Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Must childless stepmothers and their stepchildren hate each other?

 Is it impossible for stepparents and stepchildren to get along? Reading the postings in Facebook’s Childless Stepmothers group, one would think so. I rarely read all the new posts because they contain so much anger I start to feel sick. They don’t use names; they use abbreviations. The husband is DH, the stepkids are SS and SD and the biological mothers are BMs (make of that what you will). They’re all talking bad about each other, lying to each other, and refusing to spend time with each other. They’re tangled up in disputes over money and custody. Holidays really bring out the teeth and claws. She gets the kids. They didn't send me a card. The kid stole my money. It’s ugly.

The fact that these stepmothers don’t have their own children seems to make it worse. In many cases, including mine and quite a few of yours, the husband uses the existing kids from the previous marriage(s) as the reason he doesn’t want to have any more children. He cites money, age, and fears about everybody getting along, and says he’s finished that phase of his life. So when the childless stepmother sees him spending time with his kids, and when they go through the milestones of life—graduations, weddings, babies—she feels the hurt, and she’s angry that she doesn’t get to have any of that with her own biological children.

Does it have to be a constant war? I do know cases where everybody gets along, where genuine love exists between the stepkids and the stepparents, where the “step” disappears. Surely it’s possible.

I don’t want to say too much about my own situation because my Childless by Marriage book caused more than enough trouble between me and Fred’s kids. But I will say that it was never the constant catfight I read about other families having. We all did our best to get along. Almost 30 years after we met, it’s not the warm and fuzzy situation we might like to have, but we don’t hate each other. We even kind of like each other. Plus, I consider my husband’s ex-wife a friend. We shared a church pew at his funeral. Weird? Maybe, but I was glad she was there with the kids.

Being a childless stepmother is a tough role. You get the responsibilities of caring for someone else’s kids, but you don’t get a chance to have your own. In addition, you get all the garbage that comes with every stepparenting situation—the shuttling between parents, the child support payments, the arguments over discipline, and the resentful child shouting, “You’re not my mom!” It’s not easy for anybody. But does it have to be a disaster?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences with stepchildren.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Childless vs. childfree—the great divide

When the book arrived in the mail, I looked forward to reading it—until I realized it was aimed at parents. A Childless Woman’s Guide to Raising Children by Ageleke Zapis is not much of a book, to be honest, just a childfree woman’s rant about how kids should be kept quiet, well-behaved and out of situations designed for adults. Zapis offers the typical childfree attitude that parents are mindless breeders and that she is smarter than they are, so they should take her advice. I'm amazed that people, all parents, have posted positive reviews on Amazon, but then I'm not a parent.

The book had “childless” in the title, but clearly neither the author nor the publicity agent who wanted me to review the book understood what “Childless by Marriage” is all about. I had to write back to her to explain that most of the people reading this blog do not have children AND they feel bad about it.

We all wish sometimes we could tell parents what to do with their kids. I admit that when somebody’s toddler is screaming at church or banging his metal toy car against the back of the pew, I want to scream, “Get that kid out of here!” But I would never presume to know how to handle it any better.

The point I’m trying to get to is that the world of people without children has broken sharply into the childless—we wanted them, didn’t have them for reasons not of our choosing, and grieve the loss—and the childfree—didn’t want them, glad we don’t have them, no regrets. It really is quite a difference. We don’t seem to speak the same language.

I’m sure you all have met people who told you they didn’t have kids and were happy about it. They enjoy their freedom from the burdens of raising children. They don’t understand why you tear up when you see a baby or why you ache with jealousy when someone you know announces she’s pregnant.

We can find lots of blogs, groups and books for the childfree crowd and a few for the childless. Just last week, I told you about Jen Kirkman’s book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. I enjoyed that book. Kirkman is a good writer, but she is not mourning the loss of her would-be children. She never wanted them.

For a list of other books about being childless/childfree, visit my Childless by Marriage webpage. You’ll see that the attitude of people writing on this topic has changed over the years from the sorrow of infertility to struggling to choose whether or not to have children to the happiness of being childfree.

These days, “childless” means different things to different people. There’s divide between childlessness by infertility or circumstance, and childlessness by choice. Have you experienced the disconnect between the “childless and the childfree? I’d love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lee Ann: If I had it to do over . . .

I have been following up on what happened to some of the women in my Childless by Marriage book. Today we hear from Lee Ann. I first met Lee Ann in a choir where we sang together here on the Oregon coast. She met me for a heartfelt interview way back in 1999. Highly educated, working as a social service administrator, she had been married twice and had no biological children. But when her second husband’s two daughters showed up mistreated and abandoned, she took them in as her own. The marriage ended, but she has continued to have a close relationship with her stepdaughters.

She is now 61, retired and living in Portland. Although I already knew what she would say to some of these questions, she patiently answered them all.

Did you wind up having children after all?

When people ask you now why you don’t have children, what do you tell them?
No one’s ever asked that, so I guess I’m lucky. Probably I would make some vague remark about it not being in the cards.

Do you regret the choices that led to you now having children?

If you could go back and change things, would you?

Are there stepchildren or other children in your life that fill the gap?
There are stepchildren with whom I remain close, even though I often wonder if biological children would be more attentive to me when I’m feeling neglected. But I know that biological parents often feel neglected by their kids, too . . .

Are you worried about being alone in old age? 
No, but I do worry about being a burden—and having enough money to live comfortably.

What are you proudest of doing in your life so far? Could you have done this if you had children?
Lots of little things I’m proud of doing, including “saving” my stepdaughters from their extremely neglectful mother. Most things I could have done regardless of having biological children. Could have done a whole lot more, probably, if I hadn’t had to save (and support) my stepdaughters.

What would you say to others who are dealing with partners or spouses who can’t/don’t want to have children?
See a therapist to work it out. If I’d started therapy before taking on my stepdaughters and their father, I would have had to deal with the issue of what it is in my personality that makes me sacrifice so much of my own needs for the sake of others. My final decision about staying or leaving would have had a much more solid basis had I made it with the clarity about myself that I gained in therapy much later in life.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Author writes about her happy life without kids

In the interest of keeping us all up to date on books being published about childlessness, I offer one of the latest entries into the childless field. For an extensive list of books about childlessness, visit my website at

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman, Simon & Schuster, 2013. Kirkman, a stand-up comedian and comedy writer who frequently appears on TV in "Chelsea Lately" and other shows, has put her comic skills to work on this memoir about why she never wanted kids and how she deals with a world that seems bent on convincing her to become a mom. Readers who are childless by choice will cheer her on as she confronts relatives, employers and friends who just don’t seem to understand. Readers who did not choose to be childless will still enjoy the stories and identify with the challenges she faces. While I didn’t laugh out loud too often, I did enjoy reading it. Even the most mom-centric readers will enjoy chapters with titles like “Misadventures in Babysitting,” “Jesus Never Changed Diapers,” “I Don’t have the Mom Jeans Gene,” and “Faking It for George Clooney.” 

On a more serious note,  I often get comments on this blog from people who are having a very hard time with their childless situation. One of the saddest came in yesterday. It's the Anonymous comment from June 13, 2013 by a 47-year-old woman whose life has been full of disappointment. I responded the best I could, but it would be great if others here could offer sympathy and advice. Read the comment here

Have a great weekend, dear friends. And if you're a childless man for whom Father's Day is no fun at all, I hope you can find a way to avoid the pain. Whatever happens, it will be over in a matter of hours. Hang in there.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Followup: If I had it to do over again . . .

Years have passed since I interviewed the childless women who are quoted in my Childless by Marriage book. I have begun contacting them to find out what happened after we talked. Are they still with the same guy? Did they have children after all? How do they feel now about not having children? Most recently I caught up with “Aline,” who went by another name in the book but prefers to keep her identify private.

When we talked in 2004, Aline, a journalist, told me that her ex-boyfriend had insisted she abort the pregnancy she had at age 30. She had always planned to have children but had not found the right partner to do it with. At age 34, she said she would go ahead and have a child on her own if it didn’t happen within the next six months. As you'll see, that didn't happen.

If you were with a guy when we talked, are you still with him?
I’ve been single for the past year.

Did you wind up having children after all? Is there any chance you still might?
Unfortunately not. Considering my age, I think it’s unlikely. I suppose I can still get pregnant, but no man I know wants a baby with a 42-year-old, regardless of how attractive she may be.

When people ask you now why you don’t have children, what do you tell them?
I want to tell them it’s none of their business, but I just smile and change the subject.

Do you regret the choices that led to you not having children?
Yes. It’s eating me up. I feel like I’ve missed out in life. I feel inadequate and everyone makes me feel so.

If you could go back and change things, would you?
Absolutely. I would listen to my mom and be less picky about men. I would also have kept the baby I was expecting at age 30 and wouldn’t take into consideration the father’s (who incidentally is now married with two children) demands that I get an abortion.

Are there stepchildren or other children in your life that fill the gap?
I wish! I have a 13-year-old niece though who often asks why she doesn’t have a cousin from me.

11. Are you worried about being alone in old age?
All the time. It upsets me that no one will be there for me in my old age. It’s a source of anxiety.

What are you proudest of doing in your life so far? Could you have done this if you had children?
I had an exciting career as a journalist and film critic, traveling all over the world. And I live much of the year in Paris. It upsets me that I have no one to share these with. My friends juggle kids and career, so it wouldn’t have been impossible to raise kids at the same time. It just takes organization and discipline.

What would you say to others who are dealing with partners or spouses who can’t/don’t want to have children?
If you really want children and your partner doesn’t or can’t, then you need to re-evaluate your relationship. Do you love the person enough to make this compromise? You may wake up in ten years’ time full of regret. It’s a big and important issue and if you can’t change his/her mind, then it’s time to move on. Never compromise your happiness for a partner. I should know—I did and it kills me a bit each year.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The soft kiss of a little girl

Every Sunday at St. Martin’s Church in San Jose, a 4-year-old girl named Camille comes running to the row of seats near the back where my father sits and throws her arms around him. This stern 91-year-old man melts. “My girlfriend,” he calls her. Camille is a beautiful child with long wavy hair, dewy skin and big blue eyes. Dad often talks about her, telling me how smart and fearless she is, how she already knows how to read, how she’s starting school next year. Visiting from Oregon, I watch them, so jealous I could weep.

Camille has a 2-year-old brother and a 1-year-old sister (no Catholic jokes, please). They are all beautiful children and a handful for their parents. The mom and dad spend the Mass feeding them Cheerios, reading to them, shushing them, and taking them out when they get too squirmy. I don’t envy them that part of it.

During the sermon, the littlest girl stares up at my father, raises her tiny hand, and Dad matches his giant hairy brown hand against it. In this sweet moment, I realize how much my father actually likes little children and I could die for not having given him any, for not making him a grandfather. 

My father keeps the family’s Christmas card, with pictures of all the kids, on the piano with pictures of me and my brother and my brother’s kids.

Before Mass, Dad introduced me to the young parents, and the mother told Camille, “This is his little girl all grown up.” Yes, I am my father’s little girl, still going to church alone with him when I visit California and staying with the choir back in Oregon because otherwise I’d be going to Mass alone.

At the sign of peace, my father hugs me and then I see Camille reaching up for me. She kisses me on the cheek, the softest sweetest butterfly kiss. How I wish I could hold on to it forever. If only that perfect family were mine.

Know what I mean?