Existential child-free fears are often intangible and can prompt some interesting philosophical discussions, based on questions such as; who will remember me when I am gone? What will be my legacy? What value will my life have if no one remembers me? People with kids often ask us these questions, as if we are more subject to existential anxieties. Everyone is equally susceptible.
The question I have to ask in response is: Do any of us really remember our parents exactly as they were? Recently, I was looking at a photo from my parent�s early married years - just two children hugging each other on a skating rink - and realized I know almost nothing about the people they were then. By the time I was born they�d lived nearly half their lives. I�ve always had an abbreviated view of who they were, and even if I were to write their biographies, it would be a fiction. No one, even a child, can remember us as who we really are, so is it worth our effort to worry about not being remembered for posterity if we don�t have kids?
My father�s public legacy is the park and water treatment plant he spent his life working, planning, and fighting to build in his hometown. My brothers and I still tell stories about my parents, some true, some not, but real evidence of their glory days is memorialized by the physical remnants of their work.
Maybe it�s the artist in me that influences my point-of-view. Many artists just don�t seem driven to reproduce. Perhaps, it�s because there is knowledge that their art will live on physically after they leave the planet � whether in a museum, a garage sale, or a garbage dump it will live on, for a while anyway�
It�s obviously a human desire to seek permanence by achieving a place in the memories of others, but if we can�t possibly be remembered accurately, and if memories fade through the generations, why do people spend so much of their life striving towards immortality?
Fear of death, and loss of an immutable �self� is the basis of all human anxiety, and it�s certainly understandable that we seek ways to minimize the fear. Some psychologists suggest that we seek to deny death, and reduce related anxiety, by turning our lives over to a symbolic power that we perceive as being greater than ourselves. This can be a god, art, a hero, anything really � even children.
My rather tricky theory is that after 9/11, in the popular psyche, children became that powerful, symbolic greater power � simply because they might outlive their parents. Death became part of the cultural lexicon, and people naturally sought a lifeline. Kids became an obvious link to psychic permanence, and therefore, an obsession. I certainly notice that parents increasingly treat children like deities!
My Buddhist friend disdains seeking immortality: through children, art, property or any other device. In her view, life is inherently temporary, fragile, and ever changing. Accepting and embracing our transience is the only path to beauty, peace and happiness. Grasping at immorality through any means eventually leads to disillusion and misery.
Who knows for sure? What is clear is that seeking immortality it is one of the most human of urges. Just observe the recent film revival of the Victorian novel. Most of the drama in these stories is built on a foundation of striving for immortality through children, family, and ancestral property.
Child-free couples often experience pretty direct questioning about existential anxieties. People seem to forget we are all individuals, regardless of our parental status. As if, without children, we are more susceptible to transience than are parents � sort of lost, floating beings without ancestral roots or solidity? And of course, my Buddhist friend would remind us that that is actually what we ALL are anyway � why even worry about it?
But, being human, we worry, and worry some more. I�ve found some ways to refocus my own existential childfree angst:
� I focus my attention and love on my present primary relationships � my husband, my father and siblings, my friends and students, my dogs. What can I do to make all these beings more comfortable, and happier each day? There is no guarantee children will outlive us, or remember us as we are � so why pin our desires for immortality on something so unpredictable anyway? Live for the present � help others have a better experience on this planet � any related activities lead to peace of mind.
� I do accept my Buddhist buddy�s ideas about transience and impermanence and try to look at the world as always shifting and changing. It�s hard for me. I tend to resist change at any opportunity, but realize that much of the unhappiness I�ve experienced has come from resisting change. Now, I try to see the beauty in the motion, accepting that everything is equally important and unimportant. Whew! Sounds easy � nothing is harder!
� I remember that focusing on achieving immortality is actually focusing on ego � and death. I try; instead, to focus on life � appreciating everyday things, building community, helping friends � I find that childfree couples are very good at appreciating ordinary splendors.