Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sometimes childless grief is too much to handle alone

This morning I received an email from a reader who wanted me to tell her how to go on when she's grieving so hard over not being able to have children that she feels unable to do anything but weep. She's not the only one. I often receive emails and comments at this blog from people who are truly suffering. All they can think about is the babies they'll never have. They feel as if they have somehow failed in life, that they don't know what to do if they can't be mothers, that they have failed their partners, that the whole world is having babies and they're alone in this. Some are dealing with physical problems that prevent them from having children. Some have had hysterectomies that make motherhood impossible. Some don't know why they can't conceive, but it's not happening and they're out of time. Some have tried IVF and failed; others just can't afford it. Sometimes their partners can't or won't give them children. They long to be pregnant, to give birth, to hold their baby in their arms, but it isn't going to happen, and they JUST CAN'T STAND IT.

Does any of this sound familiar? (You childfree readers who never wanted babies, hold on, be patient, the grief of people who truly want babies and can't have them is real.)

When I get these messages, I feel so bad. I want to help, but I'm not a therapist or a doctor. I'm just a writer who missed my own chance to have children. Sometimes I still feel terrible about it. Last night I dreamed about my youngest stepson. He was so handsome, and in my dream I wanted so bad to have a connection, but as in real life, it wasn't there. I have not seen him since his father's funeral, almost two years ago. It has been longer than that since I saw his older brother and almost as long since I saw their sister. Writing about them in my Childless by Marriage book did not help things, and now my husband is not around to make the connection between me and his kids. I feel as if it's too late for us. That makes me sad. And when I think about the children I might have given birth to, it's hard to even breathe.

But I go on, and one of the reasons I can go on is that I got help. I went into therapy with a woman who gave me the tools to deal with my feelings. She let me cry, let me say everything that needed saying, gave me coping mechanisms so I could move on, accept my life as it is and make it better. I also took antidepressants for a few years, and they helped.

There is no shame in seeking therapy if you feel like you just can't cope. It does not mean you are crazy. It just means you need a little help. Having an impartial person listen to you and let you say whatever you need to say without correcting or giving you advice--"oh, just adopt a child, be a foster parent, be glad you don't have to deal with a bratty kid, etc."--helps more than you can imagine. If you had a broken foot, you would seek help immediately, but people tend to think they can heal broken hearts on their own.

Where do you start? Ask for a referral from your doctor, look in the phone book, or search online. In the U.S., you can find listings for your area at http://therapists.psychologytoday.com. I'm sure you can find similar organizations in the UK and other countries. There are various kinds of therapy. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication. Psychologists use non-drug methods. My own therapist uses a combination of medication, hypnosis, talk, biofeedback, art, and whatever else it takes. If the first therapist doesn't work for you, it's perfectly all right to find a different one.

I know it's hard to make that initial phone call, but if the grief feels unbearable, do it. Childlessness is tough, but with help, you can survive and thrive.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Does being childless mean we never grow up?

 Today I’m sharing an excerpt from my Childless by Marriage book. Since my mind is full of earthquakes and tsunamis for another writing project, we’ll look at this section from my chapter “Do We Ever Grow Up?”

“Although I never had children of my own, I still remember with guilt how my stepson Michael would get hungry and cook his own macaroni and cheese while I was off chasing newspaper articles. When the epic 1989 LomaPrieta earthquake hit, Michael was home alone. Despite books and knick-knacks falling down around him, he ignored all previous instructions and sat under his bedroom window until the house stopped shaking. Then he ran to his friend’s house, not next door to the daycare lady, but to John, whose parents would end up taking care of him more than I like to admit. Where were we? Fred was driving home from work, watching the power poles sway and the pavement move in waves, and I was at the downtown library reading microfilm for an article on urban anger.
Where did I go after that quake? First I hit the pay phone in the parking lot (no cell phones yet), eventually locating Michael and Fred. Then I thought about going home.

Big, knock-you-off-your feet aftershocks hit every couple minutes. The library was closed, the floors buried in fallen books and shelves. The power was out; we had no stoplights. I could see an endless stream of cars heading south, which was where I lived. So I didn’t go south. I went west, back to my parents’ house, sitting in the dark with them until bedtime, raiding their fridge when I got hungry.

Meanwhile, Fred had gotten home, collected Michael and started cleaning up. My office was the epicenter of fallen office supplies. Books, binders and that six-pound rock my father gave me years ago covered the carpet, but it was cleaned up before I got there. Likewise, the broken clock and the broken coffee mugs were gone. Fred, a parent, took care of things, while I reverted to the daughter role . . . .

If you don’t have children, are you doomed to perpetual self-centered child status? If I had children of my own waiting alone in South San Jose in the dark as aftershocks shook the area, wouldn’t I have done whatever I had to do to rescue my babies, even if I had to walk or crawl the whole eight miles, rather than going to my parents’ house? Does it count that if it happened now, I’d do it for my puppies, fearing those poor dogs would be crushed under a bookshelf?”

Some people argue that people never really grow up until they have children. What do you think?

Dear readers,
Last Friday’s post titled “I’m childless and widowed, but I’m free” was re-published as a Huffington Post blog yesterday. This is pretty exciting for me, bringing extra attention to me and my book, but I want to direct you to the comments. At last look, there were well over 100 of them. The article started a pretty interesting discussion about childlessness that you might want to get in on. Click on over to  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sue-fagalde-lick/childless-i-wanted-kids-instead-i-got-this_b_2732967.html to see what people are saying.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New e-book helps people decide: Baby or Not?

For a lot of readers here, it all comes down to having a baby or not having a baby. That's the topic at Beth Follini's Children or Not blog, which I have been following off and on for a couple years. She is a life coach who specializes in helping people struggling to decide whether they will become parents. Now she has published an e-book called Baby or Not: Making the Biggest Decision of Your Life. I just ordered it at Amazon, and I'll let you know what I think. Meanwhile you might want to click on over to the blog and read it for yourself.

On one of Beth's posts, she talks about another writer who is seeking interviewees for her own book project. I'm seeing more and more books about childlessness. When I started writing on the subject, there wasn't much to read. Obviously people are talking much more about it now. They're writing books and articles and forming groups. This is a wonderful development. I think people without children will be much more accepted in years to come than they have been in the past.

My dog Annie turned five years old on Saturday. My sweet baby is an adult. I didn't bake her a cake, but I did sing "Happy Birthday" to her and spoil her with treats all day. Yes, she's a dog, but when I think about how much time and energy I spend taking care of her, entertaining her, and making sure she's cared for when I'm away from home, it feels a little like motherhood. Among the many childless women I've talked to, most seem to have close relationships with their dogs or cats. I have a long chapter on that in my Childless by Marriage book. Is it an alternative form of parenting? What do you think?

Friday, February 15, 2013

I'm childless and widowed, but I'm free

Today I want to talk about freedom. You thought we were talking about childnessness? Well, we are. Hang in there.

I never envisioned myself becoming a childless widow. I don't know how I wound up being 60 years old and having a dog as my partner in life, but on a day like today, I don't mind.

I have another blog called Unleashed in Oregon, where I talk about my adventures as a California transplant to the Beaver state. In order to write about adventures, I need to have some. That means getting out of the office once in a while.

A tsunami evacuation trail has been created here in Newport, Oregon along Yaquina Bay from the Hatfield Marine Science Center to what is being called Safe Haven Hill. In the event of a tsunami, the hundreds of people working and having fun along the bay will be directed to take that trail to higher ground. I decided to try it before my monthly chiropractor appointment.

I parked at the marina and started walking. It's a gorgeous day today, sunny, with blue sky, blue ocean, everything ready to burst into bloom. It's Oregon Coast warm, in the 50s. I enjoyed the feeling of freedom, being able to walk anywhere I wanted. I walked past the marina, the RV park, and the Rogue brewery where they're setting up the tents for this weekend's seafood and wine festival. I walked past the guys cleaning fish and walked under the 75-year-old Yaquina Bridge.

Wherever I felt like it, I stopped and took a picture. I have always wanted to climb up the stairs to the bridge to see what that's like, so I did. Up and down, taking more pictures. I didn't make it to the top of the hill. Too much to see on the way, but that's okay because I was free to do whatever I wanted.

If I had had anybody else to worry about, we would have had to schedule a time and plan lunch afterward. We would have had to walk all the way to the top of the hill, come hell or tsunami.

I felt young and free, unfettered, with nobody else's needs to worry about, nobody to report to or explain why I wanted to do this. That's one of the benefits of being on your own without dependents. I have always done this thing where I jump in the car and run away. When my stepson lived with us, I still escaped, but I was always looking at my watch, wanting to be back at the house when he got home from school.

When I lived near San Francisco, I would drive to the zoo and visit the nearby Cliff House and Sutro Baths. If you go to the zoo with children, it's going to be all about them, pointing out things of interest to them, dealing with their needs for food, drink and potty stops, leaving when they get bored or cranky. It's pretty much the same with a man. But alone, I can commune with the polar bears all day if I want to.

In San Jose, when I wasn't working a 9 to 5 job, I would go hike in the foothills, sit on a rock and write, go to the beach, or travel back in time at the San Juan Bautista mission where some of my ancestors were married.

You can't do that if you have other people depending on you.

Do I wish I had a husband and children? Yes. I miss Fred every day, and I do miss children and grandchildren I might have had. Yesterday when I was walking the dog, the school bus dropped off some kids and this adorable little girl went running toward her mother, hollering "Mommy!" like she was so glad to see her. It killed me.

Without children, you can enjoy the freedom of going for a walk, climbing a mountain, kayaking down a river, whatever you like to do without having to worry about anybody else. It hurts not to have children when you wanted them. It does. It's my biggest regret in life. And you do feel different from everybody else when the world seems to circle around their children. You'll never convince me you're not missing something. But you do have freedom. Don't ignore it. Enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

You're never too old to talk about childnessness

We offered a talk about my Childless by Marriage book at the senior center today and nobody came. My sweet hostess, who I am guessing is about 80 years old, suggested that maybe my topic was not of interest to older people. I don't think that's true. I think it's that they didn't publicize it very well. But that's not what I want to write about today.

Here's the thing. I believe not having children affects your whole life, including your Medicare years. As someone who is rapidly approaching that time of life, I can tell you that it definitely affects mine. The opportunity to change your situation is pretty much over. You're too old to get pregnant, and unlikely to qualify for adoption. Some grandparents wind up raising their grandchildren, but if you're not a parent, you're not going to be a grandparent. So, it's a done deal.

But that doesn't mean childlessness does not affect your life in a hundred different ways. You will never be a full-fledged member of the mom club or grandma club. While your friends are showing off baby pictures, you'll be showing off your nieces or nephews or your dog. As they celebrate the various milestones in their children's lives--graduation, marriage, babies--you, um, won't. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, when other people's homes fill up with their descendants, there's just you and your spouse celebrating alone or with friends or tagging along at someone else's party. The good news is you have a lot fewer gifts to buy.

You don't have children who might help you in your old age. Yes, I know you can't count on your kids even if you have them; that's why I say they MIGHT help you. At least they might be around sometimes to talk to, to remember your birthday, to give you much-needed hugs.

The young people in your family can also help you keep up with our rapidly changing world. Sunday night, I had no idea who half the people on the Grammy awards were. My dog didn't have a clue either.

"I don't know what I'd do without my kids," said my hostess as we chatted about childlessness. We agreed that most of her generation automatically had children, if they could. If they couldn't, they adopted. But there doesn't mean there aren't any childless seniors. Recent statistics show that 20 percent of women reach menopause without having babies. In 1970, it was 10 percent, so there are plenty of childless seniors. Childless or not, I think childlessness is of interest to seniors as much as anyone else. After all, if you never had children, you can be 100 years old, and you're still childless. Plus, even if they had kids, a lot of their children and grandchildren are choosing not to become parents. Not interested? Balderdash.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bye-bye, Baby Pictures

Does seeing baby pictures all over Facebook and other social media drive you nuts? I often read comments here and elsewhere from childless/childfree people who can't stand looking at other people's baby pictures. Either they don't enjoy babies or looking at these photos hurts because they can't have them.

It's not just online, of course. We can't do much about our friends and relatives who insist on showing us pictures of their children and grandchildren. These days, they don't need actual photos; they just click them up on their smart phones and make you look. Then of course, you feel pressured to say something complimentary about the wee one. Is it only me or are some babies plum ugly?

Sometimes friends start to realize you don't want to see their baby pictures, but they get all huffy about it. Don't show it to Sue. She's not interested. Or Don't show it to Sue. She hates babies. Not true. Babies are amazing, but I admit that I get more of a warm squishy feeling looking at puppy pictures.

Anyway, in some online situations now, you can get rid of the baby pictures. At http://www.unbaby.me, you can download a program that replaces baby images with dogs or a tropical beach or whatever makes you happy. Apparently it only works for the Google Chrome operating system so far, but it might be worth a try if you can't handle anymore baby pix. Go to the website and try it just for giggles.

Dame Helen and me: 

I woke up to a pleasant surprise the other morning when Sarah Rainey, a writer for the UK's Daily Telegraph, e-mailed me for an interview. She had 20 minutes before deadline, and by the miracles of the Internet, I was able to receive her questions and send back answers in time to be included in her article. That article, which focuses on childless actress Dame Helen Mirren, is now online, titled "Helen Mirren confronts the final female taboo."  I'm so flattered to be in such elegant company, and I think you will enjoy the article.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Book review: The Baby Matrix

The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds from Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a BetterWorld by Laura Carroll, Live True Books, 2012.

Laura Carroll, who previously published Families of Two, about couples living happily childfree, has put together an absolute encyclopedia about why the “pronatalist” viewpoint that tells us that everyone should have children is no longer valid. We don't all need to have children, especially in a world suffering from overpopulation, she says. Although I disagree with some of her points, I have to admire this well-written and deeply researched book that I will keep handy as a reference from now on. Carroll challenges common assumptions such as the idea that people need to have children to be fulfilled, mature, happy, and cared for in their old age. Furthermore, she says that parenting should be a privilege for which people must prove they are qualified. People should be rewarded for not having kids instead of getting tax breaks for having them. Maybe, maybe not, but there is so much information here. Want to know how many childless women there are in Finland? It’s here. Want to know what sociology texts tell college students about marriage and children? It’s here.

Will this book help you if you're in a childless-by-marriage situation? I don't know. Carroll does not specifically say anything about couples where one wants children and the other is unable or unwilling to have them. But if it's looking like you are probably not going to have kids, this book may make you feel a lot better about it.