25 June, 2015

If we are childless, what is our legacy?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the issue of what we leave behind. I’ve been prompted by reading someone else’s thoughts and fears on this matter for the past few months, as well as visiting my mother and looking at family trees and old photos.

When we are childless, what is our legacy? Do we even have one? Why do we want one? Is it important? And how do we think about ourselves when we think of the idea of “legacy?”

Of course, we don’t have a biological legacy, and our line ends on our family tree. We’re never going to be at the head of a family tree. Ouch. That hurts. But family trees are also always going to be flawed documents. Secret adoptions, mother and child raised as siblings, and illicit relationships all may alter the gene pool unbeknownst to anyone except the mother of the child (and maybe not even her). These days with donor egg, sperm and embryos there is even more scope for genetic inaccuracies to find their way into a family tree. What we think of as someone’s genetic legacy may not always be reliable.

But even if it is accurate, what does it really mean to us? I barely remember the names of my great-grandparents, let alone my great-greats. What is their legacy to me? Maybe I have their curly hair or green eyes or too pale skin, or their intellect or compassion or musicality, or an unknown language ability, or their height or fear of heights. But the point is I don’t know any of that. I know I have my grandmother’s musicality, but apparently not her reputed (but unheard by me) singing voice. I know more definitively that I have my aunt’s diplomacy (though clearly not her modesty!) and love of travel and unwillingness to conform, and another aunt’s love of books and teaching (which maybe we both got from my great-uncle). I hope some of my nieces will have some of my attributes, and can remember that. Beyond one or two generations though, memories fade, and we become just a face in a photo album, or a name on a family tree.

So I wonder, what is a legacy besides genes?

A legacy can be so much more. It can be big, impacting the world, with our names unlikely to be forgotten … not least in the short or medium term. We might be Margaret Cruickshank, New Zealand’s first woman GP whose statue was also the first of a woman in our country, and stood on the main street of our town, inspiring me to know it was okay to fill roles others might think of as “just for men.” We might be Nelson Mandela, teaching others to forgive, or Jane Austen or Katherine Mansfield, writing books that will be read and loved and remembered hundreds of years later. That’s big, and for all of us but a select few, it is unlikely that we’ll have this kind of legacy. I certainly don’t feel the pressure to do something “big” simply to be remembered.

(Note: It is though quite common for those of us who can't have children to look for the next big thing. I have a follow-up (or maybe it's a prequel, or duplicate of some of what I'm saying here) post drafted on this, and will post it soon. )

So if we're not leaving our genes, and we're not going to be Mandela or Einstein, we can still leave a legacy that makes the world a better place. Whether it is because of children we mentor, or lessons we teach, or characteristics we role model to others, or the help we give the less fortunate, maybe our contributions will benefit the wider world. Perhaps we change the world through policy or ideas or actions, or perhaps we just make the world a better place by helping one or two people, helping them live life more easily. A legacy of simply helping one person at a time, one day at a time. This is the kind of legacy I think we can all aspire to – whether as a parent (biological or not), or an aunt or uncle, or friend, or stranger on the internet. It is within our reach – we can all do this. I suspect that those of us who blog in this field all do this to a greater or lesser extent. People read our words, and feel less alone. That isn’t a small thing. To ignore this is, I think, to ignore our humanity, to turn our backs on what we can achieve, and to squander what is good in ourselves. We are more than just our biology, and this proves that. Regardless of what we tell ourselves. Maybe the first and most important step is simply to be more aware of what we think, and what we do?

Will we be remembered for what I do? Probably not. But as I pointed out earlier, after a few generations, we are all – parents or non-parents - forgotten. Time passes, and memories fade. My littlest niece was born after both her grandfathers had died. They are just names to her, and always will be. As we will be to others. Yes, maybe we will be forgotten a little before those who are parents. But this isn’t something that really vexes me. I’ll be dead after all! Wanting to be remembered is, I think, simply ego. (As is the need to leave a biological legacy, although that is also driven by biological and societal imperatives.) It may be natural, but I think ultimately, once we have to give up on the biological factor, it is much easier to give up on our egos. And this is easier as we start – necessarily, in this no kidding life - to see the world with different eyes.

I don’t care if I’m remembered, though I suppose (provided the memories are positive) it would be nice. I’ve never wanted or needed to be famous. And I don’t need to be given the credit for something I’ve done or said or written, if– by the end of my life – it has influenced someone in a good way, someone who then might pass that on to someone else, who might repeat it to friends or relatives or future generations. If that happens, then I can be proud of that legacy. Whether or not anyone knows I did it, it has still happened, and perhaps I was the catalyst, or perhaps I just passed on something someone had sparked in me. If I’ve done or said or written something that has made people feel better, then I don’t know how that might have changed their life, or even the world. I believe in the butterfly effect - I don't think we ever quite know how we influence people, or what changes other people might make in their lives, after even a brief interaction (positive or negative) with us. And whilst I’d like to know if I had made a positive impact, however small, I don’t really need others to know and remember I did it. I still had the impact. I still changed the world, or someone’s world, for the better, and my legacy will live on.

And maybe that’s better than simply possessing the biological ability to pass on genes to a future generation. I think leaving a legacy in thoughts or deeds or emotions is harder though. It takes more effort (even though we all know how much effort so many of us have put into trying to become a biological ancestor). It requires character, goodness, energy, and insight. Leaving a legacy in thoughts and deds this way is not the short end of the stick. It isn’t lowering our expectations, or lowering the bar. It's raising it.


  1. You did make a positive impact in my world.
    Your writing, your thoughts helped me to go through the hard years of infertility.
    I will be forever grateful for that.
    lots of love from sLOVEnia,

  2. I've never let the gene pool thing bother me too much. Like you mentioned, I barely remember my great grandparents, and that is a stretch. I know, that even if I had children, my great, great grandchildren wouldn't remember me.
    I agree on the legacy part. I just want to touch someones life for good. And I know I have. That gives me more pride than I first imagined it would. And it brought me so much joy that I try to continually look for more opportunities to help others.
    My one hang up is, who do I leave my stuff to? But even then, most items are just materialist. If it all got sold off, I would be okay with that. The big items, like the scrapbooks I've made over the years. I hope someone will treasure them as much as I do.
    I also think about my life insurance policy. My employer has asked me, a few times, to list a secondary beneficiary, in case my husband and I pass away at the same time. On one hand, I think, split it between the nephews. But I also would like for it to go towards something good. I have a few things in mind like a children's hospital or a scholarship fund. I just need to do the research and decide which option feels best to me.

    1. The "stuff" issue is always a big one. I wrote a bit about it here - http://nokiddinginnz.blogspot.co.nz/2015/03/who-will-inherit-my-things-when-i-have.html
      Can't you just have your life insurance policy pay out go to your estate for distribution as per your Will? (I wrote a bit here - http://nokiddinginnz.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/this-is-my-last-will-and-testament.html)

  3. In my field of work 'legacy systems' are a burden.... I'm not one to puzzle over a family tree, or put that much meaning or significance on DNA. If 16 people away in your tree someone has the same thing X maybe that just means that 1 in 16 people has thing X?
    O well, maybe I'm not sentimental/romantic enough to have feelings about leaving a legacy, maybe that is one reason I'm not married either. (and made the choices I did with infertility treatment)

  4. I love this post, Mali. I don't think any of us will ever know the true impact our lives have had on others. As a genealogist who won't have any direct descendants, I do like to think that part of my legacy is growing the family tree in a different direction -- adding to it through knowledge of previous generations. If none of my cousins' offspring seem to be interested, I figure I'll just leave my research & photos to a local genealogical society & perhaps another relative in the future will discover it and find it helpful or interesting.

    This post reminded me a bit of one I wrote last year:


    I look forward to your post on "the next big thing" -- something about being childless/free that I've found irksome. I don't particularly feel the need to do something spectacular with my childless/free life, but I find that others sometimes seem to expect it of me. :p

    1. I thought you'd like this, being the genealogist you are. I loved that post of yours when I first read it, and I've just gone back to read it again. Such a nice post.

  5. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I can't count anymore how many yeses I screamed out inside me when reading this post.

    I struggled with legacy sometime ago and a CNBC friend told me, "But Amel, YOU are your own legacy." The whole of myself.

    I agree on the ego bit and it's easier for me once I let go of it. I'm but a drop of water in the huge ocean of life, but I'm still a drop of water.

    Very true about the generational stuff, too. I never knew both grandparents (one died when I was very young, another one died when my dad was still at uni), so to me, they're like ghosts in the background. I know they're there, but I don't know them (I only know them from bits and pieces of stories).

  6. This! " if– by the end of my life – it has influenced someone in a good way, someone who then might pass that on to someone else, who might repeat it to friends or relative..." Yes.

    Dear Mali: you have -- and continue to influence me. Great post. xo

  7. I love this. I love the idea of a legacy of thoughts and deeds. I think that you have quite the legacy between your writing, your warm and wise reachout to people in pain, and your gorgeous photographs, but it's the impact you have on others that is so clear in your blogs that I think is amazing. And remembrance-worthy. I hope that I have this kind of impact with my students, and of course my future child through adoption, who won't inherit anything genetic from me but hopefully will inherit a lot of my spirit, my values, and at least appreciate the things we love and treasure in life. I love, love, love this post.

  8. This: People read our words, and feel less alone. That isn’t a small thing.

    I stumbled across CNBC blogs a year ago this month and I immediately knew that I had found "my people." It took me a while to leave any comments and a bit longer to start my own blog, But I am so happy to have "people" and each of you have left a legacy in some way, shape, or form.

  9. Just want to say THANK YOU for sharing my blog link with Mel. :-)

  10. Thought provoking post and words. Really I think the true legacy of all people, not only those without children, is in their deeds and relationships with others. Obviously parents influence their children but I find it egotistical to consider one's child a "legacy." The child is his or her own person.

  11. I love the questioning nature of this post. And, thank you for addressing some of the unsettled thoughts that have been floating around in my head!

    The idea that leaving an imprint on this world with something other than a child raises the bar is inspirational and lends some clarity to my current struggles. I think your point on our relationship to our egos needing to shift is spot on too. I'm in the throws of that, and honestly, it may take awhile.