Childless or not, expect to take care of yourself

Lately I’ve been living a double life. On March 25, my 95-year-old father broke his upper leg, the same leg with the artificial hip from when he broke it in 2014. He wasn’t doing anything special, just washing dishes when the bone came apart and he fell on the floor, banging his head so hard on the wall he left a layer of hair behind. He was alone, just like he was with the hip. Luckily, he had his cell phone in his pocket.

Since then, I have been traveling back and forth between Oregon and California, trying to do as much as I can to help. I was there when Dad moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, when he left there for a nursing home, and when he went back to his own house last week. In the last four months, I have spent 34 days sleeping in my childhood bedroom and hanging out with Dad.

But I’m not there now. A paid caregiver ($27 an hour) is there for three hours in the morning and three hours around suppertime. Sometimes people visit. My brother Mike drives seven hours every weekend to help him, but mostly he’s alone. My father has two children in their 60s, two grandchildren in their 30s, and three great-grandchildren under the age of 4. None of us are there. We live far away. We have jobs to do and lives to lead. And Dad wants it that way. When I suggested that maybe my dog and I should just move in, he said no.

Those of us without children worry about being alone in old age. I’m alone most of the time. It’s scary. But the truth is that for most families, even when there are children, there’s no guarantee they will be on call 24/7 to help. I do know people who devote their lives to caring for their elderly parents, but for most of us it’s a juggling act. If you have children of your own, you need to take care of them, too. Even you don’t have kids, you have other responsibilities.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Last week when I was moving Dad back to his house, my brother was in the middle of a wildfire disaster at his home near Yosemite. With fire all around them, his family was ordered to evacuate. From Merced, they watched the news and prayed their home and their town would still be standing when they went back. They were among the lucky ones. Their house and their town survived, and they were allowed to return after nearly a week. But during that time, Mike was not about to run to San Jose to load Dad’s wheelchair into the car.

People are always telling me about how having children does not assure that you won’t wind up alone. It’s true. Granted, my brother and I have done a lot for our father. We have paid his bills, mowed his lawn, and interacted with doctors, social workers, and nursing home staff. We arranged his transitions from one institution to another, and I sat with him at each of his appointments with the orthopedic surgeon. If there’s another crisis, we’ll get there as soon as we can.

I have no children. What will I do when it’s my turn? What will you do? So far, friends have helped me when I needed surgery or was stuck on crutches with a sprained ankle. I already have my legal paperwork in order in case someone else needs to make decisions for me. But I know I need to make more formal arrangements for the future. If I don’t acquire a new husband or a housemate, I plan to move into some kind of group living situation so there will be people around to help. I don’t want to live alone forever.

If I had children, would I want them to give up their lives to take care of me? No.

Ultimately we are all on our own. So let’s figure it out. Who will you call if you get hurt? Who will handle your bills if you can’t do it? Who will make phone calls and talk to the doctors? If you do end up having children, that’s a bonus. They’ll be glad you got yourself organized.

What do you think about aging with kids? Have you made any plans? Please comment.

I’m childless, but my life is full of blessings

Last night I had pizza for dinner. Just pizza. No salad, no veggies, no dessert, no wine or beer. No meat. Just half of a homemade mushroom and olive pizza. I ate it while reading a book. Nearby the dog crunched on her kibble. After dinner, I would decide whether or not to wash my dishes—not—and go off to church choir practice. Later I would grab a cookie and settle in to watch whatever I wanted on TV (Have you seen the new show “This is Us”? Watch it.) In the commercials, I would check email, and when I ran out of email, I would play solitaire on my phone. Then I’d turn off the lights, give the dog a Milk-Bone and go to sleep, undisturbed by man, child or dog (unless we had another thunderstorm).

This is the selfish, self-contained life of a woman in her 60s with no children and no husband. I don’t have to share, I don’t have to plan balanced meals, and I don’t have to coordinate my activities with anyone else. Do I get lonely? Do I turn to the emptiness on the other side of the bed and remember early morning kisses and smiles? Do I wish my phone would ring and a voice would say, “Hi Mom, how are you?” Do I feel like I blew it when I realize that I’m this old and I never had kids? Of course.

But we can’t change what happened before; we can only go on from here. And for those of you who are terrified you’re end up alone like me, “here” is not terrible. In fact, most of the time, I like it.

Advising people to count their blessings is such a cliché, but it helps. Right now, at 7:30 a.m., it’s just getting light here on the Oregon coast. An hour ago, I could see the moon through the kitchen skylight. Now the sky is quilted with gray clouds that are slowly turning pink over the pine trees. It’s going to be a beautiful day. For the first time in over a week, no rain is predicted. I am alive, I am healthy, and I have work that I love. I have a good house and just enough money to pay for it. I have friends and family to cherish. I have Annie, the sweetest dog in the world.

No, I don’t have children, and my husband died. That sucks, but I can’t change it. I look at the sky getting lighter every minute, and I go on.

I know that many of you are half my age or younger and still trying to figure out what to do in relationships where your partner is reluctant or unable to have children. Stay or go? Accept being childless or fight against it? Now is the time in your life when you can still change things. I remember the turmoil of those days, the feeling that I had to do something but not knowing what to do.

You have to face reality. When you marry someone who has been married before and who has already had children, they’re finished with that stage of life. You come in as the second course (or third, or dessert), and they’re just not ready to start over. They might be willing, but it’s understandable if they’re not. It’s a cold way to look at it, but it’s true. Can their children make up for the ones you might never have? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s worth a try.

However, if you started out together thinking you’d have children, then you have every right to demand that your partner stick to the original plan. You do not have to hide your tears or your anger. Make it known that their refusal to have children or their refusal to make a decision about it is not fair.

I got an annulment in the Catholic church because my first husband refused to have kids. The archdiocesan tribunal in San Francisco ruled that it was never a valid marriage. To be honest, that marriage was doomed anyway, but the church ruled in my favor against my baby-refusing husband. Now on his third marriage, he never did have any children. I loved him. I thought we’d have children and a long, happy life together. I had no way of predicting how things would turn out.

Where am I going with this? In a valid marriage, in a genuine loving partnership, you agree on important things like having children. You’re open to talking about it. And you don’t deny something so essential to someone you want to spend your life with. On the other hand, if one of you is physically unable to have children, then both of you are unable to have children. You’re in it together.

Take a look at your life and your relationship. Is it worth keeping just as it is? Do you wake up happy every morning that he or she is there? Can you count your blessings? Or do you need to take another path before it’s too late so that when you get to my age, you can wake up and say, “Life is good”?

The pink clouds have faded to white against a pale blue sky. The dog is asleep in her chair. It’s time to get dressed and brew another cup of tea. Life is good.

What do you think? I treasure your comments.

 

Grumping into the holidays again

I’m in a bad mood. Maybe it’s all the gray, rainy days we’ve been having here on the Oregon coast. I like the sun, and I get bummed when I can’t feel it shining on me. But it’s also  being alone. There are times when I like it, but today, not so much. Before breakfast, I had to get down on the floor and clean out the pellet stove that heats our house because I waited too long and it quit working. Again. The whole time, I was thinking about how my husband used to take care of things like this. He was good that way. He kept the car running. Cleaned out the gutters. Maintained the yard. Watched over the dog when I had to go out of town.

He was good for a lot more than chores, of course. He was a friend, companion, and partner for all the good and bad things in life. And now that I’m going into the holidays without him again, I just want to fast forward into January.

I’ve been thinking about how things might be different if I had children. I suspect I’d still be alone a lot. If I had had children in my 30s, they would be adults by now, maybe with their own kids. They might live far away. They would certainly be busy with their own lives. They would not be here cleaning out the stove at 7 a.m.

If I did have children, maybe I wouldn’t have to drive 800 miles to my brother’s house to see family at Thanksgiving. I would never have left California if I had children living there. Maybe everybody would come to my house. I would love to sit at a big table surrounded by my family like my mother did year after year. Not gonna happen.

This year my nephew will be bringing his new stepdaughters and his pregnant wife. I’m happy for them and for my brother and his wife, who are becoming grandparents. I won’t be the only one without a husband, but the others have kids. I don’t have either one.

I should be cheering you on, saying it’s okay, be thankful for what you have. Yes, we should all try to do that. I know my life is full of blessings. I will be with my father, who’s still going at 93. How amazing is that? I have a home, car, enough money to get by, relatively good health, work I love, and good friends. I have my dog. I have an aged pellet stove that is pouring out warmth right now.

But here’s my point. Readers keep commenting about how they don’t know what to choose, the partner or the children they might have with somebody else. I’ve got to tell you I’d forgo the offspring in a heartbeat to have my husband back again. Not just to clean out the pellet stove but to share life, to make decisions together, to snuggle together on a cold night, to sing all the way to San Jose, and whisper wisecracks about the family between football games. What’s right for me might not be right for you, but think hard before you bail out of an otherwise good relationship.

My dear friends, holidays are hard. Kids, kids, kids in our faces everywhere. But we will survive. Here’s my prescription for you. First, go ahead and rant about all the things that you hate about being childless during the holidays. Write it down, post it in a comment if you want. Then, I want you to make a list of all the things you have to be thankful for because you do have them. And if you have a partner you love, just give him or her a big hug and tell them you love them. Okay?

I may or may not get the blog done next week. Dad doesn’t have WiFi. Like I said, he’s 93. But I’ll try to keep up with your comments. Thank you for being here.