Childless – but not by choice
- Published: 10 July 2010
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While 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.”
“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.
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.
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,
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.