I’ve Got the Qualified for Medicare Blues

This morning, after I changed my calendars to the new month, I slipped my shiny new Medicare card and my new Blue Shield Medicare prescription card into my wallet. Although my birthday isn’t until next week, the change in health insurance starts today. This is not something I volunteered for. I was perfectly happy with regular Blue Shield. When you turn 65, the U.S. government requires you to switch whether you want to or not. Now I don’t know what is covered and what is not, and I’m not thrilled with the implication that as of today I am old.

Having no children or grandchildren, I don’t have the usual markers of aging. Surely experiences like raising children or watching your daughter give birth mark your progress along the track of life, but that hasn’t happened. No one is coming up behind me with my name and my DNA, nudging me into seniorhood. In many ways, I don’t feel grown up at all. When I see an accurate photograph of myself, I think there must have been a mistake. I get that I’m not the slim, long-haired vixen of 1972, but who is this motherly-looking person staring back at me? And why is she two inches shorter than she used to be? I can tell myself all day long that our bodies are just containers for our spirits, which are ageless, but it’s hard to believe when I’m pretty sure everybody else sees the old woman, not the young spirit. They also think I’m “retired,” but that term is meaningless in my profession.

My birthday, next Thursday, scares the hell out of me. Will I end up celebrating it alone? God, please, not again this year. When I was young and married to a man with a day job, I would typically run away somewhere for the day, a park, a historical monument, a zoo, someplace to explore on my own, then reunite that evening with husband and family for birthday dinner, cake and presents. If this blasted winter weather ever clears up, I could still run away for the day, but there’s no one waiting for me when I get home. That, my friends, is the hell of being childless, widowed and alone.

But nobody knows what’s going to happen in life. I could have had six children and 13 grandchildren and had none of them stick around. Fred could still be alive but not healthy enough to do anything. Or I could be the one who is not healthy and not able to enjoy my birthday. My father will turn 95 on May 1, two months from now. If my brother and I can’t get away from work to make the trip to San Jose, he might be alone, too, despite having two children, two grandchildren and a growing flock of great-grandchildren. You don’t know. Nobody knows.

One of the comments on my recent post about religion noted that the writer believes her life is turning out the way God planned it. I suspect mine is, too. And so will yours. I don’t know if you believe in God or destiny or anything that controls what happens in your life. (Do you? Tell us about it in the comments.) But nobody gives us a copy of the plan, the one that says, at 22, she’ll marry and at 28, that marriage will end in divorce, or at 33, he’ll announce that he doesn’t want kids and you’ll have to decide whether or not to leave him, and you will decide . . . what will you decide?

My therapist, who recently retired, urges clients to do what they’re “drawn to.” In other words, what feels right, what pulls you in, what does your gut say? People ask me what they should do when their partner waffles on the baby question. I really don’t know. I know what I did. Was it a mistake or was that the plan all along?

I know without question that God made me a writer and a musician. I was doing both from a very young age, even though I came from a working class family that did not understand or support the arts. I’m still a writer and a musician with a long history of achievements in both areas. I am not at all sure I could have done those things while raising children. Perhaps I am living the plan, and my solitude at 65 will lead to my best work yet.

Back to you. If you don’t have kids, you could wind up alone. Or you could wind up surrounded by friends, family, stepfamily, co-workers, neighbors, and fans, so many people you wish they would leave you alone. Nobody knows. However it turns out, you will deal with it. Will you regret it if you don’t have children? Yes, sometimes you will. But will there be other rewards? Yes, I’m sure of it.

Because it’s my birthday month, I’m offering you a present. A native American friend of mine has demonstrated the glory of the potlatch, where she showers her friends with gifts on her birthdays. I could never match her generosity, but I am offering a major book sale. For the month of March, you can buy paperback copies of Childless by Marriage, Shoes Full of Sand, Freelancing for Newspapers, and the original edition of my novel Azorean Dreams for $6.50 each, including shipping and handling. That’s less than half price. The first five people to order will also receive a copy of The Dog Ate It, a limited-edition chapbook full of poems and photos about dogs. To order these books at the special price, go to this page at my suelick.com website. Do not go to Amazon.com, where they are still charging full price. This does not apply to my e-books. They are already deeply discounted. Help me clear out the old books to make room for the new ones to come.

Thank you for being part of the conversation here. You are a wonderful gift to me every day of the year.

You Can Count On Your Friends

I’m writing this in a dentist’s waiting room while my friend Pat has dental surgery. The nurse has gone over a daunting list of post-op instructions. Medications, meals, bleeding, pain. She’ll be loopy for a while, so I can’t let her drive or make important decisions. I have her purse and her medications here next to me. Shades of taking care of my dad and my husband through their various medical procedures.

Before I left home this morning, Pat sent me a text: Emergency: bring TP. So I did. That’s what friends are for.

You might think Pat is childless and alone like me, but no. She has a wonderful husband who happens to be recovering from back surgery at a rehab facility right now. She has two grown children and a stepson, plus seven grandchildren who all love her very much, but none of them live nearby. When it comes to this sort of situation, I’m her person, and she is mine. She has seen me through colonoscopies, endoscopies and two cataract surgeries and will be there for whatever comes next. And frankly, I’d rather have Pat around than most of my family.

For those readers who are worrying about who will take care of you in your old age, the answer is: friends. If you wind up without spouse or children, if you don’t happen to live with or near other family members, you will look to your friends. The people you see most often will take care of you, and you will take care of them. They won’t mind you asking for help. They’ll be miffed if you DON’T ask.

I’m terrible at asking for help. I was raised to take care of things by myself, but there are some things you just can’t do alone—like driving home after surgery. If you have a good friend, she will be there. And it will have nothing to do with having children because they’ll be off living their lives and expecting their parents to live theirs.

If you don’t have any friends, you need to work on that. Strike up a conversation, ask someone to lunch, go for a walk together, friend them on Facebook. If I can do it, so can you.

I’m not saintly, for anyone thinking that. I am so grateful it’s not my mouth they’re working on right now. I’m feeling a little righteous about my healthy teeth. I hate the way this place smells of chemicals and disinfectant and the way the women at the desk keep whispering to each other. I am not fond of the sound of the drill and the suction hose. I’ll be glad to get out of here. But this is what you do. You help your friends.

Bottom line: Don’t worry. If you never have children, you won’t be alone.

 

 

Followup: If I had it to do over again . . .


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Years have passed since I interviewed the childless women who are quoted in my Childless by Marriage book. I have begun contacting them to find out what happened after we talked. Are they still with the same guy? Did they have children after all? How do they feel now about not having children? Most recently I caught up with “Aline,” who went by another name in the book but prefers to keep her identify private.
When we talked in 2004, Aline, a journalist, told me that her ex-boyfriend had insisted she abort the pregnancy she had at age 30. She had always planned to have children but had not found the right partner to do it with. At age 34, she said she would go ahead and have a child on her own if it didn’t happen within the next six months. As you’ll see, that didn’t happen.
If you were with a guy when we talked, are you still with him?
I’ve been single for the past year.
Did you wind up having children after all? Is there any chance you still might?
Unfortunately not. Considering my age, I think it’s unlikely. I suppose I can still get pregnant, but no man I know wants a baby with a 42-year-old, regardless of how attractive she may be.
When people ask you now why you don’t have children, what do you tell them?
I want to tell them it’s none of their business, but I just smile and change the subject.
Do you regret the choices that led to you not having children?
Yes. It’s eating me up. I feel like I’ve missed out in life. I feel inadequate and everyone makes me feel so.
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Absolutely. I would listen to my mom and be less picky about men. I would also have kept the baby I was expecting at age 30 and wouldn’t take into consideration the father’s (who incidentally is now married with two children) demands that I get an abortion.
Are there stepchildren or other children in your life that fill the gap?
I wish! I have a 13-year-old niece though who often asks why she doesn’t have a cousin from me.
11. Are you worried about being alone in old age?
All the time. It upsets me that no one will be there for me in my old age. It’s a source of anxiety.
What are you proudest of doing in your life so far? Could you have done this if you had children?
I had an exciting career as a journalist and film critic, traveling all over the world. And I live much of the year in Paris. It upsets me that I have no one to share these with. My friends juggle kids and career, so it wouldn’t have been impossible to raise kids at the same time. It just takes organization and discipline.
What would you say to others who are dealing with partners or spouses who can’t/don’t want to have children?
If you really want children and your partner doesn’t or can’t, then you need to re-evaluate your relationship. Do you love the person enough to make this compromise? You may wake up in ten years’ time full of regret. It’s a big and important issue and if you can’t change his/her mind, then it’s time to move on. Never compromise your happiness for a partner. I should know—I did and it kills me a bit each year.

"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.

You can watch the discussion at http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/retirement-without-children I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Being Childless Doesn’t Mean Ending Up Alone


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Two women in my extended family made it to 100 years old. One had children; the other did not. But when they celebrated their centennial birthdays, both were surrounded by loving family.
The woman who had children was Ruth, my husband’s ex-mother-in-law, maternal grandmother to Fred’s children. She turned 100 last weekend. Her daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter gathered at a posh restaurant to celebrate. In the Facebook photos, she looks happy, alert and ready to go on for another decade.
Although we have no direct connection these days, when Fred was around and his kids were young, we occasionally spent time with Ruth and her late husband Walt. They were always kind to me and included me as one of the family. Divorce doesn’t always dissolve the links between people; sometimes it adds more links. Ruth lives these days in a senior residence in Santa Clara, California, not too far from her family. I wish her many more happy times in her long life.
Edna Sousa at 100
The woman who did not have children was Aunt Edna, my mother’s favorite aunt, married to Mom’s Uncle Tony. I’m not sure why they didn’t have children. I have heard rumors of miscarriages and failed attempts to get pregnant. When Aunt Edna was young, people didn’t have all the medical options they have now, but they also didn’t talk about such things, so we don’t really know what happened.
Aunt Edna was a whirlwind of energy, stylish, bold, and always on the go. She worked in the office at a local cannery for many years. My mother worked with her until she got pregnant with me and retired to motherhood and life as a housewife. But Aunt Edna kept going. She worked, she had a busy social life, she volunteered for the church, and she loved her nieces and nephews. She was always surrounded by friends and family. Uncle Tony died relatively young of cancer, but Aunt Edna stayed in their house. Down the street, in her own house, lived her sister Virginia, who never married or had children. She too was a “career girl,” working at San Jose State most of her life. After they retired, the two sisters traveled the world, seeing just about every country. At home, they gathered with their vast network of in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews.
By the time Aunt Edna turned 100, she too was living in a senior residence, only a couple miles from where Ruth lives. Her dark hair had turned into a fluffy white cloud, her memory was fading, and she didn’t walk as well as she used to, but she was never alone. For her birthday party, the family rented a banquet room at a local restaurant and completely filled it with people who loved Edna. It was the climax of a wonderful life.
Edna died a few months later. A crowd attended the funeral, among them Virginia, now in her 90s, still living in her own home with help from a caregiver.
Some of us without children worry that we’ll end up alone, but we don’t have to. Even if we never have children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, we can be like Edna and love the people we have around us and be loved by them, knowing that when we turn 100 years old, we will not be alone.

Childlessness looks different when you’re pushing 90

Seniors have a different take on childlessness than people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. For one thing, menopause has occurred and pregnancy is no longer a possibility. For another, they know how the story turned out.
I gave a talk about my Childless by Marriage book on Sunday at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was such a pleasant experience I’m tempted to drop in again soon. They meet in the upstairs classroom of the Newport Visual Arts Center. The big windows look out on Nye Beach, with the Yaquina Head lighthouse visible to the north. Even on a stormy day, when everything is gray and white, the view is stunning and surely inspires the many artists who leave their paint splatters on the tables and floors.
At 60, I may have been the youngest person there. The oldest was 90.The meeting was an interesting blend of morning coffee and snacks, music, meditation, readings, sharing of concerns, and me.
As I told my story and read excerpts from my book, the audience reacted with nods, oohs and laughs, and when I opened up the discussion, they had plenty to say. Nearly everyone in the room had children. A few had adopted children. Only half had grandchildren. One said her only child, a daughter, died when she was 16.
These lovely elders, several with accents from far away, one lady nearly blind, said they didn’t have much choice when they were young. You got married and had children. If you were physically unable, you adopted. Now their own children and grandchildren are making different choices. They don’t begrudge them these choices, if that’s what they want to do. It’s good that young people have more choices now. A few recalled the days when you couldn’t be a teacher or a stewardess if you were married or had children.Women worked for a few years as teachers or nurses, then retired to become moms.
A few reminded me of ZPG, the zero population growth movement that became popular in the 1960s. It stemmed from The Population Bomb, a book by Paul Ehrlich, which predicted that the human race would destroy itself and the earth if it didn’t stop having so many children. Some people did decide then not to procreate. With birth control coming on the scene, many had fewer children than the generations before.
I talked about how people ask why we don’t have children and shared some of the answers people give: “It wasn’t God’s plan.” “I didn’t want them.” “Ask my husband.” “It just happened.” The Unitarians couldn’t believe anyone would be rude enough to ask. It’s none of their business, they said, and they would not dignify the question with an answer.
We talked about old age without children. If we don’t have children, who will take care of us? Will we be all alone? As I have heard so many times, they scoffed at the idea that one’s children will be around when one needs help. Where we live on the Oregon coast is a long hard drive from any major city. Most young people move away to go to school and get jobs elsewhere. They can’t come back to hold our hands.
Whether or not we have children is almost irrelevant, they said. We need to reach out to friends to help us. If we have enough money, we can buy our way into senior communities, assisted living institutions and the like, but we can’t count on our kids. We need to count on each other.
Finally, someone commented that there seems to be a stigma attached to not having children. People don’t talk about it much. But for that hour with the Unitarians, with the ocean gently moving in and out in the background, we did talk about it, and it felt good.

Who can you count on to take care of you?

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Tomorrow would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. Unfortunately, she never got to be that old. She died of cancer six days after her 75th birthday. She was 15 years older than I am now.

The year Mom died was a hellacious one. In a year, we lost 13 people we loved, including my mother, my mother-in-law, and my ex-husband’s mother. Everyone I had ever called “Mom” was gone.
People who don’t worry about old age without children—because they have children–are always telling me that even if you have kids you can’t count on them to be there when you’re old and sick. I know that’s true in some cases, perhaps many, but that’s not how it works in my family.
When Fred’s father’s health started to fail, he and his mother moved from Las Vegas to Newport, Oregon to be close to us. She didn’t ask, “Would you like to take care of us?” She just decided they were moving to our town. Fred’s dad, who appeared to be in the early stages of dementia and had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, died suddenly of a massive stroke two months after they arrived. We drove Fred’s mother to the hospital in Portland, stayed with her through it all and took care of her for the next four years until she died of lung cancer.
A few months later, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those months when she went through chemo and repeated hospitalizations, I spent so much time in San Jose I never unpacked my bags. When she died, Fred and I were there with my dad and my aunt. You don’t say, “Well, I’m busy.” I was working and halfway through my master’s degree, but when your mother is sick, you drop everything and take care of her. If my dad, who is 90 but looks 70, needs me, I’m going.
When I hear people say you can’t count on your kids, I say, “Nonsense. You should be able to, and if you can’t, something’s wrong.”
Yesterday turned out to be an odd Fourth of July. My friends Carol and Jerry were coming up from California and stopping to see me on their way to Portland. We agreed to meet at the farmer’s market in Waldport. When I got there, I saw an ambulance in the parking lot and wondered who might be in it. I had no idea until I got a message from Jerry on my cell phone that Carol was inside. She had complained of feeling strange and nearly collapsed when she got out of the car. So they called 911.
Well, I had plans for the rest of the day, meeting other friends to see a local parade and have lunch after, but as I waited for the paramedics to check Carol out, I realized I had only one choice now. I would accompany my friends to the hospital and stay with them as long as necessary. After all, this was my town, they had never been here before, and they were my friends.
Carol was suffering from low blood sugar. After treatment with glucose and food, she was soon her chatty old self and able to laugh about reuniting under these crazy circumstances on Fourth of July. I missed the parade, but we had a good visit anyway, and I thank God my friend is all right.
Like me, Carol and Jerry are childless. Both wanted to have children, both were married before in situations where it didn’t happen, and now that it’s too late, they share life with three dogs, six cats, and Carol’s mother, who recently moved in with them.
As we talked about my Childlessby Marriage book, Carol admitted that she sees what she’s doing for her mother and wonders who will do that for her if her husband isn’t around anymore. Don’t we all?
I pray that when the need arises for her and for me, someone will be there. I believe a friend, a sibling, a cousin, someone will step up, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you have children.
What do you think about this?