Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Childless living, 20 years later...

While doing some Googling earlier today, I stumbled on this 2006 article from the journal Human Reproduction. The authors interviewed 14 Swedish women who remained childless, 20 years after infertility treatment.

Fourteen women is not a very large sample -- and if the study was carried out in the early part of this decade, the women would have gone through treatment in the early 1980s -- when there were far fewer options & lower success rates than there are today. I wonder what sort of results a similar study would find, 20 years from now?

Nevertheless, there were some interesting findings (some heartening, some depressing). Eleven of the 14 said they had eventually accepted their childlessness and adapted their lives accordingly. Most said they had found meaning in life by caring for others -- nieces & nephews, friends' children, pets, aging parents. Work, education, travel and hobbies were other activities they engaged in to "make the best of things."

Three of the women, however, said they had never come to terms with their childlessness. Many of the 14 said the feelings of social isolation that they felt while going through treatment had persisted over the years, and were in fact resurfacing in a new way as their friends and relatives became grandparents (!). Many said their sex life had suffered as a result of their infertility, and half had separated from their spouses (in all these cases, the men had left their wives).

I was particularly struck by this observation:

For the transition and adaptation to parenthood, every society has many rituals provided by kin, clan, state and even commercial interests. But there are no rituals to help with the transition and adaptation to none-parenthood. On the contrary, many women in this study described how private and silent their story was. The role-identity of not being able to become a parent, being a ‘none-parent’, is a state made possible only through the crushing of anticipations and dreams.



  1. You know, somehow I'd come across either that study or something similar not too long ago myself and had a similar reaction - some of it was heartening, some depressing. That last comment about the transition to non-parenthood just hits it right on the head. I can't help but think (maybe it's just wishful thinking) that those without children, whether they're childless involuntarily or not, will become more accepted as time goes on and there are more of us. Maybe then there will be more of an acknowledgment of how different our path is than that of parents.

  2. Oh, dear, I have so many thoughts regarding your post. I don't see myself as childless, because I have a child, but she lives in heaven. But, others don't see me as a mother, because I don't parent a living child. Sometimes, I'm pissed that I don't fit in. But, I sometimes see myself as (unfortunately) understanding more of how to be loving in a world, because it feels like it takes much more energy and knowledge of other's needs to live childless in a world that seems to devalue women without children. Sounds arrogant doesn't it?


  3. Hi Loribeth -

    Interesting post.

    I guess that no matter what, I am always acutely aware of the social isolation inherent in my situation. I am an outsider whenever people start talking about their children, and it will happen again with the grandchildren conversations (the gift that keeps on giving). Maybe it won't always feel so awkward and painful, but it will never recede completely.

    I just spent a week in the company of a woman around my age. She never mentioned having children, and there was no evidence of children in her home. From her comments, I gathered that she does not have near-adult children either.

    Part of me really wanted to address that similarity between us, but at the same time, I just couldn't bring myself to possibly hurt her by asking about her status. It didn't seem socially acceptable, and I never want to ask a CNBC woman if she has children. I don't want to be that person in anyone's day.

    And then I remembered that I had said something to her which hinted at my childless state, so maybe she was avoiding talking about children in deference to that.

    So here was a woman who I had an awful lot in common with, perhaps more than meets the eye even, and I just couldn't bridge that silence.

    And so the isolation continues...and I wonder, could we get some sort of secret handshake or something so we don't have to be so alone in all of this?

  4. I'm facing a bit of this myself. Perhaps there is some comfort that my life can be meaningful in other ways.

  5. If I were to describe infertility in one word it would be isolating. Funny thing is - everyone I talk to about it has the same feelings. Why is it we can't reach out to each other when companionship and understand is what we crave most?

    Very interesting study . . .

  6. It seems as though there should be much more (is there any??) offered to women and men both, going through fertility treatment, available to them in the way of resources and support groups to help them if the treatment is unsuccessful.
    I can not begin to speak to what the toll of the treatments, the hopes and dreams being pursued so mightily and then having to release them, does to anyone. To have to completely redesign your future without help or support seems cruel at best.
    I hope a better more inclusive and detailed study is done and soon.

  7. It's almost like we need a ceremony to honor women who give to society, regardless of their reproductive status. Something that shows what we do beyond the crusty old category of babymachine/caretaker.

  8. "The role-identity of not being able to become a parent, being a ‘non-parent’, is a state made possible only through the crushing of anticipations and dreams." Crushing. Mmmm, cheery thought. From my own experience, I've been married for 7 years now, and lived together for 5 years before that. The latter half of those years, we've been trying to start a family. 1/2 of those years, we've been through tremendous financial and emotional stress. It hasn't been a ton of fun over here. What's isolating is that when we arrive at non parent land, there is no celebration, no congratulations, no pictures are taken, no newsletters are sent out. We become isolated from our true selves and spend a great deal of time mourning. So it's no wonder marriages break down.

    However, through suffering we learn compassion and only if we do something positive with it, reach out to people, can we find some measure of peace. It's something I hang on to. So if you missed that connection, try again, share a part of yourself, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. You can be a parent in some other way, it's just not the way you would have thought. No, it's not fair. It's just different.

  9. Not quite answering your question, but I read this article today about the growing number of childless homes in the US. Of course, these studies always seem a bit off-point because they're talking about women age 18 and older. That's a huge age range. So I was interested to read that the number of childless women in their 40s has doubled since 1976.

  10. that is sad. and I agree that we should have some sort of ritual to help embrace the state of childlessness. so many rituals exist for pregnancy and motherhood -- yet there is no warm familiarity or celebration to welcome what a childless infertile must inevitably accept. quite the opposite, with how stigmatized and alienated these women report.

  11. I completely agree with others that we need some sort of ritual to honour women and their contributions, regardless of whether they have living children. I'll have to give that some thought about how to do that with women in my own life.

  12. Oh wow. I sucked in my breath and held it after I read that little excerpt. Because I know it's true. And it frightens the bejeezus out of me. And makes me angry at the unfairness of it all.

  13. I too, am childless. Not by choice either. Tried for years, then eventually diagnosed with enodmetrial cancer stage 1. Total hysterectomy at the age of 45. Grateful to God that it was only stage one and to this day I am fine.

    However, I feel isolated, don't fit in anywhere with anyone. Everyone I know has kids. It's sad and it gets harder as you get older. No soccer games to go to, no cheerleading camps to attend, no girlscout cookies to sell, no first steps, words, dates, marriage, grandkids etc. No one to care for me in the end or to share our lives with.

    Tried the adoption route, we were set back twice by the agency - first time, the first "counselor" died after childbirth herself which was a devastating blow to all who knew her. Second "counselor" was an acquaintance of ours - I balked at the suggestion when she was mentioned - and the agency said - "oh it will be okay." First meeting with 2nd counselor - she undid everything we did (homestudies) and said we would have to do everything over. Long story but we were in counseling for months for some marital issues that WE overcame and was finally given a recommendation by the marital counselor for adoption only for this second adoption counselor to say it wasn't good enough, that we needed to start over. When she walked out of our house, I looked at my husband and said it will never happen. That was 7 years ago.

    Yes, I feel isolated, I don't fit in - ANYWHERE ANYMORE

  14. It breaks my heart to read all of your posts. I am a 41 year old female who has finally (after a miscarriage and a failed IVF attempt) accepted that it will never happen for me. With all of the stress of the infertility my marriage has fallen apart and I feel very alone. People around me are getting pregnant and having babies and all I can think of is why not me? It kills me to go to baby showers and put on my (fake) happy face. I am hopeful that this will get easier with time, but as someone else mentioned it just continues with time with the soccer games, gaduations, weddings, etc... It is so unfair. I am by nature a very optimistic person, but I'm not sure how I can be optimistic about this. Has anyone found anything that has eased the pain even if just a bit?

  15. Hi

    I googled 'living childless not by choice' and stumbled upon this blog.

    I too am childless and been trying for a long time. My sad story is that I am very healthy (according to my Drs) and my husband is infertile. Its hard accepting this.

    Anyway my husband suffered from a problem called 'Azoospermia'. This means zero sperm count. But he took Ayurveda medicine and now he has a few sperms. Its low sperm count though.

    I am writing this becuase incase another lady who has an infertile husband sees this, they can try Ayurveda medcine.

    Please visit my blog

  16. I truly feel that the isolation of childlessness is beginning to lessen because of blogs, World Childless Week, and projects such as The Childless Not By Choice Magazine. We must keep speaking up so that others hear our stories. Only then can we possibly hope for a bit of understanding...