Book Review: A Childless Love Story

This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story by Jackie Shannon Hollis, Forest Avenue Press, 2019.

I want to share this new book with you. For a lot of us who are—or might be—childless by marriage, it’s exactly what we need to read. The book isn’t out yet. The publisher gave me a pre-publication copy to review. But you can pre-order it now, and I highly recommend it.

Finally someone has told the story of what it’s like to be childless because your partner doesn’t want to have kids. Not childless by choice, not childless by infertility, but childless because of who you love. It happens more than people realize, especially when you marry someone who has been married before.

I told a similar story in my Childless by Marriage book, but I took a more journalistic approach, with lots of research and interviews. Shannon lays it out there in a beautifully written love story.

As a farm girl raised in eastern Oregon, Hollis expected to become a mother someday. But, after several failed relationships and a failed marriage, she met Bill, a man who didn’t want children. She pushed as hard as she dared to change his mind, telling him very clearly, “I want to have a baby,” but in the end she had to accept that she needed to enjoy the life she had with the man she loved. It is a life in which they are free to travel, to explore their passions, and to enjoy their many nieces and nephews.

Through the years, she had lots of doubts. Everyone else in her family had children. Her mother warned that she might grow up to be a bitter, lonely old woman. That fear haunted her, even as she began to realize she might be all right without children.

Hollis shares the frightening story of being sexually assaulted when she was 20. She also talks honestly about the friendships she lost because she found it hard to be around while her friends were having babies. The doubts, disappointment, and grief of childlessness are all here, along with the joys and possibilities. If you’re childless or looking at the possibility of being childless, read this. Even people with children and grandchildren will enjoy this book because it’s a good story, the first I hope of many terrific books by my sister Oregonian Jackie Shannon Hollis.

This Particular Happiness will not be released until October, but it is available for pre-orders at https://www.jackieshannonhollis.com/ as well as at Amazon.com. You can enjoy a lot of her writing as well as videos at her website. Check it out.

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Thank you for your kind words and prayers for my father and me. (See last week’s post) At this moment, he is out of the hospital and back at the skilled nursing facility. I’m back in Oregon, so we can only connect by phone. His voice sounds stronger and clearer than it has in months. He seems to have overcome his recent infections, but he still has a lot of issues. Plus, the nursing home lost all his possessions in the upheaval of going to the hospital and coming back to a different room. I ache to be there, so I can tear that place apart looking for his clothes, his bathrobe, his glasses and his electric razor. Grr.

In my post, I compared caregiving to being a mother. In the comments, most readers have insisted it is not the same, not at all, even if both involve diapers, feeding, and sleepless nights. Do you agree? There’s still plenty of time to join the discussion.

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Mother’s Day is Sunday in the U.S. I’m trying to pretend that isn’t happening. It will be hard to ignore when the moms are getting blessed at church. I can’t skip Mass because I’m leading the choir. But you do whatever makes you comfortable. Reach out to the moms in your life, go camping, or watch videos till your eyes hurt. Be good to yourselves. It will all be over on Monday.

An Interview with Kate Kaufmann

Kate Kaufmann

I promised last week to tell you more about Kate Kaufmann’s book, Do You Have Kids: Life When the Answer is No. It won’t officially come out until April 2, but you can pre-order now. I highly recommend this book. Most books on childlessness sound pretty much the same, but this one gets past the why you don’t have kids and dives into how our lives are different without them. Examples: We can live anywhere we want, with no need to worry about schools and places for kids to play, so how do we decide where to live?  Without children who might take care of us, how do we cope in old age? With no biological heirs, what do we leave behind when we die and whom do we leave it to? What do we say to those nosy people who ask dumb questions or who think they understand what we need between than we do? Kate offers some great answers.

Kate agreed to be interviewed for Childless by Marriage. My questions and her answers follow. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

SFL: As you probably know, our focus here is on partnerships where one is unable or unwilling to have children while the other wants them or is not sure. In many cases, including mine, the unwilling partner already has children from a previous relationship and does not want any more. Did you meet many women who were childless because their partners didn’t want to be parents? What are your general thoughts on this situation?

KK: In my own marriage, I was the one who advocated for children, then went through years of infertility treatments. I called it quits when IVF was the next step. While I know it’s worked for many, I wasn’t prepared to take that step. Part of that comes from my former husband’s reluctance to try for kids in the first place. He was never comfortable around kids; I believe he was more than a little afraid of them.

One woman I interviewed was so sure she didn’t want children, she ended a deeply committed relationship so her former partner could go on to have them (which he did). I also interviewed several women whose partners had previously had vasectomies after having children with other partners. In one case the attempted reversal surgery was botched, effectively ending their chance to conceive a biological child. When I met her, they were still trying to decide whether to try for adoption.

SFL: Many of my Childless By Marriage blog readers are struggling to decide whether to stay in a childless relationship or take their eggs and hope to find someone else. They fear they will regret it if they never have children but don’t know if it’s worth leaving the person they love. Do you have advice for them?

KK: That is such a challenging situation. A dear friend of mine is in the midst of this no-win angst. I think when we visualize being a mom, the good stuff is front and center, and the less positive fades into the background. Same with relationships. What’s guaranteed, though, is that whatever the decision, in tough times there will be misgivings, in good times delight, and most of the time will hopefully be spent in the in-between. Not very helpful, I know, but there’s no good or right answer for this dilemma.

SFL: Many childless women find themselves dealing with stepchildren. It can be a tough situation where you get all the responsibility and none of the privileges of motherhood. What have you learned in your research about these situations? Can stepchildren be a true substitute for your own children? What advice do you have for our stepparent readers?

KK: I was sad to learn that only about 20 percent of young adult stepchildren feel they have a close relationship with their stepmother.

Both my knowledge and my advice come from the stepmoms I’ve interviewed. The best advice seems to be to take time to decide who you want to be as a stepmother. Define your desired role and talk it over with your partner in an open way. One of the women in the book describes a tense interaction she had with her new husband. “I don’t want to be their mother!” she said. “That’s good,” he replied, “because they already have a mother.” That reinforced her desire to be the kind of stepmom she wanted to be and let her husband know what her goals were.

Step-grandmothers have told me that their partner’s children are just that. But especially as they get older, they consider any grandkids as really their grandchildren, because the kids don’t know anything different.

SFL: If a couple disagrees on having children, how can they avoid poisoning the relationship with grief and resentment?

KK: I’d suggest something from a mediator’s toolkit. Listen to each other’s point of view carefully, repeat back to your partner what you heard, and keep doing that until your partner gets it just right. That helps with resentment, since from the outset you know what’s of concern to the other. In a perfect world, the couple would look at ways to work with the other’s concerns. Like Mother’s Day used to be very hard for me. My ex would be extra kind to me (usually :-)) when the second Sunday in May rolled around. It helped a lot to be acknowledged.

SFL: Your section on elder orphans is wonderful and unnerving for me because I worry all the time about my 96-year-old father and about my own future now that I’m in my late 60s. I notice you don’t say much in your book about husbands and other partners. Are you assuming that we will end up alone? What is the most important thing we can do now to prepare for our elder years?

KK: You’re right! When it comes to aging, I try to be pragmatic. If you’re partnered, someone will probably go first. I think single people, especially those without kids, benefit because we know for sure our kids won’t be watching out for us. Parents can go into denial and discover too late that their kids either aren’t well-suited to the task or they live far away.

What we do is gradually shift from being so independent (at which most of us are excellent) and layer in interdependent actions and choices. Ask for help, even when it feels like you’re a bother or can do it yourself. Make a pact with other friends who don’t have kids and support each other when someone needs a ride to the doctor or the airport. Start looking at retirement housing options before you need them.

SFL: You talk about the legacies childless women can leave. We may not all have money to leave behind for charities, scholarships, and such. What else besides money can we leave behind?

KK: Agreed about the money part. That’s what most of us think of first when we hear the word “legacy.” I think about legacy differently now. It’s rare we hear the ways we’ve impacted other people’s lives, so I like to make it a point to tell others when they’re still alive. Sometimes it comes my way, but even if it doesn’t, I take comfort knowing there are people who have benefited from me having walked this earth. I can’t know how much a child I helped learn to read enjoys books, but I know they’re out there. I try to develop friendships with people of all ages and consciously share what’s important to me with them—ideas, material stuff, experiences.

SFL: I love your collection of responses and conversation starters for childless women talking to parents or other non-moms. What is your response when people ask why you wrote a book on this subject?

KK: Thanks for mentioning the Afterword. Once I finished the book, I realized people might well want to talk to others and exchange ideas and experiences. But since most of us don’t pursue these topics very often, I thought it might be helpful to offer suggestions. I’ve gotten great feedback on this section.

I wrote the book to address the stigmas and stereotypes that many people hold about those without children. A recent study found there’s been no perceptible change since first studied back in the 1970s. That’s crazy! We’re part of our communities, we add value. Always have, always will. There’s plenty of room for us all to coexist, in fact to thrive, by including the full range of adulthood.

SFL: What will you write next?

My goal right now is to continue opening doors to conversations and understanding by speaking in most any venue that will have me. I’ve been surprised at the warm reception and frankness exhibited by many men when they find out about my project. If no man steps up to write the male perspective, I guess I might have to.

SFL: Thank you!

You’re so welcome, Sue. Thanks for asking.

There you have it. Readers, please add your comments and keep the conversation going.

Do Your Childless Christmas Your Way

Dear friends,

Christmas is tough. If any time of year rubs our lack of children in our faces, this is it. Our friends are making themselves crazy buying gifts for the kids and grandkids. Facebook is full of babies and older children posing with Santa Claus. You find yourself trapped at holiday gatherings with people who keep asking when you’re going to have children. I know. It’s rough. You just want to run away to a tropical resort or a distant mountain until it’s all over and people regain their senses. You can’t even take solace in TV because it’s all holiday specials and Hallmark movies in which everybody is one happy family at the end. You try to get into the spirit. You buy treats for the dog and try to get him to pose with reindeer antlers, which he shakes off and uses for a chew toy.

I know. I spend a lot of Christmastime weeping. No kids, no husband, no family nearby. I started to decorate this year, then said no, I can’t. The lights didn’t work on either of my cheesy fake trees, the roof was leaking, the pellet stove wasn’t working, and I probably wouldn’t get any presents anyway, so forget it. Oh, woe is me. But I woke up the next morning feeling like it was a new day. I dealt with the roof and the stove. I went to the local Fred Meyer store and bought a much nicer fake tree. I spread Christmas decorations throughout the house. I did it all my way, with no one to consult, no one to say, “That looks stupid.” My decorations make me happy.

I hadn’t left any room for presents because I didn’t expect to get any. Then a package arrived at my front door. “Secret Santa,” said the return address. Inside, I found seven gifts from this secret Santa. I don’t know who it is. I know only that it was mailed in Newport, the town closest to where I live. This Santa knows I have a dog named Annie. She got a toy from Rudolph. I cried for the next hour, a blend of gratitude and embarrassment at seeming pitiful and lonely to someone. But I am so glad those gifts are there. I made room for presents under my tree.

I don’t have many people to buy gifts for. I’m thinking next year I’m going to put some energy into being a Secret Santa for other people, both the kids for whom we get requests at church every year and older people who might be feeling alone. Did you know that approximately one-third of Americans over age 65 live alone? I can buy them presents because I don’t have children and grandchildren to buy for, cook for, and worry about. I put a few doodads in the mail, and I’m done with the family Christmas. But I’m free to do more.

People are more generous than you expect. This old guy at church, Joe, stopped me after Mass on Sunday. “I’ve got something for you,” he said. Oh God, what, I thought. The man is a little loud and crude sometimes. Then Joe, who lost his wife a few years ago, handed me a framed poem, “My First Christmas in Heaven.” Tears blurred the words as I read them. The frame is beautiful, the words even more beautiful. At home, I hung it under my husband Fred’s picture and above the collection of wedding rings and other keepsakes I keep on his nightstand. So sweet. You can read the poem here.

Joe has about a dozen kids, no exaggeration, and countless grandchildren. They will probably take up two or three pews on Christmas Eve. They will probably talk while I’m singing my solo. But he misses his wife, Carmella, and I miss Fred. Having children does not make up for a missing spouse. Joe will be with his kids on Christmas. I will play and sing at four Masses over three days, then come home to Annie and a long nap. I will treat myself to a ravioli and meatballs dinner. Who says it has to be turkey or ham? I can eat whatever I want whenever I want, and I like raviolis. I will open my gifts from Secret Santa, take Annie for a walk, duty-call the family in California, and be glad Christmas is almost over.

I have a lot to be thankful for. I am thankful for all of you who read and support this blog, for everyone who has read my book, for all those people who love me and don’t care whether or not I ever had a baby. I’m even grateful now for a chance to hold someone else’s baby once in a while. And I am so, so grateful for dogs.

I have said it many times. It gets better. It gets easier. I swear to you that it does. The hardest time for me was when I could see my fertile years slipping away and didn’t know what to do about it. So I did nothing. I cried. I drank. I over-ate. I over-worked. I barked at anyone who expected me to enjoy their children, and God forbid anyone wish me a happy Mother’s Day.

Sometimes I let people think I had a medical problem that kept me from having babies. Sometimes I blamed my husband. Sometimes I just said, “Not yet.” And sometimes I told people who asked about my children that God had other plans for me. I think that’s true.

I wish you happiness and peace this holiday season. As much as possible, do it your own way. If that means running away, fine. If you can’t run away, be honest with your loved ones about your feelings. It’s okay to tell them that it makes you sad to see their babies when you may never have one. It’s okay to answer persistent questions with, “I don’t know. Please stop asking. It’s a sore subject.”

Worst case, do what I do when I’m in a tough place. Think about how in a few hours or a few days, this will be just a fuzzy memory.

Love to all of you. Feel free to cheer, whine, or rant in the comments.

Sue

Are childless leaders more–or less–fit to govern?

Dear readers,

Please excuse today’s mix tape of subjects. I have been running back and forth to California to take care of my dad, dealing with fallen-tree damage at my house, and preparing for my dog to have surgery, along with at least five other tragedies I won’t mention here. This year has been crazy. All this caregiving is helping me understand the distracted single-mindedness of mothers. It’s hard to think about anything else.

  • While American politicians always trot out the wife and kids as if that validates them somehow, many European leaders of late don’t have children. Among them is Emmanuel Macron, just elected as France’s president. As you can read in this article, “Emmanuel Macron and the barren elite of a changing continent,” many other countries are choosing childless leaders. Voters and opponents complain that they can’t possibly govern effectively without having children, but the leaders of Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Scotland, and the head of the European Union are all without children. Is there something about the time and energy required to be government officials that puts parenting low on the priority list? What do you think?
  • Mother’s Day is tough. Going to church can make it tougher. Our new pastor is totally insensitive to the feelings of women who are not mothers. I sat up front at the piano when he had the mothers stand for a blessing last weekend. I swear I felt like I had a giant B for barren emblazoned on my forehead. This Washington Post article, “On Mother’s Day, many women feel overlooked by churches,” takes a look at the way churches make non-moms feel left out or alternatively try to include all women as “mothers,” which doesn’t seem right either. If you go to church, how do they handle it at your church? Do you stay home on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day)?
  • “New census estimates show that most women age 25-29 are childless” New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than half of women in their 20s have not yet given birth. IN 1976, only 30.8 percent were childless at that age.  By age 44, when we can assume that most have passed childbearing age, 14 percent were childless. Many caught up in their 30s or early 40s, but that still leaves a lot of us without children.

Time to walk the gimpy dog. Thank you for being here. I welcome your comments.

 

A ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ is a Fantasy

Mother’s Day is coming again. Time to duck and cover. Already the commercials are offering pictures of fantasy families with young beautiful moms, loving husbands and perfect children. Even people who have children don’t have lives like that. I know moms whose kids don’t even call or send a card. If you have stepchildren, you can make yourself crazy waiting for them to even notice you on Mother’s Day.

It’s a hard day for a lot of people. For those of us without children, the holiday smacks us in the face with the knowledge that we are not mothers. Mothers get special blessings at church, flowers and free drinks at restaurants, cards and gifts and parties. We get . . . zip. Or worse, we get mistaken for mothers and don’t know whether we should correct the person or not. “Happy Mother’s Day!” Oh, uh . . .

When I was young, I could focus my attention on my mother, mother-in-law and grandmothers, showering them with gifts and attention. Now they’re all gone. The day is painful for many of us whose mothers have died or who have a difficult relationships with their mothers. If you’re both childless and motherless, the day offers a double whammy. If you find yourself shedding some tears, it’s understandable.

My advice for surviving Mother’s Day is the same as always:

  • Stay away from places where everyone is celebrating moms. Don’t go out to eat, don’t go shopping, consider not going to church. Say no to Mother’s Day parties.
  • Skip the schmaltzy TV specials and watch a movie.
  • Stay off of Facebook and other social media sites that will be filled with Mother’s Day memories, family pictures and boasts about all the great things people’s families did for them. It will just make you feel bad. Don’t look.
  • Go out in nature. Rivers, trees, oceans and mountains do not care whether or not you have children.
  • Tell friends and family you’ll talk to them when Mother’s Day is over.

This Sunday, I’m going to stay home until evening, when I’m going to sing at an open mic where we’re all too obsessed with music to worry about having kids. How do you plan to spend Mother’s Day?

Father’s Day tortures childless men

Sunday was Father’s Day. We tend to kind of forget about it, getting all obsessed about Mother’s Day and then a month later, oh yeah, we have to send Dad a card. Right? There’s a lot more hoop-tee-doo about Mother’s Day. Remember all those commercials? All those people wanting to wish you Happy Mother’s Day when you’re not a mother, so it just makes you feel worse? The gatherings where everybody has kids but you? It’s brutal. But as Tony, a frequent commenter here, reminded me on Sunday, it’s just as bad for the men.

Tony and I had a brief e-conversation on Sunday as he tried to survive church. People kept wishing him Happy Father’s Day, and he felt like “chopped liver.” His stepchildren sent their obligatory wishes, but it didn’t ease the emptiness of not having kids of his own. I reminded him that in less than 24 hours Father’s Day would be over and life would return to normal. He gritted his teeth and got through it.

At my church, we had a visiting priest who had just been ordained. He threw out an offhand “Happy Father’s Day,” and that was it. No making the dads stand for special blessings like our regular priest did for moms on Mother’s Day. Maybe the fathers felt ripped off, but I was relieved. Afterward I went to lunch with a friend and didn’t realize at first why the restaurant was packed. Of course. People taking their fathers out to brunch. And the servers assuming any man over 30 was a father.

I told Tony it would all be over in less than 24 hours. Technically, it was. But when I opened up Facebook on Monday, it was loaded with pictures of fathers and posts about Father’s Day celebrations. Among them were pictures of first-time fathers and grandfathers, including my nephew, my brother and my cousin. It was all very nice, but I had to stop looking. All that happy family business was too much. Let’s get back to dog pictures and trashing the presidential candidates.

Next year, I recommend running away. Go fishing, take a hike, see a movie. And do not look at Facebook until at least Tuesday.

Tony’s a little concerned that we don’t hear from many guys here. Men, if you’re out there, tell us how you deal with Father’s Day.

Childless at work: does it make a difference?

Remember before Mother’s Day when I wrote about Megan Krause’s book Meternity and the idea of childless workers deserving something like maternity leave? That discussion got a little derailed by Mother’s Day—and I’m so glad you all are commenting and encouraging each other, but now that the Mother’s Day madness is over for this year, let’s revisit childlessness in the workplace. Check out this follow-up article, “The Motherhood Divide in the Workplace—It’s Not as Big as You Think.”

Writer Georgene Huang, a new mom, suggests that parents and non-parents want the same things from work. Mostly they want flexible hours so they can attend to other things that are important in their lives besides work. Children are certainly a major concern, but we all have other responsibilities for which we need time, things that we can’t manage on the weekend or the few hours between work and sleep on weekdays.

For me, it was my writing and my music. Sometimes I brought my guitar to work and dashed out for an hour to perform. I know, everybody isn’t trying to do several careers at once like me, but when are we supposed to go to the dentist or the doctor or the DMV? What are we supposed to do if a plumber is coming to our house to fix our broken pipes? What if our parents, our spouses, our siblings or our friends need care during an illness or injury? What if the dog has to go to the vet?

Kids take a lot of time—and you know who was meeting with my stepson’s teachers when he was living with us? Right, me, the childless stepmom. What I’m saying is we all have stuff, and employers ought to give us time to deal with it. Obviously some occupations are more flexible than others. Somebody has to be there doing the job, but those jobs that expect you to work 80 hours a week or you’re not a team player, are not being fair to their employees, whether they have kids or not.

Tell us about your experiences. Have you felt discrimination at work as a person without kids? Have the parents dumped their work on you because they had to tend to their offspring? Do you resent your co-workers with kids? Are any of you employers with moms or dads on the staff who need extra time off? What’s a fair way to handle this?

If you still want to talk about Mother’s Day, backtrack to the Mother’s Day posts and comment there. We need to talk about it all. Thank you so much for being here and for the kind words many of you have offered me for my efforts. You all help me so much.

If you want to know what else is going on with me, check out my Unleashed in Oregon blog. This week, I talk about my brief experience with hearing aids.