A Fireside Chat with Childless Elder Women
Sparking a new year of wisdom, joy, and understanding.
Posted Jan 10, 2021
I’ve always loved the week between Christmas and New Year’s, mostly because that’s when the pronatalist holiday hullabaloo drops off precipitously. This year on December 30th I had the privilege of sitting around a virtual fire with sage women from three continents who, like me, don’t have kids.
Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, gathered seven women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies shared our wisdom about what it means to be childless women elders. Our lives unfold quite differently than those of our friends and siblings who are parents, and it was our job to describe how.
We agreed that appreciating our lives’ potential involves reaching out to and learning from other non-moms and dads of all ages, especially our elders. As soon as we know our futures don’t include having kids. Even before we think we’re ready. And as frequently as possible, for the rest of our lives. Yet talking about how our lives differ from those of parents can feel risky.
Why? While we share a common outcome—not having kids—the reasons why we don’t have them vary widely. By choice or by circumstance. Indecision, disinterest, infertility, or unwillingness to parent alone. The reasons are complex and dynamic.
It stands to reason, then, that the childless and childfree alike often go silent. Even though not having kids impacts how most everything unfolds once we know that’s so.
Here’s how I got access to the knowledge I needed and found the voice that earned me a fireside seat:
After my then-husband and I stopped trying for kids, we moved to a rural community where it seemed everyone had plenty of progeny. I was without anchor or guide, and I see now I was getting lost in the dense forest of family surrounding me. As my non-mom status became increasingly weighty, I knew I needed to find others like me.
I timidly approached those who didn’t mention kids right away. Most often I learned they had some. After disclosing my own circumstances, I heard what many parents often say: I would have made a great mom (we’ll never know); look at all the kids I have in my life (I know); I could still adopt or try in vitro (not so).
Frustrated, I went to the internet and found Sue Falgade Lick’s pioneering blog, “Childless by Marriage.” Turns out she lived only an hour away and agreed to meet me in person. Sue listened attentively as I aired my story of childlessness for the first time and shared parallel experiences from her own life.
A few months later, I talked about how not having kids impacted my life at a Choosing Conscious Elderhood weekend retreat. One of the group leaders, a woman then in her 70s, later told me she’d chosen against having kids. Although our reasons differed, we discovered we had so much in common. So began what’s now a cherished, crossed-generational friendship.
With growing confidence, my queries exposed more similarly-situated women and men. Oh my, what fruitful conversations ensued! We talked about challenges at work and how relationships change when babies arrive. Elder women and men described how grandkids complicate old friendships rekindled after the kids left home and what they might do with their family treasures.
Nowadays, the impact of not having kids is a normal part of my conversational palette. As non-parents, we compare arrangements for our elder years, estate planning, and what kinds of legacies we’d like to leave. Childfree women and men in their 40s and 50s always chime in with their perspectives. Caring parents we know listen attentively and start to appreciate how different our lives are. We recognize we’re in this together, and every conversation yields new ideas and resources for us all.
A viewer at the fireside chat asked how society can better appreciate and benefit from the childless elders among us. That’s up to those of us age 50 and better. If we keep quiet, we perpetuate stigmas and stereotypes that have endured for generations. If we’re bold and willing to be vulnerable, we become resources for our youngers. Echoing one of the fireside elders, we represent the futures their parents can’t know or pass on.
Not having kids can be as interesting and rewarding as raising a family. Our impact in the world is enormous but often understated. At work, we earn money and wield power. With friends, family, and other peoples’ children, our interests and contributions change lives. We bring a diverse presence to the communities in which we live. And after our time on Earth is done, we leave behind something other than the footsteps of our children. Our time is now.