January 29, 2007

Life by Chance

by Sharon Mollerus, Guest Contributor
Blog Author, Educator, Parent & Grandparent
Blog: Clairity

Teri has graciously invited me to offer a guest post to this childfree blog, and I am honored to be the first parent to write here. Our "meeting" was by chance. She chose to include a photograph of mine to illustrate companionship, a lovely scene of an older couple that I caught as I was walking by. After learning of the context of this site, I gave my snitty reaction to the word "childfree" on the post titled Childfree Senior.

The term "childfree" is more deliberate, I think, than the word "childless". A couple we are very close to is childless, by circumstance rather than choice. I have often felt pained when in my friend's presence someone asked a pointed question about her family status. People can be particularly rude about personal issues of parenting, whether asking invasive questions about a pregnancy, offering some condescending advice on childcare or commenting on how many children one has. Couples without children are also often subjected to some judgment about their ability to parent.

Women in particular are tired of being valued for a role rather than for themselves. The word "childless" emphasizes the lack, as if having children were necessary to complete a person.
However, the word "childfree" to my ears is a pejorative of a different kind. It reduces children to the category of burden. For a parent (even on our worst days), the idea that a kid is no more than some category of trouble is the flip side to the insult that women can be valued only as breeders. I don't have an alternative to offer for this term designating family "status" (even that word "status" is a problem) which would offer full respect to both women and children.

I have been married 25+ years and have had three children and two grandchildren. My first daughter Claire was premature and died after fifty days. Our second daughter is adopted. In answer to prayer, an unforeseen opportunity arose, and we said yes on very short notice. Our third daughter was born to us a year later just after my husband started medical school. I would never answer those questions and assumptions about which were "planned" and why we had "stopped at two". Each person’s life is too mysterious for such calculations.

As a writer, I love schedules. I have times for teaching, housework, prayer; then I guard those blocks for solitary writing. There are quiet evenings with my husband (we are just now empty-nesters) and noisy ones with friends.
Still, I find that the real stuff happens in the margins and spills out of bounds. I would have nothing to write about if it were only what I had planned for my life.
From hard experience I have learned that easy relationships are not always the most valuable. Naturally we pad our lives with comforts and bar the door against misfortune, but we can also risk to miss the best part. I like to leave something to chance.

[Photo above: Originally uploaded to Flickr on November 30, 2005 by kool_skatkat.]

[About Sharon: Sharon Mollerus is an English instructor at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. She is a poet and photographer and blogger. She has two children, two grandchildren and a husband of 25+ years.]

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Teri said...

Now we know your name is not Clair. That was your daughter's name.

Thank you for this post, for your trust, and your willingness to be our first parent contributor. The question of identity is at the core of the debate about childed vs. childless/childfree women, as you so aptly point out.

I have a problem with the hyphenated version of the term child-free. It brings to mind "smoke-free" and "caffeine-free" - both negative connotations. I feel that childfree, without the hyphen, is a descriptive for women who are not mothers. Unfortunately, you cannot hear the missing hyphen. See my defining blog post in the sidebar for more in depth dissection of that topic.

I side-step all this "Hyphenation Consternation" by calling myself a Purple Woman. Women should define themselves, create their own terms, and their own life by design. As you point out, designs and the best laid plans can go awry. That's when things get interesting. It certainly did for me when I found out I could not have children in my early 20s.

What we can agree on is that we are women first, not necessarily mothers all...and Nirvana for one is not necessarily so for another.

AlphaGirl said...

I speak for myself only when I say this: "Childfree" does not connote that children are burdensome.

I knew from a young age that parenting was not for me. I respected that, and understood that children need to be raised by those who are cut out for the task and for the role. My mom was an emergency room admitting clerk when I was very young. She saw many, many, abused children come thru her doors, sometimes repeatedly.

" Do not have children unless you know in your heart and in your mind that it's something you really want to do. I'm tired of seeing kids come to the ER who are being raised by parents who don't have a clue. Think it through."

I thought it through. By virtue of my temperment, goals, and personality, I knew parenting was not for me. A child would not have enjoyed having me as a parent.

"Childfree" means many things. I'm saddened to read that you see it as a negative term. I'm glad parenting and grandparenting worked for you. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and society ends up paying the price, sometimes over several generations.

I can only hope that if one of your own children or grandchildren chooses to remain childfree for whatever reason, that you continue to respect and to embrace them.

Ms. Purple Blurker said...

I liked your last sentence, as you stated, “I like to leave something to chance.” Often, those who preach to the childfree are unwilling to acknowledge that having children involves some degree of risk. For some people, the anticipated benefits outweigh the costs. I know and love many people like this, and I’m glad they are (or hope to be) parents.

For others, the possible costs might outweigh the benefits. For example, I used to work closely with people who are severely mentally ill. They lived in a public facility because their own families were not able to care for them. It was a job that required physical and mental effort, along with patience and love. I felt privileged to be able to “make a difference” in the lives of these people, but I also witnessed a lot of suffering, and once in a while, violence.

Mental illness has also affected my family. It is a biological tendency that has hit some harder than others. This has led to a few "hard" experiences, not precluding suicide. One could view these experiences with pessimism or optimism, and I wholeheartedly acknowledge that I take a “half-empty” attitude when I state that I prefer not to risk bringing a human into the world, knowing that such suffering is possible.

By making the choice, I take the risk of not knowing what could happen by having a child. But, with a fistful of hope, I believe there are other ways to give of myself and spread love in the world.

AlphaGirl said...

Hi Ms. Purple Blurker =)
I love that handle...it's great!
I agree with your comment wholeheartedly; some things are best not left to "chance", especially the serious decision regardng whether or not to have kids. It deserves so much more than leaving it to the whims of chance.
Mental illness has touched several families that I know, and it's gut-wrenching. I have so much respect for the work that you did, and you are right: There are many, many, ways to spread love and to give of oneself.

M said...

Wow, Ms. Purple Blurker, what a great comment.

I, too, feel that the risk of problems a child could bring (for him or herself, or for me, as the would-be parent) is just too great a risk for me to take. Most kids turn out okay, but some don't, and I'm not prepared or willing to devote my life to one who doesn't (or one who does, actually, too, but that's a whole other issue altogether for another time).

And I wholeheartedly agree that there are many ways to contribute to the world, and I'd go so far as to say that bearing and raising children is not necessarily any better or more significant or valuable that any one of those other contributions. Sometimes, not having a child and using one's energy in some other way that is highly needed can be the best gift to give to the world.

Elise said...


The fact that you now categorize your original response to the post about older childfree people as having left something to be desired goes a long way, in my book.

You wrote the following in your post:

"I would never answer those questions and assumptions about which were 'planned' and why we had 'stopped at two'. Each person’s life is too mysterious for such calculations."

It is interesting to hear that the judgment that some people have of women's reproductive decisions, even after they've become mothers, seems to never come to an end. These folks would imply that one can never have enough children. Your post seems to imply that any number of children is OK (even a small number), as long as that number is not zero. I disagree.

I would agree with you that "each person's life is too mysterious for such calculations", but I'd add to that sentence: "...by others".

As a high school teacher with a rewarding but ill-paying and exhausting job; a woman with infertility, limited kidney function and borderline type 2 diabetes; a once-and-future Big Sister; a doting auntie of 13-year-old twins; and the sister of a beloved adopted brother (as well as a beloved biological one...i.e., I know the value of adoption!) I *have* made calculations about my life and whether or not to become a parent. The most heartfelt, deliberate, and careful calculations of my entire life, in fact.

Medical, financial, and environmental reasons all point to the answer being "childfree", for me. In the rare moment when I believe that might be a God, I have the distinct feeling that he/she bestowed us with the ability to think, discern, and (yes) calculate. I am thankful for that ability every day of my life.

Thank you for your post --- an extremely thoughtful one.

LauraS said...

I'd like to thank Clairity for her post. In the presence of parents I continue to describe myself as childless by choice because I know that the term Child-free is often misunderstood in ways that removing the hyphen may never solve.

For those who do not know the rationale behind this term, Childfree can imply motives, e.g. dislike of children and the responsibilities they bring, that may not apply to those using the term to communicate their status and well-being.

How do we fix this? Having this kind of dialog with parents is a great start. Thanks for facilitating this, Teri, and thank you Clairity for reminding us that some people don't like to plan and want to leave themselves open to whatever comes their way.