d like to be known as the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to take chances, who lived boldly but was also compassionate and honest.
I hope that I will be remembered as someone who inspired others to explore, create, and follow their own curiosities down whatever path they took them on. I would like my life to have been one of authenticity and that it be known that my most valuable gift was the time I gave others. I hope that my photography and writing will help carry my legacy forward. I don’t know if any of these hopes will come to be known after I’m gone, but one thing I do know for certain is that whatever my legacy will be it will never be carried on through my children, for I am someone who chooses to remain childless.
Choosing not to have kids is often considered selfish in our society, and I suppose that is true in the literal interpretation of the word, but we only get one life, after all, and who else do we owe to live it for other than ourselves? Doesn’t it make the most sense to live it in our own way on our own terms? And so, I have.
I have purposefully kept myself free of long-term commitments such as owning a home or having children. I try to keep my debts and possessions minimal. Doing so has given me the freedom to take risks in my career and the ability to live wherever I want. It’s how I find myself living in Oregon right now.
I fell in love with the area when on vacation eight years ago. A few years after that vacation, I found my life in an interesting place. I was still living in Wisconsin but losing the passion I once had for the work I had been doing for a farm animal sanctuary. A romantic relationship that I thought was going to last a long time ended unexpectedly. Shortly after that, my grandfather lost his battle with Alzheimer’s. It became painfully clear to me, as I stared at a photo at his funeral of his younger self in front of some mountains in Colorado, that life is all too short. I remember saying to myself, “What are you waiting for?!?” Before long, I found myself saying farewell to Wisconsin and moving across the country to Oregon to pursue my passion for photography.
I’ve been living in Oregon almost five years now and it has been a truly transformative time. From the places I’ve explored to the people I’ve met, I’ve learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of. I’ve also clarified further what is most important to me as I quickly approach the next phase of my life.
In the past year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the variety of ways childless women contribute to the world and what sort of legacies are being born from their journeys. I suspect there are many inspiring and interesting stories of seemingly ordinary women just waiting to be told. That realization leads me to pursue my latest photo essay project, Legacy. I started searching for childless women aged 65 and older who, through interviews and photographs, share their life’s story to show us what a life, despite or because of being childless, can look like when it is well-lived. The essays not only include their reflections on the subject of legacy and childlessness but also on all the events that make up the sum of their lives to date as well as their thoughts about what the future holds.
In our digital age, for better or for worse, it is possible to create something that lasts forever, which is why I believe a photo essay is a perfect medium for this project. Even when I think about my own great-grandmother, I have little understanding of who she was and what her life was like. There is so much we can gain from one another, so I hope this project helps facilitate a more lasting form of legacy. I view it as an opportunity for women, regardless of the reasons behind their childlessness, to tell their stories and let their lives speak.
Through sharing their hopes, failures, accomplishments, regrets, and lessons learned, they can impart wisdom to others. They can assure us that sometimes it’s acceptable to walk away or to change our minds. That we don’t have to have it all figured out all the time. That a meaningful life does not always come in a perfect package or with a happy ending but that above all else, our lives are valuable, and our stories are worth sharing.
Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Let your life not only touch others in a way that is difficult to forget, let your legacy live forever through images and words that will reach countless generations to come.
Am I a spoiled brat or do I have a point? Read on and let me know.
At Thanksgiving, we watched old home videos from the 80s, back when my niece and nephew were toddlers and my husband and my mother were both still alive. I braced myself, expecting a flood of tears, but mostly I was fascinated—and horrified–watching myself. I liked the 80s look with the big hair, big glasses and preppy vest outfits, but did I really talk like that? Do I still? Yikes.
It was hard seeing my very old father watch the younger version of himself. It was shocking to realize my parents were younger at that time than my brother and I are now. I watched my mother playing with my niece and wished that I had more time with her and that I had given her grandchildren. She loved little ones so much.
But most of the videos seemed to be of children unwrapping Christmas presents. I do not find this entertaining. I have been watching other people’s kids unwrap gifts all my life, starting with the early days when my parents, my brother and I spent Christmas Eve watching my cousins open their presents while we had to wait to open our own at home on Christmas morning after church. Sure, there would be one or two things for us, but mostly we sat and watched as they ripped the wrapping paper, tossed aside gifts they found boring, and screamed as they unwrapped the good stuff.
In later years, I have watched my friends’ children and my step-grandchildren open their presents. I find it hard to sit benevolently smiling, especially when they give nothing in return. Couldn’t they at least offer a crayoned card or a Popsicle-stick reindeer? Something cheesy from the dollar store, so they know they need to give as well as receive? Sigh. If you’re watching your own children or grandchildren unwrap the gifts you chose for them, it might be wonderful, but I’ll never know. Don’t rub it in by making me watch.
I know my brother and I were equally spoiled. Our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents showered us with gifts. By the time all the packages were opened, you could barely walk through the living room for all the toys and wrapping paper. But these days, Santa is mighty stingy with me. The little girl in me feels deprived already. I don’t need to watch someone else’s kids opening one gift after another.
I know Christmas is not all about presents. It’s about the birth of Jesus. With Christmas falling on a Tuesday this year, I’ll be at church four days in a row, doing music for the regular weekend Masses and then for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I’m looking forward to it. On Christmas Eve, I will enjoy the choir’s goofy gift exchange, then go home exhausted to my quiet house, my dog, and my tiny artificial Christmas tree. All good.
I know you’re not all Christian. Maybe you don’t exchange gifts at all. In that case, you probably can’t wait for the madness to be over. Me too. I love Dec. 26. I’m a big fan of ordinary days.
So there it is. Am I a rotten person? I hesitated to post this, but here it is.
I hope this time of year is good for you, however you celebrate it. Your presence is an ongoing gift to me.
Forgive my absence last week. I was in San Jose with my dad. November is going to be off and on for me blogwise. I’m going back for Thanksgiving. There’s no Wi-Fi at Dad’s house (in Silicon Valley!), plus I find it hard to think beyond the next crisis. Too many people are sick and dying on both sides of the state line. When you get to my age, you see that a lot.
Is it the same with the family? You have no kids, so you can take care of Mom or Dad or whoever is in need?
That sounds harsh. Last week was tough. Although my father’s legs and several other body parts barely function, he is not at the moment dying. In fact, I have come to suspect that he will not die until he wears out every single body part. At 96, he asked the eye doctor if he could pass his driving test next year with just one good eye. What?!! I do all the driving when I’m there, but he’s reserving the right to drive his own car.
We have a fierce love for each other, but he’s a prickly sort, and he hates having other people do things for him, so he is constantly criticizing and catastrophizing. He refuses offers of help. When I arrived last Monday, he was banging on his non-functioning 70-year-old gas heater with a fireplace poker. Call the repair guy, I said. No. Then the toilet started gushing water all over the floor. Call the plumber. No. I took him grocery shopping. How about some fruits and vegetables? No.
Some parents are easy, and some are not. I have to keep reminding myself that I would probably be just as cranky if I could no longer do most of the things I used to do and other people were constantly telling me how to live my life.
What does this have to do with childlessness? I’m getting there. My relationship with my father is fraught with guilt. Although Dad says he doesn’t want me to, I feel (and others in my family feel) that I should move back to San Jose and take care of him. Forget my home, my work, and my friends here. Forget this whole life that I love. I am single and have no kids to worry about, so I’m the one who is supposed to take care of Dad–like the spinsters of old who took care of their parents then died alone.
I have invited him to live with me. He won’t even consider it. He plans to live in his own house until the end.
My brother, God bless him, drives six hours every weekend to visit Dad and help as much as he can. But no one would ever ask him to give up everything to become a full-time caregiver. He has a family and an important job. His wife is not only caring for her 94-year-old mom, but is up to her ears in grandchildren, so she’s not moving in with Dad either.
Ask the one who doesn’t have kids. Right? Have you experienced this?
It’s not just me. Our Catholic pastor, one of seven siblings, moved his mom into the rectory so he could care for her because the others were like, “William can do it. He’s single and has no kids, and we’re busy.”
I keep telling my father he should have had more children, improving the odds of one living nearby and ready to help. Maybe another one would be a plumber. But Catholic or not, he and Mom stopped at two. They were done.
So there’s that. And now the holidays are upon us. The day after Halloween, one of the most child-centered holidays of all, the commercial world declared Christmas. Off we go to family gatherings where we have nothing in common to talk about and no kids to play with their kids. I’m lucky to be old enough that nobody inquires about my plans to have children, but I know many of you will be facing the questions and criticisms of loved ones who just don’t understand.
Or maybe you’ll be at work.
What do you think? Are the childless ones, especially the ones who aren’t married, expected to do the heavy lifting when a family member needs help? I look forward to your comments.
P.S. I thank you for your wonderful comments on last week’s post. They really cheered me up while I was gone.
I just completed a long, irritating online class on sexual harassment in the workplace. Our local Catholic leaders require all workers and volunteers to take these courses every year. “John has a photo of his wife in lingerie on his desk. Is this harassment? What type of harassment, is it?” I click “visual,” and they tell me what a genius I am. “Steve tells Sally she needs to loosen up and insists on giving her a back rub, even though she says she doesn’t want it. Is this harassment?” Yes? Right! Again, I’m a genius.
I’m at church only a few hours a week, mostly playing music and leading the choir. Our staff consists of four women and a priest whom we rarely see outside of Mass. I work mostly with kids and old people. I have experienced plenty of sexual harassment in past lives, but not here. Oh wait, there is that one guy who touches me all the time . . .
Preventing sexual harassment is important. God knows the Catholic Church needs to clean up its act. We have all heard too much about priests molesting little boys. And I suspect most women in all types of work have been harassed in some way by unwanted touches, comments, or suggestions that they need to cooperate if they want raises, promotions or simply to stay employed. It’s awful. I applaud the “me too” movement, but in my case they are literally preaching to the choir.
One section of the course sparked thoughts that we can apply here at Childless by Marriage. A group of men were seen as harassing a male co-worker when they started making comments about his manliness and his fertility. There’s a related kind of harassment for those of us without children.
Someone makes casual jokes about slow sperm, spoiled eggs, or menopause.
A group of women in the break room share stories about their children. When you come in, they either stop talking or ignore you.
A mom tells you, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t have children.”
A co-worker casually asks, “When are you gonna get knocked up? You’re not getting any younger.”
Someone has to work overtime, and you’re elected because you don’t have to rush home to your kids (although you might have something just as important to get home for)
You and another man are up for a promotion, but the boss stresses that they prefer a “family man.”
Co-workers throw a surprise baby shower at the office. Not only do you have to attend, but you’re expected to buy a gift.
I’m sure you can come up with more examples.
Unlike sexual harassment, none of this is illegal. In most cases, people don’t realize they may be causing you pain—or that not having children doesn’t mean you don’t have something equally important going on outside of work.
Have you experienced these things or other instances of mommy-daddy harassment? Tell us about it in the comments.
As most of you know, I’m Catholic. I’m not only a parishioner but an employee, so what I’m about to write might get me in trouble, but I woke up this morning knowing I needed to say something.
Basically what I want to say is that too many people and too many institutions, especially churches, don’t even try to understand that some people who would like to have children do not have them, for various reasons, and that our lives do not fit into their neat little boxes. And that it hurts.
Tucked into last week’s church bulletin was a handout about the evils and dangers of birth control. It discusses the physical risks of oral contraceptives, contraceptive patches and IUDs: cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, septic shock . . . scary stuff. Plus, the handout, produced by the U.S. Conference of Bishops (all men), says these methods are actually forms of abortion because they kill the embryo before implantation in the uterus. It doesn’t mention “barrier methods,” such as condoms and diaphragms, but those are also forbidden.
The bishops blame “the pill” for women having sex outside of marriage, out-of-wedlock births, and single mothers living in poverty.
In contrast to these horrors, they offer the “fertility awareness” method, whereby couples abstain from sex when the woman is most fertile. This, of course, takes total cooperation by two horny people and assumes the woman has regular, predictable cycles. As I mention in my Childless by Marriage book, one of my friends named her “surprise” son after the priest who prescribed this method for her and her husband.
All of this assumes that we can avoid sex outside of marriage and that within marriage we have husbands or wives who will follow the rules. I don’t know about you, but my partners inside and outside of marriage, including the Catholic ones, would not have gone along with either abstaining or having a bunch of babies. I used birth control—pills, condoms, diaphragms–right up until I married a man who’d had a vasectomy. A vasectomy is also considered a sin.
Despite the church’s mandate, a majority of Catholics use artificial birth control. Numbers vary, with sources offering from 72 to 98 percent of American women. Honestly, the church puts us between a rock and a hard place. How many of us are lucky enough to marry someone who will agree to take a chance on the “natural” method? How many people here at Childless by Marriage are with partners who do not want any children, period? How many are not sure about it so they aren’t willing to take any chances? How many of us would be delighted to throw away our birth control and have a baby, but we fear we’d lose the man or woman we love if we did?
Being alone and past menopause, I no longer have to worry about this, but I know most of you do. I’m not going to preach for or against. Just be aware of the risks and make your own decision.
I don’t want to be excommunicated or lose my job, but I worry about the lack of understanding shown in documents such as this. For some of us, life cannot be boiled down to being alone and chaste or being married and happily making babies. It’s just not that simple.
Cleaning house on Saturday, I came across the video from my 20-year high school reunion. Blackford High School, San Jose, California, class of 1970. I shoved it into the VHS player (yes, I still have one) and settled in, mesmerized. The sound and picture were not good, but after all these years, it was fascinating. Look at those hairstyles, those clothes, and the facial hair on the guys. Look at how gorgeous I was with my big permed hair, contact lenses, stage makeup, and the sexy black velvet dress I used to wear for concerts. Where did that woman go?
As the cameraperson went from table to table, people answered a questionnaire about their lives. Most were married with children. Even those who were single had kids. Many referred to “having a family” instead of saying they had children. Only a few said they had no children. They said it almost apologetically. Randy, bless his heart, said, “I have no kids, but I still have a family.” Rosanne, a school principal said, “No kids, but I have a darling dog, Molly.”
I cited my three stepchildren and two step-grandchildren. Gosh, my family plate appeared to be full, didn’t it? I also talked about my writing and music, but that part was fuzzy on the tape. Fred, my handsome new husband, sat beside me, sipping his wine. He may have been the oldest person in the room, just as I was probably the youngest at his reunions, except for the servers.
After a while, the video got boring. We had 375 students in our graduating class, and I didn’t recognize most of the people at the reunion. The people I was close to in high school did not attend. We were not the popular kids; we were the nerds before that word became popular.
I got to thinking about how times have changed. It’s not just the hairstyles and music. In the ‘70s, having children was the norm, but now one in five women never have children, either by choice or by circumstance. Those 1970 grads started their families early. At 38, quite a few were already parents to teenagers. One woman was a grandmother. Today’s 38-year-olds might not yet have started having children, and some will wonder if they ever will.
Birth control, although legal, was a lot trickier to get in the ‘70s, and the girls in my class who got pregnant before graduation disappeared in shame. Nearly everyone in my neighborhood was white and Catholic. Yes, things are different now.
At 38, most of us were peaking in our careers. Our families were blossoming, and we were still healthy and attractive—more attractive than we were in high school. Several, like me, had gone through heartbreak and were in the first blush of new love, but most were still enjoying their first marriages.
Only one person talked about hard times on the video. He said he was finally sober after many years of being an addict. God bless him. A half-dozen grads had died, mostly in Vietnam. But overall, we were doing well. I guess if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be there. I missed the 10-year reunion because I was in the middle of getting divorced and I couldn’t afford a ticket to the reunion.
I also had the video from the 25-year reunion, which I did not attend. A lot of people skipped that one. More were divorced. More admitted to not having kids. Several talked about their pets. One said she adopted a daughter. A prize went to the grad with the most children—five–but at 43, we weren’t likely to produce more babies. People talked about sons and daughters in the military and grandchildren on the way, but most of the emphasis was on their careers. These were some accomplished people. Or maybe it’s just that only the successful ones showed up.
The 50-year reunion is two years away. I imagine those grads who are still alive and able to get back to San Jose will be talking about grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Most will be retired. I will still be the one talking about her work because I’m not retired, I have no children, and the stepchildren are no longer part of my life, except for Facebook posts. I’ll still be the nerd.
Enough about me. I want to know about your reunion experiences. What is it like for people who graduated in the 80s, 90s, or 00s? Did you go? Did you feel left out because you didn’t have children, or did you find others in the same situation? Did you/would you stay home for fear you’ll feel bad among all the moms and dads?
Looking at those reunion tapes led me to thinking about what I have done with my life. When the camera focused on them, the grads summed up 20 or 25 years in a few sentences. What would you say?
Please share in the comments. I really want to know your thoughts on all of this.