What Is It Like To Be an Adult and Not Have Kids?

Do you have to have kids to be happy?
Do you have to have kids to be happy?

Photograph by George Doyle/Stockbyte.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Cyndi Perlman Fink, Retired:

We never wanted children. Forty-one years ago, that was a very unusual decision to make for two young kids. Everyone got married to have children. It was “expected” of you. It’s hard to imagine, but women had a lot fewer choices then. Honestly, my mother ironed my dad’s boxer shorts. And all of our sheets and his handkerchiefs; it was expected of her. As her daughter, having two children was expected of me.

When my dad sent me to college, I was standing near him when he was talking to his friends about this, and he told them that he was sending me to school to get my “MRS” degree. A doctor, a dentist, a lawyer, or an accountant, two children, a membership in the temple, a teaching job so that I could spend the summers with my kids, that was what my world would look like; it was expected of me.

I finished college, moved 3,000 miles away from home to the West Coast and never looked back. I fell in love with a man who let me entertain the revolutionary idea in 1970 that I could have a career, a marriage, and no children. Fancy that.

Figuratively, my mom put black cloths on the mirrors and went into mourning. Every day, the long distance phone calls, and back then you had to pay by the minute, “So, already?” Mom, it’s not going to happen. “You’ll change your mind.” No Mom, I won’t. Thankfully, 10 years later, my brother stepped up to plate with two; the pressure was off.

What is it like not having children? In my 30s I had my tubes tied. Freedom. In my 40s, my career, traveling for business, his career, traveling for his business, a decade of rushes.

In my 50s, our friends’ children started having life events. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations. And I felt so happy for them. I had known these kids from birth, and on those days, I wondered if we had made a bad decision. But when I thought about what it took to get there, the diapers, the soccer games, the braces, the tantrums, the whole enchilada, I knew that it wasn’t for me. I knew that I had made the right choice. I wasn’t “made” to be a mother. I had spared a child from having to have me as one.

Still, I dreaded the moment when I met someone new. “Do you have kids?” I thought that I could read pity or something that closed them off from me. She’s not one of us. Poor thing. No children. Is it her or him? I would always rush to fill in that space with “we never wanted any,” and somehow that made it so much worse. Selfish, not doing her part. I’m not sure what my part was, but I had my MRS degree, and obviously I wasn’t using it. At least according to them. The “them” that had children. Remember, this was another decade or so in the past.

Now, I get the question, “Do you have grandchildren?” No. Then we have to go though the “Your children aren’t married?” Or “Your children are married but don’t have children yet?” No, we don’t have children. The reaction is worse in my 60s because now it’s not, “oh, she was too selfish to have children,” or “gee, if only there’d been IVF back then;” now it’s “Oh, poor thing, who will look after her when she gets old?”

Six months ago, a friend asked me if I regretted not having children and it was like a great dam bursting from the bottom of my soul, and I said “yes, yes, it was the biggest mistake of my life!” There it was. The secret wrenched from my gut. Or so it seemed. I do regret it in some ways. We would have been good parents. We wouldn’t have screwed up the kids as badly as we thought we would have. Maybe they only would have needed five years of therapy and not 10. I’ll never know. But, after I had finally wrung these words from the depths of my being, I understood clearly that indeed it wasn’t meant to be for me, and that my life was much better for having made this choice.

We’ve always had two or three dogs at a time, and they’ve had our love, attention, and affection. They’re spoiled rotten. Better dogs than children. We have been able to go to a lot of interesting places, and we’ve gone with friends who have kids. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.

I know that we’ve missed out on a lot. I just wasn’t ready to take the good with the bad. By bad, for example, I mean the screaming kid in the restaurant. I have no patience for that. Oh, but when it’s yours, you don’t mind; oh, but I knew I would, and even today that noise drives me crazy, I just don’t have patience for it. Or for kicking the table or for banging on it … I would not have been the kind of nurturing mother who could deal with that.

OPC. Other People’s Children. Rent not buy. I have the best of both worlds, a long-term care policy, a retirement fund, and a deal with a loving niece—you make sure that I’m in a nice place that doesn’t rip me off and takes care of me if it comes to that, and you get the trust. Everyone wins. We love her. She loves us. We trust her.

That’s what it’s like for me to be married and not have children.

Answer by Neil Sanford, Amateur Writer:

It’s awful.

You spend half your life chasing money and the things it can buy. You work tirelessly at your career, hate it, change careers, hate it again, find something you actually enjoy doing for a living only to become insanely bored with it decades before retirement. You spend half your life upgrading everything you think makes you happy: house, car, stereo, computer, bike, tools, wardrobe, relationships, and drug addictions. You amass useless collections of DVDs, games, gadgets, wine, exercise equipment, toys, music, art, shoes, watches, stamps, and words you play in Scrabble.

You spend half your life thinking you’re free to get as rich as you want doing what you think you want to do. But all you do is spend half your life chasing away boredom. There comes a time in life when you ask yourself: What the hell am I doing this for? What is the point of it all? Surely it has nothing to do with how many horses I have under the hood, gigs in the PC, or zeroes in the bank. Surely it has nothing to do with how good I look, how good she looks, or how witty I am at parties. Surely it has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever thought, read, said, or written.

And then it dawns on you, your purpose in life: It’s love. A life without love is a life without purpose and completely meaningless. And I’m not talking about the kind of love you feel for your soul mate. That love is not invincible. I’m talking about unconditional love. The kind of love only children have to give and would die inside without it. I swear my house and everything inside it could burn to black ash, and I wouldn’t shed a single tear. I think at best I would shrug my shoulders and mutter “oh well, gotta find a hotel.” In fact, it might even be a temporary relief from the crushing boredom, as I could start all over chasing the things I always thought meant happiness. But I know better. Burning my house to the ground is not the answer to this life crisis. Not that I care much about all my shit. It’s just not the answer.

My greatest lesson in life is that personal and financial success is not the path to happiness and fulfillment. I could throw it all away and get it back again. Big whoop.

Family is everything, and it’s time long overdue I started one of my own.

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