Our feelings around Childlessness are often covered with layers of shame, of guilt. Often entangled with trauma. Or with fears too big to tend to. Childlessness comes in many flavours, has been categorised, is studied as one studies a disease. And, as with many diseases, a common narrative is that it is one’s fault (“what’s wrong with you, why can’t you have children?”). Despite my own long-held perception, it is not uncommon. The prevalence of childlessness is very difficult to estimate, but I’ve seen figures suggesting that one in four couples have been affected by infertility or subfertility. This doesn’t even take into account those who are not in a relationship. Probably I’m also not alone in having hidden mine from the world as best as I could.
The idea of parenthood being the meaning of life was repeatedly etched in me throughout most of my life. I grew up in an environment where values revolved around family. Every birth a blessing, a strengthening of those values. Parenthood the main duty and reward. The ultimate ticket to belonging. I also spent several decades being an evolutionary biologist, within a lineage of knowledge where reproduction is at the core of life. The purpose of any individual. And not only for itself, but for the “good of the species”.
I guess that a lot of the—mostly hidden—guilt and shame I still feel around the pain of not being a mother comes from there. From those implicit and explicit expectations, and the sense of failure, of betrayal to my family, to my species, to my genes. To my future. The shame of being The End of the Line.
I’m probably not that different from many other women and men within my cultural paradigm, in that I’ve experienced the complex grief of childlessness in different flavours…
We, who feel forced to choose it.
In the past year I’ve met several young people who have been awakened to our biosphere crisis to the extent that they already know that they will not have children of their own. Whether that knowledge cristalises into reality or not, the grief of losing the dream of parenthood is real. It was a very real grief for me all those years ago—¿is it more than thirty already?—when I decided I couldn’t bring a child into a world that I felt was being engulfed in scarcity, at the brink of nuclear disasters, into the uncertainty of coming back home alive when going out in a city competing for #1 in the list of “most violent cities in the world“, or a world where such lists are even a reality. The growing human population was a big issue back then, and I didn’t want to contribute to that. And I was deeply aware of the biosphere crisis, of the points we had already tipped back then. It didn’t seem so urgent as now, but the clock was ticking. Loudly. All my “arguments” can be debated, and my views did indeed change. I see a resilience in us that I didn’t know back then. But the grief of that loss doesn’t care for arguments.
Many people, and a substantial number in impoverished countries, are further forced to childlessness because they don’t have enough resources to bring up a child. In many cases, women don’t have enough physical resources to sustain a pregnancy. Although lack of resources was a worry for my family, we very rarely went hungry. Lack of material resources didn’t play a role in my decision to “opt out” of motherhood, since the prevalent story was that we can always find a way. That was my parents story as well. They had coped with poverty and war as children. There was no reason why their children couldn’t do that if need be. As our individual circumstances change, this type of childessness can be reverted, but the grief, if untended, may remain as trauma in our body and spirit.
We, whose bodies can’t
Some twenty years later, things did change for me. I would wake up, usually in the middle of the night, knowing and yet resisting the knowledge. Those familiar—and until a couple of years before welcomed—changes in my body that heralded my menstruation, the confirmation that I wasn’t pregnant. The depression would set in, sometimes fleeting, sometimes for weeks. Most of the time hidden from the world, even from my partner. Covered in shame and self-recrimination… This was certainly my fault ¿was it not?
After a severe abdominal abscess pretty much destroyed my right ovary and affected my left one, my chances of becoming a mother were quite slim. I was in my late thirties, to make things more challenging. But I had finally succumbed to that ¿biological? urge to procreate. So many of my friends had given birth… There was also that unwavering
pressure expectation from our families, from friends, and even total strangers. Moreover, there was a part in me who had been longing for children all my life, resenting my choice. And my life had become very much like the life of the well-to-do class I had unintentionally slipped into: quite padded against the crumbling social structures and ecological crisis. Therefore, my arguments for choosing not to have children had more or less been banished to the recesses of my shadows. As it turns out, I may have changed my mind too late.
We tried for about six years, and I tried most options short of IVF. My then partner was quite sure it was down to me, and, given my medical history, he was probably right. The longest I remained pregnant was two and a half months, losing it right after a bumpy boat ride, ironically during a romantic holiday. Month after month, like relentless clockwork, I would get a bloody reminder of my uttermost failure as a woman: I was barren.
Feeling like an island…
My own feelings of guilt and shame prevented me from openly talking about my grief. And even from acknowledging that I needed to. I felt that I had called childlessness upon myself, and that sharing my pain about it was itself shameful, that I didn’t deserve grieving about it. That started a process of isolation and dissociation in which I would recite a litany of benefits of my lack of children. I would waft off any attempts of compassion from my friends, which I interpreted as pity. Some of my friends shared that grief for a while. Most of them became mothers at some point.
Being with the blossoming families around me was a blessing, but sometimes also a thorny reminder of what I had taken for granted and didn’t receive. I know of others who find it very difficult to enjoy their nephews and nieces, the children of their friends. It has become clear to me that the shadow of that untended, hidden grief often surfaces as bitter resentment and jealousy.
…and then an archipelago
I remember standing, a dot in a grief line*. I was moved by so much that people were sharing, so many different events and yet so many of us had been through similar things. Suddenly the memory was there, the pain of that aborted dream, and I named my “grief of childlessness”, my cynical selves expecting to be the usual odd one, regaled with, at best, the compassion of others. But no. About half of the people crossed lines, although I can’t say for sure, since my sight soon veiled with tears. My grief was finally being welcomed home. To shake my beliefs even further, the majority of the men were also crossing lines, some of them more surprised than I was. It became evident to me that there had been even less space for them to grieve. The reason for our childlessness didn’t matter. Not really. Not anymore. We all shared the same yearning.
This is not, as we often assume, a gender-specific grief.
The evolutionary ecologist in me knows—intuits is perhaps a wiser word—that the biological and environmental causes and effects of childlessness are quite different between men and women. However, that in itself is no reason for excluding each other when tending our emotions around it.
Male infertility—at least in the last half century—has been steadily increasing**. And the social stigmas around it*** seem to be giving way to the awareness that it does play a big role in total childlessness. I would like to see an increase in inclusiveness when adressing or tending the psychological effects of childlessness. I know of groups, fora, and other gathering places where childless women can meet to share their experiences and sorrow.
I haven’t yet come across one such group for men or that includes men (please let me know of any so I can update this). Now I also know of some groups for men.
Personally, knowing that the grief I’ve felt from my lack of children is shared by men has been like a balm that also eases the trauma that stems from having been, as a woman, made the main culprit.
Tending our grief together
There’s a time to grieve on our own. Yet sharing, holding each other in that exquisite place of vulnerability feels like the only way to safely roam the darkness of that barren land, to restore the soil. Not with the scope to have children, but to find the wild beauty of love that accompanies deep sorrow.
I would also like to see places were we don’t divide us into groups according to the causes of our childlessness. Where all is welcome. Knowing that other humans of whichever sex also feel the the grief of loss that comes with the choice of not having children allows me to approach that grief with less shame and judgement. And knowing that there are many other gateways to that sorrow, has helped me feel more complete in my own, and brings a perspective that goes beyond my individuality. This is not my problem. This is an issue we share.
I’m part of a team offering a space to do just that. A place to sit together and look for the wild flowers at The End of the Line.
This Autumn, we’re offering a series of online events to explore the transformative possibilities of Grief Tending in community:
17th September 2020, 19:00 – 21:00 (BST)
An introduction to Grief Tending in the context of Childlessness, plus some simple practices and a taste of the sweetness of sharing our journeys.
By donation. Book a place here.
24th September 2020, 15:00 – 19:00 (BST) & 17th October 2020, 09:30 – 13:30 (BST)
Find a home for your all your feelings in a space held by experienced facilitators of grief tending workshops.
Cost: sliding scale £35-£60 (bursary places available). Register here.
Deep Dive – Two-day weekend workshop
7th – 8th November 2020.
Over a weekend, alternating time on and off line, we will give spacious attention to the feelings and journey of childlessness, in turn supporting and supported by others.
Cost: £95-£175 (bursary places available). Registration link coming soon.
Find more about Grief Tending and a wide array of events on https://grieftending.org
* “Grief lines” is an exercise of bringing awareness to how many others have been through the events that we’ve been through. The group is distributed in two lines, facing each other. As the feelings come, individuals will name a grief they’ve experienced, and move to the other line. Whoever resonates with that grief, moves along. It can be a very powerful technology to at the same time stir our grief and give us the support of sharing it with others.
** Male sterility has historically been very poorly measured, so the data needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Some types of sterility that have beem studied in some detail do support the trend of an increase.
*** During work I did at a human-reproduction lab, one of the main socio-ecological issues we had when dealing with contraceptives was the pressure men were under to be seen as fertile. Many women would not even dare to take contraceptives for fear of violence or abandonment, as their male partner would “lose face” if they’d stop having children.