If I can overcome my attachment issue, I can still have a life partner and even get married. But I don’t want to have a kid at my age. If that were to happen, I would need to work well into my 60s and 70s and that’s not something that appeals to me. So basically, it’s too late for me so I need to accept this. But it’s a bitter acceptance, and I am experiencing great pain and sadness because I feel I have failed to achieve something I took for granted (becoming a husband and father).
I’ve withdrawn from friends because they have kids who are now teenagers and I feel embarrassed and inadequate because I didn’t have kids. They’ve accomplished something great and I didn’t. I dread bumping into these old friends and their teenage kids. At my work, I dread people asking me whether I’m married with children. That’s because nearly everyone at work is married with children. I feel like such a loser and a failure.
My question is, what do I do now? My future seems desolate and empty to me. I try and make the most of my freedom. I travel when I can. I also have great supportive parents. And most importantly, I have my health. But what meaning is there to life without a family of my own? I wish I had a normal life with a wonderful wife and kids. I feel adrift, purposeless, and like my life is finished.
How do I find some meaning and purpose in my life? How do I face a future that seems like an empty void — no children, no grandchildren. Nothing. — Feeling Meaningless
I don’t believe you. I mean, I believe that you feel bitter and like a loser and a failure and like the odd man out among your friends and colleagues. But I don’t buy that the reason you feel that way is because you feel like you have no meaning in your life. First of all, there are lots of ways to find meaning in life (which I’ll get to in a minute), but beyond that, if having children were truly the sole way to find meaning and purpose in life, and you really, really wanted meaning and purpose in your life, you could have children. You could foster or adopt, for one thing. You could, you know, NOT rule out having biological children because you think you’re too old and don’t want to work into your 70s. Think about that for a minute. The reason you’ve shared for ruling out having children at your age is that you don’t want to work into your 70s. And you want me to believe you are desperate for meaning in your life and that you are just so super bitter you don’t have children? Nope, not buying it.
What I do buy is that you regret that finding meaning and purpose takes effort and sacrifice. I buy that you’re bitter than “attaching” to another person — committing in heart, body, soul, and finances — isn’t always convenient. It takes compromise. And effort. It can be a lot of work. Certainly, raising children is a lot of work. I have two of my own, and some days I feel like I’m running a marathon for sixteen hours straight and I’m so bone-tired by the time my children go to sleep that it’s all I can do to will myself to stay awake until 9 just so I have an hour of peace in my day before I drift into dreamland and start all over again the next morning. And I have it easy compared to many — I have a supportive, very present spouse, good health, able-bodied children, and enough financial comfort to meet all the basic and not-so-basic needs of our family. We are very lucky and it’s still an incredible amount of work. But, yes, I do find that having kids brings a deeper sense of purpose and meaning to my life, it brings a lot of joy and laughter, and I don’t feel alone.
But I feel confident that I would feel all of this even if I didn’t have children. Because I am, by nature, invested and engaged in my community and the world around me. And I don’t measure success by what others have. Not usually, anyway. And when I do, I know that I’m doing myself a disservice and I train my focus on my own life, my goals, and what I hope to accomplish.
What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish? What steps are you taking on a daily basis to meet those goals? More important: how do you define meaning and purpose? For me, it’s a feeling that I am useful, that I’m making a difference in the world (in however a small way that may be), that I am using and improving my innate gifts and learning new skills that help make my life and the life or lives of others easier, richer, more beautiful, and more connected to others. If I can succeed in helping someone feel a little less alone in the world, I have found some meaning. I don’t rely solely on parenthood to do this. And thank God, because on a day-to-day basis, parenthood is a real slog, and there often isn’t time and energy to bask in the meaning and purpose of it all.
You say you have “avoidant attachment style,” which sounds like a fancy way of saying you’re a commitment-phobe, and that your therapist believes this has prevented you from having a life partner. And you believe that not having a life partner and children has prevented you from having meaning and purpose in your life. Well, isn’t that convenient for a commitment-phobe! To believe there’s one path to meaning and purpose and you have a psychological excuse keeping you from that path!
There are lots of paths to meaning and purpose. You have actively chosen not to pursue one of the paths (parenthood). And don’t give me (or yourself) any crap about how it wasn’t a choice and you just didn’t meet the right person to have kids with. You have actively chosen to avoid the path of partnership and parenthood, and you are saying now that, even if you did find a partner, you would forgo parenthood because it would require you to work longer and that would be inconvenient. You have chosen to forgo that particular path, which is fine. Good for you, actually, for choosing NOT to have children when you know you don’t want to invest the time and energy and work parenthood would require of you.
So, fucking choose another path. What are your gifts and skills and interests? (If you’re 49 and you don’t know the answer to that, you have bigger problems than a lack of meaning in your life and you and your therapist have a new topic to focus on together). How can you use your gifts and skills and interests to make the world a little better (meaning! purpose!). Brainstorm, discuss with family and friends, check out volunteer options. Look at where there’s a deficit or room for improvement in movements, organizations, local government, nonprofits, schools, places in your community where your special skills, gifts, and resources could be of help. Offer help! That’s a sure way to find some meaning and purpose.
Still afraid of dying alone? Need immediate companionship? Nurture your friendships. The people in your life whose kids are no longer little are probably finding themselves with lots of extra time now that their teenagers don’t want much to do with them anymore. Instead of withdrawing from those friends because you’re embarrassed that you never married and became a dad, invite them to hang out. Start a monthly or bi-weekly dinner club. Help ease the transition into empty-nesting that your friends will soon be finding themselves in by being available for companionship and adventures. You might find that as bitter as you’ve been that you don’t have their lives, they’ve envied your freedom and the financial surplus they may assume you have. You might come to better appreciate your lifestyle by spending time with others who have a different one.
And, finally: get a dog. A dog’s loyalty, companionship, and neediness may fill that void you say you have. And you won’t have to work into your 70s or even volunteer anywhere to get it. They also don’t generally live past 15 or so. Could be a pretty perfect solution for a commitment-phobe who’s feeling too adrift in life.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.