Growing older without children

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Carol Sorgen

Mike Gimbel, a drug abuse educator and counselor, is childless both by choice and circumstance. Like others who have not had children, he has concerns about growing older without offspring who might eventually provide care for him. But he has also seen many dysfunctional families in his line of work, and knows that having children may not be best for everyone.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Whether they’re childless by choice or by chance, America’s 15 million baby boomers who have no children are reflecting on their past, their present and, warily, a future that might not include anyone to care for them.

“Yeah, I do worry about who will take care of us,” said Marc M. who, like several people interviewed for this article, preferred that his full name not be used. The 54-year-old Department of Defense employee and his wife married later in life — he was 42 and she was 40 — and decided that when it came to having children, whatever would be, would be.

“My wife wanted to have kids,” said Marc, “but we didn’t make it a goal, and it just didn’t happen.”

Marc said he does wonder what it would have been like to have had the experience of being a parent, but acknowledged that “it must not have been all that important to me.”

He never felt any pressure, either from friends and family or society in general to have kids. “I think men get less pressure than women,” he said. “Plus,” he added with a laugh, “I have sisters with kids. They took care of making my parents grandparents.”

Apart from concerns about future caregiving needs, Marc appears relatively sanguine about not having children, citing benefits such as financial advantages, privacy, and the ability to schedule their life as he and his wife see fit. “There’s much less worry in general,” he said.

Like most boomers without children, Marc dispels the notion that just because he doesn’t have children does not mean he doesn’t like kids. On the contrary, he says, “I’ve made it a priority to have relationships with my nieces and nephews.”

In her new anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, essayist/novelist/columnist Meghan Daum notes that she too, while coming to the decision to be “voluntarily childless,” mentored foster children. And Anna Holmes, founder of the feminist blog Jezebel, writes in the book, “[My choice] has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.”

Many reasons for the decision

Daum found that the men and women who contributed to the book are childless for a number of reasons — from having difficult childhoods of their own, to political convictions about overpopulation, reproductive rights, and the like, to not feeling they have the ability to provide the undivided attention that parenting seems to require these days.

For 62-year-old Nancy Rehmeyer Gerace, becoming pregnant “just never happened.” She and her husband — from whom she is now divorced — “just got on with our lives.” And while her job as an occupational therapy assistant with the Baltimore County Public Schools, and her role as her 96-year-old mother’s caregiver keep her occupied, she does find herself missing the experience of passing along family stories, traditions and knowledge.

“I don’t have anyone to offer that kind of continuity to,” she said. “I would have loved to have given a child a solid background and to share our family past.”

Still, Gerace isn’t wallowing in self-pity. “Once my childbearing years were over, I wasn’t as torn about it,” she said. “And right now I’m glad I don’t have to look at colleges!”

As for who will care for her in the future, Gerace is concerned but not anxious. “I don’t know what will happen later in life. Maybe I can be part of someone else’s family.”

Plan for caregiving

Nevertheless, it’s important for baby boomers to give some thought now to who will care for them in their later years, said Judah Ronch, Ph.D., dean of the Erickson School at UMBC.

Ronch observed that the greatest amount of care given to elders is provided by family members. And with government cuts in aging and health services, boomers could be in trouble if they don’t have somewhere else to turn, he added, especially as many of them are not inheriting the wealth they had counted on.

“Wealthy boomers will be able to pay for care,” Ronch said. “But those with financial needs could be in trouble. Boomers aren’t recognizing what they’re heading for.”

Still, he added, having kids doesn’t necessarily mean you have built-in caregivers, as many of those kids don’t live near enough to their parents to provide consistent care. This is where friends and peer networks will come into play, Ronch said.

It may not be all gloom and doom for those without children. In a study of people over the age of 75 who had trouble walking across a room or getting in and out of bed, University of Southern California researchers found that those who were childless weren’t receiving less care than those who were parents. Similarly, the childless individuals did not score lower on measures of psychological well-being.

In fact, in the national sample of 1,456 respondents taken from 1998 to 2004, almost 90 percent overall said they were happy and enjoying life. And among those who weren’t parents, that percentage was even higher.

Making peace with regrets

That may be of some comfort, but not having children, especially when it was not by choice, can still be painful even in later years.

Ellie L. — who also prefers not to use her full name — always thought she’d have children. But she never married, and decided she didn’t have the support network she would need to function as a single parent.

Ellie admits that not having children has been very painful for her, especially since “babies are important” in her family. “I feel that I stand alone,” she said.

She also gets upset when people assume that she willingly made the choice not to have a child — common assumptions that are reflected in the title of Daum’s book, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

Like Marc M., Ellie has established close relationships with her sibling’s children, and now with her niece’s sons. “As babies have come along, I babysit, whether for family or friends,” she said.

“And as a librarian I get to see a lot of little kids...I’m an absolute sucker for little kids.”

Besides, there are plus sides to not having children, Ellie admitted. She would not be as financially comfortable as she is today, and she acknowledged that kids don’t always bring their parents joy. In the end though, she thinks having children would have been well worth the risk.

Mike Gimbel, a drug abuse educator and counselor, came to his childless status by both choice and circumstance. The 63-year-old Timonium resident is open about the fact that as a high school student he was addicted to heroin. While attending a drug abuse program-turned-cult in California, he and the other men in the program were brainwashed into getting vasectomies.

“At the age of 25, I had a vasectomy without ever thinking of the ramifications,” said Gimbel.

After escaping the cult and returning to Baltimore, Gimbel married, and he and his wife discussed his having the vasectomy reversed. “But we put it off and eventually we got divorced,” he said. His second wife already had children, and raising stepchildren was a difficult enough proposition without adding new ones to the mix.

“Working with kids for the last 35 years has certainly softened the blow,” said Gimbel, who grew up in a “traditional” family with three brothers, all of whom have kids and grandkids now. He has been very close to his nieces and nephews throughout their lives.

Through his work, Gimbel has also seen the downside of dysfunctional family relationships, and is grateful that he didn’t have to put any children of his own through the pain of divorcing parents.

Should he marry again, Gimbel said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having a child, But for now, “I don’t think about it as much anymore,” he said.