Without children, what marks the mileposts in our lives?

When my mother was 22, she got married and became a wife. At 25, she gave birth to me and became a mother. At 43, she attended my high school graduation. At 47, she attended my college graduation and my first wedding and moved into a new empty-nest phase. At 56, she attended my second wedding. At 58, she became a step-grandmother and at 60 a grandmother. At 75, she died of cancer. She did not go to college or have a career of her own. She lived in the same house all of her adult life.

The events of her children’s lives served as the markers for my mother’s life. There were other events: the year her brother was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident. The year my father broke his leg. The year Dad retired. The years that her parents died. But for the most part, her roles as mother and grandmother marked the stages of her life. If she had a gravestone, it would likely say “loving wife and mother.”

Not so for me or for you who do not have children. In some ways, our roles never change. I’m still the daughter and the sister, never the mother or grandmother. I mark my life stages with my own weddings, graduations, jobs and book publications. I earned my bachelor’s degree at 22, my master of fine arts degree at 51. I was married at 22 and at 33. I was 38 when my first book was published. I was 44 when we moved to Oregon. I was 50 when my mother died. I was 52 when my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 59 when he died.

I attended some of my stepchildren’s graduations and both of my stepdaughter’s weddings. I was around when her children were born, but somehow these events don’t mark MY life. I was too young to really be a grandmother, and I was not the one the kids called “Mom” as they posed in caps and gowns.

Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time reconciling who I am on the outside with who I am on the inside these days. If I had children to mark the milestones of my life, I would have felt the progression from daughter to wife to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother. I would see the gray hair in the mirror and think well of course; I’m a grandmother, instead of holy shit, what happened. Maybe I wouldn’t cling to my father so hard if there were other younger people filling out the family tree behind me.

Ideally, I think the major events of our lives should be a blend of our own and our children’s, but if we have no children, how do we mark the stages of our lives? How do we progress from one role to the next when the circle of life is a straight line? When do we finally feel grown up? Look at your own lives. What are the major events you will remember, the things that changed everything? How are we different because we haven’t had children?

Related reading:

http://www.higherawareness.com/lists/major-life-changes.html  “Major Life Changes—A List of Choices” Here’s a list of things to think about.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/lifes-25-major-milestones-ages-5721180 “Life’s Major Milestones and the Ages You ‘Should’ Have Achieved Them” This list is just for fun. You will probably laugh at these.

http://jezebel.com/your-official-list-of-new-life-milestones-612710155 “Your Official List of New Life Milestones” from Jezebel gives us something to think about.

So what are mileposts markers for your life? I welcome your comments.

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Motherhood didn’t used to be a choice

Prescribing birth control for unmarried women was not legal in the United States until 1972, the year I lost my virginity and started taking birth control pills. It only became legal for married couples as I was entering high school in 1965. When Roe V. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, I was 21.

A lot of things were different when I was growing up. In 1974, the year I married my first husband, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Before that, it was difficult for women to secure credit cards or loans or buy their own homes. Can you imagine that now? What do you mean I can’t have a credit card in my own name?

I know most readers here are considerably younger than I am. In your lives, birth control and abortion have always been legal. As for women being able to run their own financial lives, how could it be any other way? But it was. Consider this: We weren’t even allowed to wear slacks or jeans when I was in school, only skirts. With pantyhose.

I’m reading a new book titled All the Single Ladies. Author Rebecca Traister takes us through the history of the women’s movement and the stories of a persistent percentage of women who choose independence rather than be bound by marriage. It’s heavy reading but fascinating. I will tell you more about it when I finish the book. I want to talk about people who prefer independent lives over married life, but what I have read so far sure makes me think about how things have changed.

Through most of history, women have not been considered equal to men, and they have not had the same rights as men. Traister quotes so-called experts from the 19th century who maintained our brains were not as big as men’s brains and who also said that if we stressed our brains doing jobs not suited to women we would damage our reproductive organs. Craziness, right? But women as recently as my mother’s generation truly saw few other choices in life besides being wives and mothers. Even when I came of age, I expected every relationship to turn into marriage and that would lead to having children. That’s what everybody did. I just wanted to be a writer, too. I’d do it while the kids were at school.

When women found themselves pregnant before marriage, it was a scandal. They had to get married in a hurry or go off somewhere to give birth in secret and give the baby up for adoption. Abortion was rare, dangerous and illegal until 1974, four years after I graduated from high school, four years after several of my classmates found themselves “in trouble.” Being a nerd with no social life and hyper-protective parents probably saved me from that.

I got married two weeks after I graduated from college. If my ex hadn’t put a monkey-wrench into the baby plan, I’d be a grandmother now. Early in our dating life, he hustled me to the student medical center for birth control pills. Those pills were a disaster. They made me sick, fat and depressed. I tried various types of pills. On some, I bled almost all month long. Others caused giant painful bumps to break out on my legs. I experienced the mother of all yeast infections because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t dare tell anyone I was having sex before marriage. But I didn’t get pregnant. What if I had been born just a few years earlier?

Shortly before the wedding, I switched to a diaphragm. Every time I bought the contraceptive jelly for it, I felt like everyone in the store was looking and judging. Even after I got married.

And yet, I had so many more options than my mother did. I don’t know if she had sex before marriage. I don’t want to know. I do know she and my dad used condoms to stop having children after they had my brother and me. My snoopy brother found them in a drawer, but we never discussed it. God no. For us, The Talk about sex consisted of one word: Don’t.

Birth control took away the fear of pregnancy, both in and out of marriage. Plus, because the times were changing, I was able to work as a newspaper reporter, doing work that men used to do. I was always in debt, but I could manage my own affairs. My mother, perhaps your grandmother, did not have that freedom. She lived in a world where men controlled women’s lives and women’s destiny was motherhood.

Things have changed so much. It’s good, right?

We have so many choices now. Sometimes that makes it more difficult, especially when we find partners who don’t feel the same way as we do about having children. It used to take some doing to prevent the babies from coming. Now we have to fight for the right to have them. It doesn’t seem fair. Or is it more fair than it ever was before?

What do you think about all this? How have things changed in your lifetime? How has the availability of birth control and abortion affected your situation? Let’s talk about it in the comments.