“How on earth did I end up here?” I asked as I sat cross-legged on my bed, tears dripping onto my pyjamas.
I was 41, single, childless and living alone in a beautiful but empty one-bedroom North London attic flat – no man in the kitchen buttering toast and no grubby little fingers smearing raspberry jam on my John Lewis duvet.
The silence was deafening.
Fast-forward five years and today I woke up to a different scene – to a smile, a cuddle and a kiss from my fiancé in a house with a garden close to the sea on England’s south coast.
There are times, when I hold my partner tight or when I step onto a still beach early in the morning, that I have to pinch myself – times when tears of joy spring to my eyes. I am so blessed. I have so much. I am delighted my life turned out like this.
There are other times when I feel sad, when I look around at the mums and dads playing with their kids in the sea and grieve for the children I don’t have. My life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
But those sad times are rare these days. More often, I can’t believe my luck. I am part of a wonderful family of two. I am in love. I live by the beach. I have companionship, warmth, support and touch.
All of which begs a question: can love and partnership heal the pain of childlessness? Can an intimate relationship fill the hole left by missing out on motherhood?
At this point, I must note that my childlessness may not be like yours (after all, which two experiences of childlessness are the same?). I never tried as such. I didn’t spend years trying to conceive naturally and I didn’t spend more years and thousands of pounds on failed infertility treatment, either as a single woman or with a partner. I have never miscarried, lost a living child and I’ve never tried and failed to adopt. If any of the above is your story, I cannot know how you feel.
My childlessness is of a different sort. The easiest way to describe it would be social infertility – I didn’t find a suitable partner in time to have children – but my story is more complex than that. Of course it is. All of our stories are.
I didn’t find a suitable partner because I was looking for love in the wrong places. I was looking to form a relationship with a man before I had a healthy and loving relationship with myself. I hadn’t unpacked and healed my childhood baggage so it kept leading me into harmful or dead-end relationships or turning me off the good guys. I spent many of my fertile years binge eating and binge drinking and running away from my feelings and myself. It took years to sort myself out.
Plus, deep down, I felt torn about motherhood, ambivalent – a legacy of my own childhood and the way I was parented. I didn’t see much joy. It hadn’t seemed much fun. The way I saw it, kids cost a lot, curtailed freedoms and caused pain. (I repeat that’s the way I saw it, the way my child’s mind chose to remember it. It wasn’t always like that.)
So I was 43 before I managed to commit wholeheartedly to my now fiancé – a man who for his own deep reasons has never wanted children. And only in the last few years, months, weeks and days (I have new realisations all the time), have I truly understood my ambivalence about motherhood and begun to understand my partner’s opposition to children.
It’s sad that this understanding came so late. I can imagine a different life in which my partner and I meet and fall in love in our 30s, work through what we affectionately call our unresolved childhood issues and create beautiful babies together.
But that’s not my path. It’s not our path.
So I return to my question: can love and partnership heal the pain of childlessness?
I cannot speak for those who have experienced childlessness within a relationship (I’m aware of the pressure infertility can put on couples but for some, I hope the pain is easier to bear when shared).
In fact, I can’t speak for anyone else. I can only speak for myself.
For me, the answer is yes.
Being single and childless and in my early 40s with a ticking clock was tough. There were too many unfulfilled needs. I had friends and a good community but there was no touch, no intimacy and no sex. There was no companionship, no sense of belonging, nobody to build something with.
I am not dismissing singleness – I know it has its upsides and I enjoyed many of my single years. I also needed them to do my healing and to transform myself into someone who was capable of love and commitment. If singleness is your choice, for whatever reason, I fully respect that.
But for me, my singleness in my early 40s exacerbated the sense that there was something missing – it exacerbated my childlessness. And it wasn’t really my choice – I just couldn’t make a relationship work. I was hopeful I would – as my first guest blog for Gateway Women, The Power of Testimony, shows, but I didn’t know how.
Today, that feeling that there’s something missing is rare. I have followed my heart to the sea, resolved many of my issues and forged a beautiful, healthy relationship. I have found new passions and fulfilled many dreams, as Jody suggests we do in her wonderful book and workshops.
I have found healing and joy through writing, though my blog that I began at the same time Jody began Gateway Women in 2011, and through a book about falling in love I wrote and published this year, after years of procrastination. I have found passion and purpose in my work, using my experience to help others and turning my pain and loss into something worthwhile by coaching women to remove their blocks to love and find true relationship.
Some may find a partner in time to have a family, by whatever means, or they may find the courage to have a child on their own. For others, I hope the experience of restoring their relationship with themselves, finding love and sharing a life with someone will go some way towards filling the parenthood hole and healing any hurt.
That’s certainly been the case for me. Love has healed and continues to heal, while the purpose and passion I’ve found from sharing my story bring me joy.
In my first blog for Gateway Women, I wrote that I would have one of two testimonies to share – either the story of a woman who worked through her issues, found love and had a child or, to quote from that post: “the testimony of a woman who – like Jody – didn’t have the baby she wanted but who worked through the feelings of grief and loss to lead a full, purposeful and childfree life and to be an inspiration to others.
“Whatever happens,” I wrote, “I’ll have my testimony.”
Katherine Baldwin is the author of How to Fall in Love – A 10-Step Journey to the Heart. She runs How to Fall in Love coaching courses online and in person, writes for the national media and blogs at, From Forty With Love.
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I had an abortion on a sexual abuse pregnancy in childhood. Since then I met a man and eventually we tried to conceive for five years. However, I am not the first woman he has tried to conceive with and he will not go to the doctor to do a semen analysis test to enable us to access fertility treatment. He’s of the view that if we get pregnant that would be great. But it’s clear he doesn’t really care whether he has kids or not, how many he has or the state of the relationship with the person he has them with. I refused to sleep with him without using contraception until he did the semen analysis test and in doing so made the definitive choice to decide to conceive. He never did the test. I don’t want to have kids in a situation where the man can’t be bothered to make any effort or commit to anything. How can someone have unlimited unprotected sex, not care if he fathers any children but refuse to do a semen analysis test at the doctors’? I also have vaginismus so intercourse is painful anyway. We now have a sexless relationship. I feel like I’ve given him my best years, we’ve been together so long. I am childless and unmarried but I do love this person despite these things and want him to come round to the idea of one day having a baby and being proactive about this, but he’s not proactive about anything in his life.
Hi Sophie – I’m so sorry to hear of your horrendous abuse experience as a child and the resulting pregnancy and abortion. What your partner may or may not do one day is outside your control and I wonder how much store you are placing in him ‘changing his mind’ as a way of you not taking responsibility for staying in a childless relationship when it’s not what you want? Vaginismus is not uncommon in sexual abuse survivors and I wonder if it might be worth seeking out psycho-sexual counselling for this, if you haven’t already done so? I would say that waiting for someone non-proactive to become proactive is perhaps not the best strategy to move out of this impasse you’ve reached, although I can understand that the whole thing might just feel too huge to do anything about. You might like to consider joining our private online community to get the support of other women who’ve been through something similar to help you move forward. Hugs, Jody x
I can not count the amount of times people asked me did I have children and it had a strange aspect to it as they seemed to ask me that question after only meeting for a short time and even as I got older and it seemed even stranger as why would you ask an older woman a question like that surely the children would be adults by then if they existed, I often said yes but shes an adult which probably sounded like a funny answer to them, it became almost spooky that the question came up so often, I even thought shall I say yes but the child died ?? Then I shocked myself at even thinking like that !!! then I sort of thought well I would get loads of sympathy rather than the attitude that your a loser of some sort,then it crossed my mind to say oh yes but shes living abroad now and grown up, but whatever I answered in that line but be a lie and plus it would be found out and yet if I said no I saw them look at me sadly or curiously and move on.
I had become of little interest what would they talk to me about and no they had not found another possible interesting connection for their own kids.
I think love helps but I do not think love heals as the pain belongs to you and it belongs to your spouse it can not be wiped away but it can be ignored and maybe put on the back burner and not given too much space in your head it can even be forgotten for a while but as sure as eggs are eggs it will come to you if only for a minute a fleeting ghost like wind that blows your way every now and then
Very well said, I feel the exact same way. I’m 46 no children, no husband, no boyfriend…. just everything else and no one to share this life with. I too feel you can put on a shelf so It’s less painful but yes it always comes back in fleeting moments.
I am 50, my last three embryos were destroyed a year and a half ago by the ivf company. I have been a stepmother for 21 years, but when you say you are a stepmother, people look away, their eyes change.
So I no longer tell people, it’s their problem. I don’t talk to people. Or if I do I say yes.. because their first question is do you have kids. So now I say yes I do, i have a daughter studying medicine. Which she is because my husband is an intellectual and his daughter is almost an exact copy of him, thank god for her, his ex wife is very different. She made us pay, she gave up work, so we would pay for her lifestyle. We wanted kids and we begged her and her new husband, they didn’t care. She yelled at us “it’s my money”, meaning the child support we would have to pay her which went up hugely when she gave up work.
Your words “I didn’t find a suitable partner because I was looking for love in the wrong places…I spent many of my fertile years binge eating and binge drinking and running away from my feelings and myself” really, really pressed my buttons. Your not actually that different from me or anyone else. We all do that sh@t in our “fertile” years. Some of us get pregnant and partnered anyway, others are just unlucky.
There is this thing that we as women seem to do which is somehow, blame ourselves for our misfortunes in our attempt to understand and somehow gain control of what is essentially just a bad stack of cards dealt by fate that are out of our control. Its almost an insidious programming we have somehow picked up as young girls that suggests that these things are within our control as part of “being a woman” or something. Our mind talk goes: Childlessness = “my fault because I was a self absorbed younger person”, Single = “my fault because I sort love in all the wrong places”. The damaging inference is that “I deserve this” or “I am just not as good enough, wise enough, evolved enough, too damaged, not confident enough” to be like everyone else. How exhausting and tragically destructive. Truth is it just happened that way. Beyond your control.
To your question “can love heal the pain of childlessness”. The answer is that nothing can replace or heal whatever you have gone through. Experience your loss. Love helps heal it but it won’t be the panacea. Wear your grief, accept it. You did not deserve this fate and you deserve to be loved for the wonderful woman you are whether you have a child, partner, self love or otherwise. We all do.
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that there can be an inference that single women, and single childless women in particular, have done something wrong to ‘end up this way’. I guess what it’s important to acknowledge is that we can do the ‘work’ on ourselves to heal ourselves from childhood wounds but that doesn’t necessarily in any way guarantee that we’ll be lucky enough to meet a partner that we can form a healthy love relationship with. However, we’ll still be much happier and more content women, which has got to be a good thing? I agree that plenty of women mess up in their 20s and 30s, don’t do the necessary work to heal their childhood issues and STILL find a partner and have children. The role of LUCK is something that is rarely acknowledged in our culture, particularly by those who are lucky, it seems… As I wrote about in a blog a few years ago that still gets a lot of hits, Life Isn’t Fair.
Katherine’s work is valuable none the less, as she’s a rare voice in our culture in that she’s a woman who has gone through singleness and childlessness and has been open and vulnerable and generous enough to write about that experience blow by blow over the last 6 years. Yes, she’s had a ‘happy ending’ but that was by no means a done deal or the goal; she’d had enough disappointments (with herself and with others) by then that she didn’t necessarily expect a partnership and instead was doing what she needed to do to become a healthy, happy and fulfilled single, childless, middle-aged woman. She met a lovely man, but he didn’t want children, and she’s had to work through that too. I think her testimony is valid as part of the discourse of what it’s like to be a middle-aged, single, childless women in our culture.
Thank you Memememe89 for your articulate and brave response. I was dismayed by my first reading of the blog and could not express why without appearing defensive. You did it so well.
Thank you to Jody for more perspective which helped me reframe it but the blog still felt uncomfortable to read initially.
I have reread it with fresh perspective and less resistance and can see some good intention and wisdom in it but it still manages to sound like a sales pitch for the Cinderella story in places and that is where it loses its supportivenes and authenticity.
Thank you memememe89 for your comment and Jody for your reply and your kind words about my work.
I hear what you say and I agree that for some, life seems to turn out much better than for others and that many things are out of our control. However, with that paragraph or any of my post, I didn’t intend to blame myself or paint myself as less than others or deserving of any form of unhappiness. I’m sad that it came across that way.
I write in this way and do the work I do because I have found happiness, joy and fulfillment and healed a great deal of my pain and grief through taking positive action, through becoming empowered, not disempowered, through working through my pain and grief, understanding the patterns in my life that weren’t serving me, and coming out the other side. I am now loved for the wonderful woman I am and I agree we all deserve that, which is why I’m so passionate about the work I do – helping other women to find love if that is their heart’s desire.
Thanks again for reading and commenting.
Your post left me with some hope as I am both childless and relationshipless at 45. You definitely wonder how you get here, everything else in your life is good but somehow could never find the right man to make that part of life happen, it definitely is depressing and as each year and goes by you start believing this is it, and then your scared about what the future holds for you as you age all alone .
Thank you Patricia for your comment. I’m pleased I left you with some hope. I believe it doesn’t have to be this way and that we can all find love, if that’s what we desire. Let me know if I can be of any help on your journey. Best wishes, Katherine