A couple of weeks ago [v12 i8 (http://www.ausu.org/voice/search/searchdisplay.php?ART=2607)], you printed a letter from a woman named Sara, who was struggling with other people’s nosy questions about her decision not to have children. I am in the same situation and found your reply very useful. I laughed at the list of questions childless people are likely to get, because I’ve heard them all! One thing you didn’t mention, though, is the hardest thing for me. My husband and I feel very guilty about not giving our parents any grandchildren. Our parents have not been overtly pressuring us, but they are clearly disappointed. How can we handle this?
Name withheld, Toronto
Many people are disappointed if their grown children decide not to have kids of their own. There is no easy way to address this situation, since obviously you won’t change your mind just to make your parents happy (and they probably wouldn’t want you to, anyway). All you can do is try to make everyone involved feel better about the situation. This means acknowledging their feelings and asking them to respect your own.
There are a number of issues at work here. Grandchildren are a big one: all their lives, your parents and in-laws probably expected that someday they would have grandbabies to cuddle. Since they’ve held that assumption for so long, it’ll be hard for them to let it go. Especially if they’re retired empty-nesters, they may miss having children around to help fill their days. They may also be mourning the loss of the family legacy, in which they made a substantial investment by having children themselves, and which has now come to a halt for reasons outside their control. Finally, parents might feel that your not having children is a reflection of some failure on their part: they may fear that your own childhood wasn’t happy enough, or that they somehow failed to impart to you a sense of the importance of family and the joys of parenthood. All of these issues are probably exacerbated by those in your parents’ peer group who are already grandparents: among the fifty-plus set, there is often an informal competition about who has the most (or the most adorable) grandchildren. They may laugh about it, but there is an underlying seriousness, and your parents may be feeling a little left out. Although ultimately your parents will have to work through their own feelings, it may be helpful if you calmly discuss these disappointments with them, and reassure them that your decision is not their fault. Your husband may wish to do the same with his own parents.
You might find it helpful to try to explain some of your reasons for deciding to remain childless. It can be difficult to articulate what is often just a ‘gut’ feeling or instinct, but it may help your parents understand that you are not doing this to spite them, or because they were inadequate parents. A few points are crucial here. First, neither you nor your husband should attribute this decision to the other. Nothing makes in-laws resentful faster than the idea that their child’s spouse is responsible for deliberately depriving them of grandkids! Second, don’t give the appearance of sitting on the fence: explaining that you don’t want children ‘right now’ may delay the issue for a while, but if you really mean ‘not ever’, you will eventually need to say so. Otherwise, your parents and in-laws will experience repeated disappointments and may even start to pressure you (especially as you get older and the biological window begins to close). If you present your decision as a permanent and non-negotiable one, everyone involved will have to accept it and move on, and you won’t keep having the same discussion for the next ten or twenty years.
All of this is much easier, of course, if you have siblings who have already produced children. It’s also easier if your parents are particularly open-minded and understanding. But ultimately, all good parents have one thing they want even more than grandchildren: they want their own children to be happy. If you can convince them that you have thought this out very carefully, and that you’re certain it’s really what you want, they will eventually make peace with your decision. Good luck!
E-mail your questions to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality: your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. Heather is an AU student offering objective advice to her peers; she is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.