My dad’s death made me explore the idea of childfree “regret” — but I didn’t change my mind about kids.
The decision I made in my early twenties to not be a parent was formed by two uncomplicated facts:
First, and most critically: the life didn’t appeal to me.
I was living in upstate New York, just-married to my first husband, who I’ll call Jack, and bagging groceries for tips at the Army post commissary. I’d recently enrolled in community college after having taken a much needed four-year break from the hell that was (high) school, and Jack and I had just brought two kittens home to our new place on Colonial Manor Road.
Aside from living, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I enjoyed writing, but because it wasn’t something I thought of as an aspiration, I also didn’t know what I wanted to be.
That was fine with me. I looked forward to the unpredictable bouncing along of an un-plotted, mostly untethered life.
But then, one summer day in our dining room, windows open and a warm breeze passing through, Jack said, “So, when do you think we should start having kids?”
It’s hard to describe the sensations that question evoked. I know he became less attractive to me instantly, shifting from someone I saw as a partner to someone with demands that I — as I discovered in that moment — was spiritually recoiling at the idea of fulfilling.
I felt ill, cold.
I suppose I should have considered the parenthood possibility before saying yes to getting married. But I was nineteen when he proposed, living overseas in Heidelberg, Germany, and fully embracing the bar-drinking, happy-fun times of being a young adult. It didn’t occur to me that marriage was supposed to automatically lead to children. At least, not in real life.
I said to him, as I stood there in my shorts, my bare feet rooted to the cool, Army post housing linoleum, “You really want kids?”
Yes. He did. Jack said there were four things he’d always known he wanted: “a nice house, a nice car, kids, and a wife” (delivered in that order).
Just as girls as young as 10 years old are trusted to know they want to grow up to be mommies (no one questions a little girl who says she wants the lifetime responsibility of parenting, for some reason), I at 21 knew with equal certainty that the bouncing along I wanted to do would not be possible with a child.
Motherhood would automatically pre-mark the rest of my life with the predictable milestones written about in parenting books. It was a life that promised the opposite of what I wanted, which was the power of not knowing what waited ahead and the freedom to change direction.
The next few months were awkward. Mostly for me.
One night, a snow squall was dropping several feet of inconvenience in our driveway, and I sat outside to watch with a big bowl of ice cream, an escape from the warm discomfort inside.
Another night — many other nights — we had stilted conversations over dinner, “have kids? have kids? have kids?” going unsaid between every other word.
After one more conversation — “Are you sure you won’t change your mind?” he asked, elbows on his knees, hands clasped — Jack and I divorced.
Which brings me to the second reason I didn’t want children:
I believed, and still believe, in divorce.
Not only as an option, but as a clean and decisive action resulting in absolute separation from another person.
I knew as a child of divorce that a child creates a lifelong connection between its parents, and I had (have) no desire to be permanently tied to an ex.
My reasons for not wanting children were so straightforward and natural to me that I had no doubts at all. Beyond the occasional checking-in with myself (“sure? yes; right choice? still yes; okay, carry on” — prompted not by inner uncertainty but by lifelong conditioning), my decision, once I reached the point of being able to dismiss the expectations of others, seemed like it would stay pretty simple forever.
But then someone asked, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll regret it?”
Wasn’t I afraid of dying alone?
(Before going further, I’d like to point out the subtly sinister, vaguely threatening, and potentially schadenfreude-ish nature of that question.)
The quick answer I would offer any time someone accosted me with the regret or dying question was, No, I wouldn’t regret it. No, I wasn’t afraid of dying alone.
But the honest answer was that I hadn’t thought as far ahead as old age. I’d never wondered who would or wouldn’t be around me when I died.
I didn’t want to think about it.
I didn’t even like the idea of home ownership at the time because of its association (in my head) with old age and death. Any time I could avoid acknowledging I would get old and die, I would.
That said, it didn’t feel entirely dishonest to reflexively say “no” to fears of regret, of being alone when old. After all, weren’t a lot of people, parents included, old and alone?
In my late twenties, I worked as a job coach in a nursing home. I saw how packed the halls weren’t with adult children interested in spending time with parents who were on their way out.
I remember seeing only one resident, an old woman, get wheeled to the lobby for a visit from her child. The nurse transferred control of the old woman’s wheelchair to a man in his late-30s who cheerfully ignored his mother’s weak, protesting hand as he tried to force her to eat too-cold ice cream.
Over a decade later I would spend three weeks visiting my dad in the intensive care unit of a Florida hospital where he lay in a medically induced coma. My sister and I would arrive daily to an empty waiting area, and on the way out we’d pass glass walls encasing bed-ridden patients immobilized by tubes and machines, unoccupied chairs for friends and family pushed neatly against the wall.
Our surprise at the quiet was matched by the nurses’ surprise at our dedicated presence. “Most ICU patients rarely have visitors,” one of them said.
It seemed that no matter how many bedrooms parents filled with imagined safeguards against future loneliness, they couldn’t guarantee their children would perform as expected.
It took an extinct bird to introduce me to my first hint of an understanding of what dying alone meant.
While researching something unrelated, the way most “Did you know…?” trivia is gathered, I happened upon a death announcement:
Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.
Sobs erupted from me before I even knew I was sad.
How lonely must she have been as the sole surviving passenger pigeon? What could it have been like to be the only one of her kind in that man-made environment, a stranger by species until the day she died?
Extinction. That was dying alone.
Or so I’d thought.
Ten years to the month since his stay in the ICU, my dad died (of other causes). This, even more than Martha, made me realize I’d not really understood the “dying alone” question on a basic human level.
When my dad died, he was in a hospital room with no family or friends present.
Even so, he didn’t die alone.
Although his parents had been gone for some time, all four of his siblings, who’d known and loved him since he was young, were still in the world. He’d spoken to one or more of them just the day before.
Had he been the last rather than the first of his brothers and sisters to die, he’d still have had immediate family in the two daughters who had been loving constants in his life for 48 and 44 years, respectively.
Before my dad died, I’d had two family members who knew and loved me the way my dad’s siblings and children knew and loved him: my dad and my sister. Now one of them, the one who’d cupped my chin while feeding me a baby bottle and who, a week before his death, had taunted me in a text message to try a new flavor of gelato with, “Try it, Krissy poo! I dare you,” had vanished.
Beyond the devastating sadness, his absence presented a discombobulating realization: People who have children might lose their parents and siblings, but unless they’re unfortunate, as they approach natural dying age they’ll still have their kids — if not nearby, then at least somewhere in the world.
“Some day,” my (current and final) husband said months after my dad’s death, “it could be just us.” He said he thought about that sometimes, getting older — without children.
As he and I hit 50, 60, 70, etc., we’ll have each other, yes (until one of us dies and leaves the other behind, which one of us inevitably will), and we’ll have friends, whose importance shouldn’t be undervalued, but there’s something intangibly different about *family, if it’s a good one.
Maybe even if it’s a bad one.
They form the spiritual web we dangle from, the home base, each member an anchor point holding the web in place. With every death, a corner of the structure becomes unmoored, shrinking the web until, finally, the fine, dangling thread releases.
I won’t deny that the fear of drifting isolation is unsettling and deep. It’s made me think about poor Martha again for the first time in years.
Still, I don’t regret not having kids.
Not because “I’ve done my part for the environment.” It would be shameful to take credit for something that’s merely an incidental byproduct of my choice.
Not because I’ve spared an innocent soul from knowing pain and danger and sadness and woe. It could just as easily be argued that I’ve denied a soul adventure and excitement and pasta and love.
And it’s also not because of the things I’ve been able to accomplish. I doubt I’d have written as much if I’d had a child, true, considering my poor time management skills, but what a child might have kept me from achieving professionally wasn’t a determining factor before, and it isn’t, now.
Not having a child wasn’t a this-or-that choice. I didn’t want a child but decide it was better not to have one. I made no sacrifice, in much the same way someone who wants children isn’t making a sacrifice by having them and then taking care of them.
I don’t get to feel regret, ever, because I didn’t earn it. I never wanted kids.
Did not want to put in the minute to minute, day to day, year to year time involved in raising a child.
I, like most other childfree people, have lived and am living the life I’ve consciously, with no coercion, chosen. What’s to regret?
If I reach a point when I have no family left (including no husband, no friend of forever years), I think I’ll be lonely. Possibly even depressed. Desperate for someone in my life who knows and loves me.
“If I’d had kids,” I might think one night after too much wine, “at least I’d have someone.”
And if I’d only been interested in programming instead of writing, I could be rich!
That’s not regret. That’s fantasy.
Wishing for a miracle child to materialize — one that never had to gestate or be born and raised — for I’m-lonely company is like wishing for a million dollars. A boat. A pony.
Losing my dad, being forced to think about what being alone might feel like, taught me there’s no getting around a certain kind of sadness. Not even having kids could save me.
After her mother died, my friend Tina, who has two kids, was inconsolable. She told me she couldn’t stand knowing that she’ll likely put her own children through similar pain when she dies.
She also had a difficult empty-nest period when both of her children moved out to start their own lives.
It doesn’t mean she regrets having had them.
Sadness isn’t the same as regret. Loneliness isn’t the same as regret.
Tina won’t die alone, and I won’t die worrying about my children. Our future causes for sadness, just like our existing reasons for joy, are different.
*by blood or by choice
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of The Age of the Child, which introduces readers to a childfree woman struggling to remain childfree in a post Roe v. Wade society, and then later to another woman, this one of questionable character, desperate for a child in a new society that requires parents to have a license. “One of the first I’ve read to really consider the issue of reproductive rights and attitudes so deeply” (Goodreads Review).