Tuesday, November 2, 2021

If you think you're "useless," then what am I??

Even if you were not born in 1961 (as I was) and turned or are turning 60 this year, please do yourself a huge favour and click over to read this absolutely gorgeous meditation by Margaret Renkl of the New York Times on what it means to be turning 60 at this particular time in history.  There were so many points that I could personally relate to -- and the writing is exquisite.

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Now -- I decided I had to flag the story on this blog as soon as I finished reading it... but then I went to the comments (yes, I went there, lol...!) -- and found a whole new issue to blog about!  lol (Maybe even issues, plural!) 

For one thing, I found it kind of amusing/eyerolling how so many of the comments latched onto Renkl's observations about aging. Many people seemed to interpret her beautiful essay only as a lament for her youth (and an opportunity to lament their own, lol), latching onto the part where she wrote, "The only trouble with being born in 1961 is that in 2021 you will turn 60, something I did last week... Sixty is the point at which people must admit they are no longer middle-aged." 

Well, yes, that was part of it -- but not all of it. There was also this, a little further down:  "On most days I am simply grateful for the 60 years I’ve had... Sorrow in the face of aging would be a poor response to such good fortune." And there's so much more in there than just a conversation about the pros and cons of aging, despite what the commenters picked up on. 

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Then there was this -- the very first comment flagged as a "NYT Pick", from Ronald in New Jersey (presented here in its entirety):  

Our kids grew up, finished college, moved out, there is no more need for me. I've become useless.   

I was surprised -- not only to find such a comment featured so prominently, but also that it came from a man. Maybe this is sexist of me, but isn't this usually the thing you hear from a mom whose nest has just become empty? 

Anyway, if that's not pronatalism at work, I don't know what is. Think about it -- if this MAN thinks that his life is meaningless without his kids around, just imagine what it's like to be a WOMAN in this society who has wanted a child but never been able to have one in her life at all...! 

Last time I looked, the comments had closed, but Ronald's comment had 28 responses. Some were sympathetic:  young people told Ronald that they still rely on their parents' wisdom. Others reassured Ronald that his children still needed him. Some said they too were empty nesters, and they survived.  There were many suggestions on how Ronald could fill his now-freed-up time (volunteer! find a hobby!! get a dog!! -- hmmm, why does this all sound so familiar??)  

While I recognize the grief involved in finding yourself with a child-sized hole in your life to fill, I nevertheless found myself nodding at some of the less sympathetic responses -- some more diplomatically phrased than others, but basically telling Ronald to "get off your butt and get a life." (Which perhaps demonstrates just how far I've come in mourning that child-sized hold in my own life.) Here are a few examples: 

  • There's this one from ITReader in Massachussetts, who said, "I never had kids (by choice). I;ve lived my life for myself, on my own terms. I certainly don't feel useless! (@65)."  (And a response from LaGrange in California: "I prevalently find that people without children have a much broader understanding of humans and humanity and life in general. Good for you.") 
  • Yvonne in Bethesda, Maryland: "Nonsense. Your life is now your own to do with what you will."  
  • Diane Curry in Nevada said in part, "What a sad commentary on life and yourself. You have so much more to experience." 
  • Leslie in California: "As a fellow empty nester for several years, I can say that it's hard but it gets easier...  My retirement (due to hours cuts) coincided pretty closely with the start of the pandemic, so I was really adrift.  But I got through it & am still doing so - as can you.  We aren't completely defined by our kids; we had lives before we had them!  :-) "

I recognize this man has the right to grieve the loss, if not of his children (because he hasn't really lost them, has he?), then of their ongoing presence and of a significant chapter in his life that's now ended. But (without knowing the fuller details of his story) I can't feel too terribly sorry for him. He's had the benefit of children -- multiple/plural! -- in his life for a minimum of 18 years, and presumably he still has them around for at least the occasional holiday and/or weekend. The odds are pretty good that he'll become a grandfather someday, and that his kids and grandkids will provide him with at least some companionship and assistance and care as he ages. 

Meanwhile, my childless peers and I have never had the children that we had hoped for, planned for, dreamed about for years and years, until the realization finally sank in that they were not going to materialize. As I've observed before, we actually have a lot in common with empty nesters, because our hopefully crafted nests have always been empty. We just had a head start on working through our grief and figuring out what to do next with the rest of our lives, once it became obvious that parenting was not going to be in the cards for us (nevermind becoming a grandparent...).  

I'll give the (almost) last word to Magpie in Baltimore, who wrote, "If you're serious, then it's heartbreaking that you feel this way. If you're joking, that may be worse. How do you explain the relative utility of those of us who did not choose to procreate?" 

I could not resist adding a comment of my own (replying to Magpie). This is what I said (as loribeth, Ontario, Canada): 

I also turned 60 this year.  

@magpie  "How do you explain the relative utility of those of us who did not choose to procreate?"  Some of us hoped to procreate but were not able to do so, for a variety of complex reasons. You can imagine how comments like Ronald's make us feel.  

@Ronald, you were able to enjoy the company of your children for a minimum of 18 years -- and presumably they still call or Zoom or come around once in a while on holidays and such. You may even have the pleasure of grandchildren to look forward to someday.  By all means, mourn the fact that that period of your life is over -- but please recognize just how fortunate you have been (and still are), and how much more there is in life to enjoy -- just as so many of us have had to learn to do when our lives haven't turned out the way we imagined, in the complete absence of the children we once thought/hoped/assumed we would have.  

So far, my comment has been "recommended" 13 times. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? 


  1. I don't think you were too harsh. Your comment might help Ronald. Sometimes we need a change in perspective in order to feel better about our situation. Maybe you gave that gift to him.

  2. Nope, you weren't too harsh. Learning to be grateful for what you have is, as we all know, a key in healing from a loss, and it might have helped him (or someone else who was reading it) by pointing that out.

    Ronald (though I haven't read the article yet) sounds a bit like my late FIL. He was bemoaning his "uselessness" after his retirement - just a few years after his youngest left university. I pointed out that his boys all had good jobs, were responsible members of the community, were doing well and could look after themselves, and didn't he feel proud of that? He clearly didn't, and struggled to be grateful for his many advantages in life. Sadly, he never recovered from his "uselessness" on retirement, even though he had 30 years of life in which to find new interests, spend time with grandchildren (who admittedly lived overseas, but he could afford to visit them), etc etc. He had a few years when he threw himself into the genealogy of his line and that of his wife's, but even then, he struggled with feeling a useful member of society, even to the stage of wondering whether he should still vote. But he could never really put himself in our shoes. Sigh.

    (Sorry for post-length comment!)

  3. Nope! I've got a bunch of friends becoming empty nesters and they are in morning. I alway comment that they have a lot to look forward too (just like you said) but I don't have kids. My whole marriage has been an empty nest.

  4. ​I have read a lot of your blog posts over the last few years and usually really appreciate your perspective. Here I don't agree with you. Taking the man's words at face value, he is feeling great pain and loss. Not uncommon emotions at a time like that - see this article, for example: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201908/facing-empty-nest-syndrome

    Yes, as you said, he's lucky to have had his children and that time with them, and it's precisely that which leads to this kind of loss. Clearly it's not the same kind of loss that you have experienced, and continue to experience, but it is loss nonetheless. And a comment such as yours seems to disenfranchise his grief.

    ​Consider this. I grew up without grandparents, all of whom died before I was born or when I was very young. My friend, who's around 40 like me, is now facing the death of her elderly grandmother. Part of me feels like saying something along the lines of your comment - "at least you had her in your life for four decades, while I ​never knew any grandparent!" The better part of me realizes that this is not helpful, or relevant. Her loss, her grief, is valid no matter what ​my or ​others' situations and experiences may be.

    Finally, I don't see why his comment has to be taken as commentary on the lives of people who haven't had children. He personally feels useless given his change in lifestyle and role. He's not saying that those without children, or eve​​n those whose children have grown and left, are indeed useless. ​His ​own ​sense of loss ​was expressed in a way that is being ​much ​too broadly ​interpreted, by others, to ​apply to ​other​s​, ​when there is no indication that that is what he meant.

    I'd be interested in any feedback you may have​.​

    1. eta, I appreciate that you expressed your differences with this post in a calm & respectful way -- thank you for that! You make some good points (especially about your friend & her grandmother), and I realize I may have been a little harsh -- the post was written and published in the heat of the moment.

      I did say that I recognize his right to grieve this significant loss in his life. I guess my issue is that, the empty nest is by and large recognized as a valid form of grief (although even a few parents seemed to find his statement a little over the top) -- but the disenfranchised grief of pregnancy loss and childlessness is still by and large unrecognized. It's certainly less recognized and validated. It's true, his comment was expressing his personal situation and feelings only (and I keep thinking there's more to the story than those few sentences...) and nothing else, but I saw it as a reflection of the broader pronatalism of our society and the subconscious corollary that childless/free lives have less meaning and value. He's thinking about his own situation, but I guess I am too...!

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.