Tuesday, 26 August 2014
Being Old Without Children
In February 2011, I posted a story about being old and childless titled, Having No Children – Regrets? It was popular. There were many more of comments than other days with a lot of thoughtful discussion.
But I had forgotten it until last week when a reader named Kelly left this comment on the post:
”I turn 50 in 45 days and find myself unmarried, no kids and my career in shambles. I needed this article today.
“Usually spend less than an 4 hours a year on facebook, but just spent two hours looking for pictures to put on a personal project. It was difficult to see all my family members with their kids and grandkids - milestones, trips, homes, my life became empty in a matter of minutes.
“Until I read this. I am forever grateful.”
(By the way, there are more comments – or, sometimes, private emails to me - than you would think from people, usually not regulars, who appreciate the insights in the conversations here. A large part of that is you, TGB readers, who contribute so much useful information so take a bow.)
Throughout my life I have often said that aside from putting a gun to one's head, there are hardly any decisions that are irrevocable. But not having children is one of them – for women, after a certain age, there is no going back.
Kelly's comment last week reminded me that childlessness, chosen or through circumstance, can be an issue in old age and that it's worth repeating this post. Time Goes By has gained many new readers since 2011, and I'm eager to hear from you. If you recall this post from 2011, maybe you have more to say.
Here is the original post with a few minor tweaks but no substantive changes.
Many elderbloggers post photos of their grandchildren, tell cute stories about them and about the the joys (or, sometimes, heartaches) of grandparenthood.
I can't do that. I didn't have children, a choice I renewed through the years.
When I graduated from high school in 1958, many of the women (girls, really) in my class married right away – some within a week or so in weddings they had planned throughout our senior year. Two or three were already pregnant and the rest couldn't wait to become mothers, as was generally expected of us in those days.
Although few women attended college in mid-20th century America and marrying at 17 or 18 was common, going from the confines of school and home to what I considered the equally confining boundaries of suburban domestication was not for me.
I wanted to live on my own, explore the world around me, meet new people, travel to faraway places, go dancing, drink wine and talk politics all night. I wanted to find out what kind of person I would become and I knew in my bones I would never get to do those things if I was keeping house and changing diapers. I'll do that later, I told myself, much later.
That is not to disparage those who chose the marriage path so young; it just didn't sing to me and I knew I was nowhere near grownup enough yet to raise babies.
Six or seven years later, I did marry – one of the larger mistakes of my life. It was apparent before a year had passed that we were not going to make it and although I hung on and hoped for six years, I made sure there were no children.
Bad marriage but good choice about kids because at age 31, I found myself with no husband, no home and no job.
That righted itself and for the next several years, I created a terrific career, dated some extraordinarily interesting and accomplished men and did not marry any of them.
The late 1970s arrived and many of my friends had married, moved off to married-people land, had babies and we had little in common anymore. I cannot express how deeply I did not (and still do not) care about the relative merits of Pampers and Huggies or of various brands of baby carriages - conversations I struggled to politely endure when visiting those friends. It's probably a genetic failing if not a moral one.
But I was fast approaching 40, a good cutoff date for pregnancy, and it seemed time to seriously consider motherhood before it was too late. So I spent the next year or so weighing the question.
It was clear, I reasoned, that I was not a woman who bubbled over with maternal longing. On the other hand, I am thoroughly responsible and if a baby or two were thrust my way, I'd throw myself into it – Pampers, soccer games (ugh) and all – because, well, how can you not. There is no other choice than to do the best you can to successfully guide a kid from the cradle to adulthood.
I had been on my own for more than 20 years by the time I was doing all this thinking and journaling and wondering about children. I was curious about that kind of life, about the feeling parents described of overwhelming love for their newborns that was different from other kinds of love.
And I had certainly been awed watching friends' children go from babbling to full sentences within a short space of time. The thrill, if the child is your own, must be amazing.
Another consideration was that there was no potential husband on the horizon. Would I be willing, was motherhood important enough to me, to bear a child and raise him/her on my own? And if so, should I? Was it a good or right thing to do, to choose half a home for a kid from the getgo and not from later circumstance, divorce or death?
That part was easy for me – no. I could not imagine holding down a full time job, the odd hours mine demanded, the travel, weekend work, deadlines, etc. while juggling the needs of a child without a father. And I did not want the disappointment of coming home to a caregiver who told me the kid took his/her first step that day or spoke a first word while I was gone. It would break my heart.
(Just so you know, I'm aware there is much more to motherhood than those two milestones, but it was on my mind then.)
Of course, I also could not avoid the question of whether I would be sorry, regretful when I was old, that I did not have children. There was no way to know.
So I decided that if, in the next couple of years, a man I wanted to marry appeared in my life and he wanted a child, I would do that. But not on my own.
Time passed, the man did not materialize and here I am more than 30 years later, never a mother and therefore not a grandmother.
Do I have regrets now? Only in the sense of missing an experience so common to most of humankind. I am equally curious about having married young and spent 50 or more years with the same person – how different from my life and what an astonishing connection that would be to have lived intimately with one person for so long.
But I also wish I knew what it is like to walk on the moon or be able to sing like Kathleen Battle or dance with Fred Astaire. I would like to have worked in the White House, to know it from the inside. Or Congress.
I wish I had asked my mother and father a whole lot more questions than I did. And I wish so much that I were smarter than I am and could understand many things about which I fall short of “getting.”
Some of these are impossible, others are choices and none are regrettable. Nor is not having children/grandchildren and I suspect that turned out just right for me. But then, how would I know?
I'm pretty sure grandparents could tell me how much I am missing but I don't feel a hole in my life. Overall, it's turned out pretty well. I'm comfortable with my life, and I wonder if other childless elders have regrets about that. Or not.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Comparisons: Yesterday and Today