28 March, 2011

This is my last will and testament ...

Being of sound mind and body ... okay, as a 48 year old woman, I accept that I am neither of these, but I know I need to make this declaration soon.  I've been thinking about making a new Will for a long time.  It is already well overdue.  My husband and I made our Wills in 1990, just before we left to live in Thailand for three years.  We were young, and relatively impoverished at the time.  Our Wills were simple.  Twenty years later, we have yet to update these Wills.  We don't have children of course, and this means that we haven't felt the urgency.  (Mind you, I know of people with children who don't have Wills either.  They're just in denial.)

I probably have stronger feelings about what I would like to have in my Will than my husband does.  I'd like to ensure we have a deal, that if I go before him, in his Will he honours some of my wishes, and vice versa.   We had a cheery chat at a cafe on Saturday about what we'd put in our Wills.  Bear in mind that we're not wealthy, but we do own a house, and have some investments.  We're hoping to use them to fund a long and healthy retirement, of course, but after hearing some shocking and sad news about one of my husband's younger relatives on the weekend, we are suddenly reminded that life can end in the blink of an eye, or the buck of a horse.

Of course, Wills aren't something people talk about much, except for the occasional comment along the lines of "yes, I must make/update my Will soon!"  And so it's hard to know what most people do.  I expect that most people leave their worldly goods to their partners and then their children.  But of course, those of us who don't have children don't have that option.  And I, for one, would like to know that my estate makes a difference to someone when I die.  (The whole issue of death for people with no kids is another - or many other - posts). I wonder if people with children contemplate the same thing?   I know my parents (well, now just my mother), and my husband's parents, are pleased to be able to leave anything they have to their children.  That's what they worked for all their lives, they say, and I can understand that.  I guess multi-millionaires might have a greater quandary.  A well-known NZ businessman has commented that he made his millions himself, and he took great satisfaction from that, and so he wants his children to earn their money too. So apparently he's leaving them nothing, though I suspect that his idea of nothing is a few million each - you know, pocket money! 

Anyway, the point I'm getting to is that we need to make a new Will.  And that because we don't have kids, we need to be a bit creative in terms of who gets what.

I want to leave money to the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust, a charity that is very dear to my heart, despite being based in the UK (they were the first on-line community I ever joined).  They save women's lives (literally) and sanity every day, and they do it on the smell of an oily rag.  I can't do much to help them from New Zealand, but they deserve to be helped, to have some of the pressure taken off them, so they can continue helping women from all around the world .

We don't have that many children in our lives.  Nieces and nephews from my husband's side all live overseas, and are all from prosperous families. Nieces on my side are all grown, except for lovely CJ of course.  But I have a great-nephew (my sister, the grandmother, thinks being a great-aunt sounds so much worse than being a grandmother - I of course, disagree!).  His parents are not well off, and I think an education fund for him would be useful.  Education these days is much more expensive than when I went to university (I was paid to go!), and if I can help him that would be great.  A trust, to assist with the education of any of my nieces' future children, would be a good idea. That came to us over eggs and bacon and a nice pinot gris.

I've often said I'd like to arrange for an AFS scholarship (the student exchange I went on when I was 17) for a student from my old High School.  That's something I would still like to do I think, and would need some arranging.

There are some well-known medical research agencies in New Zealand, and my husband would be keen to leave some money to them too.  Not that our paltry amounts would mean much, but hopefully it would help.

And of course, there are the charities that are important to us or those we love, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and arthritis.  Yes, we're running out of money.  We realised this even before we'd ordered our latte and hot chocolate.

Then of course we need to leave our belongings to people who would appreciate them.  We are not blind here though - we accept that what is special to us won't be special to anyone else.  We love our things - our teapot bought in the Atlas Mountains, the Vietnamese painting or the African wall hanging - because of the memories.  Others don't share those memories, and so the value of these possessions dies with us.  We're not overly sentimental about this.  The only thing I worry about is my great-grandmother's piano.  I want it to be loved and treasured, in the way that I love and treasure it.   I have just realised that I wrote about it here, mentioning this same concern over two years ago.

And - as my husband jokes - we mustn't forget  the Cats' Home.

We'll sort out executors/Trustees later.  That'll be another can of worms. 

22 March, 2011

Let me be

There is little that makes me angrier, that I take as a bigger insult, than the stereotype that if someone doesn’t have children, they are selfish.  I know that I don’t have (and have never had) someone 100% dependent on me 24 hours a day.  But that doesn’t mean I am selfish.  Circumstance means that I can choose how I want to spend my day, when a mother can’t.  But circumstance doesn’t make me selfish.  Circumstance doesn't mean that a mother is unselfish.  This is such a complete logical miscalculation that it makes me want to scream.  (Steam is coming out of my ears, and my laptop screen is misting up as I type this.) 

Recently, this topic has arisen in two conversations.  The first was when a friend noted that her mother used to assume people without children were selfish.  “She knows different now, though,” said my friend.  “She knows about my friends who are unable to have children.”  But this statement still assumes that women and men who choose not to have children are selfish.  And I dispute that.

The second conversation was when a friend spoke about a man who has been single all his life (although he is a father) and who has, she said, “lived a selfish life.”  I stopped her.  “He doesn’t sound selfish to me,” I said.  “He sounds like a caring person, a good friend, a good father to his son, a decent human being, thoughtful of others.  That’s not selfish.”  She nodded, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced, despite the fact that we both knew another man who had been married with children for 20 years, who lives and has lived a most extraordinarily selfish life, to the detriment of a great many people.  The stereotype though wins out for her, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. She wants to define herself as unselfish, because of all she does for her own children, and so by contrast seems to feel the need to define others who don't do this (including me, her friend, sitting across the table from her) as selfish.

This assumption - that having children means you are not selfish, and not having them means you are - infuriates me, simply because the sheer act of choosing to have children is a selfish one. In fact, I think I would be safe in saying that all of us who have decided to become parents (whether or not we managed it is irrelevant) did it because WE wanted to, because we saw a benefit to it. Yes, we thought we had something to give a child, but ultimately, the decision was for us.  This was no more or less a selfish decision than those who decide they don't want to have children.

But many of the reasons parents give for having children are selfish.  They often make the following arguments:
  • I don’t want to be lonely in my old age
  • I want to see my name/genes live on
  • I want to experience unconditional love
  • I want a mini-me
These arguments are all about them. 

Parents decide to have children when they know they cannot afford them, bringing children into the world where they are going to struggle financially, where they may not be able to afford to feed the child, to get them medical care, give them good housing or an education, or even spend time with them.  They have children when they know they’re in a bad, sometimes dangerous relationship – exposing children to physical or (probably more frequently) emotional danger.  They have children simply because they don’t want to/forget to/are too stupid/drunk/high to use contraception. 

But they’re parents.  So they can’t be selfish, can they?  By definition.

Parents want their children to fulfil their own unfulfilled dreams –stage/sports parents are a classic example.  I’ve seen children being told what their career options are going to be before they’ve reached puberty; children who are berated for not living up to their parents' expectations, rather than encouraged and praised for trying hard.  Parents seek to be proud of their children, whether or not these achievements are the best for their children or not.  But surely such pride could not possibly be selfish?  Or could it? 

Parents use the phrase “as a parent” to imply that they have compassion for all children, compassion I (as a nonparent) couldn’t possible possess.  But these parents don’t act on this compassion – they spend money on their children, and their children alone, or they focus on what they want their children to do, rather than what the child wants, or what is in the best interests of the child.  I don't see a lot of compassion or unselfishness there. 

Of course it goes without saying (though I feel I must say it) that I accept and encourage the protection of children, a stable family life that will nurture a child in the best possible way, on supportive, loving and attentive parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours, etc.  But I feel sometimes that this focus on the nuclear family has gone too far; it has become becoming a form of selfishness entirely accepted and promoted by our society. I don't think that is a positive thing. 

But who am I to comment?  I can’t judge parents, because I’m not one.  I’m just a selfish childless person who can sleep in on Sunday mornings.  (Saturdays too, let's face it, ha ha ha!)  

I know that the life of parents with children isn’t easy, and requires sacrifices.  I’m not discounting that.   I know that women with children feel that they have to put themselves last, after children, then work, then husband/partner, and that often there's nothing left for them. In comparison, the life of people without children, those of us who don’t always have to consider others before we make a decision, must seem very free. 

But I object to the assumption that this freedom (childlessness) equals selfishness.  Perhaps this assumption helps those with children feel better, more noble, about their lifestyle.  By labelling themselves as “unselfish” because they have to make sacrifices in terms of time, money and freedom, they feel better about these choices.  That’s understandable.  But then they seem to have to label people who don’t have to do these things as “selfish.”  That is simply unfair, and untrue.

It of course ignores the fact that people without children make sacrifices too.  We pay taxes for schools, healthcare, and welfare programmes (in New Zealand there is one called Working for Families that assists families with incomes up to $100,000) that we will never have need to access.  This doesn’t bother me too much (apart from the Working for Families threshold), because a) I can afford to pay a little extra, and b) I like to live in a society that looks after its children and its poorest.  But it's a burden for people without children who struggle financially.  Those of us without children find it more difficult to get annual leave or time off work during school holidays, as parents’ needs take precedence.  People without children know that when their friends have children, they slip way down the priority list, below even the "parents of their children's friends" who have so much more in common with the parents than their loyal, old friends without children. At work, people without children work longer hours because parents have to leave to collect children from school, or can't come in on the weekend.  People without children are often the ones who end up looking after elderly neighbours or family members.  My husband’s three brothers all have children, and all live overseas, pursuing higher salaries and greater career opportunities, whilst my husband and I are now faced with the decision to stay here to care for his aging parents. 

So remind me again, why are we the selfish ones?  

I could go on and on.  I won’t.  (I’ve ranted enough).

My point is that no-one deserves to be stereotyped.  I am not selfish.  I know that.  I know people with children who are incredibly selfish and do nothing for anyone but themselves, and I know generous, loving people with children who reach out well beyond their nuclear family.  I know people without children who focus on themselves, and I know people without children who give a huge amount to community and family and friends, who are the nicest and most unselfish people in the world.  Let’s not define people by some false stereotype.  Let’s let people show who they are – selfish or unselfish – by their words, thoughts and actions.

16 March, 2011

To think or not to think ...

I am a great believer in empathy.  The abililty to be able to put ourselves in another person's situation - to understand the impact of our actions, or to explain their actions or words, to attempt to feel what they feel - is essential if we are to connect, really connect, to other people.  It’s something I value in my friends and family (and despair of the lack of it in my mother-in-law!).  It is a good thing.

Empathy requires us to imagine how we would feel in a different state.  I’m finding it hard to be empathetic at the moment.  No, that’s wrong.  I am finding that being empathetic right now, the last few weeks, is almost too difficult to bear.  First, we had the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, when friends and family and the people of a city I love were shaken, some to death.  Empathy then was painful, but I know the people of Christchurch took strength from the shared pain of all New Zealanders and people around the world, and the love that we sent them as a result of our pain.  Living in Wellington, on the faultline between the Pacific and Australian plates, it is too easy to imagine how it might feel, too easy to imagine what would happen to our homes, our offices, our places.  I’ve imagined it before - here in my house on stilts on the side of a hill, I’ve lain in bed after an earthquake and imagined being trapped at the bottom of the valley in a crumbled wreck of a house.  Prior to 22 February, it didn’t seem quite possible.  Now we know it is all too possible.

Then came Japan.  I sat watching the television last Friday night in horror, with intense emotion.  There fortunately seemed to be little damage from the earthquake itself, with Japan's strong building code and the earthquake being centred 120 km out to sea.  But the implications of that location soon became obvious, as we saw incredible footage of the tsunami roll across the ocean and then, just as easily, across the fields and roads and through the towns and cities and homes and offices and airports and hospitals and schools of northern Japan.  We knew then that thousands of lives would be lost.  By the end of the evening, I knew too that I had to close down my empathy.  I couldn’t help the people of Japan by imagining myself in their situations.  It wouldn’t help me to do this either.  

Shutting off though is not easy - I was at the gym yesterday, and both channels on the TV were showing footage from Japan.  I found myself puffing and sweating and trying not to cry on the arc trainer at the sight of an old man showing  a photo of his beautiful, kimono-clad, missing wife, and at a young man looking for his father and grandfather in the rubble. 

But for the most part, I’m holding it together.  I'm working on not thinking about how it must have felt to be in the earthquake or tsunami, or to be looking for lost family or friends, and now the horror of the fear of radiation.  It helps no one.  And for me, not thinking has to be a conscious decision.  You see, I know it can be done.

When my husband and I were trying to have a child, we allowed ourselves to imagine what it would be like; holding our new baby, hugging our child, dressing them, making their lunches, even disciplining them as they grew older and inevitably became cheeky and disobedient.  This was exciting and thrilling when we first started trying.  It reaffirmed for me the decision I had made to become a mother and - perhaps because I had waited for so long to get to this stage – I welcomed the feelings of love and excitement these thoughts and imaginings brought me.  I never thought of them as fantasies.  Why should I when other women don’t have to?

But as every infertile woman (couple?) knows, this thinking can soon become a form of self-torture.  It feeds the grief when the pregnancy is lost, and it feeds the desperation when you are trying to conceive, and it makes us go a little crazy.  And I found it became almost impossible to stop.  But then I got the news.  There would be no baby.  And I had no choice.  I couldn’t continue thinking about the babies I would never have, or the two I had lost.  I couldn’t imagine a baby of my own, and then torture myself by remembering anew that it would never happen.  And so I stopped.  I stopped myself thinking about these things.  I stopped imagining what it would be like.  And the pain went away.  Not instantly, definitely not instantly.  It took a lot of time, and sometimes still creeps up on me (as I often discuss here), but I did it. And life is good.

And so my point is that now I know I can do it.  I can choose not to think of something that will bring me pain but which I am helpless to change and, other than donating to emergency funds, unable to help.  It isn’t heartless, it isn’t cold.  The empathy is there, threatening to overwhelm, and needs to be controlled.  Not thinking won’t be easy, and it definitely won’t work 100% of the time, but when I feel the emotions rising, taking over, I can and must block it out.  I can and should protect myself – because no-one else can.

I am thankful for this, this strength I know I now have, a gift from those tough times, a comfort amidst the tears.  It worked on my infertility, and right now, it needs to work on my feelings for the earthquake victims.  Living here – where, if the earth moves, it moves violently and mercilessly- too much empathy is not a good thing.

15 March, 2011

Too young to be too old?

There’s something about having to deal with the monthly reminder that I’m a woman, still theoretically (though admittedly only just) in her child-bearing years, as they so tactfully put it.  Actually, when you think about it, “child-bearing years” is a ridiculous term, as many of us know.  But I digress.

When I first learned I would never have children naturally or through assisted conception, the monthly reminder was more welcome.  At 41, I was told I was too old to have children.  I didn’t respond to the stimulation drugs of IVF, and was told that it was all because of my “vintage.”  To this day, I cringe when I hear this word, and if I have to hear one more person say “but it meant you were like a fine wine” I’ll scream, because in fact the word – in my context – meant precisely the opposite.  I digress again.  At 41, I still felt young.  I felt too young to be too old.  And the thought that I might be entering peri-menopause was awful to me.  I hated it.  I was not ready to enter, as another well-meaning friend put it, the “crone” stage of life.  I’m sorry, but “crone” does not denote anything pleasant to me, although I know what the term means, and what my friend meant.

So the monthly reminder, arriving regularly, at least made me feel a bit normal, that I had something in common with other women my age, whether or not I had children.  And perhaps I still had a tiny bit of wild, against-all-odds hope.  But as the years have passed, and as the big Five-Oh looms (not for a while yet I hasten to add), I realise that I would be petrified to find I was pregnant now.  Discount all the medical disadvantages and everything that could go wrong at my advanced age, I realise now that I do feel too old to become a new mother.  I wouldn’t want to be in my 60s with a teenager, or coping with a toddler and hot flushes at the same time. 

And so, each month, I become more and more frustrated that I have to go through this charade.  At this stage of my life, I find it increasingly unpleasant, exhausting, and debilitating.  It is as if I am being taunted with what could never be, what I never managed to achieve.  It’s like being slapped in the face each month.  And frankly, I’m ready for it to stop.