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Pity the Childless Couple

Claim:   Article bemoans the plight of childless couples.

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 1999]

Ann Landers' famous "The Childless Couple"

There is nothing sadder than a childless couple. It breaks my heart to see them relaxing around swimming pools in Florida, sitting all suntanned and miserable on the decks of their boats — trotting off to Europe like lonesome fools. It's an empty life. Nothing but money to spend, more time to enjoy and a whole lot less to worry about.

The poor childless couple are so wrapped up in themselves, you have to feel sorry for them. They don't fight over the child's discipline, don't blame each other for the child's most obnoxious characteristics, and they miss all the fun of doing without for the child's sake. They just go along, doing whatever they want, buying what they want and liking each other. It's a pretty pathetic picture.

Everyone should have children. No one should be allowed to escape the wonderful experience that accompanies each stage in the development of the young — the happy memories of sleepless nights, coughing spells, tantrums, diaper rash, debts, "dipso" baby sitters, saturated mattresses, emergencies and never-ending crises.

How dismal is the peaceful home without the constant childish problems that make a well-rounded life and an early breakdown; the tender, thoughtful discussions when the report card reveals the progeny to be one step below a moron; the end-of-the-day reunions with all the joyful happenings recited like well-placed blows to the temples.

Children are worth it. Every moment of anxiety, every sacrifice, every complete collapse pays off as a fine, sturdy adolescent is reached. The feeling of reward the first time you took the boy hunting — he didn't mean to shoot you, the lad was excited. Remember how he cried? How sorry he was? And how much better you felt after the blood transfusion? These are the times a man with a growing son treasures — memories that are captured forever in the heart and the limp.

Think back to the night of romantic adventure when your budding daughter eloped with the village idiot. What childless couple ever shared in the stark realism of that drama? Aren't you a better man for having lived richly, fully, acquiring that tic in your left eye? Could a woman without children touch the strength and heroism of your wife as she tried to fling herself out of the bedroom window?

The childless couple live in a vacuum. They fill their lonely days with golf, vacation trips, dinner dates, civic affairs, tranquility, leisure and entertainment. There is a terrifying emptiness without children, but the childless couple are too comfortable to know it.

You just have to look at them to see what the years have done: He looks boyish, unlined and rested; she's slim, well-groomed and youthful. It isn't natural. If they had had kids, they'd look like the rest of us — worn out, wrinkled and exhausted.
 

Origins:   While both Dear Abby and Ann Landers have run the above-quoted item in their columns, neither of those famous advice-givers is its author. (Indeed, Dear Abby's 1994 airing of the item stated: "I hope the author will identify himself (or herself) and claim the credit — or blame, depending on the way you interpret
it.")

This work of satire was penned by Roslyn South and appeared in a 1957 issue of The American Mercury, a widely-read (albeit at times controversial) magazine published between 1924 and 1981. The sub-heading South bestowed upon her "Pity the Childless Couple" article reveals the item's tongue-in-cheek intent: "Musings of a good mother — on a bad day."

While what currently circulates as "Pity the Childless Couple" still greatly resembles the 1957 original, a number of subsequent alterations have significantly altered its original tone: the wording of a number of its sentences has been changed slightly, a few sentences and phrases have been dropped entirely from some paragraphs, and the following key section (which originally appeared between the "Everyone should have children" and "How dismal is the peaceful home" paragraphs) has been elided:
Then comes the real fulfillment as the children grow like little acorns and become real nuts. The wonder of watching your overweight ballerina of twelve make a fool of herself in a leotard. The warm smile of a small lad with the sun glistening on 500 bucks' worth of metal braces ruined on peanut brittle. The rollicking, merry, care-free voices as hordes of hysterical kiddies stampede at the birthday party.

A married couple without little ones envy their neighbor's bairn. It isn't enough to be god-parents to the entire block, they still miss out on that glorious period of childhood that is alive, exuberant and bursting with healthy impulses to shatter the shredded nerves.

I pity the couple without children to brighten the cocktail hour by brushing the martini from the shaking hand, to massage the potato chips into the rug and to wrestle them for the olive.
Also, this paragraph:
Think back to the night of romantic adventure when your budding daughter eloped with the village idiot. What childless couple ever shared in the stark realism of that drama? Aren't you a better man for having lived richly, fully, acquiring that tic in your left eye? Could a woman without children touch the strength and heroism of your wife as she tried to fling herself out of the bedroom window?
lost the portion that completed it in 1957:
It takes a father to attain the stature of standing by, resolute and ready — ready to jump after her. The climax was when you two became closer together and realized that, after all, your baby girl was a woman now. A lovely young woman with the mind of a pygmy.
Finally, the article's closing line:
If they had had kids, they'd look like the rest of us — worn out, wrinkled and exhausted.
read as follows in the 1957 original:
If they'd had kids they'd look like the rest of us — tired, gray, wrinkled, sagging — in other words, normal.
While most readers accept the piece as a humorous commentary on the downside of parenting, some see it as a cruel commentary on the plight of those who are childless, but not by choice. After publishing the item in her column in 1994, Dear Abby received these comments from some of her readers:
DEAR ABBY: Regarding the pathetic attempt at humor by the author of The Childless Couple, I reply with a different perspective.

I've been married for 11 years and have had 10 miscarriages. My heart has been broken so many times that I'm surprised that I still have a heart.

My spouse and I don't sun ourselves in Florida as the piece suggested. We can't afford to we've spent all our money on fertility testing and surgical procedures, trying to correct the problem that prevents us from being parents.

So, here's the author's kind of humor back at him or her: May all your children die in a horrible accident on their way to visit you. Then you, too, will have a glimpse of the heartache of childlessness. You think that's morbid humor? Touché.

- A Childless Couple In Oregon
 

What made you think your readers would appreciate a piece as cruel as the one you published titled The Childless Couple ?

Abby, there is nothing sadder than a childless couple, especially a couple who desperately wants to have a child but cannot or a couple who is childless because their only child has died.

We who have children may find humor in the scenarios, but what about those who did not choose to be childless? They would welcome the sleepless nights, diaper rash, and never-ending crises most parents have experienced. If you haven't walked in their shoes, you can't possibly understand the pain of praying for a child and never having that prayer answered.

- Compassionate Parent Who Aches For Those Less Fortunate
 

DEAR ABBY: There are many of us who are childless NOT by choice. Have you ever stopped to think of what our lives might be like? Yes, you might see us relaxing around swimming pools in Florida or trotting off to Europe like lonesome fools, but have you ever stopped to consider that we might be attempting to escape loneliness, the loneliness that the void of childlessness has created in our lives?

It is very easy to cast judgment on others, but I suggest before you do that, you walk in our shoes. The saddest part of my day is when I hear the endless complaints some people make about their children. This is the injustice of it all: You are blessed with gifts from God your children yet you do nothing but complain of the responsibility, cost, problems, etc.

Well, be thankful for your blessings, because you might just raise children who will be childless by choice because of your actions as parents.

- Childless In Houston
The negative reaction the item provoked might have been due in part to the use of the word "childless," a word that has since come to carry a sad "... and not by choice" connotation that it would not have conveyed back when the article was first pubished.

In 1957, "childless" was the preferred term for (married) adults who were not parents. English usage has since evolved to apply the term "childfree" to those who neither have children nor want any, while "childless" is generally applied to those who would dearly like to have children but have been thwarted in their hopes by circumstances beyond their control.

Yet the word "childfree" also has its pitfalls, because the "-free" suffix implies to some that children are something so noxious or unhealthy that sensible people would want eschew them (e.g., smoke-free, fat-free, sugar-free), and therefore the term is regarded by some parents as a slap at them, their progeny, and their lifestyle choices. The far less loaded words "childed" and "unchilded" don't pack any parent-negative linguistic payload, but they are not nearly as widely used. Also, those who could be classified as "childed" under that naming system quite rightly point out that a perfectly good descriptor for them already exists: "parents."

It's possible there may never be a good solution as to what to call everyone.

Barbara "a parent dilemma" Mikkelson

Last updated:   31 May 2013

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Sources:

    Landers, Ann.   "Ann Landers."
    26 May 1993   [syndicated column].

    Landers, Ann.   "Ann Landers."
    20 January 1998   [syndicated column].

    South, Roslyn.   "Pity the Childless Couple."
    The American Mercury.   June 1957   (Vol. LXXXIV, No. 401; pp. 76-78).

    Van Buren, Abigail.   "Dear Abby."
    18 January 1994   [syndicated column].

    Van Buren, Abigail.   "Dear Abby."
    15 February 1994   [syndicated column].