By Terry Lee Hess
My friend says that by not having children, I have not lived a full life. I cheated myself out of it. Period. There is no need to debate this. It is a given. And, in every conversation we have wherein she always mentions her daughters or grandchildren and the richness of her retirement days with them, she interjects “I don’t expect you to understand. After all, how can you?” From there she either continues what she was saying or shifts topic. I usually remain silent when she declares this about me, my life. If I didn’t feel I had less of a life prior, I certainly do for a moment each time she says this. Perhaps she is right. I have indeed not fulfilled my destiny and therefore have a lesser life. Perhaps I am destined to repeat my life, if reincarnation is true, to come back and do what it is I didn’t do that I was supposed to do in order to fully develop my being, serve mankind, obey God’s command, “Go forth and multiply.” I’m just not sure about any of this.
What I am sure of is that in the earliest years of my retirement, I have less grey hair, more education, a broader view of the human condition, no debt, and more money than my five sisters, even combined. I also have a lot more spare time and that is sometimes good and sometimes not. I know I am spending too much time twiddling my thumbs and not, like my sisters, fretting over children or planning expensive cookouts so they can actually entice their children and grandchildren to come to their homes. So I have integrated volunteering into my retirement. I am a Service Officer at the local Disabled American Veterans. That takes up what sums up to about a day and half a week, still leaving too much twiddle time. I am a handy woman, for a day or two a week, maintaining my own home as well or better than most men I know. Perhaps better than all men I know or have known thanks to my innate mechanical abilities and observant eye. If I hired a tradesman once, there usually was no need to do so the second time.
I have had five unsuccessful marriages. I left each one of these men for not being the type of men I could truly be intimate with and trust over time. First beat our dog, second beat me, third loved Dewars Scotch more than life so when he quite drinking I married him again and divorced him again when he started back, and the last was more interested in what my money should have been doing for him than in me. As I worked more than full-time from the time I entered the workforce until I retired, I was either an equal wage earner in my marriages or, towards my latter marriages, the greater wage earner by far. My last ex actually said, “why should I even bother to work if you make 10 times what I make?”
I’ve been alone, without a mate, and even without a serious date for soon to be seven years. Twiddling. Twiddling. When the twiddling gets too much, I join my sister’s family gatherings and linger on the periphery as the sister or aunt that didn’t have children. Being a former female Marine gives these labels some luster but luster is not meaning. My sisters and nieces/nephews look at me as if I have a mysterious sort of grit. But, I know, I run from real danger like any other girl, just not as fast now that I’ve entered my sixties.
I joined the military when I was 17 years old, three years before the fall of Saigon when it was not prudent for a woman to do so. I believe the consensus for women in the military at that time is best summed up in my father’s comment when I told him I had enlisted: “Only sluts join the service!” I signed up for the military because I didn’t want to end up marrying my high school boyfriend who finished off a six-pack of beer every time we went to the drive-in theatre. Once we took one of my younger sisters with us. As he drove us home I fretted that my drunk boyfriend might actually kill my sister and me with his car. I couldn’t end up with him by default. Early on, when I was about nine years old, I had sworn to myself (and at the time, to the multitude of stars in the midnight blue heaven above) that I would never have six children I could not feed. Also, I would never have a child of a man who would not stay since my father had left us six with our mother for years until he, under duress (which was a call from a Baltimore Salvation Army Shelter, us mal-nutritious and cold) scooped us to him via a bus to Florida. So I needed a quick exit out of town upon high school graduation.
With the military, you don’t need money or a car to get out of town. They gladly escort you under guard to the indoctrination center, to boot camp, to job training, and then to wherever you are stationed. So I spent eight years active-duty that included stateside assignments in Colorado, Texas, Illinois, and California as well as two long tours overseas: Germany and Okinawa. Never did I get assigned in my home state Florida although I requested it every change-of-station. I fought many stereotypes during my service. I wasn’t a feminist. I wasn’t a woman’s libber. I got out of the whole burning bra thing by not wearing a bra. A privilege I would not have had without the previous women who had fought for and carved an opening for me in a man’s world.
After my second honorable discharge, I leveraged my military electronics training and went to work in aerospace, a career that in its gradations and migrations lasted me until retirement a couple years back. During and between my marriages, I completed a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s Degree, and ½ of a Ph.D. program. My majors changed from Space Science to Computer Science, Mathematics, and finally, to my secret avocation of writing. All my degrees are in English despite the many semester hours of credit I have in my previous areas of study. When I was seriously writing, I concentrated on memoir (creative nonfiction) publishing seven short stories several of which were awarded amateur prizes, one that was published in a national literary journal after having won a national writing award. These stories and the many others I wrote that were either rejected or not submitted detailed events in my childhood, the military, and some of my marriages. I wrote during the most cluttered and confusing times of my life. Memoir was a Godsend for me and I think by now I have dug up, exposed, and washed clean all of my demons. I have the time to write now and a calm environment in which to do it. Ah, but it appears those demons were my muse, critical to my writing, and they have moved on. Perhaps I was never a real writer but instead a demon slayer with words.
Throughout my career I believed I had to work twice as hard as men, hence my workweeks often exceeded 60 hours or more. Perhaps this became a factor in my failed marriages. I had my tubes tied when I was 29 years old. I had to go through five doctors to find one who would do it at my young age and without my husband’s permission. I had my tubes tied not because I was sure I never wanted children, but because I was absolutely sure I did not want to have my husband’s child. My husband at that time was the one who beat me. I did it in our first year of marriage although it took me five years to leave him. When I left, I did so under his threat of my death. By that time, it was a chance I was willing to take. At least I wouldn’t be under his roof when he killed me. Fortunately for me, he found another woman after I left which freed me from him but only after a few more beatings and one final rape. The man knew how to knock a door down.
When I joined the service, I left my sisters to the bar and beach life of the 1970’s Fort Lauderdale. While I was gone, they married and had multiple children. I barely talked to them over a decade and a half and on the few occasions when I came home to visit, I was the outsider. In our budding adult lives, we had little in common. I had never changed a diaper and still haven’t, with the exception of once during a visit and with much assistance amid laughter at my expense. This event is still recalled at family gatherings. By my mid-thirties, after having traveled quite a bit of the world not only in my military assignments but also for fun to surrounding countries and during my aerospace career on business, I began to long for a relationship with my sisters. I contacted each of them. Throughout my thirties and forties, I rebuilt my relationships with them. One thing I knew for sure, I loved them. I loved them more than anything else in life. I loved them more than the men I married and later learned, even more than any future man I would marry.
My sisters, perhaps because they had children during or right after high school (also my fate I expected had I not left home when I did) or perhaps because they had married men who did not have high earning power, were always strapped financially. I began putting 10% of my income aside to help my sisters. This probably was the final factor in my failed marriages since my men did not want me taking from our coffers to help my sisters never mind that it was out of the good money I myself earned. This led to several arguments with different men that repeated these themes: “They don’t help you so why should you help them!” “It’s not your responsibility. It was your parents and now it’s theirs. It was never yours!” “Why pay for her school when you could set me up in business. Don’t I count?” “Better that you take care of yourself so you are not a burden to them!” In my final marriage, it hit me. I finally knew who I was and what mattered to me. I was one of six sisters. My five sisters mattered to me. Not my men! I later learned that this kind of devotion often occurs among survivors of shared trauma. When I finally articulated what really mattered to me in my last marriage, first to myself and then to him, it hardly needed be said.
Today, my sisters have grown children and various ages of grandchildren, forty plus of cumulative progeny to date. As my sister’s raised and released their children, I witnessed the cumulative and continuing expenses as well as their deep pain when their growing children accused them of failing as mothers in one way or another. We sisters did not have good role models for parenting and that showed in every way as my sisters played out their roles as mothers all but one of them through multiple husbands as was our family legacy. I do not hold the highest count of marriages.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to never have children. But through witnessing my sister’s raising theirs, it became clear that children are very expensive and largely ungrateful. Heck, I was one of those ungrateful children myself for I forgave my mother nothing. Also, my choices in men weren’t panning out. Reversing my early tubal ligation was not worth considering.
Today, my sister’s are also already in or approaching retirement. They are doing so with few or no assets, extensive defaults and liabilities, and in most cases, grown children still suckling at the teat of mom for many of our parent’s poor decision making made its way through my sisters to my sister’s children manifesting over time in the same lack of education, limited earning power, and bad financial decisions. The suckling(s) still draw on the limited resources of their mothers, my beloved sisters. Well, on Aunt Terry too from time to time but less frequent and I have the reserves to recover. It does not appear that any of my nieces or nephews can afford to or have the desire to care for or finance their aging mothers. From my view, there seems little return in having children.
Today, and for a couple of years-of-days prior, I think on and run scenarios on what for me is or would make a rewarding retirement. Retirement being new, I still have about three days a week where I twiddle. I could pump iron more as I did until I recently was diagnosed with advanced osteoporosis and broke my foot. I can cook healthier foods as I have been doing to get my blood sugar back into normal range. I sometimes consider going back to school for the entertainment value as I have always loved a classroom environment wherein I am a student and not the teacher. Teaching at the university while working on my Ph.D. cured me of any thoughts that I might have been destined to teach. Although I finally have the time, it’s too late for extreme sports although I wish it weren’t. I fill my days with what is most important and that’s been my home, my two cats, my sisters, and my friends. There is room for more. A mate? I have never done that well. My few dates ended in failed marriages. More volunteering? I don’t want to work too hard. There are hobbies I could take up. Then, as I play out these scenarios of what my life would be if I added this or that into my retirement, I think, yes I could do that. Or, I could not do that. Maybe I could just sit here and think on it all some more, cook some vegetables, turn on a movie with one cat on my lap and the other at my feet, and drift comfortably knowing that should I drift into a nap, unlike much in life, there is a rewind button on my DVR and my Netflix. Or I could go into the garden and watch my plants grow some more. I am twiddling in my paid off and well maintained home while my sisters are trying to find the money to pay their bills and the mortgages they still have late in life.
Even my friend, as rewarding as her retirement is with her children and grandchildren, is having difficultly making a small social security check meet her mortgage and has tried many ingenious and resourceful ways to get her working children to contribute to her retirement costs, all to no avail. They’d rather pay a day care than buy food for grandma’s house or gas for grandma’s car so grandma can afford to pick up, entertain, and feed her grandchildren when babysitting.
So what is better, having children or not having children? Is my friend right? Is my life unfulfilled despite any thing I now do or don’t do because I did not have children then when I could have had them? Are my sister’s lives more fulfilled because they did? Do my life choices have to be right or wrong in retrospect to justify my story so I can say to myself that it was good what I did and good what I didn’t do? Might I still be twiddling in retirement even if I’d had children?
My sister’s often say I am the lucky one. I made the right choices but I expect that’s because their choices are as problematic as mine although in different ways. They haven’t the time or money. They are tired, not well rested over decades. Their children are not as rewarding as they had hoped. I am overly rested with both time and money but little mission other than to continue to be there for each of my sisters as we navigate through the dark and scary roads of what may be, if our parents lives are any predictor, our final decade. Which is better? Someone else may have to be the judge for all I know at this moment is that my sisters are fine and one of my cats is putting her head between my fingers and the keyboard. She really wants me to stop typing and run my fingers through her fur, over and over preferably, until we both sleep. “Please” she is pressing. And the more purring sounds I can make when we do this, the better it will be for all of us.