Dolly Parton fans know that the mega-star grew up in a huge, close-knit family. As one of 12 siblings (six boys and six girls), it would make sense for her to have had a whole brood of her own kids running around at some point — so why didn’t she and husband Carl Dean ever have any?
Parton has opened up about the touchy subject throughout her career. “Early on, when my husband and I were dating, and then when we got married, we just assumed we would have kids,” she told Billboard in 2014.” We weren’t doing anything to stop it.” The couple daydreamed about what their children would look like: tall like Dean, or “squat” (her words) like Parton? They even came up with a few names, such as Carla if they had a little girl… but it just never happened in those early days before her career took off.
After becoming a huge success in the 1970s and ‘80s, Parton was constantly on the road touring or on set filming a new movie. Although Dean has always been one of her biggest supporters, he has also always preferred to do so from their comfort of their Tennessee home while she was off running around. And, well, you can’t exactly make babies over the phone.
It was at the height of this whirlwind time of her life that Parton was suddenly rushed from a show in Indianapolis to doctors in New York City. According to a report from People in 1982, the singer had been experiencing gynecological health problems for years, but always put them on the back burner to focus on her career. This time, she was forced to cancel the rest of her tour and ultimately underwent a partial hysterectomy for endometriosis two years later.
The surgery made it impossible for Parton to conceive, which added to her growing depression. “It was a really bad time,” she told Closer, but explained how it also ended up teaching her a lesson. “Sometimes God just has to smack you down. He was almost saying, ‘Sit your pretty little a** down because we have to deal with some stuff!” And that’s exactly what she did for about two years before bouncing back, stronger than ever.
Today she and Dean don’t have any regrets about their lack of children. Like with everything else in her life, faith helped Parton find a silver lining. “Now I say, ‘God didn’t mean for me to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine,’” she told Billboard. “Now that Carl and I are older, we often say, ‘Aren’t you glad we didn’t have kids? Now we don’t have kids to worry about.’”
On top of her incredible charitable work for children, she and Dean also spend a ton of time with their nieces and nephews, who call her Aunt Granny and Dean Uncle PeePaw. So in a way, the couple had plenty of kids — just not in the most traditional sense.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Womans World.