When I originally researched singleness among women in their middle years I talked both to women who had always been single and to those who were single again following marriage or a long term relationship see The Single Woman: a Discursive Investigation, Jill Reynolds published by Routledge.
Some had children, many did not and I noticed that these latter had a double set of accounting to do. They often felt required to explain why they were single. They also found it hard to respond to questions on whether they had children, which were sometimes actually followed up with a 'why not?', although more often this unspoken query remained implicit.
I have interviewed many of these women a second time in 2011, now that they are aged more than 60 years. In further analysing data from other researchers (Arber and Davidson*, Bowling**) who included childless people in their research samples of those aged 65+, I noted that while most participants introduced references to their children and grandchildren into discussions on the quality of their life and what made them happy, it was rare for participants to be asked how they felt if they were without children at this point in their lives.
My follow up interviews highlighted that those without children did not lack for activities that contributed to happiness: nice walks and sunshine were often mentioned; and many felt their quality of life had increased, giving up work had meant a weight lifted from their shoulders, and they described themselves as more confident than when younger. Since my original interviews some 13 years earlier two participants had, like myself, married someone they had been seeing regularly. While for some there was no regret about not having children, a question on 'what if?' produced a number of responses such as 'who will be there to do for me what I did for my mum?'
In contrast to discomfort felt when younger in comparisons between their life and that of friends with children, many were more comfortable with their own situation and might refer to good relationships with their friends' now adult children. Interestingly, a number of participants mentioned talk by their friends in older age about younger family members as something of a nuisance that could make for tedious conversation: 'I wish we could talk about something other than their grandchildren', or 'it cuts down their self-awareness as if they can only focus on somebody else'. Something had changed in their balance of accounting so that some participants positioned themselves as companionable, free and active, while positioning their friends with grandchildren as burdened by a sense of duty that required them to prioritise time caring for them and a narrow conversational focus.
*85 interviews men over 65 years (UKDA 6011 Arber, S. and Davidson, K., Older Men: their Social Worlds and Healthy Lifestyles, 1999-2002 of whom 15 had no children
** 80 interviews men and women over 65 years (UKDA 5237, Bowling, A. Adding Quality to Quantity: Quality of Life in Older Age, 2000-2002) of whom 14 had no children