The Grief of Unwanted Childlessness
Involuntary childlessness may be experienced like a bereavement, as you grieve the loss of hopes of being a parent
Therapist Meriel Whale shares her experience
If you are grieving and need support, find a therapist here
Infertility and unwanted childlessness are on the rise, but is enough being done to support those individuals who cannot conceive? Fertility clinics offer counselling whilst you’re there, but once you’ve left there’s often nothing available to you. Also, why would you want to go back to the clinic which you associate with your failure to conceive?
It's still a neglected area partly because people with children find it very painful to imagine life without them, and this applies to therapists as well. They have to think about how it would feel for them, and I think people with children find that very difficult.
Another reason is that people want to fix it: “Have you thought of x? Why don’t you do x?” People push me towards having to tell them exactly what I’ve been through in terms of fertility treatments and adoption.
We also live in a very pro-natalist society, where mothers are venerated, which can make it even more difficult to cope with childlessness. Many people also have a misguided view that fertility treatment options are going to solve everything. For a lot of people they don't work.
What childless people have lost is a very powerful dream, the opportunity to fulfil a desire not just driven by society but also by our own genetics and biology. I remember saying to one of my friends when I was really grieving, “You’ve all been allowed to go to a country that I can never visit”. This is undoubtedly disenfranchised grief, as those who suffer it aren't encouraged to talk about it.
My journey with childlessness
I work with many childless clients, but I of course cannot speak about their experience. I can however talk about my own journey, which has things in common with that of others. I think the grief model we are all very familiar with is a part of this journey, though there are unique aspects to it as well.
Often in the early stages there can be what we call ‘magical thinking’ such as: “If only I do this, this and this or if I had done this, this and this then I wouldn’t be in this position”. This can easily move into blaming and shame.
People can often also get very angry, and anger can go inwards and go outwards. There can be a sense of impotence – which is actually quite interesting when you think of the word impotence: “there’s absolutely nothing I can do about this, it’s deeply unfair and it shouldn’t have happened to me and I am angry at the world and everyone in it”.
After this there’s a kind of ordinary sadness, which is often quite a relief. You can begin to talk about the everyday sadnesses like being in the shops and seeing a mother with a baby and having the emotional strength to imagine what that might feel like – in the early days it’s too painful to be able to imagine.
Once I had been able to express my grief and loss and to talk about how ashamed I had felt, I felt unexpectedly exhilarated. I suddenly thought, well actually, things could be ok. You can often be blindsided then by what feels like a relapse. I decided that I needed to do something quite creative to help me get over my experience, so I commissioned a childless friend of mine to make me a ring. When those feelings came up and I just found it hard to accept that I would not have my sincerest desire to be a mother, I put those feelings into the ring. In a way, what I’m putting into my ring is the love that I would have had and I would have given to my child. It keeps it small and manageable so I can carry on being alive and enjoying my life but know that I have kept those feelings safe and I haven’t left them behind.
It is a process, but I’ve found my acceptance. I’ve forgiven myself, which might sound strange as I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve forgiven other people. When you’re in the dark tunnel of loss you can feel that you will never get to that place, and it’s reassuring to hear from other people who have come out the other side. So we need to have a sense that we can emerge. It’s about looking around and saying, OK, it looks like I’m sort of alive again.
It's a bit like a rebirth. I’m not the same person as I was before I tried to have children. I’ve been on a journey that I think is as strong and powerful as the journey that any mother goes on, and I’ve come out the other side. It’s been transformational not having children in the way that having children can be transformational.
Supporting those who are involuntarily childless
There are many ways people can improve things. Instead of asking the very intrusive question, “Why don’t you have children?”, rather people might say, “Would you like to talk about it?”. I also think it’s really good for childless women to hear about the challenges of being a mother. We are fed this image that parenting is wonderful but I know that’s not always the case.
There’s a lot counsellors can do, too. First and foremost, counsellors won't try to ‘solve’ your problems. They will focus on listening and understanding. The right counsellor will be strong enough to show you that they can take your rage and your grief and not be knocked down by it. You may fear, as a client, that your grief is so strong that once you start you won't be able to stop. The counsellor will be able to hold this.
And, for counsellors: don’t expect the childless person to teach you about the experience, be willing to do your own research – there is an abundance of material out there on this subject. Working in this field, it is also important to think about one’s own self-care. Having a good supervisor who looks at me as a whole person and not just as a counsellor is really important, and the blogging I do is very therapeutic because a lot of it is about my own journey.
The following resources may be helpful for anyone experiencing, or working with, involuntary childlessness:
- Gateway Women: Global friendship and support network for childless women that runs London workshops
- World Childless Week: Sep 16-22
- Walk in My Shoes: Story-sharing website
- Jody Day: Thought-leader and TED Talker on involuntary childlessness
- Bib Lynch: Journalist who has shared her own experience in Metro columns and Guardian articles