On Aging: Serenity Prayer

I poked at the fatty tuna on my plate with my chopsticks, eyeing up the one remaining California roll sitting atop a pile of shredded daikon radish.

“You mind if I eat that?”

Natasha glanced down at the plate, and said, “No – go ahead. I ate the shrimp.”

As I dunked the roll into my wasabi-tainted soy sauce, I said softly, “Nat, I think about getting old all the time now. I think about dying alone. And without money. I bumped up my 401k last week.”

Nat sipped her wine, and looked out the window at the people running to beat the impending rainstorm.

“Yeah. I stress out about money too.”

“See, that’s why we need kids. Because then you have someone to take care of you when you’re old and sick. Who’s going to care about my feeding tube? Who’s going to smuggle in a Culvers butter burger when I’m supposed to be on a low-fat, low-sodium diet? Who will lean in close to hear me whisper Rosebud?”

“I’ll come visit you, Jen. You know that.”

“So you’re saying that I’ll die first? Why am I always the one to go? Why are all my friends still going to be healthy and playing Mah Jong in senior living centers while I’m wearing diapers and having my jewelry stolen in a VA hospital?”

“Don’t you have to be a veteran to go to a VA hospital?”

I picked at the label of my Sapporo beer, and shrugged my shoulders.

“I don’t know. Probably. And now I’m too old to join the Army anyway, so I can’t even count on that. I mean, friends are great, but they don’t owe you. Children owe you. Friends will all have lives of their own to deal with. Look – Kim just bought a house. Seamus is going to buy one. Dr. Greene owns some stuff. Everyone’s getting established. No one’s going to have time to listen to me babble about the good old days while I buzz the nurse to come change my bed pan.”

“Well, Jenny. You can always still have children. A lot of women have children later in life, and they’re perfectly healthy. Start cranking some out!”

I took a deep breath and sighed, “See. That’s just it. I always wanted to have children, and I know that it could still happen, but something changed in me this year. I don’t know if I want them now. I mean, I did want them, but I think it’s just too late. I’m too settled. I don’t want to be taking care of children when I’m 60. And I think I finally just accepted that fact.”

“So then what’s the problem? Now you don’t want to have kids, so don’t have any kids. That’s one less thing you have to stress out about.”

But that was exactly the problem.

It was accepting the idea that I won’t have children that upset me. I always thought that acceptance was the end of the line, the final destination, the ultimate goal, but it’s really just the beginning of a whole new loop. Dr. Kubler-Ross lied to us all. I find myself grieving the fact that I have accepted this childless future. And the cycle continues. Right now I’m in denial that I’ve reached acceptance. Next week I’ll be angry about it. Then maybe I’ll do some bargaining. And so on.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when this philosophical change took place, but I suspect that it was a somewhat gradual evolution. Looking back over the years, I noticed a change in the way I spoke about children. I was able to track my state of mind through semantics:

“Someday when I have kids…”

“Someday if I have kids…”

“If I had kids…”

“My nephews…”

Nat continued, “And doesn’t part of you just want kids so that you can see what they would look like? I know I do. Maybe someone could just morph your face like they do with the missing children on the milk cartons to see what your kids would have looked like.”

I laughed, because it was true. There is a huge part of me that wants kids just to see what they would be like. Would my daughter have curly hair? Would my son be funny? Smart? Talented? Popular?

But what if she didn’t have curly hair? I know it’s so wrong of me to say this, but on some level I would be disappointed with a straight haired child. Sure, I’d still love her, but I’d always wonder where my genes had gone wrong. And one day, DCFS would remove her from my home because I was deemed an unfit mother for having given my three year old an Ogilvie Home Perm.

She kept pulling off the wigs! What did you expect me to do?

I started thinking more about Nat’s idea of being able to predict what my child would look like, and I really think she may be onto something. Instead of figuring out how to store more and more songs on smaller and smaller devices, I wish the geniuses of the world would work on creating some virtual reality simulators that would let me experience the things I will probably not experience in real life, so that I can feel like I haven’t totally missed out.

You know, things like:

  • iBaby

  • iMarriage
  • iGradSchool

This could satisfy my curiosity, without all the financial and emotional implications. I just hope someone invents that baby simulator soon, though. Even my virtual eggs are starting to turn.

Natasha listened sympathetically as I rambled on about birth and death and Social Security and hospital gowns. Somewhere amidst my monologue on dual incomes, I glanced outside and realized that it had started to hail. The steady high-pitched pinging on the windows kept time with my mind’s frantic pace.

Eventually, the waitress came by to see if we needed anything else, and then handed us the dessert menus. After half-heartedly flipping through the pictures of coconut sorbet and tofu cheesecake, I paused and said, “Nat?”

“Mmm hmm?”

“Just promise me you’ll bring me a butter burger.”

Natasha looked up, smiled and said, “It’s a promise.”

12 Responses to “On Aging: Serenity Prayer”

  1. jill Says:

    See. That’s the misconception. That THEY’ll take care of US. W
    hat happens when the free-loading little beggars come home at 30 for rent-free livin’ — and NEVER leave? What happens when instead of bringing you butter burgers, they steal your pain medication to feed their prescription drug habit? What happens when they take your life savings because they NEED calf implants like that really stupid kid on that MTV “I’m a plastic surgery idiot” show?
    Not that any of this would ever be your fault. I truly don’t think you’d have such miscreant children, but it happens to the best of people.
    You’re definitely better off with your friends. Though you right on about one thing — it’s good to start planning now for your share on the retirement cruise commune complete with Ashton Kutcher look-a-like pool boys to compliment your Demi Mooreish self (plus curls, mind you). Wouldn’t want to be left on the pier with other people’s non-aspiring dock-working children.
    P.S. And while your doing all that saving, don’t forget to save me a birth on the boat.

  2. hooizz Says:

    very interesting post!
    i especially like the semantics transition.
    id ask some of my friends about this topic, but they might bite my head off. one of them actually got really upset by a couple (what i thought to be) hypothetical life questions – i think ill avoid loaded topics for the time being.
    as a twenty six year old, i can already see how easy it is to ‘skip’ a couple of years and magically find yourself newly single (or just plain single) and in your mid-late thirties.
    for some reason i feel like nyc is more supportive of being single than chicago is. what do you think?

  3. Dave Says:

    Hiya Jenny!

    Wanna cure your occasional bouts of lack-of-child melancholy? Get a part time job at Chuckie Cheese or Discovery Zone. I truly believe that Chuckie Cheese is THE BEST form of birth control EVER! A few years ago I went to a bithday party for my Nephew at Chuckie Cheese. I got home at went striaght to WebMD to look at surgical baby-proofing options.

    Another way to do it, is to find a newly babied or pregnant couple and put together a like budget. For every dollar they spend, put a dollar in a separate savings account account or purchase savings bonds. Budget for pre-natal care, remodeling the house to baby-proof it. Baby clothes, diapers, formula, immunizations, furniture, babysitters/daycare, a 4-door car, car seat, strollers, CHRISTMAS, Birthdays, overpriced family portraits at the mall, books, school fees, uniforms, cavity fillings, braces, obligatory school fund raisers, college tuition, back up funds for when they wreck your car, back up funds for when they are short on rent, and of course money for their therapy where they blame world hunger on YOU.

    That should MORE than pay for a swinging singles retirement community beachfront condo.

  4. Fiorello LaGuardia Says:

    It’s been a long time since I was in my early 30’s
    From my perspective, the 30’s were akin to the teen years…UGH. You are always looking for something else. Even if you have the husband, the house, the kids…you can’t ignore that little voice that plaintively whines, “so this is IT, huh?” I remember being incredibly depressed on my 38th birthday, but completely happy on my 40th!
    When you get to your 40’s and beyond, IMHO, life becomes really good. As long as you are healthy, the world is fun. And that’s not some “loser/acceptance” mentality re: the health thing. At some point, you start feeling that “It’s all a good thing.” Everything…really.
    As far as the kids taking care of you in the home…pffft. Because, if you end up in a home, the last person you will want doing the bedpan thing is your child! Trust me on that one!!!!
    There’s a good chance that the best is yet to come!

  5. Jenny Says:

    Hey – who knew that I could save thousands of dollars on therapy by just listening to the sage advice of folks on the Internet? Thanks, gang!

    And by the way, Fio – I’m really glad to hear about the bedpan thing. No, really!

  6. brando Says:

    god, what a great post, jen. really well written.
    i can help you with that baby thing, though. look for a freeze-dried package in the mail. follow the instructions.
    oh, she’ll have curly hair alright. in fact, she may be born with a mullet.

  7. Jenny Says:

    Brando – your generosity both humbles and disturbs me. I anxiously await my package, and am ecstatic that your wife is cool with having a mulletted, afro’d family in the Midwest. You’re the best!

  8. Quackin' Mad Duck Says:

    Interesting. I didn’t know it could be freeze-dried. I think I’m going to start saving mine…

  9. Quackin' Mad Duck Says:

    Interesting. I didn’t know it could be freeze-dried. I think I’m going to start saving mine…

  10. heidi Says:

    I am with you on this one. I pretty much have no interest in having children. I get pissed when someone says, “You don’t realize what life is about until you have a child.” What-the-hell-ever.
    Truly, just like you can’t count on a husband to always be there for you emotionally or otherwise, you can’t count on your children to do shit for you when you age. They may. They may not.
    And I always think, “What if I don’t like my kid?” It could happen! I think kids are cool to hang out with, but I just don’t have any desire to do it.
    Interesting idea, though, of grieving that. Very insightful and thought-provoking. Even better, though, I love Fiorella’s thoughts on turning 40. Sounds fab.
    I have wondered what my kids would look like, too. Further, I am an only child and I’ve wondered what my siblings would look like. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be “the ugly one.” :)

  11. Gina Says:

    Great posts, great insights. I appreciated the comments on turning 40 and beyond…
    I don’t really wonder what my future children will look like. “If” I have them. The question was an interesting one when I dated someone who was 6′ 6″ and had blonde hair and blue eyes, but now that I married someone who looks so much like me that people mistake us for sibs on a regular basis, it sort of takes the mystery out. Nothing but brunettes on either side, and somehow “I wonder if he’ll be 5′ 8″ or 6′ even” just isn’t as fascinating.
    Still, I understand doing something for curiosity’s sake. I think I just gotta give it a shot, or I always would wonder “what they’d be like.” Nice selfless reason for starting a family, eh?
    Maybe worse has been done. I’m still convinced my parents had us because remote controls hadn’t been widely marketed for televisions yet.

  12. mia Says:

    This whole conversation has me in stitches. And Gina’s comment about remote controls hits the nail on. the. head.
    they have these photo booths that take a picture of 2 people and show you what the kids would look like. I saw a down’s syndrome girl get in the booth with her dad. It was terrible and horrific that #1 the kid didn’t look too different than the girl does now – was that the problem?? and #2 – I am immediately going to hell and not passing Go or collecting $200 because I laughed