Ms. T is in her 40s, married but does not have children. She has to frequently come across life’s big questions: if you don’t have a child, who will carry your name after you die? Who will you leave your legacy to?
All individuals go through the rites of passage that are different stages of life from childhood to adulthood, with each phase carrying a new role expectation. In this evolutionary scheme of events, the rites of marriage and subsequent procreation are given high value in the society where the primary function of a family is to ensure continuation of the society. It is generally believed that children ‘complete’ the family, ‘fulfill’ the obligations of parents, act as a support in old age and continue the family name. It is because of these norms and values of the society that a married woman is naturally expected to bear a child and enter motherhood at the earliest. The social pressures surrounding the desire for children, especially male children, reflect the societal need to transfer legacy to children who continue to do the same. Men and women have been made to feel inadequate and incomplete without children. However, it is imperative to understand that there may be certain reasons, voluntary or involuntary, due to which marriage does not yield children, and bearing children is not be-all and end-all.
Before looking at the meanings attached to legacy and how children are considered significant in that context, it is important to recognize that a better terminology to identify couples who do not have children is ‘non-parents’. This may be the favoured term as it doesn’t carry the judgment of ‘childless’ or ‘child-free’. Also childlessness tends to connote a sense of loss whereas social sensitivity towards this issue paves the way for our better understanding of causes of childlessness, which may include an intentional choice to that effect.
The Outdated Conceptualization of ‘Legacy’
As an individual, all of us strive to accomplish our set goals in life and wish to make a contribution to future generations so that there is a sense of fulfillment that our lives mattered. We tend to focus on only one of the ways we can put a stamp on the future and that is to biologically bring our children into this word and socializing them into norms and values to carry forward the family legacy. Families want children so that the family property can be handed down. Family trees and genealogy charts are a source of pride and children are obligated to step in and carry it forward. There are examples of how people build up businesses and then entrust their children with the duty to take the mission onward to the future.
Some people might think that non-parents might not have a legacy as without the biological legacy, the family line ends. There are many examples of non-parents or unmarried individuals who have made an impact in the world and their names are unlikely to be forgotten. People have excelled in their respective professions that ensures that they ‘live’ forever. We have examples of people, from the academia, healthcare profession, literature, science and arts, who have left a mark in the world on account of their contributions. Many people are known for their philanthropic work and the spirit of volunteerism, which touches many lives. Prominent examples of individuals who have created legacies include, Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau, a German-Pakistani Catholic nun and physician. She devoted more than 55 years of her life in Pakistan to fight leprosy. Similarly, other famous personalities like Nelson Mandela, Beethoven and Rosa Parks are all remembered today as historical figures with huge contributions in their respective fields, not for their biological legacy.
A New Way to Look at Legacies One Can Leave
When we think of legacies, we tend to conceptualize ‘big’ achievements or impact that make the person famous for a huge audience. As a society, we are trained to ascribe the concept of legacy to famous people. However, this connotation of legacy needs to change; any activity small or big, influencing one person or a larger audience, is equally powerful and a huge contribution to the society. With this new definition, we can all aspire to leave legacies in any social role we exhibit, be it a daughter/son, mother/father, aunt/uncle, friend, stranger, teacher, nurse, etc. This implies that an aunt can play the same role in her niece’s life as the parents. It is not just the material transfer of property through generations, rather more powerful are the non-material legacies we leave behind. Visible or not, we all are creating our legacies. Knowingly or unknowingly, we leave traces of our positive actions, words, gestures and knowledge.
For example, a teacher has an incredible power to transform lives, especially during the formative years of an individual. Along with academics, life-skills stay with the students for a long time. A nurse on the other hand, can touch many lives and is a vital source of motivation for patients and caregivers who are looking for hope. A sports coach inculcates in youth the spirit detailing teamwork, acceptance of failure and success with humility, which governs the individual throughout their life.
As a society, we are conditioned to remember the famous success stories of heroes who have done something big that they need to be applauded for, what we seldom realize is the contribution of lesser-known individuals who paved way for the creation of famous people and their achievements. We acknowledge the works of famous scientists and artists but place less value to their teachers, parents, friends and any individual who helped them take the steps to success. If we stop and look at our lives, we would notice the contribution of many people who have influenced us and left their legacies in us to spread onwards. Future generations might not need to remember our names. Believe that your positivity had an impact on the world and our legacy will live on.
We Are More than Just Our Biology
More than the biological ability to pass on the genes to future generations, it is the individual’s responsibility to leave a legacy in thoughts or deeds or emotions to friends, family, strangers, who might pass it on to others and leave a lasting positive impact. Leaving an imprint on this world through one’s own thought or action, with or without a child, requires great effort.
In this age of digital technology, there are more ways to leave our legacy behind. We are leaving our traces, entrenched on the web, for future generations to be inspired and continue with positivity. One can nurture and even parent, without actually being one, one can support institutions, charities, schools or champion causes they find meaningful. Pursuing passions is infectious. We live in a world left by those who came before us, thus, it is an act of responsibility to leave a legacy. You are your own legacy.
Ms. T is in her 40s, married but does not have children. She now understands, that as a nurse, how her colleagues, students and patients look up to her for inspiration, as an aunt, how she plays an important role in socialization of children in the family, as an elder sister, how she mentors other siblings and shares life-skills; this is her legacy. HH
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