Being childless felt like my dominant identity and the when/if/whether question preoccupied me. When I remarried — to a man who knew he didn’t want kids — I finally settled the question for myself. And by my late 40s, I came to acceptance.
Now in my early 50s, I’ve found my people — city dwellers who are thoughtful about engaging with young people and creating strong community even if we don’t have what looks like a conventional family life. While I still sometimes feel a sense of sadness or loss, those feelings have largely receded. I experience joy and pain on my path, just as parents do on theirs.
Over the years, I had many conversations about my situation with trusted friends and family and with a therapist. But my memories of those decision-making years are tinged with a sense of isolation and secrecy. Even though I found people to talk to, those exchanges were always one-on-one, only with those I confided in most. My struggle was largely in private.
In the past few years, I’ve begun to see signs that younger generations are finding new ways to support one another and ease loneliness and seclusion.
I was recently involved with one, called the Grand, which is a start-up in San Francisco. The Grand brings people together in a small group discussion on a specific topic, with each session led by a guide who has personal experience on the issue. I led a discussion as a “grand guide” about what it feels like to forge a life without children. Other topics have included keys to a successful marriage, embracing single life and deepening relationships with aging parents. The sessions are two hours of conversation, where people share problems and wisdom across generations.
Its co-founders, Rei Wang, 31, and Anita Hossain, 34, met while working at a venture capital firm where they nurtured a community of entrepreneurs. The two discovered that while people attended events to learn about professional topics, they stayed when people started to confide in one another about their challenges and vulnerabilities.
According to a 2018 Cigna report the two women cite often, nearly 50 percent of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. “Being lonely is about not having people to talk to about the important issues in your life,” Hossain told me. “People are not going to church as much, they are not knowing their neighbors. And there is no place to gather to have important, intentional conversations.
Hossain and Wang created the Grand for millennials like themselves who are not always content to follow the path set out for them. As children of immigrant parents, the founders say they often need guidance their own parents can’t provide.
“Although our parents are intellectual and successful professionals who have taught us so much, there were questions they could not answer because they have not had the same cultural experience we’re having,” Hossain said. Questions like “How do you navigate an interracial relationship?” and “How do you reinvent yourself professionally?”
In the past seven months, nearly 200 people have come together in intimate gatherings in San Francisco living rooms. Each session costs about $25.
When the topic was “To Have or Not Have Children,” I found myself in Hossain’s living room, facilitating a conversation with a group of eight men and women ranging in age from 29 to 38, who wanted to hear my perspective and learn from one another. I was struck by how thoughtful and honest they were, how willing they were to share personal details and struggles.
Several came from immigrant families like Hossain and Wang, where cultural pressure to be parents is strong. One woman said she stopped going to family gatherings because the pressure was too intense. Another said that she was intrigued by the idea of bucking the “life scripts” we all follow about partnering up, having kids and buying a house.
Someone raised the idea of “fictive kin,” the close relationships many people have outside of blood relations. Everyone agreed that if they didn’t have kids of their own, both extended family and fictive kin needed to be part of the mix in order for life to feel meaningful.
Given that most people trust that their children will take care of them in old age, one member asked me if I’d made plans for later-life care. I admitted that while I’ve thought endlessly about this topic, I still haven’t made those kinds of plans, and that I need to do it.
Near the end of the evening, we talked about how much has changed since my preoccupation with this question only a decade ago. Same-sex marriage, egg freezing and record-low fertility rates were not on the radar then the way they are today. More options, yes, but more confusion, too.
I wanted to leave them with a few kernels that have helped me over these years. One big one is that if you don’t have children, your life will look different from the family you grew up in — for better and worse — but you can still find meaning and connection. We spoke about happiness and the studies that show people settle in roughly the same emotional place regardless of the circumstances of their lives. I also encouraged them to talk to lots of people and find role models, with and without children, whose path they could imagine following.
The goodbyes were warm with hugs all around. The next day, Hossain sent me my “reviews,” much like Uber and Airbnb, and I felt relieved they reflected the session’s positive vibe. After the event, I asked whether the evening had any effect on her own thought process. She and her husband recently married, and given their age, they feel they should make a decision soon.
“I actually feel more confident that I want kids, especially because of the balanced view you shared," she said. "But I left the session feeling like no matter what happens, it’ll be okay either way. I’ll still be Anita.
Had I been able to engage with a group like this during my decision-making years, I know my process would have felt less lonely, my eventual decision easier.
I suspected that I would get a lot out of the evening, but it had benefits I had not anticipated. At a time when so many women over 50 feel invisible, I felt needed and valued, that my years of stressing could make a difference in the lives of a new generation of thinkers. I also saw a new model for working through life’s biggest questions — one that I plan to use the next time I’m grappling with one.
The child decision isn’t my big question anymore. But I suspect that some of my old feelings of loneliness might come up when many of my peers start becoming grandparents. That will be a good time to find a grand guide of my own.
Marci Alboher, VP at Encore.org, is the author of “The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.