Life Without Baby

Filling the silence in the motherhood discussion

It Got Me Thinking…About My Issues June 26, 2012

By Kathleen Guthrie Woods

In the 7th grade, I was assigned the task of creating a family tree. I loved this project, as I was able to trace my father’s family back to their arrival in the U.S. from Ireland in 1762 and learn the names of my grandfather’s 16 (that’s not a typo) siblings. It was so interesting to see all the connections.

Relatives on both sides of my family continue to dig into our past, and recently one forwarded an updated chart that includes my generation and our children. By “our” children, I mean the children of my siblings and cousins, because, as you know, I don’t have and won’t have children. This is where things get icky. As I flipped back through the pages, I was stopped cold with a notation that appeared here and there in previous generations: “No issue.”

That’s it. End of the line. You either added branches to the tree or you became insignificant. No mention of creative writing talents, beautiful singing voices, athletic prowess, or successful careers in politics, all attributes that appear in living relatives. There’s no link to my great-grandmother’s wildly popular donut recipe or my great-aunts’ and great-uncles’ great acts of faith. Nothing to indicate which of my ancestors was funny like my dad, compassionate like my aunt, or courageous like my nieces.

A few family elders are still around and are sharing their stories, so I get some answers, but as I think about the tree and my place in it, I’m saddened. My siblings are both listed along with their spouses, and their children appear in a fresh new column. My space for now is blank. “No issue”? I believe I am making worthy contributions to both my family and the world at large, and I take issue with the idea that I can and will be reduced to that label. I refuse to accept that a very full life can be measured solely by the producing of heirs.

Kathleen Guthrie Woods is a Northern California–based freelance writer. Her memoir about her journey to childfreeness is in the works.


19 Responses to “It Got Me Thinking…About My Issues”

  1. Elena Says:

    I believe that family lines are more often broken or an illusion is being kept alive than not. My family on my dad’s side were Greeks who immigrated from Turkey to Greece and my dad emigrated from there to Switzerland, how exotic isn’t it, but it means the family can’t be traced any further back than two or three generations because they had to leave everything behind when they were forced to leave Constantinople. On my mum’s (the Swiss) side, i learned only a few years ago that my granddad might in fact NOT be my biological granddad. Someone had gotten my grandmother pregnant at a very young age and she had to marry the next best guy who would have her. Since there was no DNA-Testing around in the 40ies, noone will ever know if he was the “real” father or not, he was simply the one who married her.

    • Mali Says:

      I think you’re absolutely right – that family trees can in fact be biological fictions, because of the stigma of divorce, “pregnancies out of wedlock” etc.

  2. Jenny Says:

    This really bothers me too. My grandmother kept a diary for years. When she passed away, we inherited boxes of tiny little volumes along with all of her other things. It was really fascinating to read all of what she wrote, simply because she was my grandmother and she was a part of where I came from. I keep a diary. I write in it every night. Nothing profound, just the simple things like the weather and the status of our garden. Every time I close it and put it back on the nightstand I feel a little sad. Who will want to know what I wrote? Who will really care about the things we left behind? I was always taught that children are your legacy and the way you leave a mark on the world.

    • S Says:

      I have to admit that as a diary writer I feel this way sometimes too. But i think that you will undoubtably have people in the family who are fascinated by this sort of “history” and will be interested in your writings. I know my own mother has thrown out photos of our ancient family because she doesn’t think anyone wants photos of people we don’t know. As someone who loves photography I mourn the loss of these photos. So keep up with your writings. It WILL be of interests (and perhaps help) to someone at sometime.

      • loribeth Says:

        Absolutely! We received a pile of old photos, many of them obviously from the late 1800s & many of them unidentified — from a distant cousin who didn’t want them anymore. We were able to identify several of them as photos of my great-grandfather, his siblings & their children that we’d never seen before. A few years later, I met another distant cousin who showed me the first photo I’d ever seen of my great x2 grandfather, who was born in Ireland & spent his youth in Dundee, Scotland, before coming to North America.

        One of the unidentified photos — a family portrait of a bearded man & his family — was marked with a photographer’s name & address in Dundee — & the resemblance to my great x2 grandfather was striking. We guessed that it might be one of his brothers. A few years later, through, we made contact with a distant cousin in Scotland. He was able to confirm that it was HIS great x2 grandfather in the picture — the brother of MY great x2 grandfather (our great x3 grandfather is our common ancestor). He was able to tell us that the Dundee brother retired as the chief inspector of police for that city, and was involved in a murder case early in his career that had possible links to the Jack the Ripper murders around the same time. Fascinating stuff!!

        So don’t throw those old photos out — because you just never know…!

  3. Christina Says:

    I’m very much in genealogy, and am often hit with sadness that I am one of those end of the lines. Probably not the best hobby for my state of mind, but I love working on the research. My family actually has quite a few single and childless women. I try to make a concious efffot to find out as much as I can about those women. I know they led meaningful lives and are worth more than a “no issue”.

  4. jeopardygirl Says:

    This is something I have been giving a lot of thought to, also. Especially since my grandmother’s passing last September. As her oldest grandchild, I spent a lot of individual time with her. She talked with me often, telling the stories of our family, sketching out characters long gone but never forgotten. As far as I’m aware, she didn’t do this with my sisters or my cousins. As it’s turned out, my middle sister, who never had the time for Grandma’s stories is the only one of us with children. It bothers me that our family stories could disappear unless I do something, and yet, I feel kind of unworthy of the task.

    I also find it ironic that I’m the only one of my generation who has shown any interest in our family genealogy. And yes, that “no issue” notation is a chilling comment on our relevance. Family trees are great, but they are cold, impersonal and don’t tell you that much. I’d rather have a family “book” with pictures and stories.

  5. IrisD Says:

    Ok, Here’s my thing with the family tree: I know my grandparents’ names, and maybe the name of my great-grandmother on my father’s side, but that’s it. I certainly have no memories of her. So, let’s say I had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren… How many generations would actually remember me, think of me fondly, keep my memory in their hearts? Probably only two, the rest wouldn’t even know me, have any memories of me, or any love for me. I think that the perception that generations of descendants are a path towards immortality is highly flawed. Once those who actually knew us and loved us while we lived are gone, no one else will really care, except to see some obscure, faceless name on a family tree. My brother’s into the family tree thing. I’m not. He had me look up some baptismal records in our birth country last year, and it was fun to see how far back I could go, but all that gave me is some names and dates of birth. I know nothing about those people, what they were like, their thoughts, feelings, nothing.

  6. Maria Says:

    I love the teachings of a Ticht Nhat Hhan, a buddhist monk. He suggests meditating upon his question, what did your face look like before your grandmother was born? It forces us all to contemplate that we have all existed within our ancestors that lived before us, in some form of other. When you can see this reality, you can take comfort in the fact that we will continue to exist in an ancestors in the future, regardless of whether they are direct issue and whether you have children. It has given me great comfort. Once I started meditating on it, I can see myself in my parents, and my parents extended relatives, and a part of myself in my sister’s children. Our energy has always been here, it flows through physical beings, time and space, but it never leaves. Einstein proved that energy can neither be createdn or destroyed, it can only change form. We don’t need to have children to leave our mark on this world.

    • Mali Says:

      That’s really lovely. I want to read more (and think more) on this. (I love Thich Naht Hahn).

    • Kathy Says:

      I’m another childless person who enjoys genealogy, though not just dates, names and branches with issue. The photographs, historical background, and more personal information about lifestyle, temperament, work, activities, accomplishments, struggles, beliefs, etc., are what interest me. I see my parents and myself as the sum of many branches, and not just through direct descent. I like the Buddhist teaching that you provided.

  7. Heather Says:

    This subject is near and dear to my heart…. I started doing genealogy eight years ago when I wanted to research my family for baby names and after a few hours of research on I was hooked. As the years went on and I struggled through the infertility rollercoaster I became a bit obsessed with my family tree but in a way it was therapeutic for me.
    At times I thought to myself “If I can’t make a baby, I can make the best damn tree this family has ever seen!” or “I may not be able to add a child to the tree but I know more about this crazy family than anyone else!”. I know it sounds strange but genealogy got my mind off my problems and I would get a little high with every new found relative. It is my hobby/addiction of choice….. Well, that and a good glass of wine. hehe

  8. Illanare Says:

    One of my ex-MIL’s hobbies is tracing her family tree and when we were visiting 4 years ago (while I was pregnant the first time) she showed me where she had written “A (her son) + M (me) =”. I think about that too much. A can obviously go on to father a child with someone else, but my “line” ends with me, especially as I have no siblings.
    On the other hand, my darling little cat is my baby – can I put her on my branch? 🙂

  9. loribeth Says:

    Another genealogist here! I sometimes wonder why so many genealogists are childless; then I realized we’re probably the ones who have more time to pursue it. ; ) At any rate, I know that it’s appreciated by some family members… and if nobody wants all my files when I’m gone, I’ll leave them to the local archives for the benefit of future researchers. @Iris: it’s actually amazing how much you can find out about your family & how they lived, or probably lived, when you start digging. I’ve uncovered some amazing nuggets about my family members. Some branches are more easily researched than others… but that’s part of the fun. I’ve always said I liked genealogy because it appealed to my inner Nancy Drew, lol.

    • Mali Says:

      Loribeth, You’re absolutely right – and you’ve made me realise – and I can’t understand why I didn’t realise it before – that the cousin who has done most of the genealogy on one side of my family is, yes, you guessed it, childless. It’s funny because I don’t think of her as childless, I just think of her as J.

      • loribeth Says:

        Working on my family tree also helped me realize how many childless people there are in my family, at least on my mother’s side. I am definitely not the only one. I don’t know all my mother’s childless cousins’ stories — some never got married, some got married later in life — but most of them are funny, interesting, well educated people who seem to be leading busy and productive lives, which makes me feel better.

  10. Mali Says:

    Love this post. I could have written it. No wait, I did – a year or so ago! Great minds think alike, and all that.

    • Kathleen Guthrie Woods Says:

      Great minds indeed! I’m amazed to learn how many of the comments indicate that our childfree relatives are the primary researchers (and I agree that it’s likely because we have more time on our hands). Thanks for all your interesting and supportive comments. BTW, learned this morning my favorite aunt and uncle are now great-grandparents. And so it goes….

  11. S Says:

    This post actually made me feel better about my childless state. In the end we are ALL forgotten. Those unique things about us are not listed on a family tree. It doesn’t say, “this fabulous woman (who made delicious brownies) birthed child Y,X, Z”. Or this difficult man had child A & B with his second wife.” A listing of children isn’t necessarily anymore more of an accomplishment than someone who gathers college degrees or performs tours of duty. It’s just living and breathing accomplishments keep the family growing and are thus recorded.

    I have a photo of my great-great grandparents. I love the photo. They look so elegant and I see traces of my brother in my grandfather. But I have no idea of their story. Were they in love? Did they live on a farm or in town? Did he carve wood? Did she prepare delicious bread? I know nothing about them except they are family. Their siblings are gone. Their children are gone. Their children’s children are old enough to not know (or remember) anything about them. As a grandchild so far down the line I only have a mild specific interest in them because of my tendency to care about history, folklore and antiques. And the fact I have this photo.

    On a family tree I may not have anyone listed under my name but that doesn’t mean I will be less remembered. At least not after several generations have passed.

    Perhaps it is a depressing thought to think that years after we die we are all eventually forgotten. But I prefer to use this to motivate me to do more to leave a mark on the world. And to live in such a way that I will live forever in eternity with all those I love. I will live such a life that my funeral will be as large as someone with 16 children. I will share my talents and loves with family and friends so that I am remembered in all circles of my life.

    Don’t get me wrong. I still wish I had children. But I don’t.

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