Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
We all want to matter. It’s innate for us to want to leave a mark on this world that will have meant something when we’re long gone. For loving parents, having children is often a principal and driving force of their purpose and legacy. I’ve asked so many friends who are parents this question, and many have said their children are their legacy, which always makes total sense to me.
My grandmother would have been 114 this past week. I thought about how proud she would be if she could see all that her family is doing, her son and daughter, six granddaughters and seven great grandkids. I can just feel her joy as she watches the active and meaningful lives they’re all living. Her legacy is alive and well, and growing.
It got me thinking about the existentialism of legacy, if you don’t have children, which I’ve thought a lot about as a childless woman. Is your legacy only partially fulfilled, without offspring? It took a bit of a journey to arrive at how I feel about this now. So, this is my story.
EPIPHANIES WHILE GETTING PEDICURES
“Wow, look who’s a Grandpa,” I said. I was looking at Facebook on my phone while getting a Mani Pedi with my girlfriend. We were sitting in very high-backed white leather chairs, feet soaking in bowls of aqua glass about three-inches thick. They weren’t motorized tubs, which I kind of missed because I liked to hold my toes against the jets. But, the smooth glass felt good against the bottom of my feet. My manicure was already done and my nails were still tacky so I’d been careful when I’d clicked open Facebook so I didn’t dent my polish. My manicurist had taken such great care with every stroke of her tiny paintbrush that I didn’t have the heart to be the one to destroy one of her masterpieces.
The look on my friend’s china doll face was one of understanding because I had no doubt she knew where I was heading with my thoughts. The Facebook post made a happy announcement of grandfather-dom. And, the grandpa was my college sweetheart, my first fiancé, the owner of my cherry.
And, now here, all of these years later, like three decades later, he has three children and a grandson that bears his middle name as his first. Henry. That’s the name we always talked about naming our little boy, when we had one, of many, we said. Henry, and we’d call him Hank. I still think it’s a great name.
Now, when I looked at the sweet, squished red face of this baby whom I don’t know and never will meet, I felt a pit in my gut. Not because I felt I missed anything with the old boyfriend. But, because that’s something I’ll never know. I’ll never know the pull of a grandmother’s love, of that special feeling that only grandmothers know when their child has a child. Because here I was all these years later, looking at this flat photo on Facebook, and I’m childless. I can’t have children of my own, and will never experience that scene in that way.
There was a numbness that took over when I thought about it. A numbness that I’ve taken to mean acceptance, because really what else could I do? I refused to have a pity party so the numbness had become the norm. A small cotton ball near my elbow probably had more feeling right then than I did.
But, the truth was I think I was afraid to go beneath the numbness. Because staying numb kept me safe from feeling. I was numb so I didn’t feel. I always described myself as an emotional person, a woman in touch with her emotions. But, not about this. This. I’d grown to like my numb. Love it, even. My numb was loyal and steadfast, providing me a calming hum when she knows I need it. I know what to expect from numb. When the numb is removed what is there?
And, there it was. What I felt was a one-ness; what I felt was a projected alone-ness. Not lonely, but a sense of, it’s me and me alone. I see big family photos on social media of grandparents in their 80’s, with a huge brood of kids and grandkids and great grandkids, all wearing red t-shirts because they’re at some annual family reunion in Wisconsin, and I project ahead three decades me, myself and, and I think; I’m alone. A woman, a would-be matriarch without a family legacy.
And, even deeper than that was a longing to make a generational and meaningful contribution to humankind, and the question of what that is supposed to be.
There was a little girl next to me with bright green and blue nail polish. She was with her mother. It was sweet. But, I also realized that I don’t want that anymore. My friend — who also doesn’t have children — and I have often talked about how it’s interesting how many of our friends don’t have kids of their own. And, I think, you fill your village with some others who are on similar paths.
“Do you wish it was with you?” she asked, referring to the Facebook photo.
I shook my head. Nope. The pedicurist reached for my right foot. And, I was back in the world. And, that’s the moment when my shift in mindset started to settle into place as the question of legacy dug deeper into my consciousness. As a woman unable to have kids, does that lessen my purpose or make my existence as a woman less-than because I’m not fulfilling the natural legacy of my biology, of co-creating the next generation of life?
It caused me to examine deeply my path, the mark I will leave on this world and my relationship with being childfree.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE IS 20/20
When I was a little girl, like nine or ten, when other little girls were playing with dolls and pretending to clean house and get ready for their husbands to come home for dinner, I was playing office. I have a specific memory of being at my grandparent’s house where I’d created a small office. I’d received a toy phone for Christmas and I was giving it a run. I sat with authority at my tiny desk, answering my toy phone with confidence.
As I glanced around my make-believe office from my helicopter and historical perspective, I saw that my dolls and stuffed animals were my co-workers and subordinates, all lined up behind me, in various shapes and sizes, as I bossed them around, telling them what to do. The seeds were being planted in my young mind of wanting to be a leader and reach for the corner office, which eventually I did do. And, what I loved most about that job was the nurturing, the mothering, working with and guiding those in my stead. Legacy?
When I dressed my Barbie, she was a seriously cool single chick, with a kick-ass job and social life with numerous Kens. Yes, she was looking for her truelove Ken (still is), but that didn’t stop her from having a full life.
In my 20’s, while friends were starting to grow their broods, I was growing my career, watering the seed that had been planted early on. I enjoyed watching them, but from afar in the sense that I didn’t feel connected to wanting that for myself, although I figured I probably would at some point, after all that’s what I was supposed to do. In fact, when I met my ex husband, we agreed that we both wanted kids, but even that felt a bit like fantasy, out of my reality.
I watched my sister struggle through numerous miscarriages and I felt deeply her pain and longing for children. Then, my niece was born and I fell madly in love with her, followed by her brother whom I was crazy in love with too. That feeling of overwhelming, protective, I’d-do-anything-for-this-kid love was the closest I’ve come to wanting some kids of my own.
After I found out I was pregnant, my husband-at-the-time and I entered the fantasy phase of what to expect while we were expecting. I surrendered to the innate part of my womanhood that wanted to birth a human, to take part in the natural course of things, by the standards and traditions of those before me as well as the possibility of fulfilling the dreams of parents/soon-to-be grandparents. I became excited about it and was enthralled with the changes in my body. And, as I’d hoped, it brought my husband and I closer in what was a bit of a bumpy marriage at the time.
For the next several weeks we drifted into that zone where expectant couples live: eager announcements, morning sickness at the smell of paint and toast, books on the stages of pregnancy and baby names, nursery furniture, shower dates, endless chatty discussions about bodily functions with anyone who would listen. Cramping. Spotting. Sleepless nights. Ultrasounds. Ovarian tumor. Emergency surgery. No more baby.
What I gave birth to, rather than a bouncing baby boy/girl, was the numb. A numb that softened the mourning over how my womanhood had failed: failed my body the chance to fulfill it’s expected destiny, failed my husband, failed my parents/soon-to-be grandparents, failed my sister by not gifting her with the same kind of love I feel for her kids, and failed a family history that would not continue with me. Failed my legacy?
But, here’s what’s interesting. I think deep down after that happened, I knew I most likely would not have a child of my own. My husband and I never seriously talked about trying to have another child. And, the loss of this pregnancy is what signified the beginning of the end of the marriage. It opened a chasm in which to see the framework and scaffolding of it all and there were too many broken pieces to fix.
So, I was on my own again, alone. I was still buying into the ingrained pressure to have a child and that I would not be complete until that happened. So, I made a promise to myself, and declared it out loud to my close circle, that if I was still single and without the prospect of a mate when I was 42, I would look into having a child on my own.
Then, I filed that away and got on with my life, a life I relished in so many ways. A big move across the country, new jobs (including the one with the corner office), a deepening love and commitment to writing, new ways to expand spiritual growth that have taken me far outside of my comfort zone, traveling alone and with others, dating, not dating, big crying, big laughing and bouts of loneliness which provided the contrast necessary to be able to embrace the non-loneliness of being alone. Learning is revealed through contrast.
As 42 approached, I kept to my own word. I wasn’t in a serious relationship that might lead to long term so I started digging and researching what it would take to have a child on my own. I read books, attended seminars on how to adopt children from Guatemala, Russia and China. I interviewed adoption attorneys on the adoption process in the United States as well as spoke with some of their clients about their personal experiences. I checked out the reputable sperm donation clinics in Southern California, going as far as filling out a profile as to what kind of “father” I would want for my sperm baby. I bought a two-bedroom home with a nice big yard.
Then, I woke up one day and realized I didn’t want it badly enough to do it alone. I’d done my due diligence and there was a true sense of freedom in that.
A few years later I had to have a hysterectomy, which closed the chapter on any lingering inkling that I might be missing out on something. My friend, the same pedicure friend, did a painting for me that showed the figure of a woman taking flight. On the back on the painting was a picture of Saint Majella, the Patron of Childless Mothers. Ah, this was truly a new chapter.
Childless Mother. This is something I could embrace. I loved nurturing people, and even though I didn’t have children of my own, I love kids and knew then and there that I would always have them in my life, somehow. Did this have something to do with my legacy?
It was another redefining moment as I looked at both motherhood and legacy through a fresh lens.
THERE’S MORE TO A FAMILY TREE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Not too long ago, my parents, sister and I did the Ancestry DNA test, sharing the interesting results with each other about our origins. My mom took the opportunity to fill in the family tree on the Ancestry.com site. She and my grandmothers had done extensive genealogy research into our family, going back to the 1500’s, stretching across Europe, so the family tree looked quite impressive; sprawling, uneven branches of life with names that have repeated and regenerated often.
My finger traced along our branch: my parents, my sister and her husband, their two kids, and me. And, again it hit me. My little branch was dangling out there, alone, like a stump. It felt like a stop. But, that’s when things became crystal clear.
A LEGACY IS A LIVING THING
What I felt next was a full embodiment of something that felt embryonic and full of promise and at the same ancient and foregone. What I felt was my purpose. As a creator, a writer and a storyteller, the messages and missions in my stories, those define my legacy. What became so clear also created a new sense of urgency. Because, now knowing this, writing is not only my passion; it’s also my responsibility: to my legacy, to my mark on the world. It’s my sense of belonging and my contribution to history, and yes, to my family tree.
My legacy is now alive, and what I birth will live on long after I’m gone.
My grandmother, the one who would have been 114, her legacy stretched far beyond the future reaches of her offspring. She started teaching in the 1920’s, in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Kansas. In the 40’s she started college, taking one extension course at a time, whenever one was available in her small town and when she could fit it in while raising her family.
It took her until 1959, but she got her Bachelor’s Degree at the same time as her son, my dad. She went on to be selected as a Master Teacher, an honor bestowed to the top teachers in the state of Kansas. She was passionate and touched many lives during her career. Her legacy made a difference.
YOUR LEGACY IS REALLY NOT ABOUT YOU
My path to understanding my legacy may seem roundabout, but in fact, it’s the natural course of discovering your purpose. For me, it’s writing meaningful prose that will help people to think about things in a new way, to improve their lives. It becomes about them which is so much more meaningful.
Your legacy is the impact you make and the imprint you leave behind. We all have a legacy. And, the truth is it can be either positive or negative. There are numerous examples of people who are/were notorious for doing bad things, things that have a ripple effect. They go down in history as such.
Your legacy is how you’re remembered. The lesson is that when you’re aware you’re modeling your life for your legacy, you pay attention. When you take an active part in creating and living your legacy, it becomes a meaningful adventure.
HOW DO YOU LIVE YOUR LEGACY?
Take a look in the metaphorical mirror at your life. Ask yourself:
- How are you an original? We all are unique, and what’s your special sauce?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
- How can you make a lasting impact on others? Look at the impact you currently have on people in your life, directly and indirectly. Don’t belittle the significance you have in your world already.
- Will your lasting impression help or change the greater good? How?
- What lessons have you learned that you find yourself organically teaching to others, whether it’s merely giving a friend, child or parent advice, or whether it’s a more global imparting of your knowledge?
Your own path of self-discovery, as mine has, will help answer those questions. Any or all of these help to comprise what is your legacy, your gift to the world.
Give it space. Allow your legacy to find you as well. Sometimes we can be so busy seeking we miss what’s coming directly to us.
Be a Living Legacy. And, remember that the actions you take, the words you speak, and the impressions you make launch a ripple that ebbs and flows, continuing long after you’ve moved on to the next action, word or impression. Armed with this knowledge, you’re empowered to take an active role in creating the legacy you were born to create.
ONE LAST THING
The truth is, the inkling is still there, just once in awhile, when big things happen in the lives of the important young people in my life. I put myself there, what would that be like if I was their mom. And, here’s what beautiful. I can still be a nurturing mentor or influence with them. There are so many opportunities for that. I know this is part of my legacy too.
And, who knows? Perhaps my next life mate will have kids and I’ll still get to be a grandma, of sorts. How great would that be?
Most of all, I believe the best legacy is a life well lived, in service to others and to a higher calling. Create from there and you’ll be unstoppable while having a meaningful life.