Turning our wounds into wisdom

Daily Telegraph – 4 July 2012 – Stephen Adams (Photo: Alamy)

“Women who fail to bear children twice as likely to be hospitalised for alcoholism,” reads the catchy headline in today’s Telegraph (4 July, 2012)

Now, although the research makes for sober reading, it’s good news that at last the life-long effects of unwanted childlessness are being taken seriously. Indeed, the academics behind the study say that their results are:

“only the tip of the iceberg” because many more would be affected, but not so badly as to need in-patient treatment.

In the study, women who remained childless after fertility treatments were 103% more likely to be hospitalized for alcoholism or substance abuse than those who went on to have a child, and 47% more likely to be hospitalized for an eating disorder. Women who were childless by circumstance were not part of the study.

Drinking and eating to numb the pain of childlessness. That sounds like a very female way of dealing with crushing mental anguish.

In the article, Dr Baldur-Felskov is quoted as saying:

“the results suggested that the psychological impact of unwanted childlessness was not just a transient phase. This was because the risks were equally strong more than a decade after women had seen a fertility specialist, as they were in the years immediately following their attempts to get pregnant.”

The ‘psychological impact’ the doctor speak of has a shorter name. It’s called grief.

All human emotions have a purpose, and grief is no exception. It’s a necessary process that enables us to work through the loss of someone we love so that we can move forward with our lives. It’s not about ‘getting over’ something, it’s about ‘getting through’ it, and out the other side, a changed person forever because of our loss. But not necessarily a lesser one.

As a culture, we’ve become rubbish at dealing with loss, and secretive and shamed by grief.  But the thing is, grief is wise, and patient. It waits its turn until the circumstances are right for it to do its work. And what it waits for is recognition, companionship, understanding.

You see, just as a baby cannot survive on food alone (without nurture babies die), grief cannot be got through alone. It requires the presence of another person to work its alchemy.  Grief, like love, is a two-person job and so, without the presence of that supportive, understanding other, it waits.  Grief is a dialogue, not a monologue. We talk it out of our system to someone who listens, and understands.

For me, my grief has been worked through by sharing it with others through this site, and by helping other women through theirs online, face-to-face and in the Gateway Women Groups. Journaling never got me anywhere, I now understand, because it is a monologue. A blog, especially when people comment and get involved, is a dialogue.

Another intriguing finding in the study was that:

“women who failed to give birth were at a 10 per cent lower risk of ending up in hospital for depression than those who became mothers.”

Now, I don’t have access to the participants (some fifty thousand Danish women) to check this out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if childless women who’ve worked through their grief have probably experienced the kind of psychic spring-clean and emotional maturation process that mothers simply don’t have the time for. Until their children leave home, that is. For what is empty-nest syndrome but a form of loss, of grief?

Grief is the price we pay for love. But if we don’t pay up, or if no-one believes that we’ve got a bill to pay, it’s an emotional debt that can bankrupt us.

But worked through, with a supportive other (a counsellor, a support group, an online community) it can be transformational. It turns your wounds into wisdom. And if that’s what Oprah says, it must be true.


Jody is running a workshop on Sunday 8 July in London for women who are still hopeful of having a baby but are worried it’s not going to work out for them. Click here for more information – a few places left at time of writing.


Photo of Jody Day, Founder of Gateway Women (UK)Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women(UK): an organization she founded to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women to live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. A qualified counsellor and trainee integrative psychotherapist, Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, and also offers one-to-ones for women looking to explore issues around identity, maternity & fertility. She speaks regularly at events and is always looking to share her empowering message with new audiences. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her on jody@gateway-women.com

For priority booking for all future Gateway Women events, please join our mailing list by clicking here.

18 Comments on Turning our wounds into wisdom

  1. I know this is old but I just found this via google.

    I have no living children but have been pregnant 3 times. I’m just so sad.

  2. As the mother of 2 children who yearns for more, I thank you for the insight you all give me which helps me understand better the emotional aspects of childlessness, so I can better empathise with childless friends, and understand my own emotions.
    Thank you.

  3. I married an older man with 3 kids and was told by other people that we were not a family, because they were his kids and didn’t count as mine. I was Just the wicked stepmother. When we didn’t start having kids-I was deemed as selfish, self-centered and he could do better. We went the foster parent route-again those kids “don’t really count-I didn’t pop them out”. Now I am older and being told, due to my selfishness I won’t have anyone to take care of me in my old age. My other siblings have families and tell me how sad they are that “I decided” to miss out on the joy of children. If people think you wanted to be childless-you are a bad person; if you can’t have children-you are either someone to pity or you are being punished by god. All of these comments can really hurt your self image.
    I even had an older relative tell me that I should never marry-I had no right to happiness if my life was not about procreating. When I went to our pastor and spoke with him, I was informed I was being punished by God for a bad life. Last time I checked I had a medical problem, now I have a spirital problem as well – the topic for the next sermon was on barren women and what they did wrong in their lives. New church, but I sure won’t consult with the pastor on this subject.
    Why are people so quick to judge?

    • Lee,
      I cannot believe how selfish & ignorant some of these people that you have come into contact with are!! I’ve had to read your comments several times just to get my head round it!! My heart aches for you that u have been spoken to with such a lack of care & understanding. Sometimes life does not deal us the cards we hoped for, but then that’s life for you. As for punishment & you being a bad person – nope, it’s clear to me you stand head & shoulders above these ignorant people & I wish u all the luck in the world for your future, I’m sure it’ll be a bright one. Keep your chin up xx

  4. People say adopt, but if you have a major age differnce between spouses you are turned away. We fostered children-but it’s not the same as having your own.

    • Hi Lee
      The ‘why don’t you just adopt’comment is thrown at us so often – as if it hadn’t occurred to us! “Damn, why didn’t I think of that!”
      As a single working woman of 48, I wouldn’t qualify, and even if I did, I don’t have the time/financial resources to give an adopted child the time and attention he or she would need to recover from the trauma they’ve been through.
      I’ve often thought that if the funds that it takes to keep a child in care for a year could instead be made available as a kind of ‘parental leave’ pay for adoptive parents, it would make so many more adoptions possible.
      “People” know nothing of adoption, and if it’s such a great solution, why don’t they explore it as an addition to their family?!
      Thanks for commenting & look forward to hearing more from you.
      Jody x

  5. I remember a similar comment from a gynaecologist, Emily. After telling him how awful his prescribed treatment was making me feel he asked me “You do want a baby don’t you?”. It often seems that those who are treating women for fertility view them as baby making machines not human beings. Perhaps if those seeking fertility treatment were treated with a bit more understanding and compassion there wouldn’t be so many hurting women out there.

    • Sorry to hear you had similar treatment as Emily.

      I think the idea is that because you’re ‘getting a baby’ at the end of it, the means justify the ends…

      There’s an unwillingness here, I think, to see each woman as a human being in great need and deserving of dignity and respect and, as you say, a bias towards seeing women as ‘baby making machines’. (In the plural). Perhaps that’s what working in that environment, where the only ‘target’ that is measured is live births, does to a doctor? I don’t think anyone goes into medicine to upset people and make them feel inadequate.

      Being a ‘failed’ candidate screws with their figures, and there’s no advantage to them commercially to offer counselling for any other reason than to persuade you to try again…

      *sigh* Gateway Women has got its work cut out!

  6. I think that this is a marvellous site. I am in my fifties and have struggled with my feelings of inadequacy at not being able to have children for many years. I think in some ways the whole IVF thing, advances of reproductive technology have made life even more difficult for the infertile, as there is this sense that maybe if you had tried harder, gone for this treatment or that treatment you could have been successful. whereas in previous generations if women couldn’t have children, there were limited alternatives and after a while one just had to accept and get on with things. I did eventually adopt a child after many years of infertility (and I have never regretted this option, in spite of lots of difficulties) but still somehow feel a deep sense of inferiority at not having had my own child. Sites such as this, are important in that they help women who feel really isolated by their childlessness.

    • Hi Debbie

      Oh, I so agree! I call ‘hope’ one of the most toxic fertility drugs, and now hope can become obsessional, maybe even delusional, and the fertility industry feeds on that. Even at almost 48 there’s still the idea that I ‘could’ have a child via egg-donation, which someone did mention to me recently, and probably if I hadn’t worked through my grief about my childlessness I might have considered it. But because I have, I realise that 48 is too late to become a mother (for me), and that that stage of my life has passed. I’m in a new stage now, of being young-enough to have the energy to make a difference in this world, and old enough to know that my time on this earth is limited and I need to make it count.

      I’m so sad that you still feel a sense of inferiority because you haven’t had a child – but thank you for being honest and sharing that, I’m sure it will help a lot of other childless women who get the ‘why don’t you just adopt?’ question thrown at them to know that it’s not a straightforward ‘patch’ for those feelings of emptiness.

      Your perspective is so valuable, thank you so much for sharing.

      Jody x

    • Debbie, I do agree that the advances in reproductive technology have made it more difficult for those of us who have ended up childless. I got married late in life and right away I had people tell me about so-and-so who had twins at age 40+…it’s not realistic to think that would definitely be me, and now it looks like it definitely won’t be me anyway. We are looking into adoption but it is very discouraging as it’s not that simple, as you well know. Not sure if it’s going to happen. I mean it’s not like you walk in and say “I want a baby” and voila they give you one, you know?

  7. There is a HUGE errror in the interpretation of the data of this study. The study only tells us that it is the UNSUCCESFUL INFERTILITY TREATEMENT that causes these problems in women. It does not tell us whether it’s the infertility itself that is causing the problems. All we can know from the study is that it’s the trying and disappointement which MAKES those women ill.
    The study should NOT be used to advocate IVF (etc.) but to prove that fertility treatement is successful for some but leaves a great part of the women concerned – the unsuccesful ones – emotionally crippled behind. If anything, it should be used to advocate that fertility treatement has always to be accompanied by intense psychological care.

    • Thank you for a very helpful article and comments from Mina and Debbie. It is comforting to hear your comments regarding fertility treatment especially as “so you aren’t going to try IVF then?” seems to be the new “have you thought about adoption?” In the very limited experience I had of fertility treatment I can say that the emotional impact of being unable to produce children was completely unaddressedand after a very basic investigation it was either Clomid or IVF with no willingness to discuss anything else. In fact when I tried to the doctor said “Do you definitely want a baby?” I am so grateful for what this site is aiming to do in providing emotional support and acknowledging the grief and social isolation that we experience as a results of our situation

      I am

      • Hi Emily

        Glad you’ve found the site and that it’s helping you. The emotional brutality of fertility treatments can be shocking, and your Doctor’s response cold & heartless. The idea that asking any kind of question with regard to undertaking risky, invasive and expensive medical treatment should be construed as showing a ‘lack of interest’ in having a child beggars belief.

        We have so much to do to create a culture of compassion around infertility and childlessness. And a culture of acceptance around those who CHOOSE not to have children. Happily childfree women and couples (apart from the rare ‘radical kid hater’) are actually great role models for creating fulfilling and happy lives without children… which shows it can be done! Childfree women don’t have the burden of grief that we do and thus aren’t ending up in mental hospital over their childlessness…

        It’s hard to be both grieving and at the vanguard of a new movement in the culture, but that’s us.

        Emily – do stay with us and perhaps join our Meetup group or come to one of the workshops or groups. Healing is possible. You will be happy again. Your mojo awaits you!

        Jody x

    • Hi Mina

      I agree with you that the data has been interpreted in a very disingenous way – and one that supports the fertility industry without raising the broader issues of what women are experiencing, and why.

      However, I am pleased that at last some research is being done into this area, and that perhaps we can begin to make a wider case for what is happening to women who are, to use another writer’s term “thwarted mothers”.

      Like all trauma and loss, not being able to have children (for whatever reason, infertility is only one), can be got through with the right support and understanding. Until we make visible this invisible pain, women will continue to suffer. If you are grieving over your children leaving home, people understand it, and you can find books and support and ‘cultural recognition’ for this… but if you are grieving never having a family, never being a mother, never having grandchildren, never having that bond with your partner as ‘parents’… nothing.

      I am a different woman for working through my grief – more like I was in my 20s before I got married. Getting my mojo back has been surprising, because I’d forgotten what I was like before I became OBSESSED with becoming a mother!

      Always lovely to hear from you.

      Jody x

      • Hi Jody
        thanks for your reply! Sorry i didn’t mean to say that the whole post is meaningless or that the research in itself is a problem. It’s great that there is some research. But i found it very telling and therefore necessary to point out, that already the starting point and then the interpretation of the data was biased. There is a LOT of research going on but it seems to only help some women and it all focuses on how to finally make a baby. There seems to be less research going on concerning men and the main problem is, the way the knowledge about infertility is being discussed in the media/society. So it’s a shame that the newspaper focuses on the isse (great) but already gets it wrong at the start (not great….).

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