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Ann Brenoff

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Is Childlessness Felt More When You Hit Middle Age?

Posted: 04/30/2012 10:35 am

Back in the early '70s, there was a cartoon circulating that depicted a woman smacking her palm on her forehead while the little talk bubble above her said, "Damn! I forgot to have children!"

Childlessness is again lighting up the talk boards with the electricity spinning off a new book by acclaimed French writer and feminist Elisabeth Badinter called, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.

Slate's Katie Roiphe describes the book as "a rousing indictment of our child-centric culture," and in a subsequent post discussed an alternative -- remaining childless. She addressed how parents sometimes privately feel sorry for the childless, even condescend to them.

The Pew Center says that almost one in five American women ends her childbearing years without offspring. But, as Roiphe notes, that doesn't stop us from regarding those women as tragic figures, someone we assume is disappointed about not having a baby stroller to push. Roiphe, who acknowledges that childlessness by choice is a valid option -- almost enviable at times -- admits that she still catches herself sometimes encouraging a woman friend in her late 30s to hurry up and get pregnant.

The thing about childlessness-by-choice is that it's a decision you make when you are in your 20s, 30s, or even early 40s, without really knowing how deep of an impact it will have on your 60s or 70s. And to state the obvious, by then it's too late.

We can give all the lip service we want to the idea that parenting is supposed to be a selfless act, but on a global scale, that thinking comes up short. People around the world have children for many valid reasons, including the one where they want to have someone to care for them in their old age. It isn't just Third-World thinking. Who are more and more elderly Americans turning to when their aging needs require outside help? Us, their boomer children. And who will we turn to when Social Security fails and we are looking at Skid Row? Mark my words, it will be our kids.

Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with it. The desire to have someone to take care of me in old age wasn't the reason I had children, but I do believe that caring for each other falls under the definition of a family. We marry with the promise that we'll stick it out with a spouse through sickness and in health, so what's the big deal about expecting that your kids will rally when you need them? It should be their choice, you say? Fair enough, and for the record, it always is -- how many families do you know where one sibling always drives Mom to the doctor and the other calls once a month from 2,000 miles away?

So what will happen to those who opted out of the child-rearing experience? One 50-something unmarried and childless friend has been grooming a nephew for the job of caring for her since he was born. Are her own aging fears why she pays so much attention to him, takes him on vacations, calls him regularly? No, of course not. But she'd be the first to tell you that growing old is increasingly on her mind and she hopes he steps up to help her when the need arises.

"I want to know that I have someone who will pick out a nice nursing home for me and make sure I'm cared for," she says bluntly.

Book author and New York Times blogger Jane Gross wrote about who cares for the childless elderly in one of her columns. It was titled "Single, Childless, and Downright Terrified." While her financial needs will likely be met, Gross said as a single childless woman, she was "haunted by the knowledge that there is no one who will care about me in the deepest and most loving sense of the word at the end of my life. No one who will advocate for me, not simply for adequate care but for the small and arguably inessential things that can make life worth living even in compromised health." It's what she gave her own mother and her mother gave her grandmother. Yet there is no child there to provide this for her, she writes.

If you don't have family to turn to, your next choice is your friends. One solution Gross considers viable is a return by boomers to communal living arrangements: a group of single friends sharing a household and functioning as a family. I think she's on to something. Alternative living arrangements will certainly have a place in our future; there are already retirement communities based around affinity interests. But to take it to the next step, there has to be the love. And me? I'm banking on it coming from my kids.

 
 
 

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