I ran a Money and Life session yesterday for a network of childless women of different ages. It was a fascinating, intimate and touching experience as we explored hopes and fears around money and life for this particular group. The session got me thinking whether there is any fundamental difference between those who do and those who do not have children in terms of deeper questions of money and life.
Some things that those without children worry about:
Several, though not all, of the childless women reported a particular drive to earn money to support them in old age and a related anxiety that they might not be secure in old age. They suggested that children provide support in old age. This is partly financial, but more significantly, they saw children as a trusted support and ally as parents get older, helping them navigate complicated legal, care and health systems. Children can act as advocates when parents start to deteriorate physically and mentally just as their needs become more pressing.
Because of this perception, many in the group said that although they’d ideally like to do what they really want to do in life (in this case this meant: becoming full time artists, committing to teaching yoga full time, leaving well paid jobs that no longer brought satisfaction etc), they believed that they couldn’t because they needed to earn money to ensure the support they needed (and that they believed others with children would have) in old age.
What those with children worry about:
In other groups where some participants do have children I notice a different pattern. Here parents often put off doing whatever it is they love or feel most called to do because a) they believe they need to support their family financially when children are young and b) they wish to be able to help their children financially to ‘get started’ once the children are adult, especially as things are getting harder for the younger generation, in terms of paying student loans and accessing property. This group often experience being a parent as a constraint on their freedom, and a reason they have to compromise doing what they truly want. They sometimes envy those without children believing they have greater freedom and possibility to do what they really want.
Superficial (but important) differences:
On the surface these are very different situations associated with very different stories life and circumstances. Parents worry about supporting themselves and particularly their children – through pretty much every stage of a child’s life, including into adulthood. Those who are not parents worry about supporting themselves, particularly in later life when their own capacities and resources may be dwindling and there are not children to support them.
Two completely different situations, and two very sensible rational responses (so it seems).
Deeper (and more important) similarities:
But there is a deeper pattern here, one that is actually remarkably similar despite the contrasting circumstances. In both cases people postpone doing what they most deeply feel called to do NOW, in order to earn money, in order to provide (so they believe) for future security (their own, their children’s or both).
People in both groups offer sensible, socially acceptable, apparently rational reasons to delay living their own life as fully as possible here and now.
The invitation behind Money and Life work is to notice that this continual delay is never actually based on the reality of any given situation. We need to see that it arises from a projection into the future of a present, inner experience. In these examples the projection is one of inner insecurity. At it’s simplest and deepest level the unconscious thinking is something like, ‘I cannot move more fully into living life NOW, because of something bad that might happen later (to me / to my children) if I did.’ We must recognise that this insecurity and apprehension is actually a present experience – one that we are typically unaware of, and so allow to drive our life decisions.
Many of us have never learned to trust life enough to step out in the direction our heart’s desire and our soul’s longing. Many of us exist in states of chronic underlying concern and anxiety. As long as it remains unconscious, it is easy to project that sense of basic insecurity onto seemingly sensible, socially acceptable stories – ‘I need to provide for my kids’, ‘I need to be secure in old age’, ‘I need to ensure I am supported’. We believe that the inner sense of security that we lack here and now can be established in the future through taking various sensible steps.
It is important to acknowledge that of course both those with and those without children do face real questions and challenges as life unfolds, as do we all. As we come to see that the story about Money, Life, security, the present and the future that we have learnt from our families and our culture is a gross distortion, we gain greater freedom, flexibility and resource to actually embrace the real questions and challenges of our life – right now.
How to leap (or tiptoe) into a new story about money, life and security:
What new stories are possible for each group to free them up to live life more fully and creatively NOW. After all, despite our constant preoccupation with the future, and entanglements with past events, the only task available to any of us at any point is how we live NOW (there is no other place that life happens).
To free ourselves from what we think is ‘just the way things are’ about Money and Life, a first step is to become radically curious about what until now we’ve probably accepted as ‘just how it is.’
For those who are not parents this might mean reflecting that:
- Having children is no guarantee of support or security in old age. Many people who are parents have children living in other cities and countries, children with their own difficulties or children who for one reason or another are unable or unwilling to provide support in old age.
- Many people (with and without children) die well before old age renders them infirm or in need of this sort of assistance. My father died aged 78 with plenty of money, loving children, all his mental faculties and until a terminal cancer diagnosis had not been to the doctor for decades. Life is beautiful, ephemeral and fragile, and there is no guarantee for anyone with and without children, of making it to old age.
- There are many people without the support of children who have robust, reliable, lasting and deep relationships with people who do offer support and advice in a trusted, reliable and supportive way.
None of this is to deny the help that many children undoubtedly do offer to elderly parents and which is a wonderful and valuable thing. But it is to see that future security can never be based solely on the idea of ‘having children’.
For those who are parents this might mean reflecting that:
- There are children in happy, loving and supportive families with lots of money and with very little money. The security and support in life provided to children by a family has nothing intrinsically to do with money.
- There are children in unsupportive, dysfunctional and miserable families with lots of money and with no money. A sense of insecurity and lack of love and support provided by a family to children has nothing intrinsically to do with money.
- What really gives children security and support in life is high quality contact, relationship and intimacy with parents and carers. This is precisely what many do not get when their parents are overly focused on earning money – in order to provide what (they think) their children want and need.
- The best thing parents can offer their children, perhaps in reality the only thing, is a model of an adult who is able to live the life that truly calls them with and without money. Children learn vastly more from how parents actually live their lives than what parents say about how they live their lives!
- The best gift one can give children is to model the creativity, courage and confidence to live life fully. To the extent that parents postpone or compromise the unfolding of their own life, in order (so they may think) to provide security for their children, they are in fact offering them a powerful teaching that ‘the world is not a place that will support you to life the life you truly want.’ This deep teaching is unlikely to lead to secure children – even if they grow up to have lots of money! It is also a teaching many of us received from our own parents and then blindly pass on to our children. There are many well off, professional, insecure people in society. In this way society and much work and economic activity continues to be based around anxiety and insecurity rather than creativity and trust in life.
Regardless of whether we have children or not, at the level of our basic humanity, each of us is simultaneously both secure and insecure. Life is fragile, uncertain and can be taken away in a moment – this is basic insecurity. Life is rich, here for as long as we are alive, and at the deepest level supports us to take the next steps on our journey – this is basic security. The more we can really acknowledge both sides of this in our experience now, the more we will be able to live full lives with and without children.