Reflections on what’s missing from a year of headlines
It was early on in the pandemic that talk of grandparents not being able to see their grandchildren started to become part of the daily swirl.
I was genuinely moved by the grandparent heartache at first. I could, all too well, relate to the plight of having something close to your heart to which you expect free access ripped from your existence. Even if only temporarily. I actually shed some tears on behalf of this not asked for angst.
At the time, I was six years out of multiple fertility treatments rendering no baby. Like most people who spend merciless stretches in the trenches of trying to conceive, or in other circumstances hoping for parenthood, I had formed surprisingly deep and influential bonds with my unborn.
By the time the pandemic hit I had come to a point in my grieving and healing process where I was able to hold some space for life’s more meager infractions. “Fertile world problems” I’ve come to refer to them as.
Fast forward one year, and past endless headlines blaring the pandemic discord and disturbance heaped upon the parented and grandparented world. Much of it entirely justified and important to air. It’s what has been missing from our conversation that stirs concern.
I felt I had passed by maybe two articles on being single and without children this past year, what I consider to be one of the toughest pandemic situations there is. I was thinking I’d seen a few drops written about caregivers – those with bedridden or severely limited elderly family members or those caring for children with extreme disabilities. And maybe a few peeps about our disabled population.
Broad Google and New York Times searches proved as much and then some. There were six pandemic related articles on our disabled population, including my favorite, “My Life Is More Disposable During This Pandemic” (which I shared on my personal FB page when it came out). And also a few on caregiving.
The rest was even worse than I imagined. Searching “childless during pandemic” brought up a small handful of articles on parenthood vs non parenthood in the workplace, an important topic no doubt but not exactly what I was getting at. And by the sixth search result, my eyes were landing on an article entitled “A Break For Working Families”. Alas. A search of “single and childless during pandemic” rendered the same.
“Single during pandemic” actually rendered nothing immediately related except the top article, “Single Parenting in a Pandemic”. Good grief. “Aging without children” rendered a mere two pieces from 2011. “Growing old without children” rendered one lone article. Already suffocated by this editorial pronatalism, I searched “parenting during pandemic” and sat back as scrolls of articles lit up my screen.
Obvious reasons for my own personal indignation aside, this doesn’t track with actual numbers. The population of people without children in the US, ages 45 – 50 is said to be at 15.4%, for example. The total rate of women who never gave birth in the US in 2010 was 18% (a very small percentage of these people, around 1 – 1.5%, have been able to adopt). Rates of people without children in the US have risen decisively over the past forty years. And, rates of childlessness in the US are only expected to rise with coming generations. They are currently behind that of our planet’s average, which stands at around 20%. Add in a 2010 meta analysis of data finding that as many as 90% of people worldwide who don’t have children in fact wanted them. This paints quite a different picture than what we’re typically shown.
While those who are part of the mainstream also have very real problems that warrant attention, there’s much to reap from those who have had to navigate without the benefit of belonging to a majority. And without basic functions or things that most others get to have. But the experiences of parents and grandparents under normal average circumstances have always lopsided our cultural narrative, so why would it be different in a pandemic?
By the time I caught a glimpse of this headline – “The Year Grandparents Lost”, it was clear my threshold for hearing about that which I had sought ferociously and lost had taken quite a thumping.
“Oh, That’s enough!! ENOUGH already!!” I began to rant to no one in particular. Agitation rumbled. I had lost grandparenthood entirely after all, heard nary a peep from anyone on the matter, and these folks were getting a whole article for one measly year??
The infinite waterfall of things I’ve had to sleuth in daily life because of the loss of my children flashed through me. “You know what? HERE’S an idea…..” I continued to vent. “Whydoncha make like an involuntarily childless infertility and IVF survivor and FIGURE IT OUT!!!!”
Now, I understand, when one is used to expecting to have something, it catches one more unprepared to cope with its absence. Those of us who carry unearned privilege in any area of life, including myself, typically require more coddling.
However, in a culture that has made no room for you, it’s important to keep tabs on just how different the average perspective is from yours. And so I proceeded to read the whole article, which contained nothing unexpected.
The comment section was also as expected. It included a peppering of dismissive naysayers who I do not support. Proposing that people in any kind of painful situation, wherever it may fall on the spectrum, shut up entirely is never productive. It’s not all that human either.
There were then of course the endless banners of “I have blank number of grandchildren and they live in blank and I haven’t seen them for blank……”. This was dotted with a few glimmers of much appreciated mature and balanced outlooks. People grateful they hadn’t gotten sick, that their loved ones were ok and that they would see everyone soon.
And then finally, a much craved particle of battle worn perspective, a comment that began with: “My fourth grandchild was stillborn and she will be missed every year forever.” Well, thank you, Deborah. I get you. And I am so sorry for your loss.
I say thank you because when all facets of human reproduction’s most unforgiving plights are relegated to the darkness, our entire human story is naggingly incomplete. And, other parented experiences not as endowed with harshness become distorted, cluttering the ether with their low vibrational hum.
The bottom line is this: our culture values the aging parented population enough to give them marquees for one year that didn’t go as planned, and devalues childless people enough to give us no space in the conversation for entire adult lives that didn’t go as planned.
Interestingly, it seemed no childless people were consulted on this “The Year Grandparents Lost” piece. It never occurred to anyone that, since we spend decades away from our grandchildren, we childless folks might have survival skills to offer on the matter? Really? I’m envisioning for this piece what would have been an appropriate disclaimer: “Be assured that absolutely NO childless wisdom whatsoever was mined for this article!”
On a side note, I can only imagine the pandemic nursing home and assisted living vernacular over the past year. Grandparented people ruminating to childless people about their missing grandchildren without a care for what their childless peers have been through in their lives. And worse, our experiences have been rendered so invisible many of us even believe their monologues to be more relevant than what we go through. These disproportionately dominant narratives have a way of wrapping themselves around our daily conversation like a boa constrictor.
And then, there’s the parented side of things.
Early on in the pandemic I was able to summon some sympathy for this as well. Even though I miss my own children in my life and yes, I have ached for them amid the pandemic too. I know what it’s like to have to navigate through upheaval without the necessary societal support systems intact.
In my case I had to navigate through four years of a medical situation (infertility) with a rogue group of medical “professionals” (fertility doctors) that resulted a life altering traumatic loss. All while having to constantly educate and advocate for support in every facet of life including from my own loved ones. There is no palliative care for those of us who come out of treatments without a baby. There are no built in support systems. And in our parent centric culture, even unbiased counseling that does not do more harm than good is tricky to locate.
To the other side of things, I have been concerned about the dearth of affordable child care and how bordering on impossible, yet necessary, it is in the United States to be able to work and have children. The number of women leaving the work force – both women who are and who are not parented – does not exactly fill me with a sense of promise either.
The New York Times article, “Working Moms are Struggling. Here’s What Would Help.” contains a list of considerations on the topic.
Mostly, I was on the lookout for our long standing cultural habit of claiming certain needs as exclusive to those who get to be parents when they are often things that apply to PEOPLE in general. The first part of the article looked mildly promising on this front; there was an acknowledgement that “those caring for sick and aging relatives” need support too (a disproportionate number of this group don’t have children). There was also an acknowledgement of the additional work and stress non-parents have been dealing with during the pandemic. (For those who want to catch a sighting of this rare bird, find it under the “Don’t penalize people for caregiving” section).
So far so good. Until I hit the “How individuals can help” section. Starting off with quite a bang, it begins by pointing out that “mothers need their communities now more than ever.” I couldn’t help but note the irony.
Well so did I in the face of the losses of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood. Instead, I was minimized, silenced and talked at every time I tried to share myself when we were trying to conceive. By the time we got to the end, my husband and I essentially buried our children alone. In the years that followed, I was denied societal acknowledgement of my losses as well as the communal and social aspects of grief. Two things that facilitate healing immensely.
And then there was this peculiarity –
“We are only going to survive this by recruiting non-mothers to our cause,” said Katherine Goldstein, creator and host of the Double Shift podcast, about a new generation of working mothers. “The people most burdened at the moment can’t always even stop and figure out what they need.”
Anointing your crew with a superior need status, albeit a temporary one right from the outset? Not the sharpest recruiting strategy I’d venture to say.
I also wondered exactly what Katherine Goldstein meant by “recruiting non-mothers to our cause”. Is this a true effort at real teamwork – a vision of a bonafide “village”? If so, then count me in! Or was it the usual “serve me when I need you but when you need me I’m not going to be there yet again and oh by the way I’m going to take all of the credit and social status as per usual too” kind of a deal?
Again, I found myself concerned with what was missing.
Would there be any healthy reciprocity from backing this “cause”? Would team mom be willing to sit there with those of us making the wretched transition into non parenthood in our space of grief, annihilation and in many cases trauma recovery without judgement and dismissal?
Provide a casserole here and there for someone recovering from a miscarriage or their final failed fertility treatment or a breakup during their last fertile years, or dealing with a chronic health condition that kept them from having children in the first place?
Would team mom support paid leave for everyone, not just for people who can use it for a family with children? Commit to contributing to an equitable workplace that includes the needs of the involuntarily childless and doesn’t only address the issues of parents?
Speak out against reproductive and childless bigotry in the human conversation? Be our support in family situations where we are belittled and discounted?
Will they bother to notice that our lives, by necessity, are quite different from parented lives? And then take the necessary time and curiosity to take a genuine interest in our lives? Considering our lives different, but EQUAL in value to that of a parent?
Will there be compassion and respect for our boundaries that we need to set in this life long grief journey for the sake of our mental and emotional health?
Will you teach your children to value their childless Aunts and Uncles and to care for them when they are old?
Ultimately, will there be an interest in us and care for us that extends beyond how we might be able to serve you in the moment?
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Maybe what she said was quoted as an incomplete thought and was not in full context? I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, however the “most burdened” sentence that followed didn’t instill much faith in the matter.
And then, one last whammy because hey why not while you’re at it…..the author of the article begins the “Friends, do your part” section with this thud: “If you don’t have children at home, think of ways to help those who do.”
I had to fight through the tide of presumption before reading on.
Considering all of the ways people DIDN’T think of to help me when I was loosing my children one slice at a time and then in the subsequent years grieving their loss, well, I suppose I’d be pressed to turn to something else for some inspiration.
This notion may have an appropriate application regarding those who don’t have children but are not involuntarily childless. However the vast majority of those of us without children over the age of forty five – as much as 90% of us – ARE involuntarily childless.
Many of us already do participate in the lives of other people’s children, and happily so. I’d imagine there would be much more of that going on if the involuntarily childless were regularly seen, heard and valued in the ways described above.
Many of us are already busy with our own families both nuclear and extended, who, believe it or not, actually have some use for us. In addition, we have our own lives to contend with, which typically entail many facets we are navigating with little to no support.
Seven years out of fertility treatments, I’m still cleaning up collateral damage from my infertility and heavy grief years, and I’m still in the throes of re-inventing and rebuilding my life. Necessary for those of us who have lost an entire life track, and a most herculean yet ambiguous task. A task for which I have gotten zero acknowledgement and support from the outside world.
In order to meet our needs for meaning and fulfillment, we childless folks also typically have rich inner worlds often sustained by creative projects. This is not frivolity as many would like to think. Rather it is how we pull off the grand feat of emotional and spiritual survival amid all we carry.
Last, let’s not forget those of us who still have open parenthood loss wounds. Being around or associated in any way with that which we lost can be like pouring salt on injuries that need space and gentleness to heal – two things almost impossible to come by in this parent centric world.
Yes, the pandemic has been hard on mothers in certain ways and yes we need to address the broader systemic failures that have stoked the current state of things. What’s not OK? When the implementation of solutions to these problems overlooks, excludes and tramples on the rights, needs and visibility of childless people. This, traditionally, is what happens.
On a more personal note….
I was getting my blood drawn recently, partaking in some very broad and basic pandemic chit chat. And then, not related to anything, this: “It’s sooo hard for these parents, having to home school and deal with everything else….”
Uh, yes. We know. Memo received! Since loosing my children I don’t have energy to waste on that which already gets a disproportionate amount of attention. Therefore, I didn’t miss a beat. I jumped in with a completely unrelated statement on the pandemic challenges and obstacles my chef and restaurant owner husband (and thus I) have been facing.
I also recently witnessed, on an evening news program, an in person reunion between a mother in a nursing home and her adult son. I am now healed enough to be able to be present for such a moment, at least sometimes, and it was truly touching. I was able to feel some of the awe and joy that was on this woman’s face, all while reminding myself that, if I live well into old age this is something I’m going to have to figure out how to get by without. It’s not an end all be all of course, but things like that no doubt aid in one’s overall sustenance. I exited the moment with my own sense of wonder – where was the coverage of the people like me, of people who don’t have any children to be reunited with??
The few times we’ve Zoomed over the past year or so, I’ve seen a similar sense of awe and joy in my Mom’s face. I’ve been taken aback by the beauty of it all, as well as the cringiness of having to observe what I will not get to have.
I will soon be reunited with my parents after a year and a half long in person hiatus. I’ll be so elated to see them, even their life long dysfunctions might appear charming for the first five minutes. And I’m sure I will join the waves and share this happy moment on social media. And all the while, there will be a piece of me, both hovering and suspended, bearing witness to that which will never be.