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.
I was sort-of listening to Fresh Air on NPR the other day while going through old photos when I suddenly realized the guest, author Sigrid Nunez, and host Terry Gross, were talking about childlessness. I started taking notes.
Nunez has a new book, The Friend, in which a childless woman inherits a Great Dane left behind by a friend who committed suicide. I’m looking forward to reading it because, you know, dog. Also because it sounds wonderful. Watch this clip of Nunez reading from her book. I think you’ll fall in love with her just like I have.
In her essay, “The Most Important Thing,” Nunez talks about her decision not to have children. They just didn’t fit with her career, she decided after considering the lives of other woman writers. “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of the highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children,” she observes.
The rest of Nunez’s essay is devoted to great women writers who gave birth to unwanted children, who left their children behind, or who, like Sylvia Plath, were famously anguished at not being able to have both a meaningful career and kids. She did not want to be the mother who shooed away her child because she was busy writing.
On NPR, Nunez, who never married, said she had never had a relationship with a man that felt strong enough to have a child, and she never thought she would be a good single mother.
But unlike many who choose to be “childfree,” Nunez does not downplay the effects of choosing not to have children. Gross asked if people warned her she would regret her choice. Here is here answer:
“Yes, and I think that that’s very reasonable. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, missing having had children is enormous. I don’t – you know, I did what I had to do, or, you know, my life turned out as it has. But it’s never – I’ve never not been aware that in not having been a mother and not having had a child I have missed one of life’s greatest, most interesting, most meaningful experiences. I did. I did. But, you know, you can’t do everything. You can’t have everything.”
That’s not the same as regret, she stressed. She simply knew she could not have the life she wanted as a writer and be the kind of mother she would have wanted to be. Now in her 60s, she admitted she worries about being alone in old age but will just have to deal with it.
So this raises the question, once again: Are there certain careers, especially for women, which are simply not compatible with motherhood? In my Childless by Marriage book, I quoted an artist who said she couldn’t possibly do her art and raise children. I still remember that freezing afternoon when we were both selling our wares at an outdoor fair. She was so sincere she made me feel like a slacker for even asking the question.
At this point in my own life, I’m reluctant to leave my writing and my music even for the dog, so would I really be happy immersed in children and grandchildren? I thought I would be, but I’ll never know. How about you? Do you feel a conflict between career/art/vocation and the possibility of raising children? Do you think, like Nunez, that we might have to choose one or the other?
I have been going through old writings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Most are columns or essays, some of them published in the community newspapers where I worked or sent out as freelance pieces to various magazines and newspapers. In addition to being embarrassed—I really thought that was good?—I’m surprised to read frequent phrases like the above that implied I had children. Did I really consider myself a mom or was I trying to fit in with the rest of the world?
I had three stepchildren. The older two, in their teens when Fred and I got married, did not live with us. The youngest, only 7 when we met, lived with us from age 12 to 20, flying to Texas to spend time with his mom for holidays and summer vacation. Sure, I was doing full-time mom duty for a while, but did I really think of myself that way? Certainly not on Mother’s Day when the honors went to Fred’s ex. Certainly not when it came to decisions about “our son’s” religion, extracurricular activities, or his future. Certainly not when other women talked about their children’s birth and younger years. Certainly not when I tried to hug my stepson and he backed away.
I was kind of a mom, but in my writing, I seemed to imply that I was a full-fledged just-like-everybody-else mom. So why did my “son” call me “Sue?” Maybe it was just too complicated to explain that these were stepchildren, that I had not given birth to them. Or was I embarrassed, feeling that I had failed?
Who was to know different? Not the photographer who kept calling me “Mom” as he posed us for a family portrait. Not the school secretary who called to tell me young Mr. Lick had not shown up for class. Not the Boy Scout leader who wanted me to bring two dozen cookies. Not the other moms who sent their kids to our house to play. In most cases, I did not set them straight.
It’s as difficult to put myself back in that head space as it is to fit into the skinny clothes I wore then. I know I wanted desperately to be a mom. I guess I claimed as much of that status as I could, aware that it could be taken away at any minute.
These days, with Fred gone and no contact with the kids beyond Facebook, I just tell people I never had any children. That’s not quite true either, is it? I still love Fred’s kids and pray for them every day. But they’ve got a mom. I’m just Sue.
This seems like an odd post. Things have been odd lately for me, going through all these old writings, dealing with some worrisome medical issues, and slogging through the rainy days of winter. But maybe you have experienced some of this, too.
My questions for today: Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad when you’re not? If you have stepchildren, do you feel like their parent? Do you claim that status among other people? Please comment. I want to know what you think. Tell me I’m not the only one.
We sat around a table at the senior center last week passing around photos for a writing exercise. I was a stranger in this group that meets every week. I had come to check out the visiting writing teacher. My seat faced a wall-sized mirror, so I was looking at myself all the time, feeling too young and overdressed for this group.
The people were incredibly friendly, but I soon felt like an outcast in another way: Most of the photos included children. Kids lined up along a fence. Kids posing at Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa. Kids in the front row of family reunion pictures. You know the kind, where the original couple is surrounded by the many generations. Yeah. I don’t have a lot of those pictures. My albums are full of dogs, cats, buildings, beaches, mountains, and flowers.
The picture I brought, which inspired some smiles, showed my first husband, my father and my brother all leaning down looking into the back of the VW bus that we took on our first honeymoon. That was in 1974, when I was 22 and had no doubts about being a mom someday, and no clue that the marriage wouldn’t last. The honeymoon, a road trip all over the western U.S. and Canada, was great. At home, we didn’t do so well.
But back to the pictures. I suspect most of us don’t keep actual printed photo albums anymore. I don’t, although I have quite a few from the past. We store pictures on our phones, tablets and computers and post them on social media, but it’s still the same. My friends show me pictures of their children and grandchildren. I show them pictures of my dog or the weird bear statue somebody draped in garlands this Christmas (Bondage Bear, I called him). I have some pictures of my nieces and nephews, but I don’t see them often, and it’s not the same. I take a lot of pictures to accompany my blogs and other writing projects. But I’ll never line my children up on the front porch for the annual first-day-of-school photo. Or pose with their kids at Christmas.
What does that leave me to share or to save in albums? And who would I save those albums for? When I die, who is going to care?
I rarely get my own picture taken. Most of the pics I put online are selfies or photos I paid a professional to take. No one seems anxious to save my image or put it on the wall like the 1800s picture of my great-grandma Louise that I study at my dad’s house, looking for features that have been passed down, trying to sense the kind of person she was. Does anyone believe all those Facebook pictures will even exist in a hundred years? (remember floppy disks? Gone!)
I have been thinking about piecing together a family-tree style collection of photos of all my loved ones, especially those who have died, so I can look at them all in one place. The tree will not go on beyond me. My line goes only backward, not forward. I’m a twig that will never reproduce. So who would I do it for? Me. It would make me happy, and that’s good enough.
My brother, the only person with exactly the same ancestors, might be interested, but he is surrounded by children and grandchildren these days. His branch of the tree is getting heavy with new branches.
Back to that photo I passed around. The seniors got a laugh at the old VW with its “lawnmower” engine in the back. My ex, shirtless, squatted in front of the engine. He was the real mechanic in the group, but my father, still dressed up from the wedding, was bent over supervising while my brother, back in jeans and tee shirt, stood back, looking worried. It was his bus that we were about to drive all over hell and gone with “Just Married” painted in blue all over it and only three working cylinders. I could write a lot more about that picture than I could about yet another string of blonde, blue-eyed Oregon kids.
So what do you take pictures of? Do you put them in albums or other kinds of collections? Who will care about them when you’re gone? Does it matter? Please share in the comments.
Happy New Year! Hallelujah, the holidays are over.
As we start a new year, I want to share a quote that set me thinking about all the things we are besides childless.
In the book Motherhood Missed, which I reviewed here last month, one of the anonymous women included there wrote this: “I don’t want to identify for the rest of my life as a childless woman. I want to be something else.”
That really struck me because we are more than our status as parents or non-parents. We have other gifts to give to the world. We might wish with all our hearts that we had children, that we could proudly boast of being mothers or fathers, but there is more. There’s always more.
So I want you think about what else you are. If you were writing a Facebook profile or a bio to put on the back of your book and you were not allowed to say anything about having or not having children, what would you write?
For example, the bios at the bottom of things I publish usually say something like “Sue Fagalde Lick is a writer-musician-dog mom living on the Oregon Coast.” I go on to name my books and other publications and mention my job as a music minister. Am I also a mother? Readers don’t need to know; it’s irrelevant, just like my age or my shoe size.
Childlessness does not define me, except in particular situations, such as this blog. If I find myself at a school or other child-centered place, I can focus on my reason for being there. Perhaps I’m volunteering, giving a talk, or offering support as a student’s aunt. It’s about what I AM, not what I’m NOT.
So what is your gift to share with the world? If you had a child, what would you be looking forward to doing once they got old enough to leave alone. You are free to do it now. That’s no small thing.
The arts are not the only way to contribute to the world. You can keep a business running, share your faith, teach, train dogs, keep people safe, help the sick and injured, or provide food, homes, clothing, and other necessities. Are you a gardener, an athlete, a chef, or masseuse? You have way more to offer than just eggs or sperm.
At my 50th birthday party, which turned out to be the last event my mother attended before she died, she gave the most beautiful speech about how proud she was of me. She mentioned my writing and my music, but she said the best part was my loving heart. She didn’t talk about how I had failed to have children; she focused on what I had accomplished. So should you.
I know this is hard, especially if you’re in the throes of your baby-no baby crisis. But let’s give it a try this year. What else are you besides not someone’s mother or father?
Here’s another New Year’s resolution for you: If you’re on the fence because of your partner’s refusal to commit, let them know that it ends in 2019. If they refuse to give you a definite answer, you will take their non-decision as a no and act on it. No more waiting around. No one has the right to hold your life hostage.
So that’s my New Year’s sermon. I started the new year by being up all night with stomach troubles, followed by a migraine. Yesterday my dog swallowed a guitar pick which I pray will come out the other end and not kill her. But today we’re both okay.
Parenting is no guarantee of happy holidays. My brother’s kids and grandkids are all sick. My best friend had a fight with her grandson, who says he will never speak to her again. At least we don’t have to deal with that.
I feel good about 2019. Let’s try to see the bright side. Tell me in the comments: What else are you besides a non-mom or non-dad?
It was a crazy Christmas. I spent the night of the winter solstice in the ER with stomach pains and a doctor obsessed with the possibility I’d had a heart attack. For women, it sometimes manifests as stomach pain. My heart was fine, but it was a surreal night spent tied to an IV and heart monitor in a cold little bed watching feet move beyond the yellow curtain that divided my cubicle from the rest of the emergency department.
As the pains subsided into my usual gastritis-acid reflux-IBS-too much stress gut ache, they gave me something called a “GI cocktail” and sent me home at 4:45 a.m. I drove myself both ways. It was a clear night, bright under the full moon, with no other cars around. I turned on the radio. NPR’s nighttime jazz came on, and I felt glad to be alive and free.
Later, standing outside in the dark watching Annie relieve herself, I cried from the fear I had felt and the emptiness where a loved one should have been, waiting and worrying, keeping me company as I have done so many times at so many hospitals for my husband and our parents, as my children might have done if I had them. I had texted a friend from the hospital, but I didn’t tell any of my family until it was all over. They’re too far away to help.
That was the Saturday before Christmas. Christmas is a marathon for church workers. With the holiday falling on a Tuesday, that meant four days of Masses in a row with many hours at the piano leading our tiny choir through oh-so-many songs. If I don’t play “Away in a Manger” or “The First Noel” again for a while, that will be okay. My hurting stomach made it more challenging this year.
But here’s the weirdest thing that happened. Halfway through the early Christmas Eve Mass, our priest got sick. Stomach sick, the kind where you can’t stop throwing up. He left during Communion and came back to wrap up the Mass in a hurry. As we headed out to dinner, we all wondered what would happen with the “midnight Mass,” which happens at 10 p.m. at our church. Anyone who has had the stomach flu knows that when it hits, you can’t do anything until it subsides.
We found Father resting on the floor when we came back to church. He crawled to his feet, started to discuss options with my friend Sandy, our director of religious education, then broke off to run to the restroom to throw up. Nope, he couldn’t do the midnight Mass. What would we tell the crowd gathering in the sanctuary, many of whom only come to Mass on Christmas and Easter? This is a small town on the Oregon Coast. There are no other priests to fill in, especially on short notice. It would take a substitute priest at least an hour to get here, and they were all busy with their own parishes on Christmas Eve.
Sandy saved the night. She put on a white cassock and pulled together a prayer service, offering the parts of the Mass that a non-priest is allowed to do. We sang, and she led us through the readings, a Christmas meditation, prayers and Communion, using hosts that Father had already blessed. It was short but beautiful. I loved that a woman, the same woman who had spent the day before baking nine kinds of cookies for Christmas, was leading us in the oh-so-male Catholic Church. She was the only one with the training and experience to do it. I’m calling her Father Sandy now.
Our priest was back Christmas morning, worn but capable, surely glad that Christmas was almost over. He told us he was about to drive himself to the ER on Christmas Eve but knew the staff at the hospital would scold him for driving himself. Maybe. I drove myself three days earlier, and they didn’t seem to care.
The choir family had a wonderful dinner between Masses on Christmas Eve. I joined Sandy’s family on Christmas Day. I got lots of presents, including ones from the family which I finally had time to open on Christmas night. This year, the niece and nephew added to the loot, which made “Aunt Sue” happy—and weepy. I now have a framed photo of my niece to put where I can enjoy her pretty face.
At the end of Christmas Day, I was back on the love seat with my dog Annie, making phone calls to family and friends, telling them about my trip to the ER, about the priest, and about the mouse who has moved into my kitchen and seems especially fond of dog treats. It even chewed through the empty Milk-Bone box last night, leaving little bits of cardboard on my counter. I’m buying traps today. Like the priest, I am celibate and childless, living this strange, challenging and wonderful solo life here in the coastal forest.
So that’s my Christmas story. Please tell me yours in the comments. Did your families drive you crazy? Was it better than you expected? Did you struggle with nosy questions and with being around other people’s kids? Did you run away for the holidays? Did something weird or crazy happen? Please share.
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.