World Childless Week has been created by a British childless woman, Stephanie Phillips as a way to highlight the experience, individually and globally, of women and men who are childless not by choice. Each day of World Childless Week has a theme, and the theme for today, Wednesday 13th September 2017 is is Writing that Heals.
Please find out more, share your thoughts, images, experiences and stories of being childless-not-by choices either below in the comments, on the World Childless Week Facebook page (where most of the activity is taking place this first year), on Twitter at @ChildlessWeek (using the #hashtag #WorldChildlessWeek) or find out more at www.WorldChildlessWeek.com
Below is an extract from Chapter 1 of my book, Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future without Children (Bluebird/PanMac 2016) in which I survey the facts and figures around the world. You can download the introduction and Chapter 1 free here. All of the data and sources in my book are fully academically referenced, should you wish to explore further.
One of the aims of today’s theme for World Childless Day, ‘Writing that Heals’, is to write a letter to ‘who or what is to blame for our childlessness’. For most of us who are childless-not-by-choice, that’s probably going to be quite a long letter!
As I came out of the shadows and shame of my own childlessness and began to meet the many wonderful Gateway Women who are now in my life, either in person or online, my eyes were opened as to the very many ways that we can end up childless when that wasn’t the plan. Yes, I was already a bit more aware than most that it’s not a simple dichotomy between ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’ but I was still astonished by how diverse the reasons were.
Extract from Chapter 1 of ‘Living the Life Unexpected’
Although many people who don’t know our story may imagine that we either actively chose not to have children or couldn’t have them due to infertility, there are many ways to end up childless without actively choosing it:
- Being single and not finding a suitable relationship to bring children into.
- Being unknowingly misinformed about our fertility and not realising that after thirty-five it’s half what it was at twenty-five, and that by the time we’re forty we have only a very small number of viable eggs left. The age that many women think they need to worry about is forty, when in fact it’s much younger.
- Not meeting a partner until we’re past our childbearing years.
- Realising that because of our sexuality, the journey was always going to involve IVF, and when we did try IVF, it didn’t work.
- Being unable to afford to bring up a child on our own as well as work to support them (and pay for childcare) so that we are therefore unable to ‘go it alone’ or be considered for adoption.
- Being scared of having children because of our own difficult childhood (perhaps involving narcissistic parents or siblings) before realising too late that we were not condemned to repeat this with our own children.
- Being brought up mostly by our mothers following divorce, and having seen the emotional, logistical and financial struggle of single parenthood were determined to find a ‘stable’ partnership before having children, but being unable to find one, or not in time.
- Spending our thirties healing childhood wounds in therapy, and then finding it too late to find a healthy partner and start a family.
- Recovering from addiction issues right at the end of our fertile years.
- Having a partner with addiction or mental health issues that took up a great deal of time and energy until it was too late to have children.
- Being in an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship that destroyed our confidence so much that we left it too long to leave, recover and find a suitable partner with whom to have children.
- Not making motherhood a priority and somehow expecting it to ‘just happen’ one day.
- Waiting for our partner to come round to the idea of having a family, only to find out as we approach the end of our fertility that they’ve decided they definitely don’t want children, or still ‘not yet’ . . .
- Chronically painful periods as a teenager, dismissed as ‘something you’ll grow out of’ when in fact it was endometriosis, which led to chronic pain, difficulty conceiving and carrying a baby to term and sometimes a hysterectomy.
- Infertility issues of our own.
- Infertility issues of our partner.
- Infertility issues of both partners.
- Failed infertility treatments.
- Miscarriage and early term loss.
- Stillbirth, cot death, early infancy mortality.
- Choosing to ‘go it alone’ as a solo mother with sperm and/or egg donation but, after multiple attempts, not being successful.
- Being with a partner who has had a vasectomy and for whom the reversal doesn’t work.
- Being educated at an academically focused girls’ school that placed a huge emphasis on pursuing a career and gave the impression that motherhood was not something to think about or aim for.
- Adopting a child and then finding that although everyone now thinks you’re a mother, you still feel ‘childless’ and guilty about it.
- Adopting a child (or children), only for the adoption to break down at some point, sometimes due to the birth parents wishing (and being allowed) to parent their children again or due to the unmanageable severity of the child’s behavioural difficulties.
- Being unable to adopt because of being single (without meeting the right criteria), having insufficient funds, being the wrong age, being the wrong gender, being the wrong ethnicity, being disabled, having had cancer, being too fat, not having a garden, being estranged from your own family of origin, etc.
- Staying in a relationship that we don’t feel comfortable bringing children into.
- Being in an unconsummated marriage.
- Being widowed.
- Being born without a fully developed reproductive system or with genetic issues, such as Turner’s Syndrome, leading to insufficient or non-existent ovarian reserve.
- Our own or our partner’s changed sexual orientation leading to relationship breakdown.
- Not feeling comfortable having IVF or other treatments, or having them explicitly frowned upon by our faith, family or other significant influencers.
- Being unable to afford fertility treatments, or to afford to continue.
- Being denied fertility treatments.
- Our partner or ourselves being ill during our most fertile years and so waiting for one or both to regain health.
- Caring for a sick, elderly, disabled or vulnerable family member or friend during our fertile years.
- Being a ‘young carer’ and parenting our younger siblings in our mother’s place (due to illness, absence, death, addiction, depression, etc.) and thus believing that we’d ‘had enough of mothering’, only to realise too late that we would have liked to have had children of our own.
- Losing a key relationship because of family disapproval on religious, cultural, class, financial or other grounds, and then not meeting another partner in time to start a family.
- Medical conditions that make becoming a parent difficult.
- Having genetic inheritance issues of our own, or our partner’s, that make us decide not to risk having children.
- Needing to save enough money to buy a home and pay off student debts before we could afford to start a family, only for it to be too late.
- Being with a partner who already has children and doesn’t want more.
- Being with a partner who doesn’t want children at all (a childfree partner).
- Becoming a stepmother and finding your partner’s parenting style so off-putting we choose not to have children with them, or we’d like to but we feel it would be just too painful for our partner’s children to cope with.
- Being unable to get pregnant with the eggs we froze when we were younger.
- Being ambivalent about motherhood and realising too late that we really do want a family.
- Finding out that the man who said he wanted children was lying as he’d had a vasectomy and hadn’t told us.
- Finding donor egg treatment something we don’t feel comfortable pursuing, isn’t legal in our country or we can’t afford, thereby bringing our fertility treatments to an end.
- Finding surrogacy as an alternative to having our own baby something we don’t feel comfortable with, isn’t legal in our country or we can’t afford.
- Having our ovaries damaged by chemotherapy and our partner being unwilling to consider egg donation.
I could keep going, but I think you get my point – behind every woman without children is a story, often many stories woven together into a complex pattern of pain and disappointment. Your story may be one of these, or a patchwork of them, or it may be number 51. I’m absolutely sure the list could go on for much longer… Many people think that the room called childlessness has just two doors: ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. Those of us who are childless-not-by-choice know that it’s way more complex than that!
I’m an author and I also write fanfiction on tumblr. Everyone else there is a mom or working to become one. I was raised to not chase after men, and I never did. But because of socialization I always thought I would get married at some point in my late twenties and have kids by 30 at the latest. Now I just feel it would be selfish to have children this late. I’m 34 now and I am super bitter because EVERY SINGLE ONE of my female friends and ex-coworkers is married and a mom. Not only am I isolated, but I am condescended to, as well. And the women in the tumblr community I publish fanfic in, they dish out double standards left and right. They can say the cruelest, most insensitive things about or TO me, but if I dare to write a story where a woman is happy adopting instead of having biological kids, they take it personally and say I’m hating on them. Having kids is the most unsustainable thing an individual can do, but it’s also the most socially rewarded. Which would still be somewhat OK, if NOT fitting in that pattern wasn’t also punished hard. And I’m on the receiving end, socially.
Yes its natural to feel bitter when you see others getting what you wanted for you but sadly lost out on.
I had wanted to be married when I was mid 20s but it never happened and like you I was bitter about it and directed my anger at those who had those things as I was like its not fair!
Another thing that pissed me off and brought up resentment and jealousy which is irrational was when people said about online dating and I had called a colleague a stupid fat cow when she had suggested it and she had no idea as she said she had only had her now husband since she was 17 which had stirred up resentment in me thinking its not fair why should that fat cow get it easy when I don’t?
Another thing that had stirred up resentment and jealousy was when I had been set up with others which is irrational but its how I felt and also conversations like are you seeing anyone or suggestions unasked for like joining a club and I would feel like saying why don’t you fuck off and butt out!
Anyway here’s a glimmer of hope as I am now engaged to be married to a lovely guy and I will be 42 when we tie the knot and it will be at the end of 2018.
Very good luck to you.
I’m so sorry that you are having to go through this, Chris! I do appreciate that you are trying to write about other ways to have kids, such as through adoption. The only way societal pressures will change is if we educate the younger generation. Thank you for trying!
It has long been a source of frustration on this journey, which can be enormously tough at times, that it is presumed that we either wanted children and had them (because if you really want them you will find a way or that is what was implied or directly said to me on more than one occasion) or we didn’t want them so didn’t have them and therefore have no feelings about it whatsoever. I have been fortunate enough to have met other women without children who have been prepared to talk to me and from this I know that the line between child free and childless is very blurred and it is more of a spectrum than an either or. But I have found that people’s assumptions have meant that many hurtful comments have been made over the years. It is sad that despite being in the 21st century we still have such a narrow focus and that people who are single or those who are married without children (experienced both) are subjected to such intrusive questioning and judgments and that their lives are considered to be of less value. Interestingly we do this with age as well. Older people are considered to be worth less too.We don’t question married couples or parents as to why they are married or have children. And yes even people who say they care and are supportive can still throw the “…you don’t have children ..” grenade into a conversation as if I couldn’t possibly understand something or am leading some kind of unfairly charmed life due to my lack of offspring that was denied to them. On the flip side however I think there is a darker side to all this pro-natalism for parents as well. I think there are parents out there who became parents because that is what you do and they were fertile enough to comply, only to find that they are not filled with joy with their off spring and they do wish they could press rewind and maybe they too are grieving for a life and opportunities lost. There are also the parents with only one child (you are meant to have at least two you see). School gates can be very bitchy places (not experienced them myself but have it on good authority)…”So didn’t you think of having another one…” “Don’t you think it’s unfair to only have the one child…” Parents who only have one child cop it too and people assume that because they have had one, that they can have another.
Funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in recent weeks, as I plough through the mire of my grief – the ‘who do I blame?’ question has been on my mind almost constantly during this recent grief stage. I think in my case, a number of things conspired together against me, leading to my childlessness.
I go through phases of furious (though unexpressed) rage against different parties – myself of course, my parents, other people who’ve damaged me in life, past depression & anxiety (due to earlier damage inflicted), past financial problems (due to the depression & anxiety!) society, the time and places I’ve lived and am living, and on and on. I agonise over the ‘if only this or that had/hadn’t happened blah de blah’ kind of thoughts. But I know it’s complex, and I may never entirely get to the bottom of it. So yep, a VERY long letter from me!
I know also that part of my healing will have to involve forgiving those various people & things, including myself. I’m nowhere near it yet, and after spending a lovely weekend with my gorgeous niece & nephew, I woke this morning in floods of tears that they’re not my son & daughter. I’ve still got an awful lot of work to do, to make my peace with my past.
I think I’ve realised that for the rest of my life there’ll be pain there. It’s now a case of salvaging what I can from the wreckage, and making the most of it.
I also know there are many people with lives ten thousand times harder than mine, and my loss has definitely increased my compassion & empathy for anyone who has a hard time in life – maybe that’s one of the treasures that can be salvaged?
Anyway, thank you again, as ever, Jody for your remarkable insight – you speak for so many of us x
Hi Katie – I absolutely concur that the experience of coming through childlessness has expanded my empathy for all who suffer – and for all disenfranchised groups of society. Perhaps we need a new expression which starts, ‘As a childless woman’… to combat the idea that only mothers can feel empathy! Hugs, Jody x
Oh yes, definitely! I gulp every time I hear a proclamation that begins with the words ‘speaking as a mother’… It implies that those who’ve given birth automatically have a greater understanding of what it truly means to be human, and a superior moral compass.
Speaking as a childless woman (!) I can say that the humiliation of my unchosen childlessness has erased much of the former pride I felt, and replaced it with a sombre realisation that there’s so much in life that’s outside our control; and that I can’t judge the circumstances of another, but must always remember that I can’t know what caused a person to end up with the life they have; and I must always remember to be kind.
Increased empathy & compassion have, for me, been direct consequences of the loss & sorrow I’ve experienced as a result of dreams that never came true. For other people, it may be a different experience that led to the same result (including parenthood in some cases). But there’s something about the acute pain of lost dreams that (for me personally) has softened my heart like nothing else could… x
I think what you have written is beautiful and very true.
My view on this is that its a case of it being the luck of the draw and being in the right place at the right time to win the motherhood casino game and the lucky winners get the prizes and the losers don’t.
I feel its one of those things when no one is to blame. Its just how life works out and yes it hurts as its bloody unfair as like I said earlier its down to winning at the casino game.
As part of my healing (on Jody’s plan B mentorship programme) I wrote these 2 letters that really helped me to heal from my past and forgive myself for my childlessness…
*Critical letter to myself about the abortions*
You were in your final year at Uni with everything to look forward to so why would you get yourself into this situation. I know you were trying to get over your ex but really, with that idiot! Come on, you are educated, about to finish Uni and you meet this guy whose conversational skills match that of a high school kid – give me a break. And to top it off you go and get yourself pregnant just before you are due to sit your final exams. What were you thinking??? I would have thought that you would have learnt your lesson from that first situation but no, you had to find yourself there again. Really, how stupid can you be? You’re supposed to be educated for Christ’s sake, wasn’t the shame from the first time round enough? Did you not learn anything? I remember that you had promised yourself that you’d never have sex again, I mean apart from being a ridiculous promise do you not have any morals? you seem to go from men to men like they are going out of fashion, have you never heard of protection? Two pregnancies under your belt, it’s a wonder you can’t look at yourself in the mirror. Sometimes I wonder if you have any respect for yourself, how can you let men use you like that?!? How can anyone love you after all that you have done? You really don’t deserve it! If they knew they’d turn their backs on you, I don’t know why anyone would listen to what you have to say with your lies and dirty secrets. You should be ashamed. If I had a daughter I wouldn’t want her anywhere near you!
*A letter to an imaginary friend who had been in the same situation*
My dear friend, I can only imagine how you are feeling. Your eldest nephew is turning 21 tomorrow, which probably brings back some painful memories of your first abortion. If that baby had been born you’d be celebrating their 21st birthday too. Not only that, your sister-in-law was pregnant with her second child at the same time as you were pregnant for the second time too, so I can imagine how hard it was for you to deal with your pain when you had to show joy for your brother and his wife’s excitement of the new addition to their family. These must have been dark times for you, feeling alone and confused. Please be encouraged that out of the darkness there is light, for without pain we’ll never know true joy and you bring so much joy with who you are. I remember you telling me of the shame and stupidity you felt at being in this situation twice, but hearing your stories I could see how scared you were, you must have felt so alone, searching for answers that you couldn’t find. I understand why you have so much love for others, it’s something that you longed for, for so long yourself. So I want to tell you that you are loved and that I see a beautiful, strong woman who just wanted to be chosen. I realise that your decisions were not easy ones to make, many would say that you were being selfish and probably do not deserve to be a mother so I want you to know that you did the right thing for you and your children. Not all mothers put their children first and you did. You said that the situations that you found yourself in weren’t good enough for your children, that you didn’t want to be a single mother and that you wanted the best man possible to be a father to your child. You put them first. You said that only the best would do. So my dear friend, when you next look in the mirror and think of your past please see what I see, a beautiful, brave and selfless woman that I have come to love and admire. You are not strong despite your past, you are strong because of it!
Thank you for bravely sharing your letters. You gave me a different perspective, and I am grateful that you were so open and honest about your struggles.
Wow! Thank you for taking the time to explain to others the many ways that people become childless. It is a very complex issue and I am so glad that it is being discussed so openly this week.
Hey it’s funny I got this email I was watching this show and it was all about gangsters and criminals and the one guy in the show that had no wife and no kids he was the sacrificial lamb …he took the fall and was killed…because his life didn’t count as much as the man that had little kids and a wife …. it was amazing how they set it up in the beginning that he was just a single guy didn’t have a family…so they could knock him off down the road. and that really stuck out to me …it’s like no one will miss …he isn’t needed by anyone so in some way he is less valuable in the world…it made me think of childless women… nobody says it out loud but subconsciously somehow you are not as valuable to the planet if children aren’t dependent on you. Its subtle but it is there and it is wrong.
Yes, I sadly sometimes feel I have a lowered worth. I know I shouldn’t think that way, and should confidently believe I have as much right to my little space on the planet as every other woman. But I’ve noticed I’ve started walking with a lowered head, subconsciously, as though I feel ashamed to even be here!
It’s bonkers, as I’m passionate about human rights, and believe in total equality of all people; and would feel so sad for any other childless woman who felt this way. But we’re always harder on ourselves than we are on others I find.
So yes, you’re right – it is there in a subtle ways, and it is very definitely wrong. Thank you for your comment, as it’s made me think x
Growing up, I always assumed my life would include children. I would grow up, maybe go to uní and work for a while, meet mr right and have a family. The first three boxes well and truly ticked but me right still hasn’t come along and I’m in my mid thirties. I know I could do it by myself but I don’t believe this is the right approach for me- I don’t want to bring a child into a single parent lifestyle by choice (not to discredit the amazing single parents out there- it’s just not my choice!). I absolutely adore children, and it breaks my heart that my own might not come into my life. I’ve done a lot of work and it’s taken a lot of time for me to re invisage my future- alone.