No Going Back

While reminiscing with my mother, she told how I made one of the most important decisions of my life. Though I have no memory of this, it sounds like something I’d do.

“I’m never doing this!” I’d said in exasperation as I threw down a diaper, stomped off to my room and escaped into whatever book I was reading. And that was my teenage salvation. I’d sit on the floor in my closet to read. Anything to have some peace and quiet, away from my busy family. The “this” that I’m not doing was not having children. Even as a child, I wasn’t into dolls and the usual let’s-play-house kind of activities. I did like paper dolls though. But they were grown up people, not needy, fussy babies.

I’m the oldest of six children; Mom had three followed by a ten year break and then three more. That put me precisely in the eye of the storm. I was old enough to be the main helper, the built-in baby sitter and the one who had to do without when there wasn’t enough to go around. Miss Responsibility. And that’s exactly who I became. The incident she was talking about probably occurred after a stressful day of high school, followed by diaper changing, feeding and general baby care. I was a typical sixteen year-old.

That early, haphazard decision was validated as a young adult when, in college, I took a class in population problems. It was the early1960’s and here was my professor saying the world’s over populated. What would he think if he saw the state of the world today. The result of that class was certainty. I’m not bringing children into this already crowded world.

But don’t judge me harshly. I love other people’s children. I’m the only one of my siblings who is childless. That is: “voluntarily childless.” There’s actually a label for this condition. I can’t tell you what a relief that was to see I belonged to a cohort.

My parent’s plea to become grandparents was satisfied by my brothers and sisters. Thankfully. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a part to play. To my ten nieces and nephews, I’ve been their special auntie for years. This goes back to my niece, Kristin’s off-hand comment when she received yet another book in the mail from me.

“Auntie Karin is such a nice lady,” she said as she excitedly ripped open the envelope.

From that innocent remark, I became “Auntie Karin the Nice Lady” and am greeted in sing-song fashion whenever I arrive at a family gathering. Though my nieces and nephews are now young adults they still use this same refrain. And I love it.

I’ve revisited this monumental decision many times throughout my life. Perhaps, I reason, if I’d had children I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my career, dealing with troubled families all day. I‘d go home to a childless house and reenergize. Maybe I’m truly an example of how you can’t have it all. Or perhaps I’m exemplifying that it’s okay not to want it all.

Now with my recent retirement, I’m looking back yet again. Retirement has opened up a world I didn’t know existed. No deadlines, projects or meetings. No appointments or responsibilities. This is a world where the definitive question is: what do I want to do?

Having the extra time that comes with retirement, has given me a different perspective. Having no children means having no grandchildren and I see the joy many friends are experiencing. But there’s another side to that. Like my friend, Diana, who struggles, urging her twenty three year old son to become the responsible single parent of a two year old. A parent’s work is truly never done. I listen and offer her support. That’s all I have to do.

Turns out, I’m still okay with that. In the end, I’ve made the right decision and feel pretty smug that I had so much wisdom at such an early age. No man is an island. Someone smart said that and it’s true. I’m not an island in my crowded family or active social circle and I don’t want to be.

For example, today is my weekly phone call to Mom. Tomorrow I’m meeting my niece, Julie, for coffee. I need to RSVP to my friend, Betty, about our long weekend in Door County. I also have to mail the pledge to my nephew Mark for his soccer team’s run for charity. Then finish that book for book group. Pardon the cliché: But, I have the best of both worlds.

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