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Back You are here: Home Health Health Childless – but not by choice

Childless – but not by choice

ChildlessWhile the pain of involuntary childlessness is devastating for both women and men, childless people should be considered an integral part of society and not as outsiders or victims, writes Lynda Renham-Cook

My name is Lynda Renham-Cook and I am a childless woman – not by choice (as opposed to ‘child-free’). 

I have been childless for over 25 years and my chances of ever being a mother is now negligible. The deep void felt by a woman who wants a child but is unable to conceive is indescribable. 

I know, because I have tried to express my pain to my second husband, who is a father and he cannot comprehend it and I can barely describe it.  

However, I consider myself lucky. I have never lost a child, or given birth to a dead baby like one friend who delivered at nine months her dead child because the umbilical cord was tied around her baby’s neck. 

I have never had to endure the ordeal of an early hysterectomy or feel the constant physical  pain  that follows operations that have been unsuccesful. My own infertility has the dreaded, awful title of ‘Unexplained Infertility.’ 

In broad terms, this means that Doctors cannot find a medical explanation for why a pregancy doesn’t happen. Through the years my emotions have resembled a fairground attraction. They have roller coasted from sadness, bitterness, devastation, lonliness, to almost madness. 

I have read about women who have stolen babies from other women and although I do not condone this I can understand it. Many women are brought up believing that getting married and having children is the greatest thing a woman can achieve. 

Many are practically ostricised from their families when they cannot reproduce. They have failed as women. How do these women cope with the loss of their own family coupled with their inability to have children? I cannot begin to imagine. 

I have struggled to highlight the plight of childless women. It is very difficult for a woman, without children, to integrate herself into what is very much a family-orientated society. 

For many years I hid the fact that I could not have children. I deluded myself that it was the fair thing to do for others and myself. It was not right to embarrass the rest of society, or for me to face the pitied looks from other women. I told everyone I met that I did not want children.

The most common questions asked when socialising are, ‘What do you do then Lynda?’ and ‘Do you have children?’ 

Childless people are seen as an embarrassment 

I find this exceptionally personal but it seems an acceptable question when in mixed company. Consequently, for much of my life I felt an outsider in society and still do, albeit in a more comfortable way now, as I am more relaxed with my situation.  I still am, however, an embarrassment that most mothers do not know how to deal with. 

Every mother reading this will shake her head in denial and think how ridiculous. But, they do feel embarrassment when meeting a childless woman, rather like people do when faced with grief.

 They do not know what to say and suddenly you are a woman they have nothing in common with. They cannot discuss their child’s feeding problems, or their teenagers annoying habits. 

They are uncomfortable to discuss their offspring’s achievements with you because you cannot compete with stories of your own. So they find ways of making you feel less inadequate, even though, you may not, and may never have felt that way in the first place. 

Their most helpful comments are the following:

“Well you haven’t missed anything.”

Oh really?

“If I had my time again I wouldn’t do it.”

Do they seriously expect me to believe that they would not give birth to little Jamie or adorable Sophie if they could go back in time? Why do I not believe them? 

Then, there is the religious viewpoint:

“God works in mysterious ways.”

Is this some strange way of telling me that God felt I was not good enough to be a mother? 

However, my favourite has to be:

“Why don’t you foster?”

Now, there’s a thought. How easy that must be. Do I want to look after a child only to give it up after a period of time? No, I don’t think so. 

Finding support 

Time passed and I finally overcame my feelings of shame and when asked if I have children, I simply reply: “No, I couldn’t have them.” 

I ignore the stupid comments they may make in an attempt to make me feel less inadequate. I have found other projects to fill my life and although nothing can fill that void, I refuse to be a victim of my childlessness. 

It occurred to me that I could not be alone. I never had an opportunity to share my feelings with anyone when I first learnt I was childless but now, thanks to the Internet all that has changed. I have discovered many women all over the world are suffering the same plight. 

Two years ago I began a Facebook group ‘Childless Support’. At the beginning only a handful of women joined. Almost one year later we have 150 members and are still growing.  

I also learnt how to get in touch with my own feelings by seeking out a good counsellor. 

Our aim is to highlight the difficulties faced by childless women. It is important that we are an integral part of society and not seen to be outsiders or victims. 

Childless men 

More importantly it should never be forgotten that men are childless too and their pain is just as acute. I am thrilled we have males in our group who give us a whole new perspective on being childless. 

Jerry, a childless man has wrestled with his emotions for many years. Here is his story: 

Like Lynda, I too dread that question at dinner parties:

"Do you have children?"

"No!" Is what I want to scream, loudly, angrily and in pain. 

In the past I used to just say no and attempt to change the subject.  Now, I say, “It hasn't worked for us.” 

This provokes a variety of reactions, some very supportive, seeming to recognise the depth of my sadness and understanding it, while others, obviously embarrassed, begin to utter those platitudes, well meant but ultimately quite insulting as Lynda has already mentioned. 

I can’t speak for other childless men, however, I can tell you what it has been like for me.  

Way back when I was 22 I was taking a group of people around a local nature reserve and I can remember vividly how excited the children were at everything I was showing them.  

Their joy and happiness and their laughter had an amazing effect on me. That was the day I decided I wanted to be a father more than anything else in life. 

When I met my partner it was so frustrating waiting for her to catch up with my  desires and the frustration continued when things didn't happen as expected.  

Then came the exhaustive and intimate tests, until finally we were given the label of ‘unexplained infertility.’ It is a frustrating diagnosis. It gives you nothing definite to kick against, to force closure, or to stop all those ‘what if’ thoughts that flood into your mind.

After four cycles of IVF we achieved a pregnancy only to suffer a miscarriage, but our little one lives on in our hearts. Eventually my partner could take no more disappointments and my life became empty, my future bleak. Everything I'd dreamed about and lived for was gone.  

It has taken a lot of strength to get myself together again, to enjoy life once more because for a while nothing lifted me. Life as a childless man when all you ever wanted to be was a father is incredibly tough. Until you are in that position you do not realise just how many references to children there are in everyday life.  

Families are everywhere in the media. Family life, form the basis of so many films and plays. Television adverts are full of children. You hear a child in a play call ‘daddy daddy’ and you realise you are never going to hear those words addressed to you and it hurts. It hurts a lot. 

Every day, every hour, society reminds you of what you will never experience.

Infertility I think affects men differently from women. Childless women get a degree of sympathy and recognition.  

Whenever infertility is discussed in the media the pain endured by women is recognised while that endured by men is so often ignored.  

Men often feel that they have to be strong to be supportive of their partner, so they hide their disappointment, pain and anguish. Others find the inability to control events overwhelming.  

What lifted me out of the dark place I'd sunk into was talking. Talking to pretty much anyone who had anything constructive to say – counsellors, friends, strangers, and of course my partner.  

A vital part of that talking has been on the internet. That wonderful piece of technology has allowed me to reach out to others in the same situation as me and that has been so important.  

It can be too easy to feel so alone when you are faced with such major issues in your life, as many will testify, and being able to talk and chat, online helps so much. 

I have struggled not to be bitter and feel blessed to have found a wonderful husband whose own children have been very accepting of me and given me the pleasures of grandparenting, something I thought I would never experience. 

I am always happy when someone in our group tells us they are finally pregnant. Bitterness is the road to destruction and not one I want to travel. 

How to respond to involuntarily childless people

If you meet a childless woman please do not presume it is by choice. Do not feel you need to say anything to make their situation better and please attempt not to show any embarrassment. 

One of the nicest responses I ever had was from a man I met at a dinner party. I had previously found this particular person rather arrogant and was not looking forward to seeing him again. He and his wife arrived late, full of apologies. Their babysitter had let them down at the last minute and then their eldest child would not settle with the new sitter.

“Who would have children?” he had said with a nonchalant air as he removed his jacket.

“I would,” I answered in a flash.

He acknowledged me without pity in his eyes and simply said,

“I’m sorry.” 

It was enough. I didn’t feel inadequate. It was the right response.

Lynda Renham-Cook is associate editor of The Scavenger. A freelance writer, she learnt she could not have children three years after being married. She was then in her early 30s. After a long battle with infertility treatment she eventually resigned herself to never being a mother.  

As time went on her loneliness increased and she sought to find a way to integrate herself into society. In an attempt to seek support she set up a group on the internet and discovered many women suffering in the same way. Her discovery has not only helped her understand the struggles other women have gone through but also gained her many new friends. 

Any woman wishing to join Lynda’s group can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   



Comments   

+3 #7 jellyjuice 2014-01-24 22:33
I have PCOS and had one ectopic back in 2008 I will never have children. I am heavyset and don't have enough income to adopt so that's the truth. And I am guessing this will be my life. I was raped as a child, put in foster care molested some more beaten and then adopted to be molested again and beaten and here I am alone. Men use me for sex and I have no supporters. I have given up on everything. I really dislike this life. It has brought me down and made me feel unwanted and uncared. Yet God gives children to pedophiles, satan worshipers and people just want to add to the family tree. But me, someone who wants love and foundation is denied all of that. What kind of God does that to people?
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+1 #6 Joe 2013-06-05 19:08
I am glad that you are thrilled to have men in your group. I have other hurts besides (not instead of) the ones Jerry pointed out.

I will never be able to come home and say "DADDY'S HOME" and have kids run up to me and hug me.
I see fathers recognized in church on Father's Day and I know it will never apply to me (it's not "Failure Husband's Day").
Even bigger:
I will never do anything of significance that will outlive me (so, the world is no better off with me having been in it).

It gets so depressing. especially at this time of year.

One other comment. In Lynda's bio, she invites WOMEN who want to join her group to contact her (emphasis mine). After saying that she is thrilled to see men in her group, shouldn't she invite PEOPLE? I have been reluctant to join support groups for the childless because it is aimed at women, not so much at men.
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+1 #5 Ktcalling 2011-02-27 15:57
Thankyou for giving me a glimmer of hope that I might one day at least be able to outwardly cope with this heartbreak inside me. My lovely husband cannot give me children, although I am apparently fertile myself. So I have had to make a sickening choice between staying with and supporting the man that I love, who is as devastated as I am, and my desperate longing to be somebody's mum. So now we're both stumbling along on "happy pills" and alcohol, hoping and against hope that the pain will eventually ease enough to cope with the smug insensitivity of the child blessed majority.:cry:
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0 #4 Pamela Tsigdinos 2010-07-14 10:51
Thanks, Lynda, for your candor. Like others who have commented here before me, I'm encouraged when I see people speaking out on this topic. It's my hope, too, that the more we share about about our experience the easier it will become for those who follow in our footsteps.

Pamela, author of Silent Sorority www.silentsorority.com
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0 #3 Elizabeth Johnston 2010-07-13 20:45
I also agree that this article was very nice and very informative. I have found Lynda's group to help me when I felt no one even cared. Thanks for this wonderful article.
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0 #2 Dannielle webb 2010-07-13 11:54
Thanks for writting this. Its nice to see someone writting about us those who are treated like bad people because we done have children. I was looking up websites and books for childless women and couldnt even find one. I was hoping to write a book for other women like myself to help us move past the whole thing somehow but havent found anything. Its bad that they have books on loosing a baby and infertility books but nothing for those who that are going threw this grief of never having a child.
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0 #1 Debbie Grant 2010-07-13 08:54
It is great to see that there are people out there who are helping to bring attention to the world the plight of the 'childless not by choice'. As well as educating people with children on how childless men and women feel, with advice to help childless people feel less like strangers in their world.
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