Guest post: Aging Without Children

Dear readers,

While I’m goofing off in Tucson, I’m giving this week’s post to Lisa Manterfield, author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the blog of the same name. Although she addresses her comments to women, men can benefit from her advice, too, sans the bit about menopause. Enjoy. I’ll see you next week. As always, your comments are welcome.

Sue

Aging Without Children

by Lisa Manterfield

Lisa Manterfield picWith luck, we will all grow old eventually. However, aging without children holds a unique set of challenges that our parenting counterparts don’t have to face. Our experiences differ with the milestones we hit, such as menopause, as well as those we miss, such as grandparenthood. And while most parents assume they will be cared for by their children in their twilight years, for those of us without offspring, dying alone and being forgotten are perhaps two of our biggest fears. There’s no doubt that these fears are legitimate While we cannot control the future, we can control our awareness, preparation, and a shift in perspective that can help alleviate some of the concern and uncertainty.

Hitting the milestone of menopause can feel like the last cruel barb thrown up along this journey. Just when you think you’ve come to terms with not having children, your body pulls out its rubber stamp and seals the deal. This “official” end of the possibility of biological motherhood marks the final and ultimate loss of what might have been. You may find yourself grieving all over again, not only the loss of motherhood, but regrets about the paths not taken.

Our society isn’t good about helping people grieve intangible losses, so we have to give ourselves permission to reflect during this time and to mourn the losses we feel. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned on my own journey of coming to terms with the fact that I would never be a mother is the importance of creating an ending and allowing myself to grieve. For many of us, the possibility of motherhood often doesn’t go away until menopause hits, and we’re left hanging with that hope that it could still happen. Drawing a line in the sand and saying “this is where it ends” allows us to move forward into grief and to deal with our loss in a way that feels right to us (and not how society thinks we should handle it!)

But then what? What about that misty future without children? What about that unknown territory of growing old alone?

Perhaps one of the biggest fears many of us face when looking at a future without children is having no one to care for us as we age. We picture ourselves shunted into a low-cost care facility where decisions about our healthcare are made by strangers. We imagine we will die alone without a single familiar face beside us.

Unfortunately, in this messy old world, few of us have a say in how we’ll shuffle off this mortal coil. The reality is that fate, illness, dementia, and catastrophe seem to randomly select whom to bestow their gifts upon. We have little control in how we’ll exit or who—if anyone—will surround us when we go. So, with that happy thought, let’s talk about aging.

I suspect that those of us without children spend a lot more time than most people worrying about what will become of us later in life. Many parents assume their children will take care of them as they age. But if you’ve spent any time in hospitals and nursing homes, you know that parenthood is no guarantee of elder care, and many, many elderly people spend their final days without the company and care of the children they’d counted on. Ensuring care in your old age and having someone to carry out your last wishes is not a good reason to have children, but it’s another great reason to have friends.

As I’ve watched my own mother, a widow for many years, move into her 80s, I’ve come to see how important it is to nurture a circle of good friends. But, it’s not always easy to make new friends when you’re not moving in mommy circles and don’t have shared activities, such as PTA or kids’ sports, so how do you develop real connections, the kind you need when you’re asking someone to step in during your time of need?

Rather than trying to seek out other childless women and then looking for common interests, try starting with the common interest and seeking out the people you’re drawn to. That might mean joining a small group, such as a book club, exercise class, or adult education class, something that meets regularly so that you get to know each other better over time. At each meeting, challenge yourself to get to know one new person a little better. Start with the easy questions, like what do you do for work (and be sure to go in with some stock answers for the inevitable “Do you have kids?” question.) You’re looking for common ground, so over time, ease into conversations about hobbies and special interests. As the friendship develops, look for ways to make a more personal connection outside the group. Invite her to meet for coffee, a walk, or a drive, something where you can enjoy some quality one-on-one time and get to the deeper conversations that will strengthen your connection.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But so is family, and these friends are the “family” we’re choosing. As with blood family, there’s no guarantee these friends will be there for you as you age, but I do see a future where seniors will help one another. Lately, I’ve been hearing about retirement villages where able-bodied residents help those who aren’t mobile, and local volunteers are assigned as advocates.

I’m also hearing more about older women living together to support one another, and networks of single, divorced, and widowed friends checking in on each other. A different kind of family is being created and a little effort now can help alleviate some of the worry about spending our later years alone. But it won’t happen by magic and it’s up to each of us to nurture the relationships with the people we’d like to have around as we age.

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Lisa Manterfield is the creator of LifeWithoutBaby.com, online community that provides resources, community, compassion, and support to women facing a life without children. She is the author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the award-winning memoir I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood. She lives in Southern California, with her wonderful husband (“Mr. Fab”) and overindulged cat, where she is working on her latest novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond Childlessness: Counting My Blessings

It’s my birthday! Rahhhhh! Birthdays are often problematic for me. I whine about the gifts I don’t receive and the people who aren’t around, but this time I’m just feeling grateful. My friends, I have a good life. As I prayed a summing-up-the year prayer last night, I didn’t even think about not having children. It’s true. I didn’t. I thought about all the great things I do have. My days are full of writing, music, books, dogs, great food, beautiful scenery, family and good friends who feel like family. I have had 64 years of good health. That could change in a heartbeat, but I am grateful. Yes, I miss my husband, and sometimes I wish I had more money, but at this moment, I know I am blessed.

I am grateful for you, too, for this sister and brotherhood of childless people that has formed here and taken a life far beyond my Childless by Marriage book. We can comfort each other, help each other to make the decisions we need to make, and encourage each other in our lives that may not have children but they do and will have many other wonderful things. Trust me. There will be tears, there will be regrets. But there will also be laughter and joy.

No, I haven’t started drinking already. It’s still very early here in Oregon. In a little while, I have to go into a difficult meeting at work, and it may be hard to hang on to a positive attitude. But I’m determined to do my best.

I found a couple of podcasts online that I think you will find interesting:

In the UK, they have just celebrated what is called Mothering Sunday. Like our American Mother’s Day, it’s a tough day for those who don’t have children. This “All Things Considered”program, which you can listen to for the next couple weeks, can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072nr1j

You can also listen to a discussion about the choice  of whether or not to have children and an interview with psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children at http://iowapublicradio.org/post/childless-choice#stream/0

Also, do you know I have another blog called Unleashed in Oregon? Check out this week’s post, “Lawnmower One, Widow Lady Zero.” It might give you a smile.

Next week I’ll be in Tucson on a combination work/pleasure trip, so we will have a guest post that I know you’re going to love.

Your comments are always welcome.

You’re never too old to talk about childlessness

We offered a talk about my Childless by Marriage book at the senior center today and nobody came. My sweet hostess, who I am guessing is about 80 years old, suggested that maybe my topic was not of interest to older people. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s that they didn’t publicize it very well. But that’s not what I want to write about today.

Here’s the thing. I believe not having children affects your whole life, including your Medicare years. As someone who is rapidly approaching that time of life, I can tell you that it definitely affects mine. The opportunity to change your situation is pretty much over. You’re too old to get pregnant, and unlikely to qualify for adoption. Some grandparents wind up raising their grandchildren, but if you’re not a parent, you’re not going to be a grandparent. So, it’s a done deal.

But that doesn’t mean childlessness does not affect your life in a hundred different ways. You will never be a full-fledged member of the mom club or grandma club. While your friends are showing off baby pictures, you’ll be showing off your nieces or nephews or your dog. As they celebrate the various milestones in their children’s lives–graduation, marriage, babies–you, um, won’t. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, when other people’s homes fill up with their descendants, there’s just you and your spouse celebrating alone or with friends or tagging along at someone else’s party. The good news is you have a lot fewer gifts to buy.

You don’t have children who might help you in your old age. Yes, I know you can’t count on your kids even if you have them; that’s why I say they MIGHT help you. At least they might be around sometimes to talk to, to remember your birthday, to give you much-needed hugs.

The young people in your family can also help you keep up with our rapidly changing world. Sunday night, I had no idea who half the people on the Grammy awards were. My dog didn’t have a clue either.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my kids,” said my senior center hostess as we chatted about childlessness. We agreed that most of her generation automatically had children, if they could. If they couldn’t, they adopted. But there doesn’t mean there aren’t any childless seniors. Recent statistics show that 20 percent of women reach menopause without having babies. In 1970, it was 10 percent, so there are plenty of childless seniors. Childless or not, I think childlessness is of interest to seniors as much as anyone else. After all, if you never had children, you can be 100 years old, and you’re still childless. Plus, even if they had kids, a lot of their children and grandchildren are choosing not to become parents. Not interested? Balderdash.

What do you think?