Childlessness Transformed: Stories of Alternative Parenting

Chapter 2 - Prilly Sanville

I was born in 1944 in Pennsylvania and then at 5 moved to Illinois where I grew up. As a child, in my teenage years and in my 20's, I always thought I would have children. There was no question about it. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't have children. I love kids, and I always thought that I would have children and be like my mother. I got married in my 20's, and when my husband and I discussed having children, I said that I wanted to wait. I started a career, and I wanted to wait and see how we got along and what our rhythm of life was before I brought a child into this world. We got divorced about 4 years later. I made the right decision. If I had children, I know I would not regret that now, but I don't regret not having them. Somehow, at 20 years old, I had some wisdom to go slowly and settle what I needed to do for myself, because I was so unformed at that point.

And then I got very involved with working with children. I have never not been working with children since I was 20 years old. Even before that I was working with kids. When I talk to friends who do not have children and have not worked with children, I realize that for me there was a piece of the nurturing aspect, or the yearning for children, that has been taken care of on one level. There's something that I receive, as well as that I give, when I am with groups of children. I've worked with hundreds of children over the years. Someone said to me once, "You are mother of many children." I said, "Well, maybe so." That was at a time when it didn't help to hear that. I was still wanting children at that point.

In working with children, and with parents, what also became clear was that if I was going to have them, it would probably have been better in my 20's, because after that I began to see what was involved in raising children. I saw all the wonderful aspects, which used to make me very sad, because I was missing out. And I also saw what was hard about it, and the problems, because I was working with so many sets of parents over the years as they were going through difficulties in their marriages, or with their children. I had a much broader perspective about family. I was a classroom teacher for 10 years; I taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. So I was really working with the young ones. Every year, I was working with 25 sets of parents. When I was working in private schools I was working very closely with the parents.

I am still working with children. My work has simply changed its form over the years. My brother and sister both have children, and I am very, very close to them, very bonded with them. When I spend time with them is the only time when I really wish I had children. There's something about my connection to them that when I come home, I usually have 24 hours of yearning, of wondering. And of course I don't ever totally rule out having children. The birthing aspect is almost ruled out at this point for me, physically, because I have a back problem and I'm 44 years old, but I might end up adopting at some point, or being with someone who wants children. I don't say to myself, "I won't ever have a child in my life." It may be in a different form. But I'm open to that. I know I will always have children in my life.

I know I love children. I have a friend of mine who once looked at me with tears in her eyes, and she said, "Sometimes I don't understand why someone like you doesn't have children. You would make the most wonderful mother." And I said, "Well, you know, I feel that way sometimes, and at other times I think, well, maybe I'm here for other reasons." I'm not putting that mothering energy away; it's not like I'm not using it. I'm using it in other forms. When my mother was dying, the nurturing, good mother in me came forth. Not the bad mother, the good one. I have some friends who are my age who are adopting. I can't believe how many people I know who have adopted. There is a feeling in me that there are so many children without love, and without a home. I guess I'm still open to it.

For instance, the other day my seven year old niece, Jenny, was looking at my sister's hands and my hands. My sister's younger than me, she has two kids, and she's also lived a tougher life than me. I have a dishwasher and she doesn't. My niece said, " Aunt Prill, how come your hands are so smooth, and mom's hands are so dry, and look older than yours?" I looked at my sister and thought, "Oh my God. This is going to set up a little sibling rivalry ." And I looked at her and I said, "You know, Jenny, part of it is that your mother has chosen to have you two beautiful kids, and there's been a lot of hard work, and she does a lot of dishes, and used her hands in a different way than I have. I work in another way with children, but I don't use my hands in the same way that she does. My hands are used differently, and that's why they haven't become that way," and then she looked at me and said, " Well how come you don't have kids?"

I've answered that in different ways. Over the years various children have asked me this question. I say, "Well I never met someone that I wanted to have a baby with. I've gotten so that I am doing a lot of work with children over the years, and I'm very busy, and I chose to have a career." I usually stress how it makes it even more important to me to be able to know them, and to be connected to them since I don't have children.

The first question children want to know - do I have kids at home. With the younger children I am the mother figure, and sometimes it's simply wanting to know because their image of a woman is within the framework of their mother, and they connect me with their mother. Sometimes it's just plain curiosity. But I think most of them think I have kids. The response is always, "You don't?!" So there's an assumption that I have children, more so by children than by adults. With children it doesn't even bother me anymore. But from adults I get mixed messages, "Why isn't a pretty young woman like you married and having children?" This is difficult. "What's wrong with you that you don't have a family?" It used to be really hard for me when I would get that response. I got it more from men than from women actually. Also there was the deep, deep, expectation that of course you would grow up and have kids. Most of the people I know do have children. I really only have one or two childless friends, and they are looking to adopt. So I often find myself in a context of connecting to conversations about children, but I have to use either my brother or sister's experiences, or experiences that I have had with children, or childhood experiences. I respond with, "Oh, I remember when my brother and sister" or whatever. And that is the only time that I find that socially I feel strange. I know that I am different. I don't feel badly about it, I am just aware of that context. I want to be part of the conversation, what I bring in is a fairly touching story that connects, but, it's not about my own children. So, I'm constantly aware of that. I have had a number of conversations in the last few months where I was aware of this happening.

Since both my parents have died, and they died within a year's period, I'm thinking more about not having children than I did before. There's something about their deaths that has made it more poignant that I don't have children. I didn't expect that. I don't know if it is a legacy, or an awareness that I am no longer a daughter. It's subtle in some ways. I am aware of the comfort that my brother an sister were receiving, or allowing themselves, after mom and dad died, to go back, and have their children there.

I looked at my own own mortality. I mean, I'm next in line My niece said to me, "Well, who is the oldest now?" My sister said, "Well, Prilly is the oldest one in the family." "Oh," she says, "So, Prill is going to die next?" This is the same child who said to me, "If my parents die, would I be sent to an orphanage? I'd want to come and be with you." And I said, "Of course, you would come home with me!" and she would if that horrible circumstance arose. So I think there's the reality of mortality, realizing that when you don't have people older than you, that you may be next.

My father died in the middle of my mother's final illness. I was holding her just after his death and I looked at her. She had cancer, so she had no hair and had become this little skinny thing. She was sobbing because my father had died. I looked down at her - she was so little it was just incredible, it was like holding a baby. I had this moment, I felt a level of depth, almost as if I were her mother. I was rocking her, and she became a child. All of a sudden she looked up at me, and she said, "Oh dear, and you are my first born," and she turned back into my mother again. It was incredible. Those kinds of experiences happened contin-ually. One minute I would be massaging her, or turning her body, and she would be like a little child, and I would be giving that nurturing that you would give a little child, and she would turn around and become mother again in some wonderful, delightful form. We would talk about it. I could feel myself flowing back and forth from daughter to mother, and mother to daughter. Simply back and forth within a day's period. It was quite wonderful actually. I committed myself fully to the process of her dying, which meant that I wasn't too available for other people. Some criticized, some were angry, some realized that I had one mother, and she was going to die once and fully supported me. I have a lifetime ahead of me. It feels really good now that I look back. It has taken me a while to recover. It was a long haul.

We had put her into the hospital. I knew she was on her way out, and we were trying to figure out a way to get her out of the hospital. They lived on a mountain in Vermont, and it was mud season. It was really hard for us to get cars in and out and to get any nursing care to help out, and I couldn't do it all myself. A retirement home allowed us to live there and take care of her. It was an extraordinary experiencehere were these young people (my brother, sister and myself) sleeping on mattresses, on the floor, and in the rest of the rooms were people in their nineties, both women and men. They were like little spirits. They watched the process of this woman dying and her three children taking care of her. All these older people were quite alert. So we had a big audience. I thought they might resent us. I mean, here was someone dying which was bringing forth their mortality, but what happened is that it was reassuring to them. They said that for them to be connected to a family that was showing so much love was extraordinary. They never saw my mother. They never met her. They just saw her taken out when she died. It was like this phantom lady and her three kids that they saw coming and going. Because most everybody in their lives had died, some had no visitors. We talked to them, and it was interesting how there also was a parent/child transformation with them. Here were these strangers who I did not know, these old people with their wrinkled faces who would call me in, and give me advice, and I would feel like a child. And then I would feel the shift, where they were suddenly like little children, and I would move in from that other side, and would talk to them from the role of a nurturing mother. I was keenly aware of this dance. It would go back and forth. I had this wonderful experience of parent and child, not really being stuck in any of the roles. It was totally fluid.

I have actually seen this with children. I have done some work with parents and handicapped children A handicapped child is often depen-dent on the parent. We designed a lot of experiences where the parent would have to be dependent on the child. To watch a child who can't walk, and is visually impaired, and physically impaired, telling his father, "It's okay dad, you just relax, I am going to take care of you," is phenomenal. I've learned that all these precious moments are really what life's about. If you asked me 5 years ago, "You know, your mother's going to be dying, and how are you going to be?" There's no way that I could have told you that I could have done what I did. What I am glad to know now is that it is wonderful for me to know that I can commit myself to that level. I was committed. A friend of mine was saying the other day, "There was never a moment that I doubted your undying commitment to be there." It's true. I knew I was going to have to sacrifice some friends. There was going to be fallout. I didn't know how it was going to work, and I knew it was not going to be easy. But I'll never regret it.

The key when my mother was dying was that she be in charge, that she felt in charge of her body. You know it's not all that different from all human beings whether you're 8 years old, or 80 years old, if you take away their ability to be in charge of who they are, you make them a child in a negative way. A child needs to be in charge too. That is the whole work I do with children, I focus on self esteem and empowerment. And I watched my mother, allowing her to be in charge. It gave her dignity in the quality of her dying. If she hadn't been in charge, then we couldn't have gone back and forth from mother to daughter, and daughter to mother.

I'll give an example of how she was in charge. She hadn't eaten anything for 3 weeks. Everything had shut down, but she was still alert and alive. About the last week before she died, she woke up and said, "Prilly, I want to take a bath." She couldn't do anything for herself. She was incontinent, and we had to turn her in bed, but she wanted to get up and go in and take a full bath. So I called the nurse. She said, "Nobody at this stage takes a bath. She'll probably die in the bathtub. She could have hypothermia, or she'll have a cardiac arrest." I said, "Rosie, my mother wants to take a bath, and if she dies then she at least will die doing something she loves. Come over and help us give her a bath." We could have said, "Oh Mom, you're too sick." But she took a bath, and she didn't die in the bathtub. We were all sobbing in the other room. I had to keep moving in and out, because we knew it was her last bath and she was so happy. She was there with her little hands, throwing water around saying, "This is the loveliest day of my life." She loved the water. She loved the ocean. The bath gave her confidence. The next day she was barely still here. I don't even know how to tell you how bad it was.

She opened her eyes. We were in Brattleboro, Vermont, and she said, " Prilly, where's the nearest ocean?" I thought she was spacing out. She was always pretty alert, but sometimes she would talk about things that didn't connect. I said, " What do you mean, Mom? It's probably 3 hours away." She said, "Well, I want to go." I thought, this woman is serious! I called my brother and sister and said, "Hey guys, Mom wants to go to the ocean." They said, "Well, let's do it!" She said, "I want to go to the ocean even if it kills me." She said that with humor. She always had this dry sense of humor. So she said, "Do you think we should call someone medical and tell them that we are doing this?" I said, "Whatever you want." She said, "Well you tell the doctor, and if he says no, tell him I am going anyway." So I said okay. I called the doctor, and he was great. He said, "When I am dying I want my family to take me to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Go for it. You need to be prepared. She could die on the way, or while you are there." I said, "Well, I'm not prepared for that. How can I be prepared for that? But we're going to do it anyway." So we loaded her in the car. I got three friends to meet us at the beach. We went down to Boston because I wanted to be sure I was in familiar territory. We went to the beach at Nahant. It was close enough to the city, and she had chosen it. She said, "You know that city beach with all the dog poop on it." It had gorgeous waves on it, and it was the last day of February, so nobody was there. It was a beautiful sunny day. We took her down to the water in a wheelchair and put water all over her face. She had no immune system at that point, and we were putting the Boston Harbor water in her mouth. But we knew it didn't matter anymore. It was as if this was her last ritual. She lasted about a half hour, and then we put her back in the car. I wasn't sure she was going to make it back. It was pretty scary. She was able to say, "Thank you children, that was a wonderful day." She was really able to tell us that. I was lying in the back of the station wagon with her. She couldn't talk at that point because she was so exhausted. One moment she was like a baby, and I would feel this love and it was so amazing, and then all of a sudden she would turn, and make some comment and be my mother again. It was great. We took her back and she died 48 hours later.

That is how it was with my mother. I totally took care of her as you would a baby. When she went into the hospital for the last time, we didn't want her to stay in the hospital, and she didn't want to die in the hospital either. I told her, "You'll never be alone again." The point of the story is we go back to being a baby. My mother was an abandoned child. She was found on a Philadelphia park bench. She came into the world, and was left and was very alone, and when she was dying, she had a choice. I remember telling her that when she was being a real bitch at one point. I said, "You can crawl in a hole and die alone, or let everyone be with you and be loved." Later she said, "It is much harder for me to die having all this love around, for it is harder to leave then." Because, of course, she didn't want to leave us. I have the image sometimes of seeing this little baby on a park bench all alone and then seeing an incredible image of my brother and sister and I holding her for four hours as she was dying and the breath going out of her. She was still talking to us. What more could she want? She had her three children holding her...I get teary when I tell that part of it. In her dying she turned it around for herself, with some help, of course, but it wouldn't have happened if she'd chosen to do it differently. There's just something very beautiful about that for me. It goes very deeply. She allowed love and mothering in some way which she had never experienced.

My grandmothernot her mother, but my father's mother, gave me incredible love when I was a child. So that's how I learned about love. My grandmother gave it to me. I love the intergenerational aspect. My grandmother, my father's mother, was really a very important figure in my life. She was very loving, and held and hugged me a lot. She filled a wonderful mothering role for me, more so than my own mother, who wasn't able to do all that. The beauty of it is that I was then able to give that back to my mother during her last days. I loved how the circle went from grandmother to daughter back to mother again.

It's only been a year since my mother died, but I can see I've changed a lot. I've always cared about the quality of life, but now I'm aware that time is precious. It makes me much more assertive on taking action on things, like "What am I waiting for?" I am choosing who I spend time with. There are conscious decisions now and I don't want to waste time if it's not right for me. Things like that I can verbalize. Other areas I really can't. I feel the loss. Four or five months ago I was so numb and empty. I felt so horrible, sort of walking around like a ghost. What's happening now is that I feel the warmth and the fullness of what I experienced. Because of what I allowed myself to do, and she allowed, I'm being left with a fullness of a mother I didn't have for all those years but who I got to connect with in the end. I'm feeling the fullness and the warmth, and it's really very, very special. I'll never regret what I did. It took a toll on me physically, and it took a toll on some of my friendships, but I'll never, never regret it. I'd go back and do it again. It was absolutely the right thing to do.

One of the pieces I've had to deal with as a woman is that I haven't experienced carrying a child within me. Here I have this body that's capable of bearing and birthing a child. A lot of women have a need to know what it's like to carry a baby in them and go through that process. Then all of a sudden they have this baby, which is very different from the birth and the process of carrying the child. I was aware that what I've learned to do is separate the two, although they're connected. The piece that had pain for me is that I don't know in my body what it's like to carry a child, and I would like to know that. But it's interesting because I feel like my body knows what it would be somehow. I know that my body has all this capability and I'm connected to it, even though I haven't exper-ienced childbirth. Among my therapy clients, I had three women, all pregnant. A major piece they were dealing with was the pregnancy itself and what that was like and I thought, "How can I help them? I haven't been through this." And yet I was fine with them. I instinctually knew how to be with the process.

I have a concern right now for children in our world. I think they're being forced to grow up faster than they should. That concerns me deeply. There's a push academically. There are more working parents now. It's more than family, it's universal peace that concerns me now, a more global aspect of "What are we doing to our children? Why are we pushing them to leave childhood so quickly?" I see them pushing reading and writing in the kindergarten stage, and learning computers. I absolutely believe in basic skills. These are all skills that children should have, but most of these skills a child will learn. There's been a real shift in the last four or five years. Technology has done a lot of that. It's very significant, and very different from, say, ten years ago. It concerns me. This is the instant generationinstant image, instant everything. You go and get your dinner in ten minutes at McDonalds. You turn on the TV. If you want a movie, ten minutes and you have it in your housea new video. It's just a very different generation of children that we're dealing with now, and this is very connected with how family is going to be.

I'm concerned about the child in the adult as well. A lot of my work is about how we continue to nurture the child. And maybe that's the essence of what we started with here. Most of my work is concerned with nurturing the child within the adult and the child within the child, and how do we maintain that, whether the person is 80 years old or 6 years old, without loosing the childlike quality...not the childish, but the childlike quality. The world has become so busy. I see parents struggling to try to maintain a family structure, and it's pretty hard. My friends tell me that it's really hard to find how to do that.

I had a talk with a friend of mine last night. We both grew up in the midwest, and we were talking about our parents. There's a difference between what happens in a small midwest town, where things are green and the life is slow, and what happens when the family picks up and moves to LA or leaves for Chicago. That significantly impacts everything. The slowness has been taken away...that permission to go slowly, which you can't easily feel in a city. The city doesn't allow for it. The institutions don't allow for it either. You can do it, but you have to fight. You have to fight to find parking places. Children know a lot, and I think it's going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years.

I work and have worked with so many children that so need love, even those who have parents. I work with those who are in very tough straits. For those of us with no children of our own, if we have love and nurturing to give, there are certainly plenty of children who need it out there.

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