One of the hardest things to deal with when we are childless is to come to terms with the fact that living children will not be our legacy. I’ve had twenty years to accept this, and largely consider myself successful. During infertility, with ectopic pregnancies and an escaped cancer diagnosis, I came face-to-face with my own mortality. Shocking at first, I became comfortable with it. That, and supporting and caring for aging and dying parents and parents-in-law, helped me realise that my death and what happens after it isn’t nearly as important as my life.
There’s a freedom in that, a real freedom in not needing to leave a legacy. I saw my mother-in-law struggle with the idea that her children didn’t want her things, that strangers would live in her home of sixty years after she was gone, and that she had no control over any of it. She had never done the work, having never needed to think either about her old age, or the legacy that she would leave.
What even is a legacy? Is it passing on genetics, things, money, values, or joy? Or is it all and none of those? I’ve come to the decision, as I’ve said good-bye to parents and in-laws, to aunts and uncles, and even some cousins and friends, that legacies don’t have to be big, important, flashy, or tangible in any way. To me, legacy is the way that someone made me feel. That is how we remember people. And that is what changes the world.
My favourite aunt died recently. I never saw her often enough, as we almost always seemed to live in different countries, islands, cities. But I remember her giving me advice when I was a teenager that stayed with me decades later. Appropriately, the message she gave me was that things can be done differently. Stereotypes don’t have to be followed. We don’t have to lose who we are to be able to achieve. Her legacy to me was that good advice, and a later, kind compliment at a hard time in my life, as well as the fact that she almost always made me feel I was heard. A childless aunt-in-law left me some pearls, and I was touched that she had thought of me, one of many spouses of her many nieces and nephews. I remember kind comments or praise or advice from others, what they role-modelled, or simply the joy I took in their company. Their legacy lives on with me.
So maybe it is enough to have a legacy that just makes the world a better place, on a large or small scale, maybe even for only a fleeting moment. Perhaps we change the world through large-scale policy or ideas or actions, or perhaps we just make the world a better place by helping smaller numbers or even just one person, helping them live life more easily, teaching lessons (consciously and unconsciously), passing on a small kindness, unconsciously role-modelling a quality or value, listening to someone in pain, baking a cake, or making someone laugh. A legacy of simply helping one person at a time, one day at a time, 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, or on the street. It is within our reach. Part of my legacy has included volunteer counselling on an ectopic pregnancy messageboard, writing on my No Kidding in NZ blog, and supporting others in the childless blogging community. I believe that all who write in this field contribute to helping people feel less alone. That isn’t a small thing. To discount this, I think, is to ignore our humanity, to turn our backs on what we can achieve, and to squander what is good in ourselves. But in turn, we are rewarded with connections, and we feel heard. That makes us feel less alone. And so we become more than just our biology, more than our genetics. That is our legacy.
But will we be remembered for it? Probably not. Wanting to be remembered is, I think, simply ego. It may be natural, but I think that ultimately, once we have been forced to give up on the genetic or parental legacy, it is much easier to give up on our egos. This is easier as we start – necessarily, in this no kidding life - to see the world with different eyes. Or at least, this is how it has been for me.
The truth is that no-one can control their legacy, parent or childless alike. We can just do our best. I don’t really need others to know and remember what I did, as long as I did help someone, brighten their day, teach them something they may pass to others. I still made that impact. That’s my legacy. Maybe that’s actually better than simply a biological ability to pass on genes to a future generation. Leaving a legacy in thoughts or deeds or emotions is harder though, than simply being a biological ancestor. It takes more effort (even though we all know how much effort so many of us have put into trying to be a biological ancestor). It requires character, goodness, energy, and insight. Leaving a legacy this way is not the short end of the stick. We’re not lowering our expectations, or lowering the bar. No, we are raising it. Because it is our lives themselves that are the legacy. That’s a legacy of which we can all be very proud.
You can also find this post on World Childless Week's site, with comments, here.