by JOY ANDERSON
Inspired by a lovely blog I read tonight by Patricia Faulks, I thought I might have a stab at writing an article also. Unaccustomed to writing articles and slightly dyslexic, who am I to write a blog?
My name is Joy and 9 years ago I gave up my small home business, teaching yoga and massage, to relocate and look after my mum. At age 45 mum had a botched surgery which left her disabled, and as a consequence, in her mature years, developed a plethora of complex medical needs. Mum died this year and, when I read her Eulogy, I spoke of how much fun we’d had. There were many anecdotes to relay, some of which garnered a good few laughs.
However, it wasn’t all sweetness and light looking after my strong willed and independent mother. She could be ungrateful at times and, understandably, felt quite threatened when I first went to live with her.
Initially, I spent several years making alterations to her home because the lack of facilities made it a constant struggle for her. However, after quite a bit of conflict, I finally got my way and ‘wore her down’ as she would often say. This was while I set about making everything more accessible, more organised and safer. I had the tired paintwork revived, installed a wet room plus a walk in bath and a patio where she could enjoy eating dinner in the garden. Life got better so gradually we learned how to live together whilst also learning about each other.
Over time mum mellowed so we worked through a bucket list - travelling, learning to fly (yes, that's right, thanks to Aerobility), carriage riding, disabled rambling and visiting family. When she had her cancer diagnosis I looked after her right to her very last breath.
It is an honour and a privilege to look after a loved one, although people generally only say that after the person is deceased. Up to that point you are so caught up with the day-to-day management you often feel frustrated, tired and sometimes a teeny bit resentful. Then that person dies and leaves you with a massive hole, so deep that you feel you can never fill it. The freedoms you longed for suddenly don’t mean anything. That desire to go back and give just that bit more of yourself, wishing you’d said sorry more often. The desire to have not sweated the small stuff is overwhelming.
As I pack up mum’s clothes, her treasured ornaments and her bits of embroidery she didn’t get round to finishing, I started to wonder what happens when you don’t have a daughter to do this for you? A daughter to make phone calls for you, someone to make 999 calls in the middle of the night, and someone to take you to the doctors and the hospital. Who is going to take your phones calls when you got deaf and make you delicious meals from scratch? Who is going to do this for me and who is going to this for those of us like me - those of us without children?
I eventually moved to my mum’s when it became impractical to be in two places at once. It was a big decision but one I will never regret. When I was young, I used to think it was selfish to have children with the expectation they would support you into old age. Now I think its selfish to not look after your elders. Nine years can seem like a big chunk of your life and yet, what you will learn and how you will grow will be priceless. However, there is nothing that brings you face to face with your own vulnerability more than caring for someone else. There is a growing community of single people without children, many of whom are the same people that will become unpaid carers of the future.
Care homes and live in carers come at a price, and they don’t answer all the problems. You still need contact with the outside world so what options are there if you don’t want to end up in a care home? The reality is today's community probably won’t have a choice and I fear our generation could be the first group of elders, opting for voluntary euthanasia. Because the pressure to find our way through a broken system on our own will become impossible.
This situation needs fixing, and it needs to be treated like an emergency. Why's that Joy, you may ask? Surely, it’s your own fault if you don’t have children? Aren’t we the selfish ones who lived a life of Reilly in our younger days?
Let’s first of all dispel that myth. There are many women who are childfree by choice and are happy with their choices. However, there is now a staggering one in four women who are childless by circumstance who wanted children but for one reason or another didn’t get that opportunity. Concluding - everyone will know someone who is childless by circumstance. Yet those voices of said people are invisible in our child centred society. The media doesn’t help by using language like ‘hardworking families’ rather than ‘hardworking people’.
I’m 64, although until this morning I thought I was only 63. One of the joys of maturing means you can actually forget your age. At least that explains the mystery of why my pension was starting a year earlier than everyone else 😀
The pain of being childless travels with us throughout life so it’s not something we can easily recover from. We often get excluded in ways that can be quite subtle. We find ourselves no longer invited to children’s parties, excluded from conversations about teenage children. And - the joy of grandchildren is something else we will never experience.
Ageing without children gets harder, not easier. I’ve spent many a dinner party excluded from child centred conversations. It becomes awkward after a while when you can’t contribute and even more awkward when no one even notices.
Being childless can be a lonely place as you negotiate your way through life constantly finding yourself either justifying or ignoring awkward questions and responses.
photo by kind permission of pexels -kindels-media
Patricia’s article really struck a chord with me when she said, ‘we need to have a category of our own'.
There is a category for 'have you got any dependants?'. Yet there is no category for ‘is there anyone you can depend on?’ Next of kin which isn’t the same. A 'next of kin' might bring a clean nighty to the hospital, but they are not likely to take full charge of your care should you need it.
As Jody Day said in a recent interview, our experiences of being childless are conversations that quickly get shut down because they make people feel awkward, so how can there be any real awareness until we find our voice? These conversations need to happen - in people’s living rooms, pubs, social media and we have to get better at talking about it.
We almost need a language of our own so we can learn how to make people feel comfortable about our childlessness. Developing a way to express ourselves may be the first step towards changing opinions at policy level. There needs to be a national/international conversation about growing old without children. It’s becoming a global phenomenon and how much harder it must be in countries where there is no NHS, housing support nor social services.
We don’t have a model to copy so we have to create one. Current parlance calls it ‘out of the box’ or 'blue sky' thinking. It means starting to look at new solutions, new family models and ideas with ways to finance it.
Childlessness plus ageing is heading down the track whether we like it or not.
Men also need more education about women’s fertility and need to be more aware of their responsibilities when entering into relationships with women, especially towards the end of their fertile life. I’m not ignoring gay relationships and fertility issues but that is a whole other article that I feel best addressed by someone in the gay community.
We can’t do this alone and these discussions need to take place sooner rather than later.
Women's body clocks are ticking, and the years between 30 and 40 for single women wanting children can be stressful and heart-breaking. Imagine the number of childless women who had a relationship breakdown during the fertile years of their life but ran out of time to meet someone else.
I guess you could say you don’t need a man, these days. True, in many ways. However, in the real world lots of women still want a child whilst in a relationship. Many just can’t afford to go it alone.
Perhaps we need to redefine what a family is so we need new and different resources.
I would like to see housing for elderly far more integrated in the community. At present elderly people can sometimes be removed from society. This attitude has to change in order to include them. A review of housing is imperative. Stair lifts can bring some levels of independence but are not a solution on their own.
Instead of building care homes on the edge of a community we need to put elderly housing right at the heart of it. The only way to solve this problem is radical restructuring of our housing, communities and training. It will no doubt be fraught with difficulties, but I feel surely there are more creative ways to age.
There are more creative ways to support the elderly other than care homes; ways to support people in communities regardless of whether they have children or not. The problem has been exasperated because so many of us are now ageing without children.
Imagine if there was a Peoples' Assembly with thousands of childless/childfree men and women up and down the country brainstorming and inventing new ways of growing old? I’m sure we could come up with some amazing ideas. Instead of ageing in trepidation, perhaps it could be a time of friendship, creativity and fun.
‘You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one …’ John Lennon.
Let’s keep this discussion going so it gets louder and let’s make a Peoples' Assembly (or similar) a reality.
There is talk now of ‘people led policies.’
This is exactly what we need to bring to the forefront.
If we do nothing, we are heading towards a crisis, but with collaboration, creative funding and new ways of thinking it doesn’t need to be that way.