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'What Big, Sad, Scary Prospects You Have, Ungrandma!" Non-Grandparents: What to Do About Our Futures?

08/04/2014 13:40 BST | Updated 08/06/2014 10:59 BST

2014-04-08-AgraveofgrandmotherlyhopesShutterstock.jpg

The grave of grandparently hopes. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I'm 59, and have never had children - not my choice. Many of my same-age friends and family are preparing to enjoy the arrival of the next generation beyond, an experience that I'll no doubt take pleasure in by proxy, but still, that I'll miss out on for myself. I watch young children in my community growing up with a wistful longing: policemen suddenly look too old, surely precocious in planning their own families - not, as the cliché goes, too young.

My 83-year-old mother says, "I feel so badly for you." But she comforts me when I try to salve her personal distress. "I'm lucky," she reminds me. "At least your brothers and your sister have children. It's my friends who don't have any grandchildren that I feel sorry for."

There's even a website now, The GaGa Sisterhood, for "women who want to be grandmas", i.e. those facing grandchild envy.

Childlessness, and the concomitant grandchildlessness, started with women like me, the boomers. In the 1960s, 70s and on, many had enhanced opportunities for higher education or training, better career prospects, more scope to travel and readily available, more reliable contraception. Commonly, we tried desperately to combine jobs and these other newfound freedoms with finding a mate and producing families, but significant numbers of us postponed those goals, for financial or other reasons. Then, as we aged towards the menopause, either the fertility statistics began to stack against us or we just had to admit that Mr Right had not appeared in time. (Back then, options like adoption were harder to follow through; and then, as now, IVF is not the miracle solution that some would have us think.)

The trend from my mother's generation to mine is similar in the UK and the US. In 2010, 11.6% of American women between the ages of 80 and 84 had no offspring; by 2030, the figure is projected to reach 16%, and still to rise beyond that. (http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/public_policy_institute/ltc/2013/baby-boom-and-the-growing-care-gap-insight-AARP-ppi-ltc.pdf)

Non-grandparents' feelings about their status are more complex and varied than one might think. Yes, some confess themselves desperate for grandchildren, pained by their peers' boasting about their own; but in The Huffington Post recently, Tira Harpaz insightfully laid bare the possible causes of such angst: that a lot was about control and its potential loss, given the biological imperative to pass on one's genes; the realities of ageing; and the compulsion to make everything perfect for our own children, if we have them. "There's a strong measure of fear... that my children won't be able to have kids or won't want kids, the fear that I'll become ill or worse, the fear that it just won't happen in time". (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tira-harpaz/grandparents-hungry-for-grandchildren_b_3193677.html) "Expectations can make you very unhappy," agrees a non-grandparent interviewee in a recent Guardian podcast on this subject. (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/audio/2010/feb/26/family-podcast-living-without-grandchildren)

So some of us try to be philosophical and positive, with clever coping mechanisms for when the longed-for next generation doesn't appear, or for when it does, but in the families of our friends. And, as the (childless) researcher and writer Jill Reynolds discovered, some of the ungrandchilded combat their toxic sense of "deficit identity" successfully, like the literary editor and author Diana Athill, who took things into her own hands, making decisions in a measured, rational way about her future care in a home - and she's been prepared to speak about the highs and lows of the process. Joanna Lumley is another, advocating the use of older people as adoptive grandparents, a "wonderful care system for children when the school day is ended - before their parents have come home from work". (http://www.open.ac.uk/platform/blogs/onboard/what-can-we-do-if-were-not-grannies). She's backed up by the grandmother hypothesis in science, which posits that in women, their longevity beyond the menopause has evolved precisely to focus their care and attention on any offspring in the "pack" who are already around.

Nonetheless, according to the AARP report above, things are going to get critical for us non-grandmas and -grandpas: "From 7 potential caregivers per frail older person [in 2010], the caregiver ratio is projected to shrink to just 4 in 2030." Further evidence suggests that older people are often reluctant to impose their future care on their children, if they have them. Perhaps - even more worryingly - they're unconvinced that their children would undertake such care in any case (3% are certainly uncertain). (http://www.fidelity.com/static/dcle/welcome/documents/intra-family-generational-finance-study.pdf).

In a New York Times piece, 'But who will care for me?', Kelly Flynn hinted at some solutions that we need to think about more: self-created "old-age communities" composed of close friends and neighbours; and our use of people we know and trust who, in the absence of children and grandchildren, can take us shopping, or act as our advocates to help us buy that hearing aid or change our energy supplier. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/booming/10story-booming.html?_r=0)

We'd better hurry. We need these solutions soon, if not right now.