If You Don’t Have Children, What Do You Leave Behind?
Posted March 2, 2018 12:04 a.m. EST
The questionnaire from the estate lawyer has been sitting on my desk for six months. “Just focus on the hit-by-a-bus version,” he advised, knowing wills tend to fall to the bottom of everyone’s list. “You can always update it.”
Still, I’m paralyzed. My husband and I don’t have children, so the options feel endless. How can I provide for my nephew and other close family and friends who feel like family? Should I put aside money for anyone’s education?
I think that wills are easier for parents because they have a natural push — the need to name guardians for their children and provide financially for them after they are gone. On the surface it’s about who gets your stuff, but it got me thinking about ways people without children create a legacy. Who will remember us?
Sarah Murray thought extensively about her legacy when researching her book “Making an Exit,” an exploration of death rituals from different cultures. In the final chapter, she lays out an elaborate plan to have a pile of her ashes scattered in seven locations around the world that were formative in her life. As a serious traveler, and a single person without children, she wants to provide grants to a group of volunteer applicants and spark in them the magic of travel.
“The idea is that people who don’t know me can go on a journey,” she said, “and I can play a sort of tour guide in my mortality.”
I have spent the past few weeks skimming books by and about nonparents (my favored term because it doesn’t carry the judgment of childless or child free) and connecting with dozens of people without children. I put out requests to groups in the Encore movement — leaders and activists working with socially minded people in midlife and beyond. Within 24 hours, I was flooded with notes from coaches, authors, financial advisers, lawyers, friends of friends and even relatives who had rarely opened up on the subject.
Sifting through the responses, I saw patterns and creative thinking. I saw a lot of worry, too, mostly about who will take care of us when we’re old. When it comes to legacy and relationships with young people, people start close to home. Nieces, nephews and godchildren came up in nearly every response. As did the idea of meaningful work. And that’s true for me.
I’m lucky to have close relationships with my nephew and other young children in my circle, yet my nurturing instinct kicks into overdrive with people hitting their 20s and starting their careers. I think often about Gloria Steinem, who has had various young women living in her guest room for periods. I yearn for my version of that.
People spoke a lot about leaving money to charity later, and giving time now. My search turned up many nonparents who believe that since we are not busy parenting, we can jump into the lives of other people’s children in meaningful ways. I started thinking of nonparents as an untapped national resource.
Ruth Ann Harnisch, a philanthropist with no biological children, takes it further: “Even though I’ve never been pregnant or adopted, it’s not in my soul that I have no children,” she told me. “Everybody’s child is everybody’s child. And I feel responsible for all kids as a resident of this planet.”
My friend Audrey, who died a few years ago, was a high school English teacher and poet who never married or had children, yet she found her way into the lives of scores of young people. She was not my teacher, but I inherited a relationship with her when I married one of her former students. After our divorce, Audrey was one of the few people we continued to share.
When she joined my book club, she was 25 years older than the rest of us and provided another generation’s perspective during literary discussions. She had a surprising ease with us, maybe because she was used to being around much younger people. I have reminders of Audrey everywhere — a silk scarf from Thailand, a bulging envelope of handwritten notes and museum postcards.
Channeling Audrey, I’m collecting younger friends with a vengeance. Last year, as many of our peers were packing their children off to college, my husband and I traveled to Colombia and Jamaica for weddings of two much younger couples. In each case, we played the Audrey role, the friend who looks old enough to be the parent. After the Colombian wedding, we hosted a party for the newlyweds in our apartment. It was our gift to them and an excuse to spend more time with an energizing group of people. As I was sorting all this out, I reread Meghan Daum’s 2014 essay in The New Yorker, “Difference Maker: The childless, the parentless, and the Central Sadness.” It’s an unvarnished account of her experience as a court-appointed advocate in the foster care system. She captured the yearning so many of us feel to influence or be of service to children even when they are not our own.
But the essay also captured the imperfection of it: “I was more like a random port in the unrelenting storm that was his life,” Daum wrote of her relationship with the boy she calls Matthew. The article helped me realize why I’ve made the choice I’ve made, to go where I think I can make a difference.
These days I spend a lot of my time with a nonprofit, Girls Write Now, which hits the trifecta of my passions: college access, empowering girls and writing. I’m a relentless fundraiser and evangelist for the group, and I do it for myself as much as for the girls.
Last year, after hearing a young woman read from a piece about her father’s philandering, I challenged myself to visit uncomfortable places in my own writing. A few months later, I published a very honest and personal essay about my divorce, something I know touched others.
Now I have to push myself in a different way and write my will. I’m still not sure what I want to happen when I die, but I have a lot more clarity about how I want to live.