Virginia Silveira died last week. She was 101. Virginia was my great-aunt Edna’s half sister, one of those people who are not technically family, but they really are.
I’m sad about her loss, although I rarely saw her in recent years. When my dad gave me the news, I wished there was someone to whom I could send a sympathy card. But there’s no one. She never married or had children. She outlived her sister and her friends.
Virginia was an odd duck. Tall and gawky, perpetually argumentative, she was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Everyone loved Edna, who, although married to my Uncle Tony Sousa, never had children either. Attractive, gregarious and cheerful, she was fun to be around. But Virginia, not so much.
Edna was my mother’s favorite aunt and often served as a substitute mother, more upbeat and worldly than her own mother. My mother’s death of cancer caused Edna great pain. I still remember how she held me and we cried together. “Oh, Susan,” she sobbed. The memory makes me cry.
But Virginia was her own person. She didn’t let anyone get too close.
The two sisters lived on Monroe Street in San Jose, each in a large house that would sell for over a million dollars now in San Jose’s overpriced market. After Edna’s husband died of cancer, the two sisters continued to live separately, each tending her own rose garden. They went to St. Martin’s church together every Sunday, always sitting in the front row on the right. When I went to church with my father, he insisted on sitting in the back, but I would go up to say hello to the sisters, Virginia so tall, Edna’s hair so white and fluffy. Both dressed to the nines. They would smile and clutch my hands in their frail old hands.
In an age when most women became housewives, Edna and Virginia worked, Edna in the office at Pratt-Lowe Cannery, Virginia as Accounting Officer at San Jose State University. I’d see her there sometimes when I was a student trying to work through the endless fees and paperwork of college life. She was always friendly at the college, much more herself than among the family, I think. Sometimes our families are the ones who know the least about who we really are.
In their retirement years, a long time considering Edna lived to 100 and Virginia to 101, the sisters traveled together, visiting 49 different countries by plane, train and boat. Virginia planned the trips, doing lots of research, learning a bit of the language. The sisters grew up with Portuguese-speaking parents, so they were good with the Latin languages and made several trips to the old country.
I interviewed them together for my book Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. We met in Edna’s kitchen, me with my green steno pad and tape recorder. They were among the first people I interviewed, and they gave me a lot of wonderful information. Every time Edna got started on a subject, Virginia would interrupt. She was opinionated and quotable. There’s a lot of her in my book. I think she was pleased with it. I hope she was.
Virginia did not want to be pigeonholed as Portuguese. “They’d have to tar and feather me before I’d speak the language outside the house,” she said. Edna, on the other hand, had no problem bouncing between the two languages.
Edna moved from her home to a senior residence after she had a stroke. She had some difficulties but continued to thrive. For her 100th birthday, a crowd jammed Harry’s Hofbrau’s banquet room. Virginia’s 100th was a much quieter affair.
Virginia had serious health problems in her later years, including breaking her neck in a fall and needing to be tube fed for about a year. But she was tough. She recovered. She always made it back to her house and her independent life.
I feel bad and a little frightened when I realize Virginia has no immediate family to celebrate her life. What if this happens to me? What if no one is left when I die?
Someone made funeral arrangements. Her wake is tonight, her funeral is scheduled for tomorrow at St. Martin’s, followed by entombment at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery where Edna is buried. I suspect Virginia figured all that out a long time ago, and so will I.
My last memory of Virginia is at a dinner at a younger aunt’s house. The guests were my father, elderly cousin Francis, Virginia and I. We ate split pea soup, I remember. Virginia was wearing a neck brace. She complained about all the foods she could not eat. She seemed to contradict or interrupt everything my father said. Her head shook. I think her hands did, too. But her mind was sharp and her memories clear.
One might argue that Virginia failed at life by not having a husband and children. But no, Virginia lived Virginia’s life. We all have to live our own lives, whether they follow the usual paths or not.
Virginia’s obituary offers a few surprises for me. I didn’t know she had two degrees from SJSU or that her colleagues established a scholarship in her honor for undergraduates at the SJSU School of Business. I didn’t know she was a cancer survivor. Instead of listing children and grandchildren, her obituary notes that she leaves many cousins and friends throughout the world. That’s not a bad legacy.
I sent Virginia a Christmas card every year. She’d sent one back, thanking me for thinking of her. I prayed for her every morning. This morning I got to where I usually insert her name and sighed. I changed my prayer. God, please take good care of Virginia now that she’s with you. If she tries to tell you how to run heaven, be patient. She means well.
Virginia and Edna are taking the most exciting trip of all.
The first Christmas commercials showed up on TV before we finished with Halloween. The stores were already putting out the decorations and cheesy gifts in mid-October. You can’t get away from it. Even if you’re not Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to escape the whole Santa Claus business.
So much of what is offered is for children. After all, who gets the most and the best Christmas presents? Kids. When there are kids around, almost everything under the tree is for them. It has always been that way. When my brother and I were little, our parents, grandparents, godparents, and aunts brought in armloads of gifts for us. We’d crawl around under the tree, prodding and shaking the packages, trying to figure out what was inside, dreaming of the possibilities. On Christmas morning, it felt like we were unwrapping presents for hours. It wasn’t until my teens that I realized Mom and Dad received comparatively few gifts. They would nod and admire our bounty while itching to get on with preparations for the company coming soon.
I have spent plenty of time at other people’s houses watching the kids rip paper off packages while I sipped my tea or slowly unwrapped my one present, fancy soaps, chocolates, or another coffee mug. It was worse when those kids were my stepchildren, surrounded by so many parents and grandparents, step and bio, they couldn’t even keep track. My husband’s ex always knew exactly what they wanted and needed because she was the real grandmother, the one who was around all the time. I was this weird Grandma Sue person who knew nothing about children.
We can say Christmas is not about the gifts, but in some ways it is. All the advertising showing perfect families with two happy parents and at least two beautiful children doesn’t mirror our own reality. If only advertisers would try to understand that. Sure, we might have stepchildren, nieces and nephews, or our friends’ children to buy presents for, but we have to exercise some restraint because they have their own parents who want to give the biggest and best things.
Christmas gifts present a dilemma for many of us without children. If you’re like me, you don’t hang around kids that much and don’t even know what they want or need. I haven’t been to Toys R Us in at least 25 years. What are the popular gifts this year? What do you get for a two-year-old? What does a 12-year-old want? Are you obligated to buy presents for kids you barely know? Do your friends and siblings expect you to shower their children with gifts when you can’t afford them or when even walking through the toy store at the mall makes you feel bad?
I’m afraid I sound sorry for myself. I don’t get a lot of Christmas presents these days, and I open them alone. The joys of being a widow far from family. I have been buying gifts for certain young people for years and never gotten anything in return. But that’s not what this post is about.
I want to know what it’s like for you. Does Christmas fill you with dread because of all the gifts you have to buy or the gifts you don’t get to buy because you don’t have kids? Do you enjoy buying or making things for the children in your life? Or are you relieved because not having children means you don’t have to spend the money or deal with the crowds? What’s your game plan for Christmas presents this year? Do you have suggestions for surviving the Santa Claus side of Christmas? Please share in the comments.
Boy, is Halloween a non-event when you live alone with no children around. Or it can be. Amid the Facebook barrage of babies and kids in Halloween costumes, Annie and I lived a normal day. I practiced music. I took myself out to lunch and bought groceries, noting a few adults in costume. Rain expected for today, I mowed my lawns. I walked the dog. I ate leftovers for dinner and called my dad, who was sitting in the dark in California to avoid luring Trick or Treaters to his porch. He forgot to buy candy, and it’s too hard for him to get up and down to answer the door. Me, I sat on the loveseat with Annie, lights shining bright. Nobody would be coming out here in the woods. The few families with kids take them elsewhere to Trick or Treat.
I asked my father about Halloween when he was a kid growing up on a ranch in California back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Did he go Trick or Treating? No, he said. He never did. Houses were spread too far. There were no street lights. Did you have a costume? Nope. The most that happened at his house was that his father might carve a pumpkin. Jack-o-Lantern, he called it. I suspect his mother used the insides to make pie. You couldn’t just throw out food during the Depression.
It was different when my brother and I were growing up. We couldn’t wait to put on our costumes and go Trick or Treating, filling our bags with candy. But now my dad, like me, was sitting in his living room as Halloween went on without him. He has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but none were nearby showing off their costumes.
For me, it was a hard holiday. I felt especially alone and old. But I know it doesn’t have to be that way. A friend who is the same age and also widowed posted a Facebook photo of herself in costume with her tiny piano students, also in costume. They all seemed so happy. My friend has a grown son, but he doesn’t live around here. She didn’t let that stop her from having a happy Halloween. Like everything else, Halloween is what you make of it. Without kids, I guess we have to try harder.
And no, I’m not putting a costume on my dog.
Halloween over, Thanksgiving and Christmas are approaching like a roaring freight train. How was yesterday for you? Any thoughts on the upcoming holidays?
Childless employees, especially women, get the shaft in the workplace. Right? How many times have you watched a co-worker run off to watch a soccer game or take her child to the dentist while you had to cover her hours or finish her work because hey, you don’t have any kids to worry about?
1) The dominance of mom talk and mom activities. People who just want to do their jobs are subjected to baby showers, mothers bringing their babies to work, baby pictures, and co-workers conversing about subjects the childless don’t feel comfortable joining in.
2) Unfair holiday allocations. Who gets to work on Christmas? Not the moms and dads.
3) Lack of consideration for any real-life needs besides children.
4) Caring for parents, pets, spouses, etc., does not get the same consideration as caring for children.
5) Unfair work load distribution. Give it to her; she doesn’t have kids.
Does any of this sound familiar? I have certainly felt left out when the moms at work all gathered to talk about their kids. But I haven’t experienced discrimination in the same ways that others have. During my years in the newspaper business, we all worked nights, weekends, and holidays, lucky if we got time for lunch. I suspect my co-workers’ kids were fending for themselves.
I think we have to understand that it’s not easy balancing work and family. Children require a lot of maintenance. Somebody has to take them to doctor and dentist appointments, pick them up when the school calls, or accompany them to sports activities or lessons. Somebody has to take care of them when they’re not in school. Parents would tell you that’s more important than any job.
But how is that our problem, you might ask? It’s bad enough that we don’t get to have kids and now we get extra work dumped on us because of it? It’s definitely not fair. Employers need to understand that we have lives, too, and that includes taking care of our homes, spouses, pets, and aging parents. And ourselves. We need time for doctor and dentist appointments, too.
I’m rambling. There’s a situation going on at my church job that has me totally distracted. It has nothing to do with the fact that three out of four of us employees never had children, more to do with working for a crazy person. I’ll bet you can identify with that, too.
So I turn the discussion over to you. Have you experienced discrimination in the workplace because you are the one without children? Are you constantly forced to deal with baby pictures, baby showers, and baby talk that just makes you feel worse about your own situation. Let ‘er rip. I want to know.
Here are just a few of many articles on the subject of workplace discrimination against employees without kids.
“Discrimination Against Childfree Adults” by Ellen Walker, Psychology Today, May 2, 2011
“Family-Friendly Workplaces are Great, Unless You Don’t Have Kids” by Amanda Marcotte, Slate, June 21, 2013
“Do Childless Employees Get the Shaft at Work?” by Aaron Guerrero, U.S. News & World Report, July 17, 2013
I await your comments.
How far would you go to have children? What would you be willing to sacrifice? A reader who is calling himself Anonymous Max has commented several times on my Sept. 27 post “Are You Ready to Accept Childlessness?” For him, the answer is clearly no.
AMax has two stepchildren, but he does not feel like a father to them. He has tried mentoring and working with other people’s kids, but it’s the not same. He will not be happy until he has his own biological child. Following a miscarriage and years of trying, he and his wife have realized they won’t be able to have children in the usual way, but he’s not giving up. He plans to hire a surrogate to bear their child, implanting sperm and egg into another woman’s body. To afford it, he is working three jobs and investing as much money as he can.
The cost of surrogacy varies. Estimates online range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Insurance is unlikely to cover it. A lot of emotions become involved when you’re asking someone else to carry your baby and give it up when the pregnancy is over. AMax says his wife was hesitant at first, but is “on board” now. It’s a difficult path, but they’re determined to take it. I hope AMax will keep us informed about what happens.
Most often here, people ask about whether or not to leave their partner to find someone who will have children with them. Leaving someone you love is a huge sacrifice and an equally huge risk. What if you never find a new partner? What if it’s too late to get pregnant when you do?
“Lifeasitisbyme” reported recently that her husband is divorcing her so she can go have children with someone else. She says, “I’m completely heartbroken as I still love him. He doesn’t feel it’s fair that he’s holding me back on having a family and doesn’t feel he’s been fair to me. At this point I’m confused. I love him dearly and I’ve started to wonder if having children is more important than losing my soulmate.”
What if your spouse or partner suddenly said, “I’m letting you go. You need to have children and I can’t give them to you.” What would you do?
Is your need to have children so strong that you will sacrifice anything to be a mom or dad? Do you want it as bad as AMax? Do you feel guilty if a voice inside says, “I’m not sure.”
Think about it, friends. Perhaps it will answer some questions for you.
In the wake of the NotMom Summit, I have added some new books and websites to the resource page. Clink on the link at the top of the page to check it out.
“Are you childless by choice or by chance?” That was the question women asked each other at the NotMom Summit last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. For once, no one was asking how many children we had or when we were going to start having babies. We already knew that the answers to those questions were none and probably never.
A vast gray area exists between women who have never wanted to have children and women who would give anything to have them, between women who rage about how difficult it is to get a doctor to tie their tubes for permanent sterilization and women who spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments in the hope of getting pregnant. Keynote speaker Jody Day, founder of Gateway-Women, has published a list of “Fifty Ways Not to Be a Mother” and says she could probably list another 50.
We shared stories of troubled childhoods; physical problems such as fibroid tumors, endometriosis and cancer; spouses who did not want to have children; choosing art over motherhood, and women who just plain didn’t want to have any babies. We laughed and cried at different places depending on where we were in our childless “journey.” When you desperately want a child, it’s difficult to applaud someone who just got her tubes tied or who boasts about being happily childfree.
In her talk, Day told us about an abortion she had early in life when she truly didn’t want to have a child. Later, when she wanted to conceive, she was never able to get pregnant again. Over the years, she said she has worked through her grief and come to a place where she can embrace being childfree.
The other keynote speaker, Marcia Drut-Davis, a bit older than most of us, told us about how she was vilified when she admitted on television that she did not want to have children. Her presentation was hysterically funny, and yet I knew that we had opposite views. Not only do I still wish I had children, but I’m oh-my-God Catholic and actually agree with Pope Francis and his views on family life. And yet, I loved her, and she was sweet to me when we met.
I heard later that Drut-Davis was criticized by some as not really being childfree because she had stepchildren. That’s nuts. Stepchildren are not the same. I expected criticism to come from the childless side. I keep thinking about the woman from Montreal who froze her eggs before having surgery for cancer and has never been able to get pregnant. I see her tears and think, hold on Marcia, do you know how hard it is for her to hear what you’re saying?
We had a pajama party Friday night to view a rough cut of a film titled “To Kid or Not to Kid,” produced by and starring Maxine Trump (no relation!). In the opening scene, she lifts her shirt to show us the scars from surgeries in her teens on her Fallopian tubes and uterus. She is not even sure she can get pregnant, but she wants to make sure she never does because she does not want to be a mother. In the film, she tells her husband and her mother how she feels about having children. We watch as her husband has a vasectomy. She meets with a young woman who has seen one doctor after another trying to have sterilization surgery. No one will do it.
The film is very pro-childfree. I considered going to bed instead of watching the whole thing. After all, so much of it clashes with my religious beliefs and my personal desires. And yet, I was mesmerized and sympathetic. Maxine, sitting there with us in her pajamas, has clearly suffered over this issue and knows how risky it is to open herself up to how the world at large might react in our pro-motherhood society. Her film uncovers many issues that nobody ever talks about.
By choice or by chance? Once we have made our choice or accepted that we will never have children, we have a lot in common. People say stupid things to us: “Why don’t you just adopt?” “You’ll change your mind.” “Women without children are immature and selfish.” We all feel left out when our parent friends are too busy with their kids to spend time with us. We all get sick of looking at other people’s baby pictures. We all worry about ending up old and alone. We’re all minorities in a world full of mothers.
There was considerable talk about the journey from “childless” to “childfree,” about reaching a place where one can celebrate the freedom that comes with not being a parent. I don’t expect to ever declare myself “childfree.” I wanted children and I still feel bad about not having them. The best outcome for me is simply to be at peace with how life turned out and enjoy the many blessings that I have.
At the end of the conference, motivational speaker DeLores Pressley, childless by early hysterectomy, got us dancing and shouting affirmations along the lines of “I am wonderful.” Then she had us form two circles facing each other. Oh boy, one of those touchy-feely exercises, right? We were to look directly into the eyes of the woman across from us for 10 seconds, until DeLores rang a bell, then move to the next woman. At first we giggled and squirmed, but then tears appeared in many of the women’s eyes and we started hugging each other before we moved on. As instructed, I tried to send a silent message. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” My eyes filled with tears, too. It’s okay to cry. It’s also okay to dance.
I will be posting thoughts from the conference for weeks to come. There’s so much to talk about. I gave a general overview of my trip on this week’s Unleashed in Oregon blog post. Read it here.
Let me know in the comments what you think about this childfree/childless situation. Can you be friends with someone who is happy to never have kids? Or does it hurt too much? Could you ever reach a place where you declare yourself happy to not have children? Let’s talk about it.