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.