If Not a Mother, What Will You Be?

Book Review

Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen by Lisa Manterfield. Redondo Beach, CA: Steel Rose Press, 2016.

It looks like you’re never going to be a mother. So now what? That’s the main focus of this book by Lisa Manterfield, the founder of the Life Without Baby online community. Although it is addressed to women and leans toward those with fertility problems rather than partners who don’t want kids, most of the wonderful advice in this book applies to all of us.

Step by Step, Manterfield takes us through the process of learning to live with our childlessness. In the opening chapter, “Letting Go of the Dream of Motherhood,” she helps the reader figure out when it’s time to stop trying and move on. She offers rituals to help us mark the end of our quest to have children. She goes on with chapters on dealing with the loss and the grief.

Other chapters cover finding support, aging without children, and envisioning new possibilities for our lives. She also gives practical advice for dealing with those difficult situations we all face: the people who want to know how many kids we have, the ones who claim we’re lucky to be childfree, and the ones who offer unwanted advice or thoughtless jabs that hurt us to the core. She helps us get through the holidays, including the dreaded Mother’s Day, and other situations that put us in tears years after we think we’ve gotten over our pain.

One of the points that really stuck with me was her emphasis that not having children does not mean we are broken or failures. We don’t have to make ourselves crazy trying to compensate for our lack of children. I have done that. Have you?

In each chapter, Manterfield offers exercises for readers to help figure out what to do next, along with tales from her own life that prove that she has same struggles as the rest of us. This is a very comforting and helpful book for women trying to move past the overwhelming panic and grief that comes with realizing you might never have children. I wish I had had a book like this when I was 40 and struggling with the reality of my situation. I highly recommend it. And do visit the Life Without Baby site. But keep coming back here, too.

Thanks to Lisa for guest-blogging here last month. Let’s keep in touch.

So, read the book. Chin up, we’ll all get through this. Keep up the comments. I’m encouraged by the community we’re building here.

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Childless and Keeping My Secret

So, we’re at this restaurant, sitting outside, a big happy group of writers attending a workshop at the University of Arizona. Each of us submitted a prize-winning essay to get here. All day, we have been discussing the craft of writing and the writing life. We feel like equals despite varying ages and the fact that we come from all over the U.S. But now, the workshop on break, cocktails in hand, I realize that everyone is talking about their children. They’re talking schools, toddlers vs. teens, funny and frustrating things their kids do. They’re showing pictures on their phones. Suddenly I don’t fit in.

Seated in the corner, I smile and nod as if I too left a house full of kids at home. I do not want to confess that I am different, so I eat my salmon and cornbread and pretend I’m not. I also don’t admit that I do not struggle to find time to write. I struggle to fill the bottomless well of time I have at home when it’s just me and the dog. They know my husband died because that’s what my essay is about. Bad enough that I’m a widow and I’m one of the oldest people here. I am not going to tell them I don’t have children.

After dinner, I volunteer to walk the two miles back to the campus with the young, fast-walking group. I struggle to keep up, but I’ll be damned if I say it. I can do this. I can fit in.

Are you ever embarrassed because you don’t have kids? Do you ever pretend you do? It’s easy when you’re among relative strangers. Everyone assumes people of a certain age are parents until you tell them otherwise.

I’m not proud of being childless. I feel like I messed up. Truly. I didn’t make motherhood happen. No matter how successful I might be otherwise, there’s this moment when a colleague asks, “How old are your kids (or grandkids) and I have to admit that I never had any. I’m not one of the childless-by-choice people who boast about not having children, who say, “I never wanted any, and I’m happy with my life.” With the implied if you don’t approve, that’s your problem.

To be honest, most people don’t react much when I tell them. They go back to their own conversations, and I go back to smiling and nodding. I can share a little bit in the conversation. I helped raise my stepchildren, I do have a niece and nephew, and hey, I was a kid once. But it’s not the same.

As I was getting on the plane to come home to Oregon, I overheard a conversation in which two strangers discovered they were both going to Portland to welcome new grandchildren. Sigh.

Do you ever feel like you need to hide the fact that you don’t have children? When does this happen? Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad and gotten caught? Please share in the comments. Let me know I’m not alone.

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In spite of a few awkward moments, I had a wonderful trip to Tucson. The weather was perfect, the workshop was wonderful, and I got to spend time with my husband’s cousin Adrienne and her husband John, delightful people I look forward to seeing again soon. They gave me a room, a car, and food and let me bask in the sun after months of Oregon rain. For more about my Arizona adventure, visit my Unleashed in Oregon blog.

Thank you to Lisa Manterfield for enriching the blog last week with your great post about aging without children. Let’s all support Lisa by following her Life Without Baby blog and buying her book. I’ll be posting a review soon and adding it to our resource list.

 

 

Guest post: Aging Without Children

Dear readers,

While I’m goofing off in Tucson, I’m giving this week’s post to Lisa Manterfield, author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the blog of the same name. Although she addresses her comments to women, men can benefit from her advice, too, sans the bit about menopause. Enjoy. I’ll see you next week. As always, your comments are welcome.

Sue

Aging Without Children

by Lisa Manterfield

Lisa Manterfield picWith luck, we will all grow old eventually. However, aging without children holds a unique set of challenges that our parenting counterparts don’t have to face. Our experiences differ with the milestones we hit, such as menopause, as well as those we miss, such as grandparenthood. And while most parents assume they will be cared for by their children in their twilight years, for those of us without offspring, dying alone and being forgotten are perhaps two of our biggest fears. There’s no doubt that these fears are legitimate While we cannot control the future, we can control our awareness, preparation, and a shift in perspective that can help alleviate some of the concern and uncertainty.

Hitting the milestone of menopause can feel like the last cruel barb thrown up along this journey. Just when you think you’ve come to terms with not having children, your body pulls out its rubber stamp and seals the deal. This “official” end of the possibility of biological motherhood marks the final and ultimate loss of what might have been. You may find yourself grieving all over again, not only the loss of motherhood, but regrets about the paths not taken.

Our society isn’t good about helping people grieve intangible losses, so we have to give ourselves permission to reflect during this time and to mourn the losses we feel. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned on my own journey of coming to terms with the fact that I would never be a mother is the importance of creating an ending and allowing myself to grieve. For many of us, the possibility of motherhood often doesn’t go away until menopause hits, and we’re left hanging with that hope that it could still happen. Drawing a line in the sand and saying “this is where it ends” allows us to move forward into grief and to deal with our loss in a way that feels right to us (and not how society thinks we should handle it!)

But then what? What about that misty future without children? What about that unknown territory of growing old alone?

Perhaps one of the biggest fears many of us face when looking at a future without children is having no one to care for us as we age. We picture ourselves shunted into a low-cost care facility where decisions about our healthcare are made by strangers. We imagine we will die alone without a single familiar face beside us.

Unfortunately, in this messy old world, few of us have a say in how we’ll shuffle off this mortal coil. The reality is that fate, illness, dementia, and catastrophe seem to randomly select whom to bestow their gifts upon. We have little control in how we’ll exit or who—if anyone—will surround us when we go. So, with that happy thought, let’s talk about aging.

I suspect that those of us without children spend a lot more time than most people worrying about what will become of us later in life. Many parents assume their children will take care of them as they age. But if you’ve spent any time in hospitals and nursing homes, you know that parenthood is no guarantee of elder care, and many, many elderly people spend their final days without the company and care of the children they’d counted on. Ensuring care in your old age and having someone to carry out your last wishes is not a good reason to have children, but it’s another great reason to have friends.

As I’ve watched my own mother, a widow for many years, move into her 80s, I’ve come to see how important it is to nurture a circle of good friends. But, it’s not always easy to make new friends when you’re not moving in mommy circles and don’t have shared activities, such as PTA or kids’ sports, so how do you develop real connections, the kind you need when you’re asking someone to step in during your time of need?

Rather than trying to seek out other childless women and then looking for common interests, try starting with the common interest and seeking out the people you’re drawn to. That might mean joining a small group, such as a book club, exercise class, or adult education class, something that meets regularly so that you get to know each other better over time. At each meeting, challenge yourself to get to know one new person a little better. Start with the easy questions, like what do you do for work (and be sure to go in with some stock answers for the inevitable “Do you have kids?” question.) You’re looking for common ground, so over time, ease into conversations about hobbies and special interests. As the friendship develops, look for ways to make a more personal connection outside the group. Invite her to meet for coffee, a walk, or a drive, something where you can enjoy some quality one-on-one time and get to the deeper conversations that will strengthen your connection.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But so is family, and these friends are the “family” we’re choosing. As with blood family, there’s no guarantee these friends will be there for you as you age, but I do see a future where seniors will help one another. Lately, I’ve been hearing about retirement villages where able-bodied residents help those who aren’t mobile, and local volunteers are assigned as advocates.

I’m also hearing more about older women living together to support one another, and networks of single, divorced, and widowed friends checking in on each other. A different kind of family is being created and a little effort now can help alleviate some of the worry about spending our later years alone. But it won’t happen by magic and it’s up to each of us to nurture the relationships with the people we’d like to have around as we age.

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Lisa Manterfield is the creator of LifeWithoutBaby.com, online community that provides resources, community, compassion, and support to women facing a life without children. She is the author of Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen and the award-winning memoir I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood. She lives in Southern California, with her wonderful husband (“Mr. Fab”) and overindulged cat, where she is working on her latest novel.