Childless not by choice
Involuntary childlessness (also known as childless-not-by-choice, or childless by circumstance) refers to people who have wanted to be parents, but who have not been able to due to a number of different reasons.
Almost one in five (19%) women don’t have children by the end of their childbearing years, yet the topic is one that is rarely spoken about. While some people may choose to be childfree, for those who are childless-not-by-choice, it can be incredibly distressing and challenging, creating feelings of isolation and loneliness. It can feel like your life has been on hold for years, leaving you unsure of what to do next.
In this video, counsellor and coach, Sarah Lawrence, discusses the childless-not-by-choice community, how her own experience led her to specialise in this area and how important accessing the right support can be.
When asked about the stigma around talking about involuntary childlessness, Sarah said: “This issue simply isn’t recognised as being something that affects so many men and women from across society. In fact, it can be very hard for someone to accept that they are childless, because of the shame associated with perhaps not finding a partner, or not being able to physically have children.
“There are so many emotions associated with coming to terms with not being able to have the children you wanted, not least shame and feelings of not having measured up to expectations of ourselves, our family and society at large. It’s no wonder that it takes so much courage to admit to ourselves that we are part of this community.”
In many regards, our society still upholds old gender stereotypes that can be harmful to women. Many may feel entitled to ask about your plans to have children, to comment on your relationships and the potential of parenthood as a foregone next step. Few think to acknowledge the struggles and invisible pain that comes from struggling to or being unable to conceive, as well as for those who are not in a place where they are able to have children.
What is involuntary childlessness?
Involuntary childlessness refers to people who are living without children when they deeply wanted to be parents. People of any age or gender can be childless-not-by-choice, due to a multitude of complex reasons. These can include infertility, trouble conceiving, financial reasons, bereavement, difficulty adopting, waiting until it is ‘too late’, circumstantial reasons (such as not wanting to be a single parent, prior caring responsibilities for relatives), dealing with ill mental health, and more.
For many, this can result in ongoing feelings of loss, grief, and trauma, having undertaken a long and painful journey to try and become a parent, or in some instances, they may have unexpectedly found they would be unable to become a parent. Whether a long process or a sudden revelation, being involuntarily childless can come as a shock, challenging and changing the way in which you have planned your future.
The resulting feelings can be complex and may lead to you questioning yourself and your self-worth. Blaming yourself for past mistakes or choices, for how you spend your time, or other things you may have previously prioritised can be common, as can blaming others for feeling envious of friends or family who have children, which can lead to further feelings of shame and guilt.
For all who experience involuntary childlessness, it’s important to remember that your feelings are valid, and the pain, sense of loss, or even anger is a natural part of the grieving process.
Dealing with feelings of grief and loss
Deep-seated feelings of loss, pain, and sadness are common when coming to terms with childlessness. Whether you have just recently found out that you will be childless, or you have known for a long time, there is no right or wrong timeline for you to feel grief or a sense of loss.
Grief may change over time, but that doesn’t mean that it will go away completely. At different stages of your life or times of the year, you may feel a newfound sense of grief or loss. For example, the holiday season may feel particularly tough if you don’t have your own family or if other members of your extended family have children.
Acknowledging that you are struggling is often the first step towards reaching out for support – whether that is from friends and family, or in the form of professional help with a counsellor or therapist.
Feelings of shame can play a significant role in the grieving process. This can lead to some people feeling unable to speak about their experience or feelings, out of fear of being judged or having their lived experiences invalidated.
At its core, feelings of shame are intensely painful and are often brought about by a deep-seated fear that we are flawed and unworthy of love or belonging. In turn, this can hold us back from talking about how we are feeling. But the more we talk about how we are feeling, the less power it has over us.
The less we talk about shame, the more power it has in our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.
- Shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brown.
For others, understanding how and what you are feeling can be a problem in and of itself. Big changes or life events can be confusing and emotional at the best of times. With involuntary childlessness, the feeling of loss can be ambiguous rather than something tangible. This can make it feel like others may take your feelings less seriously, or that they may not be acknowledged at all, which can lead to some people withdrawing rather than allowing themselves to grieve openly.
Giving yourself time and space to process things can be a healthy way of assessing how you are feeling, and what may work best for you. Finding support in the form of support groups, one-to-one therapy, or group therapy can help you in a variety of different ways. Support groups or group therapy may be able to help you to connect with other childless-not-by-choice individuals while working with a professional who understands loss and the effects it can have on us can help give you the tools to better understand and acknowledge your emotions.
Emotional triggers can be found everywhere. With so many films, books, TV shows, holidays, and even conversations at work revolving around the assumption that everyone has children or that parenting is the most important part of people’s many different roles and responsibilities, it can be exhausting, isolating, and emotional to deal with so many potential triggers day after day. Working with an experienced, qualified counsellor or therapist can help you to identify potential triggers, and learn healthy coping mechanisms.
Can therapy help with childlessness?
Speaking with a therapist can provide an outside, impartial person who is there to listen. Some people worry that opening up with friends or family could cause them unwanted distress or may impact the way in which their loved one views them, which can lead to them self-censoring while they speak.
Working with a professional, qualified therapist may help you feel more comfortable opening up about how you feel. Your therapist may also be able to help introduce you to different coping strategies and ways of managing your feelings.
Discovering the meaning in life beyond children
It may not be the future you had envisioned for yourself, but life without children can be just as valid and meaningful as life with children. Recognising this does not minimise or invalidate the deep feelings of grief that you are experiencing, but it can help you to find other meaningful areas in life that you can embrace.
Does the desire to have a child ever go away?
While grief changes over time, in many cases it does not end. As with many forms of grief, the overall sense of loss may lessen over time, but it may also come back at different stages in your life, or during particular events.
How can I be OK with being childless-not-by-choice?
How we each cope with loss and unexpected changes in circumstances can vary greatly from person to person. Counsellor and coach Sarah says:
“We all experience childlessness differently, and we all have very unique backstories that influence how we react to our childlessness. It is not a simple A to B journey when trying to come to terms with the loss of the children we so badly wanted. But, here are two things that helped me:
- Counselling. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have a safe space where you can talk about the triggers, the grief, and in some instances, the trauma of your back story, in a safe environment with someone that has lived experience. It normalises the thoughts, feelings and behaviours and helps you to start to heal.
- Reaching out to the community. A big part of being able to get back out there and speak to people (yes, withdrawing is part of this process too), is connecting with the childless community. People will understand and recognise your feelings and, guess what, you won’t have to talk about it, explain it, educate about it, you can just be because they get it too.”
How can I support a loved one who is childless-not-by-choice?
Letting them know that you are there to listen if they want to talk can be a good first step. It’s important to remember that this is not a situation that you can fix. Try to show empathy, rather than pity or judgement. Remember that while grief may lessen over time, it doesn’t necessarily go away.
Offering alternative options may not be the best solution, and is unlikely to help their situation, as Haley, who is childless-not-by-choice, explains to Mind. “People want to fix you, they tell you about miracle stories and how friends and family members have overcome situations – not realising that everyone’s situation is different. People want to offer miracle cures and well-meaning advice, without truly understanding the battles inside your mind.”
Counsellor and coach, Sarah Lawrence, reminds us that the best thing to do is ask. “If you’re not sure about something, ask. Nothing feels worse than realising people are making decisions about whether to invite you to something because they’re worried you’ll be unable to cope. Or, worse, feeling that they can’t talk about certain subjects, when in fact if the friend was asked they might feel differently.
“If all else fails, please just listen and be there for someone who is trying really hard to come to terms with their very real loss. You may not be able to see their loss, you may never have met their children, but to that person, they are very real and so is the grief and feelings of devastation at their loss.”
Where can I find support about involuntary childlessness?
There are many different places you can seek further advice, information, and guidance, both on and offline. For those looking to connect with the childless not-by-choice community, counsellor Sarah Lawrence recommends:
- After the Storm - providing support to everyone who is childless-not-by-choice.
- Gateway Women - a global friendship and support network for childless women.
- Mensfe - a men’s fertility forum providing support.
- The Full Stop Podcast - hosted by three childless-not-by-choice presenters, talking about subjects that affect the community.
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