It’s more common than you might think.
In recent years, ONS in the UK has reported that 1 in 5 people reach their mid-forties without having children, and there are similar statistics from other countries including the US.
One of the many painful things about unwanted childlessness is that other people tend to assume that if you don’t have children, you didn’t want to have them. And while this is true for lots of people who remain happily childfree, it is also likely that many others without children experience some grief around their childlessness.
In fact, of the 1 in 5 people who reach their mid-forties without having children, only approximately 10% have chosen the childfree path. The remaining 90% are childless not by choice. And you might be forgiven for assuming that most of these people have experienced medical infertility. Actually, medical issues preventing pregnancy account for only a small proportion (perhaps another 10%) of those childless not by choice. The vast majority find themselves childless by circumstance.
And there are many many different circumstances that can lead to unwanted childlessness. As Jody Day, founder of the wonderful Gateway Women community (which provides support for women struggling with unchosen childlessness) says, “The room called childlessness has many doors; not just the ones marked ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. She has written a blog post called ’50 ways not to be a mother, though she reckons that she has identified more like 100 ways since she started counting them. It could be anything from lack of a suitable partner to lack of money, lack of support systems, other health factors, or a whole host of other reasons.
So, for every 100 women in their mid-forties, 20 will not have children. Two of those will be childfree by choice (didn’t want children) and 18 will be childless by circumstance, and quite possibly in the throes of their silent, invisible grief. It isn’t quite as black and white as this, of course, and there are many shades of grey in between definitely not wanting kids and definitely wanting them – there is a whole complex area of ambivalence for many women who find themselves in circumstances which aren’t ideal for having children.
For many of these childless women, the last years when they are still hopeful of becoming a mother and the years when they have to accept that this will never happen for them are the most painful times in their lives. Many women find that they struggle to cope with everyday life, and it is common to feel depressed, isolated, even suicidal, as it can seem like they are the only person in the world who feels like this.
In part, this is because the subject of childlessness is such a taboo in our society that it is very hard to find people to talk to about our feelings. It is common for women to think that they are going mad, before they realise that what they are feeling is actually grief.
And, of course, it isn’t only women who suffer from this grief. There is a lot less attention paid to childless men, and fewer resources out there to support them, but thankfully there is increasing recognition of their pain. Hopefully a support community for childless men will soon come into being; as far as I know there is not one yet.
It is a kind of disenfranchised grief, which means that it is widely misunderstood and unrecognised. The pain of having your feelings judged, ignored, belittled, denied, or ridiculed can make the grief itself that much worse. It is shocking, considering the numbers of people dealing with this, that it is such a hidden grief that even many grief counsellors are unaware of it and therefore may do more harm than good when their help is sought.
Many of us have had the experience of having to educate our own counsellors about what not to say and what is helpful to us.
Brene Brown has said that childlessness is one of the major areas of empathy failure, and empathy failure is certainly a very common experience for those of us living with this grief. This increases our feelings of isolation, and removes our sense of safety in being authentic with others; when our pain is so often received without empathy and we so seldom receive a response which helps us, then it is natural to withdraw and to close off from people and hold our pain close to our chests.
For this reason, it is vital that those suffering in this way seek the help of others who are able to provide understanding and support. It is very difficult for people who are not in this position to understand why it is so painful – either they didn’t want children so find it hard to empathise with our grief, or they were able to have their own children and can’t imagine what it must feel like not to have them.
Many people make the assumption that you cannot grieve for what you have never had.
But other childless women (and men) can and do understand. Even a decade ago there were no support networks or groups for childless women, but these days it is becoming much less of a taboo and more and more communities are arising. One of the first was Jody Day’s Gateway Women community, which has thousands of members from all around the world now, and which provides some invaluable resources to those suffering and those who feel alone.
There are also Gateway Women meetup groups worldwide now, so you can join up and go along and socialise with women in similar positions as you – it is so helpful to meet others and it can really help to ease that feeling of isolation.
There are also many other resources for those grieving unwanted childlessness. Here are just a few of them:
The Dovecote Community – Facebook Group
Childless Path to Acceptance – Facebook Group
World Childless Week – 16-22 Sept 2019
Living the Life Unexpected – Jody Day a wonderful book, written specifically to help you deal with the grief of unwanted childlessness.
There are many other books and resources out there, and I’ll be adding these in future posts.
The most important thing to know, right now, though, is that you are not alone. There are many of us out there who do understand. Finding ways to connect with others who understand is invaluable and can really help you, if you find yourself grieving this loss.