In a few days, provided that the predicted snow-storm doesn’t close the airports, I will be visiting my mother. She is almost 78, and has not had an easy life. She is aging. I have to repeat things. Frequently. Always a worrier, she worries more now, because she forgets to tell herself to stop worrying. Did I mention I have to repeat things? She is coping wonderfully since my Dad died six years ago, but does find it lonely at times, as self-sufficient as she is. Whilst my sister lives nearby, I worry about my mother on her own.
And this is when my emotions become confused. I am glad that my sisters and I am around to care for my mother, whatever she might need. But as I do more and more for her, and as she needs me to do more and more for her, selfishly my mind turns to my own old age. Who will look after me?
This is an issue that is of real (public or secret) concern to those of us without children. We worry about our old age. Whenever there is a public debate about having or not having children, we hear the argument that you should have children at least to have someone “who will look after you in your old age.” It is a point that always hurts. No-one wants to be old, sad, vulnerable and alone.
Of course, in reality I know that having children is no guarantee that you will have anyone to look after you in your old age. You probably know by now that my husband’s three brothers all live overseas, and if he left, then my in-laws would be alone. Another reminder of this is my great-aunt and uncle. They had three sons, all intelligent and successful. And inevitably, they lived far far away, holidaying on yachts, hobnobbing with media barons, setting up their investment banks. But Uncle Ray and Auntie Winnie rarely saw them. And as they aged, my parents stepped in. Even though they lived a three hour drive away, my parents helped out. I still remember seeing my father help Uncle Ray out of his chair one day when I was also visiting. I was struck by the comparison – my dad was in his 60s, and was vibrant and healthy and strong, and Uncle Ray was in his late 80s and frail. And I was struck by my father’s compassion, his willingness to be there for his wife’s uncle. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my father than that day.
So I’ve always been a little sceptical of the argument that you have to have children to ensure you aren’t lonely or alone (the two are different) in your old age. I’ve talked about this on a previous blog and my lovely blogger friends have decided we’ll all live on a commune together, pool our resources, and have a wild old age. I rather like that idea.
I was even more comforted to find this article some time ago. A study showed clearly that childlessness doesn’t mean you will be lonely and unhappy in old age. In fact, it showed that the childless are more likely to have built support networks, wider friendships and family relationships around them than those who relied on their children to provide this. That cheered me, and reminded me to continue doing this into my old age. The commune is really starting to sound like a good idea now, don’t you think?
However – yes, there is a “but” to this topic - the study’s author reported that
“Childless women who believed it was better to have a child were much more likely to report being lonely and depressed than their female counterparts who said it didn’t make a difference.”
And so I realise that so much of our loneliness – or rather, so much of our happiness - is dependent on our attitudes. My mother doesn’t expect (or want) her daughters to be there every day, or to telephone every day. And so she doesn’t sit there pining for us, she goes out and gets on with enjoying her life. In the last 7-8 years, I have really come to terms with the benefits of not having children, and I am enjoying my life. I am determined to do this, precisely because I don’t want to be a woman sitting pining about “what might have been.” Making the best of my situation now, relishing it and enjoying it, can only establish a good foundation for a happy, busy, and content old age. I owe it to myself.
That said, I'm still going to work on my nieces as a back-up!