By Paula Coston
As a 59-year-old, I’m still often asked why I never had children, and still find it hard to explain to people who ask. If my reason had been purely biological issues – infertility, endometriosis, chronic health problems – I might be more able to silence the questions.
Apart from physiology, there are plenty of reasons for our childlessness, including:
- Being single; or losing, or not meeting or having, a suitable partner.
- Having a partner who doesn’t want children.
- Being with an infertile partner.
- After becoming an adoptive mother or stepmother, find out that that ‘doesn’t seem enough’.
- Not feeling able to afford a family, or to leave a job.
- Being gay.
- Early term loss, miscarriage, abortion, still birth, cot death, early infant death.
- Not realising in time how quickly our fertility reduces from the age of 35 and beyond.
- Caring for a disabled, sick, elderly or otherwise vulnerable family member during our fertile years.
- The influence of our own upbringing: for instance abusive parenting, or our own family’s religious, moral or class attitudes.
These factors aren’t mutually exclusive. I never consciously put off having a family for my career, but somehow it took over for a while. I was dating various people, then, within the space of a few years, I turned around and my siblings and most of my friends were having children, and time went on, and I just never found the suitable partner I longed for. I tried to adopt as a single, but after three years of trying, that didn’t work out, so for the sake of my ongoing sanity I gave up.
If any of the reasons above apply to you, they probably do in a different combination. And they in turn may have interacted with biological factors: women who suddenly see they have limited options, for example singles, may take measures such as IVF, and still arrive at no happy outcome.
Such reasons – which may shift and change over time – are delicate personal matters. Yet if you’re like me, you somehow feel that you still have to self-justify. We are often made to feel guilty for being childless, somehow wrong-footed. But it’s not as simple as making the wrong choices in life at the wrong times. It may not be our bodies’ fault, but it’s not as simple as being ours either: social influences and pressures and constraints, and the parts played by our loved ones, must also share the blame.
It would help if we had a term to answer our interrogators. The only phrases available to us so far are vague and unfamiliar and unwieldy: ‘childlessness by happenstance’ ‘social infertility’, ‘social factor childlessness’. If you have a more inspired suggestion, please do let me know.
Paula Coston is a 59-year-old administrator in an English university. She writes on childlessness, singledom, the older woman and more at http://boywoman.wordpress.com and for The Huffington Post. Her novel – the first in English about a modern woman childless by circumstance – comes out in April/May, entitled On the Far Side, There’s a Boy.
I looked at your list and 6 apply to me (plus my own medical issues that contributed to my infertility). I’m about to be 48 years old. When I was single (up to 35) the question was easy to answer – I’m not married or don’t have anyone in my life to make a baby with and the question didn’t hurt me. When I was in my late 30s and married, and people would ask why I didn’t have kids, the question was like a stab in the heart, I don’t even remember what I would say, but I would quickly leave. When I was in my early 40s, I remember it didn’t hurt as much and I would respond with a joke. Now, when people ask, I usually say, “it’s complicated” and people don’t ask further. It’s taken me all this time to realize that answer is the closest to the truth, at least for me.
Paula Coston says
Thanks for sharing, Maria.
Yes, I think ‘It’s complicated’ just about covers me, too. Trouble is, some people you say that to think it’s an excuse for mistakes you must have made yourself. I hate that!
4 or 5 of these apply to me: losing my husband, then my parents, went back to school . I find myself thinking what a waste the last 8 years have been but try not to let myself dwell there. I’ll be 44 in 2 weeks and am trying to look forward to it but I’m not really. I don’t get asked a lot if I have children but generally it’s by the elderly folks I work with who say something like “you still have time” . They assume I’m younger. Sometimes I share a bit of my story if appropriate. I find myself thinking “it just didn’t happen for me.” It’s as simple as that.
Like Maria and Paula’s stories, I guess our answers to the baby question will always be evolving and changing as time passes just like grief evolves but never really goes away.
Paula Coston says
Thanks for sharing, Brigid. I think your idea of our answers evolving and changing as time passes, just like grief, is very apt. Also, there’s always new research and new understanding. That’s kind of a good thing, I hope.
I can only relate to on, however, I understand there are many reason for childlessness. My husband and I tried IVF a couple of times when I was in my early 30s but it never worked out so we made the decision to move on. I never received any clear cut answers as to why, which would have made me feel a bit better if I had a diagnosis. I was ok with it for several years because our lives was so busy but over the last few years I feel a great sense of loss and sadness that I’m not sure I will ever overcome. I’m still asked about children or even grandchildren and when I say I don’t have any people just look at me strange or look at me with pity.
My younger co-workers constantly show me pictures of their children and ask me if I feel cheated. Most people feel that if you don’t have children then your life is without meaning. And now I have to listen to some of my friends go on and on about their grandchildren, and many times I do feel like my life has no meaning. I pray that the universe has something else in store for me so I can some day come to terms with my situation.
I blamed myself a great deal along with my body. In terms of my body, one day I realized childlessness has always existed. Everyone had a family member who never procreated. It made me realize I was part of a “norm.”
I’m making peace with my choices and realizing when people ask its: complicated, unfair, and I’ll chose if I want to share my story.
I just tell people I can’t have children. If they press, I tell them I have medical issues. Woe betide those who continue to dive for details.
I am very rarely asked why I don’t have children. Maybe kiwis are more reserved! I think the fact you use the term “interrogators” says it all. They’re asking intrusive questions very aggressively. And people like this get my back up. I am much more likely to give them a pointed response “because we don’t” or some other throwaway comment that makes it clear I do not want to answer this. I don’t feel any obligation to justify my position. After all, I haven’t asked them if their children were “accidents” after a drunken night in the back seat of a car. So how dare they ask me why I don’t have children?
It is different though if I am having a conversation with a genuinely interested, caring person, who is seeking to understand me, or who I sense might be open to discussion of infertility or pregnancy loss or any of the other reasons. Then I open up quite readily, even to complete strangers.
I’m with Mali. I’ve only been asked “why” once and because that person was only an acquaintance, I only gave a vague answer, “Weeeellll…” but thankfully he left it at that.
More often than not, when people ask if we have kids or not and I say “no”, they’d not ask why, but they’d go on to saying, “Ah, it will come” or “you still have time” (FYI I’m 35). One time I told an Indo neighbour truthfully, “It’s OK even if we have no kids.” She immediately replied, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! I’ll keep praying for you.”
I just smiled and went on my way. However, if a person is genuinely interested and seems open enough to listen to my story, then I’ll tell them. I once had a long conversation with a friend on this matter and I suspected that my story actually made her think about having kids sooner than later because not long after that she got pregnant (seriously, a few months later she got pregnant – she’s 2 years younger than me). 🙂 I even told her how difficult it’d be to adopt.
Oh yeah, these days I’ve been so open about the fact that we’ve moved on and we’re fine without kids that I think only strangers and those who don’t know me enough would ask these questions. It’s gonna be interesting to know what people will say to me (neighbours) when I visit Indonesia again sometime this year. Thankfully my relatives don’t ask these questions, though the last time I visited, two of them still told me they were praying for us to have kids. I just smiled and went on to talk about other stuff.
I attended a self-help group for a short while and there was this couple, he was 50 and she was 46. He had been widowed at a relatively young age (his late wife had suffered and died of cancer or something) and she was one of the women who “just never found a partner” until she met him through internet dating when she was around 42, 43 years old. By the time I met them she was 46…. and they were still hoping to become parents. The local fertility clinic had declined them IVF because of her age (some IUI’s hadn’t worked), so she took to Chinese medicine and all that kind of thing. It was very hard for me to listen to them (at the time, I was 41 one and childless-by-circumstance). On the one hand I admired their courage to still hope. But very often I found myself wishing for them that they may be able to just let go and enjoy their life as a “family of two”.
Paula Coston says
Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. There are so many other ways to live, though for me it took me a long way to find some.
Can you share some of the ways you have found to live without children?
Paula Coston says
Hi Sherry. It hasn’t been easy – and to a great extent, I’ve just fumbled my way – and still feel grief at times.
One way is working it through with a few trusted friends, ideally in the same position as me. Do you have the online Meetups in the States? If you join Meetups, you can see if you can set up one for other women in your area without children, just to get together for coffee or whatever once in a while. I go to some of these, and we don’t talk about our childlessness much of the time. We just laugh, and DON’T talk about children, grandchildren and the nuclear family. A great relief. Within those, you’ll usually find at least one or two to talk to on their own, and share your highs and lows.
Another way is by doing something creative (doesn’t have to be highbrow!) to let out your grief. I worked mine through largely by writing, in the end a novel – which kind of tells my story in disguise. But I know others who do it through sewing or patchwork, art, home decoration, and – in quite a lot of cases – gardening. There’s something about encouraging something to grow, even if it’s not a child, that is very salving to the soul. A small group of us locally are about to get together and plant young trees in our nearby park – all of us childless; and the Council has agreed to recognise childless women with a plaque or something by the trees. But you can just go incognito and do something like that locally.
I have nieces, nephews and other young people, children of friends, whom I love to be with, of course – as a kind of mentor. But people don’t understand that they’re not a straight substitute for your own children. I also discovered recently a guardian scheme: if international students come to our local schools, I’ve registered with a ‘guardian agency’, and get the chance to host one to stay in their vacations, when it’s too far to go home to their home country. I love doing that.
I hope this is some help. Lovely to hear from you.
Thanks for your reply; I will look into some of the things you have suggested. It has just been hard for me to find women my age in my situation, and I know getting through the grief is with support. I’m glad you have found ways to cope.