A child’s choice

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an essay by a writer named Kelly Flynn titled “But Who Will Care For Me?” In it, Flynn described being childless (because of a health problem) in a culture that revolves around the family unit. Near the end, she wrote, “…now, as I help my parents navigate the trials and indignities of old age, I can’t help thinking, who will do this for me? Even if I can pay for top-notch care, it won’t come from a place of love and understanding of who I am and what is important to me.”

I bristled at this notion for a few reasons – one, having children is no guarantee that you have built-in caregivers, and two, I don’t think it’s fair to burden children with the expectation that they will spend their prime adult years looking after their parents.

I suppose I sound harsh. But from my perspective, making that assumption essentially devalues the life of the child. I’ve heard many times that Mom took care of me and now it’s my turn to take care of her. I really don’t think that’s a very helpful thing for anyone to say. It suggests that children are born with the expectation of payback. I find that concept offensive.

Many children very willingly care for their parents. I started the job reluctantly, and have adjusted, over a lot of time, to being my mom’s caregiver, and now consider it an honor to be with her at this time of her life. But how that plays out is not for anyone else to decide. Considering the massive stress associated with caregiving, why should we also live with the impression, sometimes imposed by others, that our lives have less worth than the lives of those who become sick? And of course this is not an indictment of the tragically unlucky who are stricken with disease. I just think that in deference to the ill, we who are already vulnerable are at risk of losing sight of what we once wanted for ourselves.

Patrick and I chose not to have children, so we may find ourselves stuck in our old age with limited choices for how we spend our final days. We have some planning to do. But if we had kids, I would be loath to stick them with caregiving duty without considering their wishes.

I wrote the following comment in response to the essay. A couple of people called me selfish because I chose not to have kids. I’ve always found that response questionable – just who is missing out on something because I didn’t reproduce? I guess it means fewer grandchildren for my parents and Patrick’s. But they’ve never said we are selfish. Interestingly, the few who responded to me don’t say I’m selfish for placing my mom in long-term care. And I’m glad not to be judged in this comment thread about that, but it’s also no one else’s business. Anyhow, some of what I wrote is what I try to convey sometimes to my peers in support group. We matter, too. And it’s OK to say so.

I am childless, by choice. And I have no regrets about the decision. I am also caregiver to my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Early on, I decided she would live in institutions and not my home (or her apartment) when the need arose. She adjusted well, and she is now surrounded by the most caring nursing home staff I could ever imagine. I made that decision because my life matters, too. … I looked after her while she was in assisted living and am her advocate to this day. And I love her now more than I thought I ever could after a complicated childhood. But in my caregiving support group, I remind my peers that though this disease is tragic and taxing on caregivers, it does not mean our lives as we have known them have to end. In fact, our lives shouldn’t have any less value than anyone else’s. … I don’t know what will happen when I am old or if I become incapacitated, but if I had children, I would not want to saddle them with caring for me.

5 comments so far

  1. Pam on

    I think those two jerks who called you selfish were just trolling. Neither had a reasoned argument. You rock on, sista!

  2. momsbrain on

    Thank you, Pam!

  3. Gloria on

    Your words touched my heart, because before I became a caregiver I didn’t think too much about it. Your devotion to your mom and the unhappiness you feel are real. Now that I’m an old lady, I think about my future and my children. I don’t want them to be burdened by some illness I might get. I know they love me. Your mom is content and safe. Blessings to you and I, for one am very proud of the concern you’ve shown under very trying circumstances. My knowledge only goes back about three years and it has been a learning experience for me and those in our support group. We all are grateful for your presence. You are a marvelous daughter and Patrick is a lucky guy to have you as his wife. He must be very understanding and patient.

  4. momsbrain on

    Wow, Gloria, you are overwhelming me with your kindness! Thank you so much. I don’t mean to offend those who consider their children potential caregivers – I just think the entire situation requires thought and consideration of all lives involved. And for the writer of the essay to wonder about who will care for her in the context of not having children – well, it just rubbed me the wrong way that THAT was her primary concern. I don’t deny it’s a very real concern, though… I have missed my connection to support group after such a busy summer and fall. I hope to get back there more regularly – it’s good for my soul.

  5. Gloria on

    This is a touchy subject. A dear neighbor of mine (53) helped me a lot by taking John walking. She has no children by choice and is overwhelmed right now because both her parents who live in Michigan are having memory and medical problems. They are very determined to be self sufficient and a bit stubborn. The article you wrote about rubbed me the wrong way too. My Monday morning hour spent at the care center has been very good for me. Holding someone’s hand or just saying hello makes a big difference and lifts my spririts when a smile developes or a bit of conversation begins. Hopefully we’ll see you soon. Take care of yourself.

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