Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Phrase I Just Don't Get

I was hanging out with a teacher friend one afternoon. We talked about our stories, our challenges, and the fact that your struggles aren't always easily apparent. She was a really good listener, and she was super sensitive about my situation, and very much in the vein of "I had no idea you were going through all that to the extent that you were until you broke last year, but it was never apparent to students or coworkers, you just didn't let it ooze out onto us."

Which was lovely, and made me feel good because I tried real hard to make that be the case until I couldn't anymore, but I NEVER took it out on my students.

But then for some reason we got onto fears, and I shared one of my biggest -- that I might die young, either from a gynecological cancer related to the many years of treatment and fiddling with my body, or in a random act of violence. The random act of violence one has been there forever: I am petrified of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and have been known to ask Bryce if we can leave a place because I get an icky feeling. (I'm sure this isn't related to my anxiety at all.) The specificity of the cancer is new, but the weaselly-in-the-brain thought that I might die of an incurable disease? Not so much.

She said she got it, and that for the longest time she thought she was going to die when she was some random age in her mid-thirties. Like, convinced. So much so that when she hit that year the whole 365 days was fairly anxiety-ridden and unpleasant. But it didn't happen, and that was a long time ago.

When does the phrase I simply don't get come in? When she said the dreaded,

"But by the time I was that age, I had children, and so I had no choice -- I COULD NOT DIE, IT SIMPLY WASN'T AN OPTION."

I mean, not that she was PLANNING it or anything, but that the mere idea of dying young when you have children is just not plausible, because you have so much to live for, tiny lives who depend on you.

It's not the first time I've heard this sentiment, that once you have kids, dying is just not an option.

Yet I'm pretty sure there are people who have died who had young children.

And the inverse is incredibly icky.

I GUESS DYING IS TOTALLY AN OPTION FOR ME. I mean, I don't have children to live for. So what's the point?

(This is purely rhetorical of course. Please do not send out the Mobile Crisis Unit for a mental health arrest.) 

I really hate that phrase because while I can understand feeling like children give you a reason to live, um, can't other things do that, too? It's fine for your kids to give you a reason to live, but should it be the ONLY reason?

It seems to totally back up that whole "My life just meant more when I had children" thing that people say.

I'd like to think my life means "more" now, even without children.

My husband depends on me.

And if I didn't have a husband, my family, my friends, my cats, my neighbors, my coworkers, my students...I'd like to think that they would all be sad and irrevocably changed if I were to pass away.

This is a far more morbid post than I'd intended, but it begs the question...

Is your death sadder if you have children? Is your life worth more because of it? 

I'd like to think no. I'd like to think that every single person would be missed for a variety of reasons, and children are just one. That a life can be just as meaningful and just as much of a loss, and that your life is just as much worth fighting for if you DON'T have children than if you do.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, I've seen quite a few posts on what people say about having children that makes the inverse cringe-worthy from Mali, Different Shores, Infertile PhoenixLoribeth, BentNotBroken, and more.

So why is this such a thing? And why didn't I challenge my teacher friend on it? I thought about it, but I felt maybe we didn't know each other QUITE well enough for me to say, "Well, I guess I can just roll over and die, since I have no children to live for and never will" followed by maniacal laughter. It's possible that might not have gone well.

I wish people would think about the implied (if not always directly) inverse of these statements. Then again, what would I have to write about if so many people suddenly gained this kind of sensitivity? (Cue maniacal laughter.)


  1. I hate this phrase. And it usually leaves me looking like an asshole when I point out the fact that actually, we all die one day. It is a guarantee of living (when they protest, It usually leads to a “Terminator” themed discussion, which never ends well).

    But yes, I agree with your assessment. People fear death and are looking for a reason to overcome that fear. Stating you aren’t allowed to die because someone needs you allows many to tackle that fear and people throw out children because it’s socially acceptable. But that also assumes that those who have children are somehow morally superior, which we know isn’t true (Donald and Ivana/Marla Maples/Melania anyone?). The same argument had been used to describe the wealthy/poverty divide, having a terminal disease/being healthy, etc, etc.

    So I’m putting this out there: Jess, you are not allowed to die because this community needs you. Bryce too. Hell, I’ll send you a photo of me looking desperate/deranged to back up this argument. You die, the world is screwed.

    1. That makes total sense, the fear of dying thing. You are the sweetest, I may have spewed wine at your last couple of sentences... I feel a bit like a superhero now, if the world is screwed if I die! Good thing I'm not superstitious, or is be thinking "shit. Totally gonna die now."

      Thanks for listening the Emojis in a morbid post! And I TOTALLY can feel superior morally to that motley crew, even without children. 😝

    2. Wtf? "Listening the Emojis" was supposed to be "making me laugh." Close, autocorrect. Close.

  2. Heh. I would say I’m more afraid of dying (and a host of other things) since having children. I’m not paralyzingly afraid, but I certainly know it’s possible, and it’s an ugly thought.

    Maybe “I can’t die because I have children” was meant in the sense “I can’t just give up when shit happens?” Meant in that way, I can agree with the idea. I certainly felt like a more expendable person before kids/marriage. Not without value or connection by any means, but not hugely central to anyone’s existence. I was certainly more open to risks and danger for that reason. The value of my life was related to the active search for meaning, not an established role or relationship. If I failed or died or whatever, well that would be a loss but mainly a personal one, not so much to society. There would be another expendable person to take my place.

    Being a parent definitely changes how I see the value of my life and my role. I assess risks differently because it’s not only me taking the risk. I am central (for a while) to somebody’s life. If the worst happened, ie zombie apocalypse or something, I know my focus would be my family. I wouldn’t sit around and cry (much); I would try to make the best life I could for us in the sewers or wherever we ended up. Even if life was totally horrible I would keep going if there was the slightest chance it could be better for my children. Or that I could protect them from the worst parts. At least that’s what hope I would do.

    Do childfree people go through a similar change in perspective as they get older? I don’t see why not, but maybe the change is more in the mind than it is for parents. When a child comes we are suddenly in a new role with new expectations and we have to adjust to it because there is no other option. Whereas if one thinks these things through it’s a more intellectual perspective. Maybe parents say dumb things sometimes because our brains are struggling to catch up to the changes in our lives and not always succeeding?

    1. Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful comment, which has made me think quite a bit as well. I have to say that I have never felt expendable, personally, and although I don't think I'd last long in a zombie apocalypse (asthma, celiac, you know) I don't think I would sit and cry either, because I'd want to live for me and for my husband and anyone else I could help. Incidentally, I love that you have a detailed plan for your post-apocalyptic survival. :)

      I'd like to think that producing children is important to society, but it's not the ONLY contribution to society. Otherwise it would be real depressing to think that I won't have a contribution, not having the children. Isn't there a wise woman archetype for a childless older woman in society? Someone who guides but isn't a procreator herself?

      I feel like my role changes with age, too. I won't ever have the role of parent, but I can have the role of nurterer, of caregiver, of wanting to see society progress because that's what's good for society, not just because my children will live in it longer than I will.

      I've been chewing over your thoughts for a while, thanks for putting all the time in to share them! I value your perspective.

  3. Weird. I've never heard of anyone talking about death like it wasn't possible anymore.

    But yes, I've heard a lot of people say that their children are the reason they go on/survive/keep pushing through. To which I always tell my husband, "Well, guess I'll go die now since I have nothing to live for!"

    I can joke that way because that is NOT how I feel at all. I am in the process of creating a very rich life full of service and enjoyment. This process and the end result are definitely worth living for.

    P.S. All these parents know their children grow up, right? And get their own lives? Sometimes I wonder if they realize...

    1. Yes, thank you! "I am in the process of creating a very rich life full of service and enjoyment." Couldn't have said it better. Children can be one reason to live, but they shouldn't be the ONLY reason to live. I think there's some level of "I do it for my children" with politics and environmental concerns and things like that, like when politicians throw out that they are mothers and thus have a bigger stake somehow in what happens in our future. Drives me nuts. I would hope you'd want change for EVERYONE in the future, not just your children, ha. :)

  4. So...yeah. Some of what Tortuhil said I can understand. I definitely felt like before kids if I died it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but if I died now it would be the end of someone’s world. If that makes any sense.

    To answer your question, No having kids doesn’t make it sadder if you die. I think what makes people react in a way where it’s seems sadder is the idea that someone didn’t get to see their kids grow up, and that kids didn’t have that parent to grow up with...not the actual fact that someone had kids. The situation can seem sadder.
    Like the young newlywed girl at work, who tragically lost her husband just before their one year anniversary. The circumstances around his death made the situation seem sadder, and the fact that they didn’t even get a year of married life together before it was over, vs say, a couple who had been married 50 years or something, ya know?
    Death in general is sad enough if you sit and think about it long enough.

    1. True, true -- death is sad no matter what, sometimes more for the people left behind than for the person themselves. I like what you said about the end of the world vs the end of someone's world. Although Bryce would be pretty damn devastated if I died. We were talking about this and he said that people often feel sadder about people's deaths who have young children because of the CHILDREN, not because of the person. Which was an interesting perspective. I think any kind of unfinished business is incredibly sad, definitely. This went down a real morbid rabbit hole! I thank you for your perspective.

  5. Oh, I've heard this comment before, and yes, I hate it. It's just such an unthinking response in so many ways. Yes, I know it means "I feel more responsibilities now, and I worry what would happen to my children." But it is so dismissive of all other human relationships and dependencies. So when exactly is death an option? Never, and always.

    I do wish you had said, "Well, I guess I can just roll over and die, since I have no children to live for and never will" followed by maniacal laughter." That to me is about the perfect response. I like your instincts!

    It reminds me of the comment "life has little value" about people in highly populated, developing countries. It's such a brush-off, and shows no understanding of their lives and their struggles and priorities.

    1. I really wish I'd said what I'd wanted to and laughed hysterically. There was a little wine involved, so I bet I could have done it without too much "what the eff is wrong with her." And maybe it would have resulted in "oh eff, something is wrong with me, because that makes people without children not feel so valued in society, huh!" I know what she meant, too, and I get that there's a sense of "they depend on me," but at the same time I like what you said about other human relationships and dependencies. That one shouldn't be counted as the only one. Sigh. And yes to other dismissive comments to other populations -- so infuriating!

  6. Tough conversation and situation, especially not knowing her very well. Having read your story and having the benefit of time to think of a response, I think I would want to balance it between not diminishing her experience and opening up the view to other possibilities.

    For example, "It sounds like having children changed your focus and allowed you to let go of the fear of dying young and to be motivated to persevere. However, if you had not had children by that birthday, surely you would have realized that there are others whom would miss you. Your students? Your friends? Your best friend? Your parents? Nieces, nephews, grandchildren? Pets? Maybe even someone who you consider an acquaintance, but touched their life in a bigger way than you know? I think sometimes the fear of death, an early death, death under whatever circumstance, we want to know that our lives mattered, that we will be missed and that we are loved."

    To specifically answer your question, no. I do not think your death is sadder if you die and you have children. No, your life is not worth more because you are a parent.

    Yes, a death of a parent is a huge loss. But, so is the loss of a child, a sibling or grandparent. There are endless scenarios in which a death is very sad. That measure is a very personal perception. The relationship between the living and the deceased plays a role, too.

    Immediately after reading your questions, three people came to my mind. My grandmother, who died when I was young, but I felt deeply loved by her. That loss was inherently great because of her familial role, but also because she was very involved in my life. My great uncle, who did not marry and did not have children of his own. But, he was a caretaker. He helped my great-grandmother take care of his siblings after my great-grandfather died, and then he took care of her in old age. I had a close relationship with my great uncle and looked up to him. Last, another uncle who was a priest. He did not have children ether. But, we had a bond that spoke to my spiritual side. And he was greatly missed by his church community, too. Over three thousand people came to pay their respects over the course of three days, which included about 150 priests and 6 bishops. My uncle was humble and lived simply. He advocated for the poor, the disenfranchised,and the sick. He did more behind the scenes than what was overtly known. The love and sadness expressed by family and community flowed and it was touching to have experienced that.

    Long response, but hope you find it helpful.

    1. Love this very thoughtful response. What a kind, thoughtful, thought-provoking response you've come up with for opening someone's mind to the fact that not having children can also mean value in your life, and a life that would be missed? And what a beautiful tribute to your great uncle (and your grandmother). I appreciate your perspective and your story!

  7. People say things (which are, objectively, microaggressions to those they hurt) out of fear that are very very insensitive and hard to nonchalantly take back. I bet she felt awful after she heard herself say that (given the context of your conversation).

    1. I have a feeling it was one of those things people say and don't really think about until challenged on it (gently). It honestly wasn't meant to be hurtful, but it sucks that it's a societal thing that parents often share that "dying isn't an option" or "giving up in the face of death isn't an option" because they have kids. There are other ways to be important, and missed, and connected to the human fabric.

  8. Maybe a more honest thing for her to say would have been "I am even more uncomfortable with the thought of my own mortality since I had children." Because death is universal, and most of us don't have much say in the timing. People who have kids don't get to opt out of car crashes or terminal illness. And, whether someone has kids or not, every life is precious.

  9. I think you should have gone with the maniacal laughter route (jk, not really). I do wish people thought about the implications of what they said (and the inverses).

  10. It's always bothered me (pre- and post-children) to read stories about tragic deaths that make a point of labeling the deceased as a parent. "Mother of Two Killed by [x]". Why do we need that qualifier? Why can't you just say "Woman"? Is she not valuable just for being a human being in her own right? Maybe that's just the angry feminist in me coming out...

  11. I've tried to rationalize why this irks me over the last year or so. A colleague's wife died recently at barely 40 and EVERY person I told (who didn't know her) looked pained and asked: "Did they have children?". I felt actively aggrieved for this woman (whom I hadn't actually met either); I just felt that every "Phew" or "well, at least..." totally undermined her value. No one dared say "the husband can move on and have children with someone else" but it's very much hanging there, unspoken. Yes, it feels insulting, but I wonder if it isn't just an acknowledgement of how crap it is to lose a parent when you're young? Meaning that: no, the mother's death is not inherently sadder for everyone, by any means, but it's profoundly sad/shocking/f*cked up (delete as appropriate depending on her mothering) for the one, two or more individuals that are her kids. Which is not to say that a sibling, best friend or partner's death is any less sad or shocking, just that there's something entrenched in people regarding the parent-child relationship. Funny how parents probably first and foremost see it as tragic from the perspective of the parent not seeing the child grow up, whereas my first thought is that the child has to deal with losing a parent and the ensuing baggage. Perspectives. But anyway, I'm starting to take it less personally and see it as something that people just see as specifically terrible for the few individuals involved, not for generally everyone....I don't know if that all makes sense...
    Yes, I also get very narked by headlines that put parental status first and foremost. Now, they do make it sound like it's definitely worse that a parent has been offed than if it were me, for example! And it's deliberate, done for dramatic appeal - so in a way , yeah, they're basically telling the world it IS worse if it's a parent...

  12. Like Jenny (above), I have noticed those headlines that read "Mother of two killed by..." (notice also how it's always the mother, never the dad...!). Ugh. I wish I was better at coming up with a snappy comeback to these kinds of unthinking comments in the moment... they never seem to pop into my head until hours later...!