If We Don’t Have Kids, What Else Can We Give Our Parents?

Playing for my grandparents in 1990

I’m going to share an embarrassing part of my past today. Maybe you’ll identify with my younger self.

I used to write a lot of songs. I performed and recorded many of them, some for public consumption, some just for me. I was listening to one of my old tapes (yes, cassette tape) from the mid-1980s and came across this song called “Mama Be Proud.” It’s a terrible song. I hope I didn’t play it for anybody else back then.

I wrote it in my early years with Fred, when I was still trying to accept that by marrying him, I would never have children.

My mother was the best. She never nagged me about having grandchildren. She never said, “Why don’t you find someone else?” or “Why don’t you adopt?” or “How could you not give me any grandchildren?” She may have thought those things, but she never said them. She and my dad loved Fred and were happy I had found someone good after the first marriage blew up.

As for Fred’s parents, they already had more grandchildren than they could keep track of, so it was fine with them.

But still, I felt guilty. Raised when I was, I knew the two things I could do to make my parents proud were 1. Find a good husband and 2. Have children. I suppose keeping a clean and orderly house might be number 3. I was trained to be a clone of my mom. I needed to keep the family line going. As for all the other things I was interested in doing, they didn’t really count as much in my family. But those other things were all I had to offer.

Thus I came to write this song in which I begged my mother to accept my music as a replacement for grandchildren.

Here’s the chorus:

I could write you a ballad to comfort your old age,

I could write you a jig to make your heart dance.

I could pass on your name in a hundred sweet songs.

Mama, please love me. Mama, be proud.

Gag, right? Actually the tune is pretty good, but the words make me cringe, both because they’re so smarmy and because I was so needy of my parents’ approval. They didn’t support my music and writing much, but I have to say that on my 50th birthday, my mother made the most beautiful speech about how proud she was of my accomplishments.  

A while later, my cousin dropped my birthday cake in the parking lot. Splat. Isn’t real life fun?

Mom died of cancer three months later. In the end, I think it wasn’t so much that I was letting her down as that she was worried I might end up alone. That’s why she and Dad were so glad when I married Fred. But you can’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

I tell you all this to suggest that maybe I’m not the only one who feels like we’re letting our parents down, like we’re failing to live up to their expectations. The ultimate decision about having children is between us and our partner–and our bodies, but do you sometimes think that if you don’t have kids, you’re blowing it and nothing else you do will be good enough?

Or is it a good thing that I’m about to start seeing a new shrink? 🙂

Let me close with some thoughts from a book that was so gripping I read the whole thing last Saturday. In Flesh & Blood, a memoir about childlessness and a troublesome uterus, author N. West Moss writes on p. 229, “I’ve always felt that I let Grandma Hastings down (in particular) by not having kids because it is the end of not just my own story but of her hard-fought story as well, and of her mother’s and her mother’s . . . . My hope is that writing them down here will cast her line into the future, will be my attempt at securing her story, and possibly mine as well.”

But she concludes toward the end, “I know I’m not technically fertile or anything, but shit, I feel fertile, feel overflowing with ideas and love for the world. I stick a sprig of mint in a glass by the sink and two days later, there are roots reaching an inch into the water. I do the same with a branch of basil from the grocery store. Same thing. Having kids is one kind of fertility, but it’s dawning on me that there’s more than one way to be fruitful.” p. 245

[Trigger warning about this book. If you are planning to have a hysterectomy in the near future, you might not want to read this yet.]

What do you think? Are we letting the family down by not having children? Do we struggle to make up for it in other ways? Please share your comments.

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The soft kiss of a little girl

Every Sunday at St. Martin’s Church in San Jose, a 4-year-old girl named Camille comes running to the row of seats near the back where my father sits and throws her arms around him. This stern 91-year-old man melts. “My girlfriend,” he calls her. Camille is a beautiful child with long wavy hair, dewy skin and big blue eyes. Dad often talks about her, telling me how smart and fearless she is, how she already knows how to read, how she’s starting school next year. Visiting from Oregon, I watch them, so jealous I could weep.
Camille has a 2-year-old brother and a 1-year-old sister (no Catholic jokes, please). They are all beautiful children and a handful for their parents. The mom and dad spend the Mass feeding them Cheerios, reading to them, shushing them, and taking them out when they get too squirmy. I don’t envy them that part of it.
During the sermon, the littlest girl stares up at my father, raises her tiny hand, and Dad matches his giant hairy brown hand against it. In this sweet moment, I realize how much my father actually likes little children and I could die for not having given him any, for not making him a grandfather.
My father keeps the family’s Christmas card, with pictures of all the kids, on the piano with pictures of me and my brother and my brother’s kids.
Before Mass, Dad introduced me to the young parents, and the mother told Camille, “This is his little girl all grown up.” Yes, I am my father’s little girl, still going to church alone with him when I visit California and staying with the choir back in Oregon because otherwise I’d be going to Mass alone.
At the sign of peace, my father hugs me and then I see Camille reaching up for me. She kisses me on the cheek, the softest sweetest butterfly kiss. How I wish I could hold on to it forever. If only that perfect family were mine.
Know what I mean?