26 December, 2022

Just the Two of Us

 It is always just the two of us. But, apart from some Christmases spent overseas in Thailand and Hawaii, this was the first we ever spent in New Zealand just the two of us. I was both looking forward to it, and feeling apprehensive. Christmas, in New Zealand, is a time when everyone travels or gathers together with family and friends, celebrating the arrival of summer. Even those who don't celebrate it get to enjoy the time with loved ones, the summer weather, the time off work, the opportunity to do something different. With doors and windows wide open, you can hear the groups outside on decks and in gardens, laughing and enjoying themselves together. It's a cruel reminder that you are alone. If it was held in the winter, I would have relished the time to just snuggle up at home. But in summer, it felt a little different knowing it would be just the two of us this year, and I was unsure how I would feel.

Still, I got to sleep in, we enjoyed a lazy croissant breakfast, and then I began cooking our Christmas meal, listening to a Christmas playlist on Spotify that a friend's daughter put together last year. There was no rush - we could eat whenever we wanted. The Husband even did some gardening! I pulled out my white tablecloth I bought on a work trip in the Philippines, the good china and cutlery from diplomatic days in Thailand, the inherited crystal and silver platter and jug and glasses, and serving plates that were a gift from a sister-in-law. I even put flowers in a vase. I made an effort!

When it came down to what we might eat, I realised that in the last 20 years, I have already established a tradition of what food we (jointly) like, and so it was simple, but yummy. We decided, after the croissant breakfast, that we didn't need any nibbles or appetiser. So we just had a glazed ham for main course, though I tried a new asparagus and avocado salad to go with the new potatoes, and pavlova and summer berries for dessert. We opened a bottle of Bollinger we had discovered in our wine rack, sat outside in the warm breeze under a tree enjoying a sip or two, and then ate our meal. It was, I discovered, really nice not to be running around serving others, worrying if they liked it, if there was enough, if everyone had everything, was anyone bored, etc. We just relaxed and chatted and enjoyed it. Perhaps too much, because - without the need to serve dessert before the kids got grumpy and the elderly fell asleep, or before it was time to go to the tree and unwrap presents - we decided to leave the pavlova for later. In fact, we left it for hours, and ate it at dinnertime, with the last of the Bolly! Still, there were lots of leftovers.

I had had plans of wearing something floaty, and doing my hair. I ended up in the T-shirt I cooked in, with my hair merely combed and tied back! No make-up. No jewellery. Just us, come as we were! And it surprised me, how relaxed and comfortable it all felt. I'll admit to a lazy afternoon, a nap on the couch, and an evening reading, and watching a light TV show. With a piece of Christmas baclava and a cup of tea. No stress. And, we discovered that when you clean up after just the two of us, we only need one load in the dishwasher! An added bonus.

Turns out, just the two of us was pretty wonderful. It's like life. I should have known!

19 December, 2022

The Great Parent-No Kidding Divide

And a lesson in restraint

Spending two weeks with someone with kids can take its toll. Especially when they focus on things that affect them, display a complete ignorance of things that affect us, and it seems, have absolutely no desire to understand. Mainly, this manifests in the parent/no kidding divide. Of course! Are you surprised?

They implied that they had a greater understanding that “life is precious” because they had a pregnancy loss, premature twins, and were parents. Even when I pointed out that I had grieved our losses, they still didn’t in any way ask, show interest, or even any compassion. Because we don’t have kids, they think we don’t understand. Or that we are always going to agree with them.

They continually talked about legacy, meaning both biological legacy and other aspects of legacy. It struck me that it was all about recognition, about being remembered, rather than about their impact on other people. I think people without children are forced to focus on the second, on how we affect other people and what legacy we might leave with them, rather than whether we are recognised for it. Because for me, recognition is irrelevant, as within a few generations (or as few as one generation) we will be forgotten, just names on a family tree on a branch that ended. But maybe a kindness or some wisdom or role modelling will be passed on, and that is our legacy. It's a legacy that I hope I will have.

I heard a lot about how “sentimental” this parent was about their childhood, and maybe their parents. I think I should get a medal for NOT saying “you weren’t sentimental enough to come back more regularly!” Of course, they didn’t need to, and they used their children (as they still do, even though the children are grown) as an excuse.

I also heard a lot about how it is so very hard for a parent to see their child in pain. I don’t think I rolled my eyes, though the urge was strong. Not because I don’t believe them. Of course it is hard for a parent to see their child in pain. Any normal human finds it hard to see anyone vulnerable in pain, especially someone you love. I found it awfully hard to see my parents and parents-in-law in pain, both physical and medical. But really, were WE the right people to say those words to us, in that way?

We had to listen to an extended discussion of the birth of their children. (Over 20 years ago!) The children were premature, so it was scary, and I understand that. And I initially handled it well. But as they went into all the details, and expressed how wonderful it was to touch the babies and take them home, and as they talked about breastfeeding, etc, the scars of my wounds were being pressed over and over again, and it was harder and harder to take.

I restrained myself so often. You should be proud of me! I did not say that I knew exactly how old a niece was because she was three months old and visiting when I was losing my first pregnancy. I did not ask too much about someone we all know because I suspect (though I may be wrong) that IVF and donor egg may have been involved, and I don’t think it’s any of my business. I didn't equate our losses with theirs, or point out that we had also been through some of these things, or always put an opposing point of view. I, of course, found it easier to talk about old age than about the vulnerabilities of infertility and loss. Even though they know something about that. I often avoided wading into a compassionless quagmire simply to protect myself. And I gave myself permission to do that.

Sometimes, though, I very matter-of-factly pointed out our situation without children, and that some of their assumptions were wrong. I did it only when it seemed appropriate or there was an opportunity in the conversation, not aggressively, and tried to keep it open and honest, using our experience as the base example. But for the most part, I tolerated it all. I was in a marathon, and didn’t want to cause any more tension. And the worst thing is that I probably would not have made any difference if I had explained this.

I wasn’t expecting understanding, or even compassion. I usually don’t. Of course, I didn’t receive any either. So it all made me wonder if they honestly think we never felt, and don’t feel, any pain over what we have lost. That our lives aren't as important as theirs. Or if they don’t even see that we have lost anything, because (to quote another friend) “we never had anything to lose?” The answer is both, I think. It made me wonder too how many parents feel and think like this? Sure, this particular person may be especially lacking in compassion and self-awareness, and many other parents with kids don’t always make me feel like this. Some are wonderfully compassionate and open to learning about our experiences. But sadly, I suspect these views and discussions are very indicative of the majority of our fellow humans. As a result, I will admit to feeling rather bruised from this encounter.

12 December, 2022

Thinking about life when you're childless

In recent conversations over the last few weeks, I have been reminded how readily my husband and I think and talk about ageing, about the natural progression of life (and death), about infirmity and about dying. And I have been surprised by how others do not do this.

In particular, we know we have been forced to think about this in two ways. Firstly, we couldn’t ignore the realities of ageing because we did the bulk of the elder care of his parents, watched their decline week by week by week over 20-30 years, and inevitably recognised that we too would be largely unable to avoid this. It always surprises me how many people aren’t willing to confront this, who think by exercising and keeping healthy they will avoid all the health problems that may crop up in their 70s and 80s, if not earlier. They are in denial, because they don’t want to face the fact that almost all of us will, if we’re lucky enough to survive to old age, have to deal with physical or mental decline. Of course, one of the reasons we were responsible for so much of the elder care was our No Kidding situation. We had no excuses for not visiting, for “not having the time” to care for the elderly parents, to think that a letter or Skype call once a month was sufficient to keep the relationship going.

Secondly, we can’t ignore the realities of ageing because if we don’t plan for our future, no-one will. We can’t rely on children, or even nearby nieces or nephews, because we don’t have any close by. We can’t ignore these issues, of not thinking about where we might want to end up, especially not if we want any sort of choice in the matter, and if we want to avoid the distress and fear we have observed in other elderly people who leave everything too late. Yet our guest seemed to be more concerned about where we would end up when we are dead (ie our ashes), than when we are still alive but in need of help. It is bizarre.

I confronted him about it, mentioning that his inaction might limit his choices when he does need help, that by not thinking about things he was – consciously or unconsciously – deciding to leave the burden on his children, and that it was quite selfish to do so. I also pointed out we didn’t have the luxury of doing this. And now that he knows, it is no longer an unconscious choice he is making to ignore his old age.

He does not even have a Will – can you believe that? He must think he is immortal! We’re not perfect. We know we need to update our Will. And after these conversations, I’m keen to do that early in the New Year.

Ultimately, being childless has forced us to think about these things. Ectopic pregnancies forced me to confront my own mortality, and doing so has brought me some peace. Accepting the randomness of life has made me accepting of whatever may befall us. And the ease of having compassion for others, knowing how easily misfortune can occur to anyone, and knowing that judgement often comes through ignorance and an inability to put  ourselves in other people’s shoes.

Learning to enjoy the little things in life, to feel gratitude, to continue to learn, to try to improve myself, all these things will make my life easier as I age, as they make my life easier now, and as they were a result of infertility and loss and survival. I am not kidding about any of life’s inevitabilities. I’m glad about that. I’m at peace. Whereas this person who wants for nothing materially, who has children and a wife and friends, is uncharacteristically ill at ease with his age and afraid of the future. Maybe, the grass is not always greener on the other side.

05 December, 2022

Enjoying the Season

December has arrived. Quite how it is here already when it was May just last week (!), I’m not sure, but here it is nonetheless. Temperatures are warming. I sat out in a vineyard having lunch recently, and on a deck at a beach that evening. It would have been my father’s 94th birthday yesterday, but he has been gone now 17 years already. His birthday always makes me remember my first ectopic pregnancy. In the space of a week or so, I suspected I was [pregnant, tested positive, had some bleeding, and was sent to the hospital. As with many early ectopics, it then took about six weeks to diagnose definitively and then to resolve, with ongoing treatment. My second ectopic was the following year, and a few weeks later, but took about six months to resolve. The beginning of December is, for me, the beginning of ectopic season. So inevitably, when I’m happy that summer is arriving, and the windows are open and I can hear the birds singing or Christmas music, or see the first red blooms of pohutukawa, I might feel a little flicker reminding me of the grief I felt 20 and 21 years ago at this time. And the years that it took to recover. Now, I remember, but I don’t really feel the grief. I’ve grieved, but I choose not to torture myself by remembering how that felt, by letting myself feel that again, or by focusing on what I lost.

Twelve years ago, in the first weeks of No Kidding in NZ, I wrote about Reclaiming Christmas. I still believe we can all do this if we want to. Everyone can enjoy Christmas or any other special holidays they choose to celebrate. These days are not just for children – if we’re lucky, we all have magical memories of past years that we want to honour, or perhaps we want to create new memories, and there’s no timeline on what age you need to be to do that. One of my favourite reclaiming traditions is very simple. It is insisting I don’t get out of bed too early (can you guess I’m not a morning person?), and enjoying a simple breakfast of croissants and orange juice with my husband. Maybe one year we’ll go to Paris for Christmas and do it properly!

I put my tree up yesterday – it is early for me, but I decided to do so while I have a visitor in the house, and because I remember taking it down last time (only two weeks ago, it feels like) with regret that it was up for such a short time. Enjoyment of my tree is one of the key parts of my celebration. Who cares that no children will see the tree this year? I’ll see it! Friends will see it. I remember each of the decorations, where I bought them (Florence, Talinn, Bergen, London, Manila, Bangkok, etc) or who gave them to me (my nephew, my fellow childless Christmas-tree-loving friend, my sister, a friend, etc). I have a couple that always make me think of my Christmas babies that didn’t make it too.

I need to do some Christmas shopping this week, and – as long as I am not under pressure – I usually enjoy this. We’re also going to take a few days out to personally deliver some gifts rather than post them. December is one of my favourite times of the year to travel in New Zealand, so that should be fun. We’re going to catch up with friends just before Christmas at a favourite restaurant, I always do a baking exchange with another friend, and we have plans to meet up with others afterwards.

The whole present-giving part of Christmas is not a big deal for me. I like giving gifts, but don’t go over-board. I receive one or two gifts, and I appreciate them, but they’re never the focus of the day for me. My husband and I rarely exchange gifts. If we do, they’re often little surprises. Expectations are low, and I’m happy about that. I can’t be disappointed! Besides, our presents to each other are the trips we take together, and we know how much they cost!

If there’s one thing I dislike about Christmas (or other big holidays), it is the huge fanfare and anticipation for what is really just one day, perhaps even just one meal! Such energy, expense, effort, and angst for such a short day! I’m going to enjoy each of the lead-up activities, whether it is baking, shopping for our meal, seeing friends, delivering gifts, or just rejoicing in the lack of pressure. That way, I can find the whole process enjoyable. And I can eliminate anticipation and stress that might otherwise be unpleasant.

As for the actual day, even though we are going to spend it alone this year, I’m looking forward to a relaxed day, making the food we like, choosing a special wine, eating some of those treats I've made in advance (the berry mince baclava my friend made last year will be high on that list), having a peaceful day, maybe watching some corny movies, or weather permitting, taking a walk along a beach. Enjoying a peaceful drink on the deck with the birds. Hopefully we’ll get to do it all.

And, as I always say, in a flash the day will be over! The next day, life will be back to normal, and we will be looking forward to and enjoying the summer, to the New Year, and to the adventures of 2023. With the added benefit of yummy leftovers!

I hope you are able to look forward to the season this year, rather than dread it. Breathe deeply. Focus on what you love. Don't torture yourself with what-ifs. It does get easier, I promise.