Friday, November 30, 2012

Remembering my childless mentor

As I prepare to write my Christmas cards, I realize that this year, for the first time since 1974, I will not be sending a card to Dolores Freitas Spurgeon. She was one of my journalism professors at San Jose State, the one who took a personal interest in my work. She helped me get a scholarship and made the connections for me to do my first major magazine article. A few years later, she got me into California Writers Club, where I rose up the ranks to become president of the Silicon Valley branch. Through the years, she has always been there, sharing her connections and applauding my accomplishments.

Dolores happened to be Portuguese American, like me, and she was one of the first people I interviewed for my book Stories Grandma Never Told. Hers was an inspiring story. She grew up on a farm in the Santa Clara area, and when she reached college age, her parents offered no help or support. "My father thought it was a waste," she said.

The old-timers believed girls would just get married and have children anyway. A whole generation later, I faced a similar attitude.

But Dolores was determined. Armed with a $25 PTA scholarship, enough to pay most of her first year's fees, but not enough for books, she enrolled at San Jose State, taking two majors, commerce and education, so she would be sure to get a good job. Unable to buy textbooks, she either read them at the library or borrowed her friends' books. Later she worked in the campus offices to help pay for her schooling. She graduated in 1936 and went to work as an elementary school teacher, but then fate stepped in in the form of Dwight Bentel. He was starting a journalism program at SJSU and hired her to work with him. She started with secretarial work, then became an assistant instructor and finally a full a professor. With Bentel's encouragement, she earned a master's degree and a general secondary credential at Stanford University.

Meanwhile, Dolores also got married, but contrary to her family's predictions, she did not have children. In those days, birth control was not an option, nor were fertility treatments. If babies didn't come naturally, they didn't come at all. Instead of raising her own children, she nurtured her students. Hundreds of journalists remember Dolores with love and gratitude.

I'm sure there were many like me who enjoyed her typewritten notes--she never made friends with the computer. Every year as I prepared to send her a Christmas card, I hoped she would still be around to receive it. She was very old, and in recent years, she suffered various health problems. But she always managed to scribble an encouraging note on a card for me.

This year will be different. Dolores passed away a few months ago at the age of 96. I feel like I've lost another mother. But I am grateful for this childless woman who gave me so much.

Dolores is proof you don't have to have children to have a successful life.

Are there childless people like Dolores in your life whom you admire?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Delaying Marriage Increases Childlessness

Sometimes having children is a matter of timing. At Thanksgiving, I learned about two male relatives planning to get married this year for the first time. Both are already in their 30s. One is about to graduate from law school. The other hasn't quite found his niche in life. They are not unique. Another family member waited until his 40s to say "I do." He wanted to make sure he had a job, a home and money in the bank before moving forward. A friend in his late 40s did the same, dating the same woman for seven years before he was ready to "settle down." Now they're anxious to have children, but it may be too late.

It's not just the men. Woman also want to get their education and establish their careers before getting tied down with husbands and kids.

An interesting chart on Median Age at First Marriage shows that 50 years ago, males marrying for the first time averaged age 22.8 and females 20.3. Now the numbers are up to 28.2 and 26.1. That doesn't seem so old, but note that these are averages, meaning some are younger and some are older. Also, many couples live together before they get married. Either way, generally a few years will pass after the wedding before they're ready to have children. And if the marriage fails, as more than 40 percent of first marriages do, by the time they remarry, they may well be close to 40.

As my aunt, weary after her day of cooking and serving Thanksgiving dinner, noted a few days ago, the next generation seems to be taking its time getting married, having families and taking over the holiday hosting. In short, growing up. And you know what? There wasn't a single baby or child under age 18 at our Thanksgiving celebration.

On the surface, it seems wise to make sure all the pieces are in place before getting married and having kids. Most of us in the boomer generation and before married younger, and those marriages didn't always last. I was 22 when I married my first husband, but I was single again six years later. It might have been better to wait.

But there's a big problem with getting married (or remarried) later in life. If you're reading this blog, I'm sure you already know what it is. We women only have so many years when we can get pregnant and safely deliver babies. By our mid-30s, it's already more difficult and by our 40s, it's a real problem. We read about unusual situations where older women have babies, and we hear about the miracles of various fertility treatments, but for most of us, the door closes around 40.

For couples who can't reach agreement on whether or not to have children, the deadline looms big and scary. What if they make the wrong decision? Should the one who wants children leave the one who doesn't before it's too late? If you wait too long, the choice is made by biology.

What do you think about this? Has delayed marriage played a part in your childless situation? 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Thanksgiving Full of Blessings

How was your Thanksgiving? Mine was good. I spent the day with my dad and my brother and his family. Our hosts were my sister-in-law’s nephew and his wife, who somehow have grown up into wonderful young adults. You know, it didn’t bother me at all that no one was calling me Mom or Grandma. I enjoyed just being Aunt Sue.

It was a little weird realizing I was the second oldest person there (Dad is 90). The other grownups, my sister-in-law’s mom, uncle and aunt, are on a European cruise. So our generation were the elders while “our” children did all the work. It was heartening to see how well the family’s kids are turning out. The day was full of life in multiple generations, sweet and vibrant, nostalgic and hopeful.

No one’s life is perfect. We all have something that causes us worry and pain, but when we come together and share our problems instead of carrying them alone, it feels good. My nephew has been reading my book and my blog (hi, sweetie), and he worries about me being sad. But sadness comes with life. We can be sad sometimes and still be okay. As we get older, we begin to understand that. We may not have gotten everything we wanted, but usually what we did get was good.

I hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Here comes Christmas. But first, how about a turkey sandwich and some more pumpkin pie?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Are you a childless holiday orphan?

Holidays are tough. We often find ourselves surrounded by families full of parents and children and feel left out because we can't share in the talk about kids and babies and pregnancies. We may come up against people who bug us about when we're going to have children or why we don't have them. They may even make wisecracks about us being the ones without children.

The only way around this is avoiding those people and either spending the holidays alone or spending them with people with whom you feel more comfortable. If you have to do the family thing, try as hard as you can to forget what you don't have and enjoy the good parts of the festivities. You do have things to be thankful for, I promise. And hey, there's pumpkin pie.

Another holiday challenge kicks in when your mate has children from a previous relationship. If they live with you, they will most likely be with the other parents for the holidays. If not, they may be with you, or their time may be split between parents so you only get a taste of parenthood. And sometimes, it's harder being with the stepchildren than it is being without them. Hang in there.

In our situation, the older kids were on their own by the time we got married, but they mostly spent their holidays with their mother, and the grandchildren were hustled back and forth between Grandma and their dad's family, so we didn't see much of them. Michael, the youngest, lived with us from age 12 to 20. Before that, we got him on the holidays, but after he moved in, his mom claimed him. Most Christmases, we had limited kid time and felt pretty left out. Once we had all three and the grandchildren at our house. That was the best Christmas ever. Unfortunately, it only happened once.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are special days, but try not to dwell on what you don't have or what doesn't happen on those days. There are 363 other days in the year to do something special just for yourselves and invite whoever you want.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I'm on the road this week, but I hope to post again on "black" Friday. I am thankful for all of you.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Childless Facebook groups: apples, oranges and potatoes

The different ways people look at not having children boggle my mind. I follow posts on three different Facebook pages devoted to childlessness: Being Fruitful Without Multiplying, Childless Stepmothers Support Group, and Childless Not by Choice. Trying to compare them is like trying to compare apples, oranges and potatoes. All of these groups are closed groups, but you can join by invitation. If you want to join, I’ll recommend you for membership.

Each group serves a different need, and I get something different out of each one. Being Fruitful Without Multiplying is the site for the book of the same name. Most of the participants are the editors and contributors who wrote sections of the book. Generally their viewpoint is that they don’t want children. Most say they never wanted them. They call themselves “childfree.” Therefore, the posts often talk about what a nuisance it is putting up with other people’s kids or complain about friends who are obsessed with kids or discuss how they wish the wannabe breeders would quit whining.

The Childless Stepmothers Support Group is for childless women who are married to men who have children from their previous marriages. On this page, most of the posters complain about how awful their stepkids and their husbands’ ex-wives are and how painful it is not to be able to have children. They use a lot of abbreviations, such as SS, DH and BM (stepson, dear husband, biological mother), which gets confusing for me. Sometimes the anger gets to me, but sometimes I can really identify with this group. It’s a safe place to talk about family matters without worrying that your husband or stepchild will read what you post.

There’s another group called The Childless Stepmom.This is also a closed group, and I have not gotten involved, but it's another place you might want to look for someone to talk to. 

The Childless Not by Choice group is for people who do want children and can’t have them for some reason. Sometimes the posts are so sad and frankly, yes, whiny, that it’s hard to read, but we all need someplace to go where we can share our anger, pain and frustration with people who understand.

Each of these groups has become a solid support group for its members. The participants offer comfort and helpful advice, but boy, are they different from each other. There’s such a divide between “childfree” and “childless.” I feel like those of us who are childless by marriage get caught in the middle.  

What do you think? Poke around and see if you can find a place to land that feels good.

By the way, I have a Childless by Marriage Facebook page, too. Come “like” me there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout Babies

On Sunday after Mass, I found myself at a church breakfast where I was seated across from a young mother with a baby and two little girls about 3 and 4 years old. Other family members, presumably the mom’s parents and grandparents, filled the other seats. I had arrived late after finishing up with the choir and took the last available place. It was the loneliest meal I’ve had in a long time, far lonelier than eating alone at home.

The mother was probably in her early 20s, dressed in a tee shirt and tight jeans, her hair pulled back into a ponytail that was coming apart. She never said a word to me nor I to her. I thought about squeezing in at another table, but everywhere I looked I saw the church moms talking to each other. I’m not a mom, just a musician. So I decided to just study this baby for a while.

I thought the infant, age maybe six months, was a boy, but he turned out to be a she. Cute kid. The mom was feeding her bites of scrambled eggs, pushing them in with her fingers. When the baby started spitting out the eggs, the mom shoved a plastic bottle of orange juice into her mouth. Soon the baby squirmed and the bottle fell on the floor. The mom picked it up and put it back into the baby’s mouth. Holding the bottle with one hand, she fed herself a spoonful of eggs with the other.
Meanwhile, one of the little girls was banging on her arm, seeking attention. As she turned to her, taking the OJ out of the baby's mouth, the other girl picked up a fork full of eggs and jabbed it into the baby’s mouth. I watched in alarm. The mother, not watching, informed her older daughter that if she wasn’t going to eat her food, then she’d eat it. She picked up her fork and started eating while her daughter sulked.

By now, the baby was crying. The mother turned back and slapped her other daughter’s hand. “She don’t want any eggs,” she said. The mom took the fork from the baby’s mouth, licked it clean and took a bite of her own cold scrambled eggs as she shoved the juice bottle back into the baby’s mouth. The crying stopped. Soon the bored little girls were running around the church hall as adults carrying cups of hot coffee dodged around them.

Throughout all this, I knew I should say something or at least step in to help, but I didn’t have a clue what to do. I have no experience with babies or small children. I mean, I don’t even know when babies start eating solid food. I feel like such a loser. Of course, none of this woman’s family stepped in to help either, but that's no excuse.

I picture my mother in this situation. She’d be cooing at the baby, standing up to intercede when the sister started shoving a fork in the baby’s face, picking the baby up and rocking her when she started to cry. She’d be sharing memories with the mother and her family of when her kids were small. Me, I just sat and ate my pancakes, eggs and sausage as quickly as possible and got the heck out of there.

Is there any other woman with such a completely babyless life that they don’t know what to do around little ones? If there’s a puppy in the room, I’m right there giving advice, but I hold back when it comes to babies. I’m embarrassed even telling you this story, but maybe I’m not the only one.

On the other hand, for those who are mourning because they don’t have children, would you want to trade places with this young woman who doesn’t have time comb her hair or eat breakfast in peace?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Surviving childlessness: It’s all in how you look at it

“I hate this rainy weather. It’s so dark and wet.” I whined to my counselor the other day. I live on the Oregon coast, where it starts raining in October and keeps going until Fourth of July. We hadn’t seen the sun in two weeks. I’m fully aware that other parts of the country have much worse weather, but I’m from San Jose, where it never rains more than a day or two.
She held up her hand like a stop sign. “Every time you say things like that, it plants a negative thought in your mind.”
She was right. I can’t change the weather, only my reaction to it.           

It’s like the fog. My friend from New England says she loves it. I feel closed in, as if I’ll go crazy if I don’t see the sun within the next few minutes. It’s the same fog, just different ways of looking at it.

Life is like that. I’ve been complaining because the neighbors behind me just built this giant building directly across from my office. At first I saw bare wood sticking out through the trees. Then this week, they installed a bright blue metal roof. It’s so blue. It’s the first thing I see in the morning when I go to turn on my computer. I hated it those first few days, but you know what? I’m starting to get used to it. It’s kind of a nice blue. In time, I might even like it.

Childlessness is a little like that. I think about Karen, one of the women I interviewed for my book. Physically unable to bear children, she grieved until she discovered the term “childfree.” The concept changed her whole perspective. She stopped feeling as if she was missing something and started spreading the word that it was okay not to have children.

In a book called Childlessness Transformed, Brooke Medicine Eagle describes how among the Crow Indians when a person has no children, all the children are her children, not just humans but every life form. When a woman, parent or not, passes through menopause, she moves into the Grandmother Lodge. These “grandmothers” are responsible for all the children of the earth.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel better.
If we wanted children and we can’t have them, we are entitled to grieve, but we mustn’t let it rule our lives. By changing our attitude, we can see the good things we do have, like maybe a loving partner, and other ways we can use our mothering energy.

I’m not saying it’s easy. That same friend from New England posted a photo yesterday of her with her new grandson, and I felt the familiar ache. When I took my dog to vet for her kennel cough shot in the afternoon, an employee on maternity leave was in the waiting room showing off her four-week-old baby.

Annie stared at it, puzzled. “That’s a tiny human," I explained. "I wish we had one of those.” We both gazed in awe at the baby’s tiny hands and feet. Then I took a deep breath and said out loud to the mother, “Congratulations. She’s so cute.”

After which, the technician called Annie in and my 77-pound baby dragged me into the examining room, where she knew there were dog treats on the counter. Who cares about babies when there are cookies to be eaten!

It’s all in how you look at it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Politics and childlessness: there is a connection

Election day is finally here in the U.S. Thank God. We’ll finally be done with all the advertising and phone calls from campaign people who pretend to be doing surveys when they really want you to commit to voting for their person or cause. Here in Oregon, it’s all pointless anyway, because we vote by mail. Many of us mailed in our ballots days or weeks ago.

So what does this have to do with being childless? Directly, nothing. Indirectly, maybe a lot. The presidential candidates, as well as many of the candidates for other federal, state, and local offices, have strong views on things like abortion and contraception. People talk about the “sanctity of life” or “the woman’s right to choose” or “a woman’s right to control her own body.” Abortion became legal in the U.S. with Roe v. Wade in 1973, yet the debate over whether it should be legal has never ended. A new president with strong anti-abortion views could change things by appointing Supreme Court justices who agree with him or by getting legislation passed that curtails our rights.

Birth control has been legal for a long time, although it took a while to trickle through all the states. When I first started taking the pill in 1972, it had only recently become legal in California. Now, although nobody is trying to make it illegal to use birth control, there is a lot of talk about the money part of it, whether insurance would cover it, whether religious institutions can refuse to provide it. There are also politicians who want to shut down Planned Parenthood, which provides not only abortions and contraception but vital health care for women.

The choices we have had since the’60s and ‘70s have made it possible for couples to consciously decide when or if they want to have children. Those choices have also made it possible for women to do other things with their lives besides being mothers. Being able to choose is a huge responsibility, a frightening one. What if we make the wrong choice? What if we want children and our partner doesn’t, or vice versa? Things were so black and white before. You got married and had children, if you could.

Now we have more choices. We can debate all day about whether abortion and birth control are sinful or immoral, wise or something we have a right to, but I think individuals should be able to decide these things for themselves, taking their own life situations, beliefs and religious views into consideration. I pray that doesn’t change with this election or any other.

By now, you have probably voted, but if you haven’t, go do it now. It matters. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Surviving our childless holidays

Halloween is over, thank God, but I'm still getting comments and private emails from childless people for whom it was a painful experience. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time with their children and grandchildren, but the holiday just reminded them they didn't/couldn't/probably never would have kids. Sucks, doesn't it.

I spent Halloween here alone in my house in the woods, baking muffins for the church bazaar. I bought candy--little Hershey bars because that's what my mother used to buy, and they made miss her even more than usual. I put up Halloween lights and waited for kids to come. But nobody came. Not a single knock on the door. The few kids who live nearby probably went elsewhere or stayed home, discouraged by the rain and the darkness out here. It was just me mixing one batch of muffins after another, and the dog watching in the hope that I might drop something delicious on the floor. By 9:00, I decided nobody was coming and turned off the lights. My legs were tired from standing at the kitchen counter, and I felt bad about missing another Halloween.

The very next day, yesterday, the Christmas TV commercials started, full of presents for little kids. I have no kids to buy gifts for, and no little kid will be wrapping a present for me.

Gosh, I sound sorry for myself. I'm just saying the holidays are hard when you don't have children and you wanted them. But we need to get ourselves off our self-pity pots and do something positive. I could have invited people over or found a Halloween party to go to. I could have maybe helped with an event in town. I could donate my candy to a children's shelter or send it to the troops overseas. I don't have to eat those little candy bars one at a time and miss my mom with each fattening bite.

Now I can get myself busy with Christmas activities, with and without children, and make or buy gifts for families who can't afford to buy their own. I can offer my company to lonely seniors. I can spend the holidays at a tropical island reading trashy novels and drinking pina coladas. Maybe find a handsome islander and make love all day long.

With advance planning, our holidays can not only be less painful but even fun. What other ways can we survive our childless holidays? Suggestions?

At least I didn't put a Halloween costume on my dog.