Thursday, January 27, 2011

Oh Jo, Say It Ain't So

When I was growing up, Jo March in Little Women was my heroine. I wanted to be a free-spirited writer like her, right down to the boyish haircut. I assumed that Jo, like author Louisa May Alcott, never had children and devoted her life to her career.

How our memories play tricks on us.

I recently took another look at the last pages of Little Women and discovered that, in addition to raising her husband Fritz's orphaned nephews, Jo actually had two sons, Robin and Teddy, and that once she became a mother, she dumped her writing career. Horrors. Toward the end of the book, she says, "The life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely and cold to me now. I haven't given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I'm sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these."

Jo points to her sons, her mother, her sisters and her children. They are talking about the dreams they once had. She isn't saying "never" but she's looking at the bigger picture and saying the life she has now as wife and mother is worth altering her dreams.

Oh, Jo.

But then again, I never had children. Maybe if I did, I too would have set my pen down and said it could wait. This is precisely the question that many of the women I interviewed have raised. If they had children, they feared they would never be able to do the things that were most important to them. People who have children might argue that the children have to be the most important things in one's life. I'm stubborn enough or enough of a dreamer to believe I could be both a mother and a writer at the same time.

Jo March was a product of her times. Rumor has it that the Alcott's editor insisted that Jo be married. Children were no doubt a necessary part of the equation.

What about you? Are there things you could not do in your lives if you had children? Would you be willing to sacrifice one or the other if you had a choice?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mothering my husband, continued

My last post, on taking care of my husband, who has Alzheimer's Disease, generated some great comments. Thank you to all. I don't walk around thinking about my childless state all the time, but I couldn't help noticing the parallels when Fred was in the hospital, the feeding, the diapers, his inability to talk.

I thought not only about how he was like a baby, but also how caring for him was similar in some ways to taking care of Annie, my dog--and I do have a lot of practice with dogs. Annie would react in panic if anyone tried to hold her down and do anything to her body. Just try clipping her nails. She can't speak to tell me where she hurts, and she can't understand when I tell her everything will be all right.

Sometimes I feel alone in this journey, but I'm not really. I have been in support groups, I have been in therapy, I have great friends. I exercise, and I really try to take good care of myself. For the most part, I'm on my own now. Except during crises, I only see Fred once a week for a few hours. It's a 150-mile round trip to his nursing home.

I made that trip last week to take him to the doctor. This was not like taking care of a child, unless that child is blind and brain-damaged. I had to do all the talking and help Fred through every moment of our visit. Just getting him to lie on the table was a huge challenge. But it was a good visit. This is a new doctor for us, and he really seemed to listen and to care.

Having a husband with Alzheimer's (and other diseases that take people away a little at a time) is hard. But I'm glad I can take care of Fred. I have to remember everything he gave me over our years together. Everything I have and much of what I have been able to accomplish over the last 25 years I owe to him.

Marrying an older man brings an added risk that he will become ill or die long before you do. I knew that going in. It would be nice to have children to help me and to help him, but I don't. Instead, I have good friends.

Bringing things back to childlessness, I was in an online group for a while, but most of the members seemed to be older than I am, and they spent a lot of time talking about their children and grandchildren. When they started posting tons of photos,I bailed. Whatever we do, we're still the ones without kids.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mothering My Husband

My husband has Alzheimer's Disease. He has lived in nursing homes for almost two years now. Over the New Year's weekend, he was in the hospital. He had problems with his bladder and was having seizures. He spent much of the time in a deep sleep, but when he was awake, I found myself on constant guard to keep him from throwing off his clothes—lost that battle—and climbing out of the bed--almost. His hands shook so badly I had to feed him.

I had to speak for him to the doctors and nurses, struggling to interpret his garbled sounds and gestures and transmit basic information to which he no longer has access. I had to explain over and over why he could not answer their questions, why he needed extra help.

He has been wearing diapers—call them adult protective garments, Depends or whatever; they are diapers--At the hospital, a nurse installed a catheter, a tube that drains his urine into a plastic bag. He screamed and fought as if he were being killed. He did not understand what this was or why he needed it. He also screamed when the nurse poked a needle into his hand for the IV and another nurse placed sticky tabs on his hairy chest to hook up a heart monitor.

He did not understand any of it. I stood close by, trying to reassure him and trying to keep him from dismantling the medical gear. When I said he would feel better soon, he did not understand any more than a baby (or my dog). All he knew was that he was scared and hurting and he wanted to go home.

Standing by his bed for those difficult hours, exhausted and hungry, I sometimes wondered if this would be any easier if I had had some practice with children. At least I would know how to spoon applesauce into his mouth without getting it all over. I might be more comfortable checking his diaper to see if he has soiled it. I might be better at finding words of comfort and reassurance.

There are certain things mothers seem to know, and I don't. I never expected to use mothering skills on my husband, but that's the way it is.

Have you experienced times when you needed to dig out those maternal instincts? Please share.