Writer and broadcaster

Are we cruel not to give our parents grandchildren? The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My wife and I are in our 40s and have decided that we would prefer not to have children. I have one sibling, a brother also in his 40s who is in a long-term relationship – they have no children.

Our parents are in their 70s. The problem is that I feel increasingly guilty that they will never have grandchildren to enjoy. Most of my friends have children, hence their parents have become grandparents, and I can think of no acquaintances of my parents who aren’t. My parents are much too discreet and respectful to ask us about having children, but I am sure that grandchildren would make them happy and should be one of the pleasures of growing old. I often wonder what they say to their friends when asked about whether grandchildren are likely and wince as I wonder how they answer and how uncomfortable they feel when asked.

Are we being cruel in denying them this pleasure? How is it for parents to be denied the pleasure of grandchildren when their friends are talking about it incessantly?

T, via email

Grandchildren might make them happy, or they might not. But it’s not your job to make your parents happy. They are responsible for their own happiness. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t treat them well and do things they would enjoy, but providing that deep happiness that makes them tick? That’s nobody’s job but theirs. They decided to have children, that was their decision.

Let’s think of this practically. Imagine you had babies just to please your parents, to assuage your guilt and make them feel less left out with their friends. Now let’s imagine that they really didn’t want to be that involved with your children or your parents died. You would still have the children and then what? Do you see how this exposes what a very bad idea it would be to have children just to make your parents happy?

There are loads of things you probably do, or don’t do, that your parents wish you didn’t do/did. Maybe they would prefer it if you lived closer to them or further away. Or did different jobs. Or had married different people. But it would be ludicrous to change any of these things to please your parents. They, I hope, will have raised you to be your own person, not as an extension of themselves.

The fact that you haven’t talked to your parents is key. I need to tell you a short story. When I was six, I overheard my mother say, “I would love it if my youngest became a doctor.” So from that moment on, and without ever discussing it further with my mother, I said that I wanted to become a doctor. I studied for three science O-levels because that’s what I needed to do back then, so I could go on to take the A-levels to study medicine.

I struggled horribly and in the end had to go to my mum and say, “I’m really sorry to let you down, I can’t be a doctor because I am useless at chemistry O-level.” My mother didn’t know what I was talking about. She had no recollection of ever having said that she wanted me to be a doctor.

You have no real idea what your parents feel. Talk to them. Tell them what your worries are and how you feel. I would also say that, anecdotally, even people who are positive that they don’t want children go through a last “am I sure I don’t want them?” as they enter their 40s. I think this is not only natural, but also prudent and may be what is happening to you. (As ever I ask: why now? Why are you feeling guilty now?). But many don’t say anything for fear of showing any “cracks” as people who choose not to have children are often asked to justify their decisions, and therefore rethink them, whereas those that do have children are never asked if they are sure they wanted to have children.

I really admire people who know their own minds: be it to have x number of children, or none at all, and I know plenty of people in both camps.

It sounds as if both you and your wife know your own minds, but are second-guessing what your parents may be thinking and feeling, and getting into a froth about something largely imagined at this stage. You know what would probably make your parents happiest? You being happy.

Be positive about your actions instead of feeling like you’re denying them something. Presumably you’ve all led full lives up until now without you and your wife having had children? There’s no reason you can’t continue doing that.

First published in the Guardian Family section, 24 May 2013.