When people assume we have children

I sit in a windowless conference room at a Doubletree Inn listening to yet another speaker talk about finding time to write. Children, especially little ones, seem to be the biggest obstacle for most. So needy, so 24/7. You can get up before sunrise or write late at night. Write while they’re at school or napping. Write in waiting rooms or on the bleachers during their sports events. Hire a babysitter for an hour. Steal whatever time you can.

My mind wanders off. I know all that. I just never needed to worry about it. I never had a baby to take care of. By the time my youngest stepson moved in, he was old enough to take care of himself—and he preferred it that way. In one of my favorite memories, Michael trooped through the house with his friends. As they passed my office, where I was writing, he said, “There’s my mom. She’s a writer.”

Sure, there were school activities, Boy Scouts and such, but they were no big intrusion on my work. I wrote for three different newspapers and worked on the novel du-jour unfettered. Ironically, the walls of my office those first few years of full-time step-motherhood were wallpapered with Care Bears. I suppose the room was intended as a nursery. I enjoyed looking at the bears while I nurtured words instead of babies.

Husbands can be a bigger interruption. They need attention, too, but for me, husband number one was never around, and husband number two found it amusing when I raced off to throw words on paper. He had his own work during the week and on weekends, it was football all day long. When he got sick with Alzheimer’s Disease, finding time was more difficult. I wrote after he went to bed, while he was watching football, or while his caregivers took him to lunch. I talked my stories into a voice recorder in the car. I got it done.

Back at the Doubletree, the speaker drones on and on. He assumes we all have children and spouses to care for, that we are all just like him, but we’re not. We might wish we were, but we didn’t ease into a “normal” family situation like he did. We don’t have family dinners, soccer games, and trips to the beach. We don’t buy school clothes, throw kid birthday parties, or nurse children with chicken pox. It’s just us, writing, and we’d like him to please change the subject.

People assume. A childless Facebook friend recently told about how an older woman started talking to her at a coffee shop. The woman gushed about her six grandchildren, then asked the writer how many grandchildren she had. She had to admit she had none, which brought the conversation to an awkward halt. She found the encounter terribly unsetting. You all would understand. But the grandmother didn’t mean any harm. She just assumed that all women of a certain age have grandchildren.

We don’t. With one out of five of women not having children, there are a lot of us who don’t have grandchildren either. Hey world, stop assuming.

A few days before Easter, I made the mistake of going out to lunch at one of our most popular local diners. It was spring break, and people were lined up waiting for tables. Lots of kids. So many kids. When I went to the restroom, I found myself waiting with a woman in her 30s. We could hear a mom in one of the two stalls talking to her kids. We heard yelling and whining. It took forever. When they came out, the other woman and I stared. She had three girls under the age of four in that little stall.

When the door shut behind them, the woman said, “My worst nightmare.”

I nodded. “Really.” This was not the time to explain my childless situation.

We rushed to use the empty stalls. She probably assumed I was a mom. I assumed she didn’t want children, but when I came out, her husband and son were waiting for her.

Never assume.

The good news is I’m free to write here in my bathrobe for as long as I choose and then share it with you while my dog takes a nap . . . Oops. Here’s the dog, needing attention. Yesterday she chewed half a pen, and I still don’t know where the other half went. Gotta go.

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Beyond childlessness, life goes on

“Remember me?” The woman had come rushing up to me at an event for writers. I was in charge and trying to do three things at once, but I stopped and stared into her gorgeous face framed by blonde braids. “Gretchen?” It was one of my former students from the community college. Somehow in the 10 years or so that have passed since she took my class, she has gotten more youthful than ever. She has also done quite well with her writing, one of my success stories. I see her byline everywhere. She told me she has quit her day job to focus full-time on writing. I know she will succeed.

She reminded me that she had wanted to be one of the women in my Childless by Marriage book but had shown up too late to be included. She was childless because of her marriage and had really struggled with it. I invited her to write for the blog and maybe she will someday, but I share this story about her with you because she seemed so happy with her life. She absolutely glowed with energy, proving that childlessness doesn’t have to be a life sentence to perpetual misery.

I share my day job with another childless woman, Mary. Her first husband was abusive. Her second husband, like mine, was older and already had all the children he wanted. But what a guy. Except for my late husband, he’s the sweetest man I have ever met. He had three children, as did my husband, but that’s where the similarity ends because Mary has a great relationship with those grown children and the grandchildren. In fact, this week, a bunch of them are visiting and sleeping downstairs at Mary’s house. They talk, visit, sing together and feel like one big family.

As you may recall from previous posts, that’s not the situation with my stepchildren. I don’t see them or talk to any of them, except on Facebook. One of them is having a birthday this weekend. As I prepared a card to send, I realized I wasn’t sure where she lives now or whether she will appreciate the card. It’s sad. She’s a grandmother now, and I will probably never meet her grandchildren, my step-great-grandchildren. Or are they any relation to me now that my husband is gone? I don’t know.

But back to Mary. Her life is full to overflowing with music. She teaches, plays, sings, and directs several choirs. Not having children has given her time to live her manic life of music. She enjoys other people’s kids and sends them home. And she enjoys her life, with no regrets.

Our church choir has two other childless women, both about my age now. Neither of them is suffering from her lack of children.

All I’m trying to say is it’s possible to get past the grief, anger and uncertainty and accept a childless life that is happy and fulfilling. Do I still wish I had children? Yes, although I don’t know how I would have fit them into my life of writing and music–and giving up my work was never an option.

Do you know people who are living happily without children? Are there lessons you can learn from them? I look forward to your comments.

 

A Tale of Two Childless Writers

Have you ever heard of May Sarton? Sarton, who lived from 1912 to 1995, was a poet, novelist and memoirist in an era when most women stayed home and had babies. She published more than 50 books. I recently read her Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973. It describes a year she lived alone in a small town in New Hampshire. Although she battled loneliness and depression, she was convinced that solitude was essential to her career as a writer. She did not see how she could have succeeded if she were married and had children. The demands of motherhood did not allow the necessary time, energy or focus. Although many friends visited and she often went out for public appearances or to spend time with a mystery lover she called X, she was always anxious to be alone again.

A wonderful list of Sarton quotes at Goodreads.com includes this one: “It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented… the cry not so much for a ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”

I found myself having a lot in common with Sarton, except that I still believe it is possible to write and raise children. The early years might be difficult, but once the kids start school, you have guaranteed hours when someone else is taking care of them. It worked for me those years when Fred’s youngest son lived with us. He was just turning 12 when he moved in, and he was a self-sufficient kind of boy, so I was able to work all day on my own writing and my job writing for a local newspaper. I could have become more involved in Michael’s life, volunteering at school, baking cookies, or whatever, but my work was always a high priority. I often think God planned for me to be childless, so I could be a writer. Too often I burn dinner while I’m engrossed in my work. How would I care for a baby?

Of course, many moms these days need a job outside the home, and that makes it hard to do anything else. Sarton was wealthy. She had a maid, gardeners and a handyman taking care of things around the house while she spent hours perfecting a line of poetry.

Then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for Eat, Pray, Love and several other books. Readers of her work know she chose to be childless. In an interview for Omega, she says she struggled with her decision. Motherhood seemed to be the natural path, but it didn’t feel right for her.  She finally decided, “Okay, this is my path. I’ll take it with its risks and with its liberation because it’s mine.” Her decision, which left her free to travel, write and explore, feels more right every year, she says.

A lot changed between 1973, when the women’s movement was just beginning to blossom, and 2015. Women have more choices these days in lifestyles, careers, and reproductive decisions. Perhaps if they switched eras, Sarton and Gilbert would have made different choices.

What do you think? Can you devote yourself completely to your career and be a mother, too? Has not having children given you freedom to do things you wouldn’t have been able to do if you were raising a family? Or have you put everything on hold while still hoping to have children? Please comment.