When I became a mother, I assumed one day I would be a grandma. But when my daughter was still dating and unmarried at 33, I settled into thinking that being a grandma would not be in the cards for me.
What is it like to be childless or grand-childless in our family-obsessed culture, when it seems everyone is constantly posting grandkid photos to Facebook and planning kindergarten graduation parties replete with caps and gowns? And is it ever possible to see just one photo of your friend’s newest grandchild?
To find out, I asked 25 people from all walks of life if they regretted not having kids or grandkids. I learned a lot.
Only one of the 25 wondered what life might have been with children. The rest talked about the positives they enjoy by not having kids or grandkids: These include more financial freedom, less stress, and more mobility for travel or job changes. “I’m at a place where I think of grandkids the way some people feel about pets,” says Mike D., “I love them, but I don’t want one.” In fact, rather than using the term grandchild-less, they say “grandchild-free”.
Still, being child-free or grandchild-free can open you up to a level of vulnerability and judgment, simply because it is not mainstream—and sometimes you feel left out. “Sports events and family get-togethers meant that our friends went off to ‘Planet Parenthood,’ as we called it,” says Wendy. As children grew and left home, some of these friendships rekindled. Now the second tiny shoe has dropped—as friends become grandparents, it’s bye-bye friendships again. “It might be nice to be invited (to join), occasionally, when a friend is babysitting grandkids or taking them to the park,” she laments.
One perceived downside of not having offspring is not having a natural medical advocate or caregiver. A few people I spoke with have no family they can count on, nor can they afford to hire caregiving help. Mike and Brad hope their nieces and nephews will step up in some ways. Carolyn has lots of family and knows they will take care of her. Some older people are financially secure enough to arrange and pay for their own care. One person’s wise observation: “Having kids and grandkids is not a free pass to getting cared for in old age.” That’s why it’s important for all of us to build strong social support systems as we age and plan ahead for our care.
What about leaving a legacy? Sally gives “legacy envelopes” to nieces and nephews that include photos and letters from previous generations. Carolyn has compiled photobooks, statistics, and stories about ancestors. Vicki and Gerry help nieces and nephews with costs on school projects and sports equipment, and even pay airfare for them to come visit. These “family grants” require nothing but a thank-you note.
Not everyone feels the need to have something of themselves live on. When Rebecca’s daughter decided not to have children, her daughter asked, “If I don’t have children, you are not going to be a grandmother. Are you OK with that?” Rebecca replied that if her daughter was OK not having children, then she was OK not being a grandmother.
Do these child-free and grandchild-free adults engage with younger generations when they don’t have a built-in supply? Many do. Some spend entire vacations with their godchildren, nieces and nephews, or grandnieces and nephews. Others host exchange students. Barb enjoys “adopted” families who invite her to their family gatherings. Lee says he and his wife get their “grandchild fix” through their neighbor’s kids, who treat them like grandparents. He says, “Being family gets you family.”
Making opportunities to engage with younger generations at your own pace is helpful. Ron S. had a cashier job on Capitol Hill that kept him in touch with young adults because of its proximity to Seattle Central College and Cornish College for the Arts. Now he tutors ESL.
Full disclosure: Since I volunteered to write this article, I’ve learned I will become a grandma in November. I hope I’ll remember to invite my friends without grandchildren to join some of our activities, but I won’t be offended if they’re not interested. And I promise I’ll show them just one photo of my new grandchild.
Dori Gillam is a speaker and writer on positive aging. She’s worked for Sound Generations (a local non-profit serving older adults), and AARP. She is a speaker for Washington Humanities, facilitates Wisdom Cafes throughout King County, WA, and is a member of the Seattle Age Friendly Task Force.
Not every older adult wants to spend time with young children. For those who do, here are some resources: