From childfreeless

Holiday Sparkle sans Kids

I cried myself to sleep Thanksgiving night.

There were no family fights, no drunken uncles or politically-charged conversations gone bad. The food was delicious, the company delightful. I made my Grandpa Davis’s turkey stuffings with a few adjustments for the vegetarians at the table. We sipped excellent wine, discussed education and societal trends, traded suggestions for movies worth watching.

It was a very adult holiday.

Yet when my husband and I arrived home, took care of the dogs, put our generous share of leftovers in the fridge, the click happened.

The click that reminds me the holidays of yore are, at best, rare occasions.

Thanksgiving and Christmas of my childhood meant generations of family together, older siblings willingly playing board games with the little ones, and singing along as my oldest sister played carols on the piano. During my 20s and early 30s, the holidays were marked by even larger gatherings as my siblings started their own families. The sweetness of wrapping my arms around tiny niblings as I read to them, of taking dictation as they composed notes to accompany the snacks left for Santa and his reindeer, of filling stockings after kids reluctantly went to bed–that sweetness remains unmatched and now seems unattainable.

Before it seems like I’m asking for pity, know this. I made the decision to be child free. The times when I have wanted children are minute compared to how often I have been content to be without them. The gut wrenching feeling of holidays without kids is a new phenomenon, starting around Halloween and lasting until my annual New Year’s Day hike. Maybe it’s because my not having children is absolute. Maybe because I am at an age when I once thought I might be a grandmother, or maybe because I no longer have little niblings to fill the wonder and delight gap.

This longing for past festively chaotic holidays–which is not a regret about being child free– gave me pause, made me curious about how others sans children view the holidays, and caused me to examine how I can work towards creating a new type of holiday season that keeps my tears in check, that feels as meaningful as they used to.

My child-free Christmas is not tradition free, nor am I alone in that. Writer and professor Marisa P. Clark told me how her holiday tradition developed. “I celebrated holidays with other gay friends who either couldn’t or weren’t allowed to spend that time with their families. It turned into great camaraderie among different groups of people. We saw movies, played games, put together pot-luck holiday meals, and just hung out and laughed, only sometimes exchanging gifts. This is now my favorite way to spend holidays–not to have too much of a set plan but to find out who’s around and wants company.”

My siblings are spread around the country, and it’s rare for us all to be together at any time of year, let alone during the fall and winter holidays when obligations make travel a burdensome prospect. My husband and I mix up where we spend our holidays. Some years we’re with his (very adult) family, some years with varied members of mine. I’m learning, though, that it isn’t so much where or with whom I spend Christmas day that matters to me, but how I have embraced what the season means in the weeks leading up to it.

Here’s an example. For the last twelve years, my dear friend Cheryl has spent a weekend in mid-December with us. We bake hundreds of cookies and box them up to distribute to colleagues, our favorite businesses, and friends. Cookie-baking day has morphed into an event—my parents always come by for samples, and we turn on Christmas music for the first time of the season. Cheryl and I spend about ten hours in the kitchen, but the good conversation makes it feel a lot shorter.

And this year, for the first time, my husband and I are making our holiday cards. He carved blocks and printed the cards while I mixed ink and addressed envelopes. While some people—my own mother included—dread writing cards each year, I welcome the chance to remind people I haven’t seen in a while that they matter to me.

A recent exchange with Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a child-free-by-choice woman who has worked as a photojournalist, photo editor, and is the co-founder of Rabelais Books and founder of A Gathering of Stitches, examined meaning and the holidays for those of us who are not religious. Samantha writes, “Showering someone you love with gifts is a powerful action, one that can cause much joy. But at its core it is usually about the person giving more than the person receiving. If you don’t have that religious component to hang the whole season on, it is all about gifts. And certainly our culture emphasizes that with all the obsessive shopping, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and bargain hunting that seems to be the American way. So if you strip all that nonsense out, and you don’t have kids to indulge, then the season can be pretty hollow. At least for an Atheist. At this point the majority of the gifts I make are for the children within my universe. And that part is sweet and joyful.”

Like Samantha, one way I imbue the holiday season with more meaning, at least for me if not the recipients, is by making most of my gifts. I don’t stitch gifts as a form of Martha Stewartish showmanship. It is not that doing so is superior to buying gifts, but rather that handcrafting provides me with the opportunity to dwell on the recipient, to reminisce about them, about time we have spent together. And my hand crafting keeps me far from the crowds of anxious mall shoppers. The hours I might spend alongside the crowds are instead spent in joyful creating.

Some years, my holidays may be completely sans kids. There may be no marathon Monopoly games after dinner, no tribe of little ones putting on dance performances. Those adult holiday seasons may be as painfully sad as this Thanksgiving was. But in creating, in being self-aware, I may have found the poultice.

In the northeast where I live, our days are at their shortest, and our nights are at their darkest. It is all too easy to succumb to sadness. While I know the longing for kids to fill my house with their chaos may rear up every year from Halloween to New Year’s Day, the holidays can instead be a time for me to find sparkle and light, to find some optimism about this complicated world and spread it.

 

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Who Decides?

From the editors: Visual artist and writer Joyce Hayden has contributed one of her definition collages and an excerpt from her memoir. Continue the conversation with Joyce in the comments!

"Buganjimo" is a Chinese verb, part of a series of definition collages I am working on. This piece uses images of gratitude, expansion, and compassion: a wide open sky, an egg, a butterfly, a woman tethered to a flying raven, a series of Milagros, to promote personal growth and movement.
“Buganjimo” is a Chinese verb, part of a series of definition collages I am working on. This piece uses images of gratitude, expansion, and compassion: a wide open sky, an egg, a butterfly, a woman tethered to a flying raven, a series of Milagros, to promote personal growth and movement.

I

“You two should have a baby,” my roommate Mia said. “Then you can stay home and write your children’s books” [my dream at the time…writing children’s books, not having a baby]. The possibility thrilled me. For about five seconds. Until I remembered who I was partnered with. I was 25, in love for the first time, with the first guy I’d ever had a second date with. I was never the girl who dreamed of white weddings and picket fences. Never the girl who imagined a houseful of toddler laughter and diaper changes.

II

My classmate, Laurie Gates, was standing beside me. We were in my living room, looking at family pictures hanging on the wall. The one of the little blond boy. My mother was answering Laurie’s question. I was 10 years old. Fourth grade. That was THE MOMENT when I finally knew what “dead” meant. The blonde boy in the frame was never coming back. My brother, who I thought was just missing, was never coming home.

III

The first time I met him, I couldn’t stop smiling. He looked at me, then immediately ran to his room, bringing back a book. Rushing towards me, he shouted, “Read! Read!” He jumped into my lap and, as I turned the pages, I never wanted him to leave. The boy was David Mason, the son of Kevin’s friends, Billy and Lorraine. For six months, I longed to have a baby. Longed for Mia’s wish for me to come true. Longed to dance around the living room with a baby in my arms. For six months, I made the argument, both in my head and aloud, how a baby would improve our lives. I was 28, the perfect age, I reasoned. I was met with one of two responses: “Not now” or silence.

IV

Standing in the shower one Monday morning, I let the hot water scald me. I daydreamed about different ways “out.” I was twelve years old, trying to choose between pills, a razor blade, or a bullet. I knew I couldn’t survive one more weekend at Uncle Bob’s house. Couldn’t take one more encounter of his hands on my body. In the shower I came to a realization: I could never have a child. Because parents cannot keep their children safe. As the water tumbled over my hair and face, I imagined a big red house, deep in the woods. A line of smoke rising from the chimney. The house was full of runaways….of kids who needed a safe place to live. I saw myself as the caretaker of this house. And there was only one rule: any kid who made it here, could never be taken away by any adult for any reason.

V

I laid on my back in the cold June water of Lake Sunapee. Tears trickled down the side of my face, as the sun dappled the leaves above me in green and yellow. “I do not want this I do not want this I do not want this,” I sobbed. I knew in my gut that I was pregnant. At 30 years old, any desire I had for a child had vanished. I was in a position I promised myself I would never experience: having to consider an abortion. Although I had always believed in a woman’s right to choose, I did not want to have to make the decision myself. I pulled my body from the water and sat on the private dock. Perpetual bruises glared on my biceps, to the point that at work, I had to wear long sleeves to hide the marks. My memory recalled the crash of wine bottles and house plants thrown as I ducked. It was a surprise to me that I hadn’t yet been hospitalized with Shaken Baby Syndrome. On the morning when I awoke in a pool of thick dark blood, I cried with pity. I cried with relief.

VI

Though I’ve been called a spinster, by my mother; although many people assume I am gay; although I’ve been asked repeatedly by colleagues, students, friends’ friends, doctors, and strangers how many children I have, the one thing I don’t have is regret. Once I reached 50, I knew that was a poison that could swallow me whole. Looking back, I believe that if I’d found a more loving partner, one I trusted would hold a job and offer emotional support to both myself and a child, then I might have made a different choice. But I didn’t believe that guy existed for me; I didn’t even understand, until I was 40 something, that while nothing is promised, there are steps parents can take to maximize their child’s safety in the world. Nonetheless, I feel blessed I found safety for myself.

Hayden headshotRecently retired English Instructor, Joyce Hayden, spends her days hiking, writing, and creating art.  She travels the country exhibiting her work in galleries, leading gratitude painting workshops, and working on her memoir, The Out of Body Girl.  You can follow her on Facebook and her website YesRiskJoy.

 

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Why My Dog Calls Me Lady, Not Mama

Have I completely undermined my ethos by asking you to imagine my dog calls me anything? Here’s the deal.
I became a dog person in my early 30s when my then-boyfriend now-husband introduced his puppy to me. When I moved to New Mexico a year later, I adopted my own pup, Maddie, with the idea that she’d be my companion. She was special in that way a needy border collie can be–loving, attentive, but a bit of a pain in the ass at times with her clingy affection. I called her my baby, and in our pretend conversations–hey, we lived alone, and I’m a chatterbox–she called me Mama.

That was when I still toyed with the notion that Neal and I might have kids together. Many women will tell you that once you’ve adapted life around your dog’s schedule, it isn’t that much of a stretch to adapt to a kid’s schedule. It seemed like we were rehearsing for parenthood.

Two years ago, Maddie died suddenly, and I’m not ashamed to say that I miss her every single day. What I wouldn’t give to have her tripping me up with her anticipation of where I’d move next. Losing her was the end of an era for me, not just because she was part of my great graduate school-living-across-the-country adventure. Not just because she was there when Neal and I got married. Not just because she gave me comfort when I wrestled with the decision about having kids.

I lost her and at about the same time, lost the impetus to have kids. Health issues unrelated to fertility caused us to say no to kids. The dogs would be the creatures to receive our parental affection.

A month after losing Maddie, we adopted a malnourished Siberian husky, Oskar. He’s stop-you-in-your-tracks handsome. He requires a lot of exercise and leadership, and I’ve enjoyed providing both to him. I’ve helped him build his strength and learn to be a good pack member.

But when we started to have pretend conversations, when he first needed a way to address me, I couldn’t bear to have him call me Mama. I’m not a Mama, and even though there are days when I would give up whatever is precious to me that day to have a kid, most days I am just fine with my decision.

A dog has got to call his human something, though. So Oskar calls me Lady with Thumbs, Keeper of the Kibble, Warden of the Door, Scolder of Bears. These are the things I imagine he admires in me. He’s not clingy the way Maddie was; he’s a cool customer, this one. He knows I’m not his Mama.

When outsiders refer to me as Mama in reference to my dogs, I feel an agitation I never used to. The possibility of becoming a mother is gone, by my choice. I don’t pretend that the care I give my dogs compares to the care a mother gives her children. I don’t pretend that the responsibilities are in any way equal. I don’t want to be perceived, as I fear I sometimes am, as a woman who believes she knows about motherhood because she cares for dogs. And my heart can’t take pretending these precious pups, with me too short a time, are my children.

So I am Lady. And I’m happy in this role. I think Oskar agrees.