Happily Aging Without Children
At 80, she has no regrets and is grateful for the many connections she's made in her life
In 1974, at 32 years old, with my biological clock ticking in my head and a mother-in-law saying, "Go home and practice!," I questioned whether I wanted to birth or raise children. I started thinking, Maybe there is something wrong with me? Why would a woman loving her school kids [I was a teacher] not want to have her own children? Wasn't this my biological destiny?
I tried to find any information about these feelings I was having, even going to a therapist who told me it was OK to live a childfree lifestyle. The word "free" was foreign. Wasn't it (child)"less?"
It didn't help when my friends and family would say, "Marcia! It's the greatest experience you'll be missing."
It didn't help when my friends and family would say, "Marcia! It's the greatest experience you'll be missing." Or, they would admonish me with warnings of regret. I would be doomed to become an aging sad, lonely woman without anyone caring for me. Maybe I'd have a few cats for comfort. (I'm allergic to cats.)
Thankfully, I found one book that changed my life: "The Baby Trap" by Ellen Peck. I devoured it in two days, handing it to my then-husband who agreed he was perfectly fine without children. We didn't have to be trapped into what society thought was normal. This led me to be an advocate of the childfree, not childless, lifestyle.
'Pronatalism' Was Added to My Lexicon
A new word entered my brain: pronatalism. Peck's definition went something like this: Pronatalism encourages or exalts the status of having children, making those who don't have children fear the consequences.
I began to see examples of this in the media, advertising, books, movies, songs and TV ads promoting having children as a rewarding lifestyle, implying the secure knowledge they'd be caring for their beloved parents forever. Often the product being sold had nothing to do with parents or a family depicted with their children. Yet, those ads sold two things: the product and having a family of loving children.
The warnings of regret, aging alone, uncared for reverberated in my mind. I heard, "Sure. Be selfish. Have fun. Be carefree. Travel. Buy things. But things and memories of having fun can't help you when you're old and lonely. Children and grandchildren will."
I finally can say, at 80, without a doubt, after living this childfree lifestyle, I'm not alone. I'm not lonely. I have no regrets. My life is filled with younger and older friendships, passions, goals, a good financial advisor, and no fears of being lonely or not cared for.
I finally can say, at 80, without a doubt, after living this childfree lifestyle, I'm not alone.
Yet, many childfree or childless still have aging fears. Many parents do, too. How does pronatalism affect this fear of aging with and without children? I asked a childfree expert, Laura Carroll, the author of the book, "The Baby Matrix," about pronatalism.
"Going back many generations, pronatalism has affected us all, whether we have children or not. We're all taught we're supposed to want children, and when people don't, we think something is wrong with us, and we'll be missing out on experiencing 'true' fulfillment in life, neither of which are true," Carroll said.
She continued, "For those who want children, pronatalism also pushes the belief that having biological children is the true womanhood be-all-end-all, so when we have trouble conceiving or miscarry, pronatalism misleads us into feeling we need to hide this and feel shame."
Carroll added, "Pronatalism also promises that we will naturally know how to parent, that we will love the process of parenting, and that our adult children will be there for us when we are old. When any of these things don't happen, parents feel they have to hide their true feelings, which can often include disappointment and regret."
Facing Aging on Our Own
Can you who are parents say, "I don't have that disconnect with my children"? I know a few parents who told me, "They call, visit, are here for me if I need them." I smile thinking of them. It's fortunate having that heart connection lasting a lifetime.
However, many parents find their children now live too far away due to careers or love connections. Some, sadly, have pre-deceased their parents. Others have children of their own with money challenges or health problems and can't help their parents. Too many are estranged from the parents or their parents are estranged from them.
"I also encourage people to befriend their fears. What do they fear most about aging without children?"
I asked a favorite life coach of mine, Anna Olson, who hosts the "We're Not Kidding" podcast for her opinion.
"We start by taking ownership of our lives and our choices. Introspection and understanding ourselves more deeply are paramount. A foundational exercise I do with all of my clients is defining their values, which are central to finding meaning and purpose in life," Olson said. "I also encourage people to befriend their fears. What do they fear most about aging without children? How can they be proactive in mitigating those fears?"
She continued, "On the flip side, I encourage them to explore the aspects of parenthood that they find appealing. How might they build these elements into their life in other ways as they age? Aging without children is an invitation to think more broadly and intentionally about how we build our lives. For anyone who may fear loneliness in old age, this can include fostering intergenerational relationships."
Since she knows me personally, Anna called me "a masterful example of this," which was dear of her. Why is this true? Because I saw the writing on the wall. Once I knew I was never birthing or raising children of my own, I wanted to feel more secure in my aging.
I found a fabulous financial advisor who helped. (I wish I had done that earlier!) I also have a good health plan from my career as a teacher. But, even more importantly, I've nurtured the love, compassion and respect of many younger and older people. I call them my "daughter-sister-son-neighbor friends."
I met some I was honored to teach. One is now a mom of a son. He calls me "Marma" (Marcia/Grandma). I met others in organizations I joined. There is another more mature woman I taught at a university; it was amazing to find out we lived within a few miles of each other. Now, I call her my sister/friend. I've watched her raise two fabulous girls loving the experience, only to be heartbroken when one of her daughters decided not to have her in her life after my sister/friend divorced her husband.
Next week, I'm taking an older woman in my community out for her birthday. Sadly, her kids don't live nearby. She's suffering from early dementia. We'll celebrate together. It's a gift to myself as well. Seeing her enjoying life and spending time out of her home is very rewarding.
How to Stay Connected
If you're feeling alone or lonely, you must decide if this is the way you want to remain. First, you must erase the perceptions of what you were supposed to have. Remember, this may not be easy. How many years have you relied on societal promises that aren't being attained? Then, you can take stock of what makes you happy.
How many years have you relied on societal promises that aren't being attained? Then, you can take stock of what makes you happy.
A study at Brigham Young University concluded that a lack of good friends and connections can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. According to BYU psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, "over the past few decades now, growing evidence shows people who are more socially connected live longer and people who are more isolated or lonely are at increased risk for early mortality. She's found that in her own research, too, including in a 2022 study published in the Annual Review of Public Health.
Social interactions are critical as we age. How can you make those happen? Many people enjoy volunteering. If it's nurturing you want, too many organizations need you! There are children, environmental activist organizations, animals, political organizations that all are needing help.
Maybe it's that educational course you always wanted to take. Go to the nearest university and see if there are courses for older adults. Often, they're complimentary. You'll find new friendships there as well. Is it the theater or concerts you enjoy? Go! Even if you can only afford one show, go. No friends to go with? Go alone. I often start talking to people sitting next to me who may be looking for friendship.
If you're home-bound due to illnesses, it's a bit more challenging. However, there are many online opportunities. Vitality Society offers diverse Zoom classes in Tai Chi, meditation, plant-based cooking, brain-based games, art courses and online travel experiences.
Aging is a daunting experience. I have boo-boos I never had before. My skin is thinner making healing longer. Doctors say aches and pains "are a part of aging." Sleeping can be difficult since I'm waking up a few times a night to get to the bathroom. Dare I even mention vaginal thinning and dryness?
But I will not find myself saying, "I'm alone. I'm lonely." I know I can change that with a thought, a plan and determination to live out this life in joy. You can, too.