“I am 60 years old, single and childless. I worry about who will take care of me’
When I turned 40, my childhood friends and I threw a birthday party and called it “Bowling for Estrogen.” I had known these three women most of my life, and it seemed only natural to reach such a turbulent stage among friends with whom I had gone through almost every stage of development. When we turned 50, we threw another party and called it “Hot Flash Birthday Bash” and charged for admission, which we donated to a local charity in our hometown. And a few months ago, when we turned 60, we called it “Osteopalooza 2022” and celebrated it by spending the weekend in a luxury ocean-view home on the coast of Italy. ‘Oregon.
For some reason, this particular birthday was hard for me to swallow. Maybe it was because my friends had accomplished the three ms: marriage, mortgage, and motherhood, while I had accomplished only one: the mortgage. They all had husbands, children and even grandchildren. I didn’t even have a meaningful relationship. I was depressed all weekend scrutinizing my life and trying to figure out why I decided to take the road less traveled when they were taking the traditional route and had so much more to show.
From my teenage years, I knew I didn’t want a conventional life when I grew up. I wasn’t quite sure what that life might be like, but I knew it didn’t necessarily involve getting married, having kids, and staying in my hometown. I knew I had to leave and move to a bigger city where there were more opportunities for ambitious young women like me. My mother had also always encouraged me to move out and live on my own and stressed how important it was for me to have my own money and not depend on anyone else for financial support. So when I graduated from college in my hometown, I got a job and moved to Portland. Gloria Steinem would have been so proud of me, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing.
For the next 15 years, I was the Indiana Jones of the working world. I jumped from job to job. I was a promotion assistant in a classic radio station. I was the marketing coordinator for a trade association of home builders. I was a legislative assistant at the Oregon State Capitol. I was a communications specialist for a non-profit economic development think tank. I was an account manager at a TV station and even had my own late night show featuring old movies. And I sold print advertising for a newspaper chain, that’s the area that eventually stuck and what I still do today.
At the age of 38, I finally felt settled in a career that I loved and with a wonderful circle of friends that I had cultivated over the years. I lived in a nice apartment in a suburb of Portland that was only 45 minutes from my parents’ house so I could always come home for the occasional visit and keep in touch with my childhood friends who had never left.
The only thing missing was a meaningful relationship and although I dated a bit and thought I had fallen in love a few times, I was still single, but didn’t feel obligated to get married. I just assumed that I would eventually meet a man who would understand my point of view and accept my need for space and autonomy.
Then one morning the phone rang. It was my dad sobbing and telling me that my mom had suffered a brain aneurysm and was being rushed to Portland Hospital. By the grace of God, she survived. But when she woke up from surgery, she couldn’t walk and suffered from expressive aphasia, which is the inability to find the right words. She couldn’t even remember the names of her children.
It became immediately apparent that she was going to need more help than my father could give. And that’s where I came in. Because I was the youngest of a family of six, single and childless, it made sense to take over. So I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and moved in to do whatever it took to help my mom recover. While she went to a skilled nursing facility for two months for drug treatment, I returned to my hometown. I didn’t even have time to think about it. My family was in crisis and my mother needed help.
When that artery burst in his brain, my life was suspended. It was all about my parents. Even though my mom recovered enough for me to go back to work at the local paper, sell advertising, and live a stone’s throw from them, they still relied heavily on me for things like taking them to the doctor, doing the groceries, help cook dinner and even mow the lawn. And when my father died suddenly two years later, I moved in with my mother.
We would be roommates for the next 12 years. I became obsessed with trying to give her the quality of life she deserved but couldn’t manage on her own. I was determined that she wouldn’t live like a disabled prisoner and took her everywhere with me. We were inseparable. We did everything together. I didn’t have a social life, I didn’t have dates, and I didn’t travel. I only spent two nights away from home the whole time I lived with her when I went to the coast with a friend.
It was so stressful trying to coordinate care for her while I was gone that I ended up taking Xanax all the time thanks to all the anxiety attacks I was having.
My mother passed away when I was in my early 50s. I was still single and childless. And the dreams I had in my 20s and 30s were long gone. What replaced them was a sense of pragmatism and concern for the future. How could I restart my life? I had spent my best earning years in a small local newspaper on an even lower salary. Should I quit my job and find something that pays better so I can save for my retirement? In the end, I found a much better paying job still selling print advertising.
Now I’m 60 and I wonder what will happen to me if I get sick or become incapacitated. About six months ago I had my own health crisis and had to rely on others for help. I could not do anything. I was so dizzy that I couldn’t even sit up without vomiting.
My doctor suspected a stroke in my cerebellum and until my insurance approved an MRI, I was terrified that my life would be like this now; that I would be totally dependent on people to even walk my dog.
The MRI came back negative and I was eventually diagnosed with vestibular migraine. But it was an eye-opening experience – I was off duty for three weeks – and the moment when I really started to worry about my future. After all, what will happen to me when I get really old? What if I fall and break a hip? What if I have dementia or Alzheimer’s? What if I have an aneurysm? Who will be there to help me?
My life definitely didn’t turn out the way I had planned. I have never won real money. I never went anywhere. And I never met the man of my dreams. But caring for my mom gave me something I never realized how much I needed: purpose and meaning in my life.
Although my job takes me to Portland a lot, I decided to stay in my hometown because I have an amazing group of friends and support system there. I live in a small house with a reasonable mortgage and have converted my freestanding garage into a studio apartment, which is very suitable as a vacation rental since the area I live in is the epicenter of Oregon’s wine country.
I’ve decided after this “Osteopalooza” weekend and more thought that I don’t regret taking the road less travelled. It made me who I am today: strong, resilient and independent.
Stephanie Baker grew up in McMinnville, Oregon and graduated from Linfield University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication. She and her friends have already planned their 70th birthday: “Depends and Friends”.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.