But I didn’t change my mind about kids
One of the questions childfree people are most often accosted with is a two-parter: “What if you regret it? Aren’t you afraid of dying alone?”
It took a drastic event for me to give that question serious thought. The answer didn’t change, but my understanding of both the question and the answer did.
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 (bowling: 5 credits!) after having taken a blissful four-year break from the hell that was (high) school, and Jack and I had just brought two kittens home to our new apartment on Colonial Manor Road.
Aside from living, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I liked 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. 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, hey. When do you think we should start having kids?”
It’s hard to describe the physical rea —
No it isn’t.
And he instantly morphed into something less attractive: previous phase — someone I’d seen as a partner; new phase — someone who had demands that I (I discovered in that moment) was spiritually recoiling at the idea of fulfilling.
I guess I should have considered the parenthood possibility before saying yes when he asked me to marry him on the terrace at the Heidelberg Castle. But I was nineteen, living in Germany and on year four of my relentless embrace of the bar-drinking, happy-fun times of being a young adult. It didn’t occur to me that marriage was supposed to lead to kids. Not in real life.
I said to him, as I stood there in my shorts, 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, which didn’t go un-criticized).
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: the power of not knowing what would happen next and the freedom to change direction.
The next few months were awkward. Mostly for me, who heard the unsaid “have kids? have kids? have kids?” between every other word that came out of his mouth.
Finally, we had a real conversation.
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
I got the cats.
Second: 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 someone whose parents had gotten a divorce when I was two years old that a child creates a lifelong connection between its parents, and the last thing I wanted (or want) is to be permanently tied to an ex.
My reasons for not wanting kids were so straightforward and natural to me that I had no doubts at all. Beyond the occasional checking-in with myself (“sure? yep; right choice? still yep; okay, carry on” — prompted not by inner uncertainty but by lifelong conditioning), my decision, once I reached the point of being able to wave off 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?
(I’d like to point out, real quick, the subtly sinister, vaguely threatening, and potentially schadenfreude-ish nature of that question.)
The quick answer I’d give any time someone smirked at me with the regret or dying question was, No, I wouldn’t regret it. No, I wasn’t afraid of dying alone.
But, honestly, 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 imagining that I’d get old and die, I would.
That said, it didn’t feel completely dishonest to reflexively say “no” to questions about regret, about fears of being alone when old. 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 one resident, an old woman, get wheeled to the lobby for a visit from her son. The nurse handed control of the old woman’s wheelchair to a guy in his late-30s who cheerfully ignored his mother’s thin-fingered, protesting hand every time he put a spoonful of ice cream to her mouth.
Over a decade later I’d spend three weeks visiting my dad in the intensive care unit of a Florida hospital where tubes were keeping him alive in his medically induced coma. My sister and I would show up daily to an empty waiting area, and on the way out we’d pass glass walls encasing bed-trapped patients immobilized by tubes and machines, unoccupied chairs for friends and family pushed neatly against the wall.
The nurses seemed surprised by 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 make me think about what dying alone meant.
While researching something unrelated, I came across a death announcement:
Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.
I was crying 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.
When my dad died, he was in a hospital room with no family or friends present.
Still, he didn’t die alone.
His parents had been gone for some time, but all four of his siblings were still in the world. He’d talked to or texted 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’d 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 smacked me with a discombobulating realization: Parents might lose their own parents and their siblings, but unless they’re unlucky enough to see their kids die, as they approach natural dying age they’ll still have them— if not in the room, 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 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.
And I still don’t regret not having kids.
Not because “I’ve done my part for the environment.” That’s just 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.” (Not very much, but still.) I doubt I’d have written as much if I’d had a kid, considering my poor time management skills, but what parenting might have kept me from achieving professionally (not very much, but still) wasn’t a determining factor before, and it isn’t, now.
Not having kids 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. Probably 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. Sob sob.”
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 a wreck. She told me she couldn’t stand knowing she’ll probably put her son and daughter through that hell when she dies.
She also had a tough empty-nest phase when her kids 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. “One of the first dystopian novels I’ve read to really consider the issue of reproductive rights and attitudes so deeply.” — Goodreads Review
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called “scathing social commentary” and “a novel for right now.” She is also the author of the novels The Year of Dan Palace and Pretty Much True (studied in Dr. Owen W. Gilman, Jr.’s The Hell of War Comes Home: Imaginative Texts from the Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq). Kristen’s interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.
1 thought on “My dad’s death made me explore the idea of childfree “regret” & “dying alone””
You put into words what we all think. I must say, having a son gave me three wonderful grandchildren. I often say how I wish I could skip the parent stage and just go to the grandparent stage. Two different feelings.
I’m not sorry I decided to have an only child, that’s what worked for me. But it also made me able to become a grandmother and mad all the ups and downs of parenthood worth while.