Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

the old age question

When a woman talks openly about her choice to be childfree (look at the letters after every newspaper article of this kind) among the responses will be at least one threat that she will regret her non-motherhood in her old age, because who will look after her?

I’m going to assume that most readers here will already have considered the moral problems with advising people who don’t want children to have them anyway and treat them as some kind of insurance policy, the practical problems with assuming that children are always an asset and never a liability, and the cruelty of adding fear to the sadness of women who badly want children and can’t have them. I want to come at the topic from a different angle.

I think most of our fears around this issue are to do with the thought of becoming dependent on an aged care system that has a reputation for inhumanity, with no one who cares particularly about our wellbeing to advocate for us. If the aged care system is frighteningly inhumane, the problem is not women and their reproductive choices and circumstances. The problem is the aged care system.

To me, this seems like a problem to get involved in, not be complacent about because you personally have children, or miserable about because you don’t. There are important roles for activists, voters, policy makers, volunteers, healthcare professionals, carers, researchers and people of all genders, ages and lifestyles to play in creating a system that is no longer so threatening that it can actually be used to bully women into having children they don’t want.

If we’re pro-active about our concerns, I think there is lots of reason for hope. As Peter Saul pointed out in his recent Ted Talk about reclaiming the dying process, the Baby Boomers tend to take charge of whatever issue is most relevant to their generation. Aged care is likely to be the next place they will focus their concerns.

But I also feel that as childless and childfree women, we might be able to get together and help each other out. For one thing, there’s a sense in which we have a rich historical precedent in the example of the convent, where non-mothers have always provided each other with aged care. And for another, we’re a significant demographic and we’re starting to find and talk to each other about our passions, our fears, our ideas and our resources. Things are getting better.

Actually, I’m hoping to meet all of you in person some day on an island we own as an elderly non-mothers’ collective where, after our morning yoga session on the beach, we sip cool drinks, nibble tropical fruit and tell each other stories about the beautiful lives we created on our own terms :).

If you would like to read more about the ways non-mothers  can be manipulated out of their power and happiness, you might be interested in this post about the ways our personal histories are retold or this book review concerned with the problem of reducing all women to their supposedly universal biological drives.

But in the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is aging something you fear as a non-mother?

[The gorgeous artwork above is featured with permission from Sweet William.]


33 comments on “the old age question

  1. olivia
    April 4, 2012

    Dinkschildfree has been mulling this question over on her blog too:
    Definitely worth a look!

    • dinkschildfree
      April 4, 2012


  2. sharon
    April 4, 2012

    Newsflash. Aged care facilities are full of women who have had children.
    true. If anyone is thinking of having children as some sort of
    insurance policy forget it. I worked in the aged care area for many years.
    If you want to remain independent in old age here are 3 tips.
    1. Take excellent care of your body,mind and soul.
    2. develop an extensive social network.
    3. Tell people what you want and don’t want. Now and in the future.
    Make a young person you trust your medical power of attorney and make
    sure your end of life wishes are known.
    Then sit back and enjoy the ride!

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      Hear, hear, Sharon! 🙂

    • diverchickee
      April 4, 2012

      Ooooo Sharon! Nice post! Excellent points and agree with sit back and enjoy the ride! You go! 🙂

  3. dinkschildfree
    April 4, 2012

    I’m fearful of aging, but I don’t think any more than the average person. And Sharon is right. Aged care facilities are full of people who have children, so the only difference is that I may have less visitors. However, if we do all own that island you were discussing, then that would be my top choice!! Maybe we can do it before we are old. 🙂

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      Ha, I was thinking that as I wrote, dinks…..should we really wait that long??

  4. tiffanylo
    April 4, 2012

    Such a great topic, and I have definitely had people ask me, “But who will care for you in your golden years?” I generally say, “There’s no guarantee that, had I chosen to give birth/raise kids, they would even like me or want to take care of me in my old age.” And, at any rate, that seems like one of the worst reasons to procreate. I can’t imagine having kids simply out of a sense of obligation to perpetuate the species or to fulfill some notion of a “should” in my life. I “should” myself to death in other ways as it is!
    I love the idea of the non-mother island, Olivia. It sounds amazing!

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      Perpetuation-wise, our species seems to be doing fine without our help, doesn’t it Tiffanylo! It’s a very strange argument indeed. Glad to hear you’re interested in the island concept. I will reserve a yoga mat and deckchair for you ;).

  5. Maybe Lady Liz
    April 4, 2012

    If I someday need to rock an adult diaper, I’m pretty sure that I’d rather have someone I don’t personally know changing it for me, rather than a family member. I’m just sayin…

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      I’m with you on that, Lady Liz.

  6. Kate
    April 4, 2012

    My thoughts on the issue…

    How many people do you know who have their parents living with them? I don’t know anyone. Not a single one of my friends or family members have had their aged parents move in with them. They are all in homes.

    Not having children saves money, so extra can be put aside to pay for the best care in one’s old age.

    Not to mention, even if I did have kids, do I want to be a burden on them in my old age? No way. They would have their old life and family, I would not want to force myself on them anyway.

    So to have kids to ensure someone is there to take care of you when you are older seems very selfish and narrow minded to me.

    Those are my thoughts 🙂

    Great post!

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      Great points, Kate – I’m with you on every single one! Thank you 🙂

  7. Angie
    April 4, 2012

    I love the idea of the island! Count me in. 🙂

    I don’t fear aging. I am embracing it and celebrating it every year. I realize I may change my mind about it when I really start getting “old”, but for now, each year brings new discoveries and new adventures, and I feel like I am constantly learning new things about my body and myself as I get older.

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      I feel that way too Angie. I think the whole ‘these are the best years of your life’ idea that we depress young people with is such nonsense! I’m much happier now than I ever was!

      Yoga mat and deckchair reserved for you too :).

  8. roisin
    April 4, 2012

    Wow olivia, loving this post.
    If I’m being totally honest with myself this is probably the only reason that I worry about being child free. My recent experience of my grandma and her needs really brought this home to me. She had one child (my dad) who in turn had 4 children so my grandma had a regular stream of visitors in the form of 2 generations of siblings. She was lucky. Without a child of my own I fear I will be no ones priority. Retirement homes are full of women who are both mothers and not but I definitely think that having a trusted family member take responsibility for your legal affairs is vital. I hope that one of my nieces will take on that role for me and I make sure I am spending plenty of time with them all now so they grow up with me as part of their family. But I guess there are never any guarantees. I feel it’s a particularly difficult set of circumstances for women who are the ones who live the longest. I can only hope I die “well” in a way that is not a burden on anyone. Dignitas is definitely an appealing option.

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      Thanks so much for these thoughts, Roisin. Perhaps you’ve seen it already, but if you’re not bothered by frank discussions of aging and death (I’m not – I think its so important to talk about!) Peter Saul’s Ted talk is very well aligned with your thinking here. You might find it really interesting. He’s even challenged my thoughts on Dignitas a little. (Only a little though 🙂 )

      • Roisin
        April 10, 2012

        Thanks Olivia, just watched Peter sauls talk. Very powerful. I even liked his arguments against euthanasia! He’s so right, give people more control over how they die and you suck the oxygen out of the euthanasia argument. That’s what we all want isn’t it- not to stay alive forever but to have more control over how we spend our dotage years and our final days. I think I was hoping my future children would have that control on my behalf. Maybe I just need to make sure I keep it for myself as long as possible instead, in the absence of a son or daughter.

  9. AE Vorro (@witavorr)
    April 4, 2012

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post — this is something I think about a lot, but I really, really like the point you make that “…if the aged care system is frighteningly inhumane, the problem is not women and their reproductive choices and circumstances. The problem is the aged care system.” That pretty much sums it.

    Part of my thinking about this has to do with the assumption that having children automatically insures that you’ll have a care system in place. In fact, when I announced around the age of 10 that I didn’t want children, a family member told me that elder care was the most important reason to procreate. (And this was coming from a guy who supported his family by hopping from insurance scam to insurance scam!) I watched both my parents put their mothers in care facilities when they had the time, room and means to provide that care themselves. That isn’t to say they just dropped my grandmothers off and never gave them another thought, but they definitely let non-family members take over the vast majority of their mothers’ care. When you compare the American system of elder care with other cultures, the children as caregiver model is not the dominant one here. It’s an incredibly false argument that doesn’t figure in ability, inclination and the life events that happen between birthing a baby and retirement.

    As for other ways non-mothers can be manipulated out of their power and happiness, I’d say the “it’s the greatest thing a woman can do” argument ranks right up there. It certainly CAN be a great thing, but it’s not universally applicable. I hate the television show “All in the Family” but did like one scene from a random episode that really sticks with me. Sally Struthers’s character is explaining a rift she and her husband are having about when to have kids — I think he doesn’t want any, for overpopulation reasons, and she does. Her mother, Edith, tells her that having children is what women are supposed to do, in an attempt to encourage her toward having one. Instead, this argument floors Gloria and makes her reconsider having kids at all. That argument floors me, too. A uterus does not come with an accompanying “motherliness” package. Suggesting that one component to the female experience equals the female experience is just really getting old.

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      AE Vorro, brilliant to read your thoughts on this!

      I feel just the same way as you about the “it’s the greatest thing a woman can do” argument. It might empower some women but undermines so many others! I have never seen All in the Family before but I’d love to see that episode.

  10. Kaitlyn
    April 5, 2012

    I don’t get why having children is supposedly a way to “stay out of a home” so to say. Most people in nursing homes have children and grandchildren.

    • olivia
      April 5, 2012

      I think you’re absolutely right about that Kaitlyn. Sharon (near the top of the comments) strongly agrees with you too and she has worked in aged care herself.

  11. SparklingRain
    April 7, 2012

    About that island. At last count Indonesia (the country of yours truly) has 13,677 islands, some are personally owned and made into holiday resorts. I’d say we start chipping in for an island this year. Heh.

  12. Nicole
    April 10, 2012

    I recently wrote about this – the who will love us when we are old? question.

    And I have noticed, everyone fears this. I think people with kids just get delayed in being worried about it. Because they have kids sucking up their time for many years and then one day those kids are out of the house, and maybe they move far away and they have their own lives. Then, I think parents too begin to worry.

    But alas, I think we have to find ways to have companions, be near friends, and find support groups when we are older. I think a Golden Girls type home would be awesome. Many of my female friends who do not plan to have children suggested this and some whom do have children want in 🙂

    • Roisin
      April 10, 2012

      I feel quite cheered by your post Nicole. Seriously, it never really occurred to me that people who have children worry about this too. I just assumed they felt they were sorted in this regard. I’m glad it’s not just me who lies awake at night worrying about the future that awaits me. If its a universal worry (albeit one that parents have yet cottoned on to) then I fel slightly less deranged and marginalised as I hit 40 this year. Thanks 🙂

  13. Living my Life
    April 15, 2012

    I LOVE the island idea. From what I’ve read it’s more having adequate money and health that are important in old age rather than children. However I do worry about old age without children. The theory is to have lots of friends and create your own social support – easier for some than others and something this little introvert struggles with and I have no doubt one of the strong reasons I really wanted a family. Firstly you have your own people to hang out with and secondly having a partner/children makes it much easier to meet other people.

    • olivia
      April 15, 2012

      I’m very much an introvert too, Living, and I believe there’s quite a high representation of us among non-mothers!

      I’m hopeful that as time goes by we’ll be able to establish networks that will enable us to help and support each other. I think that will make all the difference as we’ll all be on the same boat (and hopefully on our way to that island! 🙂 )

      • Living my Life
        April 15, 2012

        Yes I think creating networks is a fabulous idea. I am starting to draft a plan in my head to travel to the US and meet some of you fabulous childfree women there – that one is a very long term plan though! Not even in the first draft phase yet….

        • Anonymous
          January 8, 2013

          My mother is seriously ill right now, which has made these thoughts creep into my head. Thank you SO much for this post. It made me feel a lot better.

          And I would really like to think that if we take care of our bodies and minds, we won’t ever have to depend on anyone else in our advanced years. 🙂

  14. dparker1226
    April 23, 2012

    I’m dreaming of that island now… 🙂 After finding you on Pinterest I’ve now spent the morning looking through blog posts and the Gateway Women site. Wonderful and supportive content! Thank you for the great place to network and connect. This feeling of connection is what makes the difference for me now, as well as what I expect will make the difference as we age. I rejoice in that connection!

    • olivia reading
      April 23, 2012

      It’s lovely to meet you, dparker1226! Thank you so much for your feedback here. I value these connections enormously too. The Gateway Women site is brilliant isn’t it! Jody is a bit of a heroine of mine and has been a huge inspiration/support for me in setting up this blog.

  15. Mel
    January 8, 2013

    Thank you so much for posting this. My mother is very ill right now, and it was honestly making me reconsider my choices as a result. Although I understood all this logically, I think I really needed to see it coming from other people.

    I am also very strongly of the opinion that if we take care of our minds and bodies properly, we will likely never have to depend on anyone else no matter what our age. And, kids or no kids, that is of utmost importance.

    Thank you again for helping to keep me grounded during a very trying time.

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