Childless photographer asks: What Will Your Legacy Be?

Dear friends, 

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. 

Kristin on beach

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 Twin in 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.

Kristin and Cole
Kristin and her pug on the road

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.

Kristin's lady
Legacy Project: Jean Rosenbaum

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.

Kristin Cole is Midwest transplant currently living in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys road tripping with her pug sidekick and sharing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest through her photography and in her blog, Misadventures of a Nature Junkie. More information about her Legacy project can be found at http://www.KristinColePhotography.com.

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MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ONE AND ALL! DON’T LET THE CRAZINESS GET YOU DOWN.

 

 

 

 

Who will sit by my hospital bed?

After a busy day of playing music for a funeral—lovingly arranged by the deceased’s grown children and grandchildren, having lunch with a friend in her 30s who has no interest in marriage or children—“I honestly don’t like kids”—and playing the piano for a Saturday evening Mass at which my three singers were all older women whose lives are completely wrapped around their offspring, I received a text message that upended my life.

My father fell on March 25 and broke his leg. It was a bad break, above the knee on the same leg where he broke his hip three years ago. When I first got the text from my brother that Dad was in the ER getting x-rayed, I hoped it was for something minor like a broken finger. No such luck. It was a bad break, requiring surgery, and Dad is less than a month away from turning 95. We don’t know whether it will heal properly. He expects to return to living on his own in the house where we grew up, but that seems unlikely at the moment. Thank God he had his cell phone in his pocket, or he might still be lying on the kitchen floor.

I spent the last week in San Jose, California, mostly sitting by his hospital bed listening to him talk and interacting with doctors, nurses and aides. My brother was there for the first three days, but he had to go home and back to work. My schedule is a bit more flexible. I was the one helping Dad transition from the hospital to a care home where he will continue to recover and work with physical therapists to get moving again. Right now he’s pretty much confined to his bed. While I was there, I could fetch the phone, the urinal, his glasses. I could run out to get help when no one responded to his call button (all too often).

When not with Dad, I was at the house, cleaning years of gunk off every surface, collecting the mail, paying bills and answering phone calls, emails and texts. It’s a house full of memories. Many of my mother’s things are still there, although she has been gone almost 15 years. In the mornings, I sat in her chair by the front window and wrote. In the warm afternoons, I sat in the back yard in the patio that my father built, looking at the lawn he planted and the sidewalk he put in around 1950. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the house now, but I’m anxious to take care of it. Hard to do when I have my own house 700 miles away in Oregon.

I’m the daughter. It’s my job to drop everything to help my father when he falls. Walking up and down the halls of the care home, I see other daughters and sons doing the same thing. One can’t help but wonder who will do this for me. My brother, yes. If he’s alive and able. My friends? Maybe, but not to the extent that my brother and I have been doing. My niece and nephew? I don’t see them helping their grandfather; would they really help me?

I pray that I will never be in Dad’s situation. Nursing homes are not fun. Hospitals are not fun. If I do wind up in such a place, I hope I will have enough money to pay for extraordinary care. I may have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

It helps to have children, but as everyone says, even if you have kids, you can’t count on them to help. Even if they want to, they may live far away like my brother and I do. Today as I type this, Dad is at the mercy of the staff at the care home because we both had to go back to work. We just pray the professionals are kind and efficient and know what they’re doing.

Dad was doing the dishes when he fell, breaking his leg and hitting his head on the wall on the way down. Here in our community, a young woman named Tracy Mason was driving to work early one morning last month when a truck slammed head-on into her car. Almost every part of her is broken. She has lost part of her vision, is struggling to keep her left leg. One minute she was having an ordinary day; the next she was helpless in a hospital bed in Portland. Everything can change in an instant.

If you don’t have children, start cultivating relationships with friends and family members. Arrange the paperwork so they can help you if something happens. And make sure you have good insurance. Then enjoy today as it is, however it is. If you are able to walk, talk and take care of yourself, life is good.

Thank you for your patience with this slightly off-topic post. It has been a long week and a half. If you’re into praying, I’d welcome your prayers for my dad and for Tracy.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

"Growing Old without Children"

Last night I was part of a panel discussion at Huffington Post Live about facing old age without children. The other panelists were Sharon Kovacs Grue, an estate planner from New York, Joanne Lema, founder of AfterFiftyLiving.com from Massachusetts, and Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara, a childfree writer from California.

We each talked from home via “Google hangout,” which was a new and interesting experience. I’m going to have to work on getting a better angle for my webcam so my eyes don’t look like I’ve got them closed, but it was amazing to sit at my desk and talk to people all over the country. On the phone afterward, I had trouble explaining this to my father who kept asking things like whether a film crew came to my house. Uh, no. It was just me and the dog. Amazing.

It was an interesting discussion in which we concluded that life is a gamble and even if a person has children, she can’t count on them being around to help in old age. Maybe she shouldn’t even expect them to. Lema said she taught her children to be independent and take care of themselves, and she tries to do the same. We all agreed that, childless or not, it’s important to prepare for future challenges by setting up insurance, wills, advance directives and power of attorney, as well as maintaining connections with friends or family who will jump in when needed and know what to do. We were mostly talking about people over 50, but nobody knows what’s going to happen in life, so it’s good to be prepared at any age.

There was so much more to say than we had time for. I wanted to get into a discussion about the emotional aspects of aging without offspring, but mostly we talked about medical emergencies, nursing homes, finances and that kind of stuff. Some of the comments suggested we were all childless by choice. Nope.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.