It seems like I’ve been thinking about and writing this post for ages. Having written most of the post last month, weirdly, I found myself struggling with the beginning. So yesterday, I asked myself why I was finding this so difficult – what might I be avoiding? And the answer is because it involves admitting that recently I have had one of those times when that sharp edge of my grief of childlessness re-emerged – and specifically because that grief was triggered by a different loss: that of my father.
As many of you will have experienced, each new loss often reflects and echoes previous losses. For me, the death of my father re-ignited some of the big uncertainties and questions about my existence: who I am, who I want to be and what I can give to world, if not children. Often, over the last decade and a half, I’ve struggled with an intense sense of loneliness that comes from feeling that I won’t be able to ‘pass on’ something of my unique human fingerprint to the next generation. This loss has, at times, felt so monumental that it has been hard to find the words to describe it. Frequently, I thought of it as having lost my link to the future.
That ‘unutterable’ loss is something I come across a great deal in my practice as I try to facilitate my clients’ thoughts and feelings in order to help them find ways to express a lived experience that is so often invisible to others. It is rare to be given the space or opportunity to really explore what it means never to be able to look into another pair of eyes and see yourself – the rods and cones of one’s existence – reflected back.
So what I’m going to describe to you is how, in the light of this new loss, I gave myself some space to explore afresh my perceptions about not ever having the opportunity to ‘re-create’ myself in the form of a child or children and how, by literally conversing with my loss and pain of childlessness I re-framed my own conception of DNA.
Conversing with the pain of childlessness
My father’s death set in motion a new cycle of existential questions about what it means to be a child, to be a parent, about what we pass on and about what happens to all this stuff that makes us…us. As I scattered my father’s ashes at the edge of Loch Lomond, unsurprisingly I felt a huge surge of sadness, not only because I’d lost a parent but also because I was wondering who would do this final act for me, what will remain of me when I’m no longer here…and who will hold something of my essence after I’ve gone? But I also experienced what I can only describe as an intense and unexpected moment of ‘aliveness’. “These ashes are full of his – thus our – DNA,” I thought, “but am I not more than this?”
Victor Frankel said:
Emotion which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
What I take from Frankel’s words is that in order to find meaning out of suffering (or loss) we must first invite it in, sit it down, look it in the eyes and have a conversation with it. It’s something I’ve done many times – chatted and remonstrated with my grief. And there at the banks of the Loch I was having yet another conversation with the pain of childlessness. Afterwards, in the warmth of a café, over a much-deserved hot chocolate, I wrote down my conversation. Here is a snippet of it:
Who will do this for me?
Someone who loves you. I have no control over that.
But you have control over so much.
I have never held my own child, never touched the skin of another being and been able to think ‘I created this human’.
Not my doing. I’m here to make you feel, to help you to know.
I know enough. I don’t need to know this pain.
The alternative is to not know how you got here, to this spot on a winter’s morning by a loch. The alternative is to not to allow me to be your pathfinder.
When I look at you, you seem so impenetrable, so sure of yourself.
Look carefully. I have gaps, ripples, soft places for you to rest. There’s more to me than just relentless cruelty, you know!
You need to give me some clues. Where do I start?
Look at these ashes between the rocks. Which particle do you recognise? Where are his eyes? Where are his talents? Which atom reveals his essence?
I don’t recognise anything. It’s all dust…
This DNA thing – it’s all chemistry and not so much essence. Whatever you create you can pass on. DNA has its limits.
So what I pass on is only limited by my imagination and by my desire?
Exactly. Congrats. You found a gap!
True, no one will ever possess the Irish blue of my eyes or the Germanic width of my shoulders. Nor, thank goodness, will they inherit my dodgy thumbnails (thanks Dad!) or my propensity to burn at the first glimpse of sunlight. But I am so much more than my DNA and there’s nothing to stop me passing on some of the really important stuff that feeds my spirit and makes me feel like me: the ‘text poems’ my niece and I make up; my love of words that I try to share with both the adults and children in my writing workshops; these posts; mannerisms; phrases; love…
Being part of something bigger than me
What I’ve come to realise is that, for me, DNA is about more than just the genes; it is about finding ways of connecting with the essence of oneself and allowing others to interact with it. One of the subjects that emerges again and again when I talk to other childless people is that of finding a sense of purpose. Questions arise such as ‘What am I here for if not to have children?’ and ‘What meaning will there be in my life now?’
The ‘sense of purpose’ question is something that those people who have children seem to sidestep when they offer advice or what they believe to be comfort to a childless friend or colleague. How often have you heard ‘Well never mind – think of all the out-of-school-term-time holidays you can have’? Certainly it’s true – child-free travel can be liberating and comparatively stress-free. But the ‘holiday platitude’ is not merely cold comfort; it completely misses the point of finding a sense of purpose in one’s life. Whilst they are an important, often vital, part of our sense of fun, play and relaxation, transient experiences such as a holiday or a trip to the spa or a visit to the theatre rely on something outside of us providing stimulation or entertainment. I feel that a sense of purpose is like a thread that runs through us, connecting our present self to the past and the future. And it is something generated from within us. Research is starting to show that this self-generated sense of purpose and finding meaning in one’s life has a powerful influence not only on levels of happiness but can also positively affect our health.
A recent article in New Scientist quoted a study carried out in 2013 in which participants self-reported on how happy they felt according to two categories of well-being: hedonic (pleasure and rewards) and eudaemonic (a sense of purpose ‘beyond self-gratification’). The results showed that participants derived happiness from both types of well-being but those scoring highly on hedonic pleasure had higher markers for inflammatory genes and for those who scored highly on eudaemonia their genes showed higher disease-fighting antibodies. (New Scientist, 28 January 2017, pp30-33)
To quote Victor Frankel again:
…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
A sense of purpose and the desire to look ‘outwards’ has certainly helped me to come to terms with not having children. A ‘cause greater than oneself’ comes in many different packages and is not necessarily the grand, Nobel prize winning pursuit. For me it’s about doing stuff I enjoy, that makes me feel connected to my true self and to others, the by-product of which might be a positive effect on another human.
I believe that holding this and the next generation close is not just a matter of genetics but of a generosity of spirit that can enable us to find a sense of belonging and being. Each of us has the capacity to touch other humans in an unforgettable, indelibly positive way that can persist through generations. I can look back and remember people who have done this for me:
Mrs Ferguson, my English teacher – thank you for your gentle encouragement and for showing me how to view things with a poet’s eye. Betty, a woman my mother employed in her business – thank you for showing me what stillness and dignity looks like.. A neighbour of my aunt’s I knew only by the nickname ‘Sausage’ – thank your for passing on a love of letter writing. Mr Russell, my geography teacher – thank you for allowing me to see how, by simply asking someone, “How are you? How can I help you?”, you can make a huge difference to their self-esteem.
These people did not have children, yet they still live within me in a real and tangible form.
For me, the message from my conversation at the loch is don’t be limited by your DNA. Turn the letters around to spell ‘AND’. …AND another thing I can pass on, …AND another way I can inspire, …AND another way I can connect, …AND another part of my unique essence I can share.
In other words: Dream Nurture Aspire
How will you rearrange the letters? What could be your ‘And another thing…’?
Inspiring Words from Inspiring Folk
Because I believe this desire to ‘pass something on’ is such an important aspect for people who face involuntary childlessness, I have decided to include in future posts the words of other people who don’t have children but who have inspired, positively influenced or supported me or others in their life and work.
Today, I’ll share Kimberley Fahner’s moving words. She is a teacher, writer and the poet laureate of her home-town in Canada. She wrote this on her Facebook page and has given me permission to reproduce her words here. Kimberley blogs at The Republic of Poetry – https://kimfahner.wordpress.com
Was thinking about kids today. Obviously, never had them myself…never found the right fellow to have them with…and my thirties were a wash for so many reasons. Then, at school today, I had four amazing “new” Grade 12s come up and give me hugs. I taught them all last fall. One of them is a sweetheart of the highest order…a creative, bright old soul. Wise. She shouted my name from across the grass “Miss Fahner!” and I got the biggest hug. Then she said “How was your writing time? Is your novel done yet? Your poems? Your plays?” So we talked about her art work and then she said “Miss! Can I give you another hug? I missed the crap out of you. I missed your face.” It made me want to cry. So…yeah…I have had kids…and I’m so damn thankful for all of them. Who else will tell you, honestly, in a genuine way, with a wide open heart, “I missed the crap out of you”? No one above the age of seventeen…
If anyone following this blog would like to contribute your words to this ‘Turning DNA on its Head’ collection then please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on how you feel you are able to pass on something of your unique self. Please let me know how you would like to be credited – eg first name only, full name, or anonymous. It would be lovely to hear from you.