Delivering the News



How do you explain to your parents that you won’t be having children? That their long time dream of being grandparents is over? How do you get your parents to see that you’re not trying to break their hearts? We found just the right expert to talk with: Dr. Karen Gail Lewis. In addition to being a practicing family therapist for the past 39 years, she is a Jewish single woman without children. Additionally, she is the author of several books on family therapy, single women, marriage, and relationships. Given that Dr. Lewis has counseled many women who have had to break the hearts of wannabe grandparents, we asked her for guidance on how to handle the often painful conversation so that both sides feel heard and respected.

What do you think of this idea of parents/grandparents paying for their daughters to freeze their eggs to help ensure there will be a child/grandchild some day?

There is a fine line between concern and pressure. What makes the difference is how the topic is broached and who broaches it. If the daughter has always been able to stand up to her parents when she disagrees, she will probably not allow herself to feel pressured if she is not interested in this "gift." On the other hand, if she is not comfortable speaking up for herself, this could be another time that she does what is expected of her at an enormous consequence.

What would you say to the parents who may be experiencing heartache/loss at not having the grandchild they likely dreamed of?

A parent is always vulnerable to being disappointed that their children are not doing what the parent thinks/knows/believes is best. Sometimes, a parent’s life experience might seem to suggest the children are making a bad decision, but it’s still the children’s decision. And, besides, the only way a parent got the experience in the first place is by doing it her own way. Children need to make their own choices.

Given that, the decision about having grandchildren is simply not the parents’ to make. This is very hard for parents. For a father, the issue of grandchildren may be more related to his wanting a grandson so his name/genetic line will be passed on. Mom may feel guilty that she did something wrong; otherwise, her daughter would want to be a mother. She may feel her life has no direction now in her older years without a focus on grandchildren. She may feel her friends will pity her. It’s even possible that she had children without ever considering if she wanted them and resents her daughter doing what she never could. And, a mother who is unhappy and lonely in her life and marriage may want to protect her daughter from that by saying, "If you have children, you won’t be alone in your old age."

How can a woman explain to her parents/grandparents that she is not interested in having a baby without causing a family battle?

There may not be a way to prevent parents from being upset. If this is the parents’ desire, they are entitled to be upset that what they want will not happen. The daughter should be sensitive to her parents’ feelings while she is telling them she does not want children. It might help soften the blow if she tells them her decision has nothing to do with their not being good parents. It will also help if she acknowledges that this will be a huge disappointment for them and encourages each parent to talk about what the loss means to them.

What can parents do to fill the loss of not having a grandchild?

At the risk of sounding flippant, it is not good to put all your eggs in one basket. Even if there are grandchildren, grandparents need to have a life of their own that is not dependent for happiness on the next generation. Too many women put their life on hold once their children are grown, waiting for the next phase—grandparenting. This is risky, since their daughter may not want their mother involved full time! I am working with a family now where the daughter moved far away and only wants her parents to visit two to three times a year. The daughter loves her parents but wants to be doing more on her own; if she lived closer, she knows her mother will be telling her constantly how to raise the child. The daughter can stand up to her mother, but, as she said, "I don’t want to be having to do it every day." So, the answer is for parents to develop a full life, and if a grandchild comes along, that would be a wonderful addition to an already full life.

What is the best piece of advice you can offer women who decide not to have children given your own personal experience of remaining childless?

Be supportive and caring to disappointed parents. Their reaction is THEIR problem, so you don’t have to fix it for them, just listen and encourage their sharing their feelings. I can hear some women saying, "Yikes, I don’t want to encourage my mother’s rantings." But, if mother is really upset, she needs to have her feelings heard. When a daughter listens and is genuinely concerned for mother’s loss—without reacting or getting fired up—mother will be able to deal better with her loss/pain.

If mother keeps going on, even if the daughter tries to get her to stop, it is perfectly polite to say some version of, "I have heard what you are saying, and I don’t need to hear it again. We can agree to disagree, but please stop." If she continues, daughter can say, "I am going to leave now because I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’ll call you/drop by tomorrow." The reason for calling/dropping by is to be clear you are not angry; you are just setting a firm limit as to what you want to hear. It would be nice to suggest your mother may want to find someone else to talk to about this, her disappointment, her lost dreams for you, etc.,—a friend, even a therapist. Most mothers won’t take that advice, but most important is NOT what mother does, it’s what she doesn’t do—talk to you more than you want to hear, and you do have (polite) control over that. Yelling is never heard and won’t make your point.

What can a woman who opts to be childfree say when she’s feeling pressured by people outside of the family to explain her decision?

She has no need to explain. It’s rude for someone to be asking (to say nothing of pressuring). If politely ending the conversation with, "I’ve decided I do not want children," does not work, the woman can politely say "It is a personal decision and I do not wish to discuss it, thank you." Sometimes people pressure because, as I said above, they may not have wanted children but never knew they had the option. Or, they may really not understand how a woman can feel fulfilled without children. Nothing the woman says, then, would be helpful. It’s not her job to explain to their satisfaction.

About the Author

author_karen_lewisDr. Karen Gail Lewis
Dr. Lewis has a psychotherapy practice in the Washington, D.C. area and in Cincinnati, Ohio. For four years she wrote the "He Said, She Said" column for the Cincinnati Downtowner newspaper. She is available for speaking engagements, workshop presentations, professional supervision, and training. Her academic history includes serving on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati Medical School, Virginia Polytechnic Institute Family Therapy Program, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the University of Santiago, Chile. She has also served on the editorial boards of three professional journals and is the past book review editor for another journal. In 1997, she was honored with the Visionary Award by the Washington, DC, Rape Crisis Center.

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