Living with Involuntary Childlessness

By: Amy Cheng

When Sarah was in her 30s, she and her husband began trying for children; they began trying naturally but were unsuccessful, so they began fertility treatments.

However, after several treatments, they were still unsuccessful and by the time Sarah was 45, they had completed their final IVF treatment.

Sarah Roberts, a grief counsellor and founder of The Empty Cradle, is involuntarily childless and started up The Empty Cradle when she realised there was little understanding and support for women in her situation.

Sarah Roberts grief counsellorSource: The Empty Cradle Facebook / Sarah Roberts

Childless Not by Choice

For some people, being childless is a choice, however, for others, they would love to have children if the circumstances were different.

“Sometimes it’s this slow dawning process of, you know, at 38, they’re thinking it might not happen and then maybe 42 or 44, they’re just going it didn’t happen,” Ms Roberts said in an interview.

“When that happens, there’s two really key parts of women’s stories – the first is the grief, there can be this really profound sense of grief and loss.

“When you think about the losses, the losses of involuntary childlessness is everything you think about that’s associated with parenthood, it’s the loss of all of that.”

“The losses of involuntary childlessness is everything you think about that’s associated with parenthood, it’s the loss of all of that,” – Sarah Roberts, grief counsellor and founder of The Empty Cradle

The second aspect of involuntarily childlessness is how society perceives childless people.

“It can be moving into essentially what is a really stigmatised and quite invisible social role and that social role is an older, childless woman,” she said. “There’s no single positive word in the English language for an older childless woman, all of them are really stigmatised.”

An Identity Crisis

Ms Roberts believes that society positions women, particularly older women, in the role of a mother or grandmother and if they’re not in that role then they aren’t seen.

For men who are involuntarily childless, the challenges are different but also impact the way they view themselves.

Michael Hughes, one of the hosts of The Full Stop, a podcast about involuntary childlessness, said his situation has made him question his identity as a man.

“We’re always brought up with this innateness to be able to fix things but… it becomes a confusing time because, quite frankly, we can’t fix the situation,” he said.

“From an identity perspective, we question ourselves – ‘how good of a man am I? How good of a husband am I if I can’t fix this?’.

“Logically we know it’s not our fault but there’s that innate drive in us to try and sort something out and we actually feel quite helpless, which sometimes is a foreign feeling to a guy.”

“From an identity perspective, we question ourselves – ‘how good of a man am I? How good of a husband am I if I can’t fix this?’,” – Michael Hughes, co-host of The Full Stop podcast

Mr Hughes said it was an isolating time for him and his wife when they realised they couldn’t have children.

“My wife will tell you she was sad when she was grieving, she felt alone because she didn’t see me grieve.

“But for me, it was about keeping control, getting us through this, being the rock so that (she) felt (she) had something to cling to.”

Stigmatised by Society

Man in cafe using phone
Photo: by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Ms Roberts sometimes feels like she’s being “squeezed out” of society because she believes the norm is for adults to be parents.

“A lot of the social conversations, even the language, all that sort of stuff, is very focused on parents and families and we can kind of get squeezed out to the margins.”

She has lost friendships as a result of this.

“A lot of what happens when people become parents is that they tend to drop or deprioritise their friends that don’t have kids and they move more towards people that do have children.

“And so what will happen is that, for a lot of us… we just get left out of people’s lives, a lot of us can experience social annihilation and a lot of us lose a lot of our friendship circles and we can feel quite isolated.”

Sarah Roberts sometimes feels like she’s being “squeezed out” of society because she believes the norm is for adults to be parents.

For Mr Hughes, he sometimes feels uncomfortable at social gatherings because the conversation is usually about people’s children.

“Usually everyone will start talking about their children and you’re feeling quite left out,” he said.

“You start to have this feeling of isolation because well, ‘I’ve got nothing to offer, I’ve got nothing to talk about’.”

He and his wife have stopped attending birthday parties because it became too uncomfortable.

Avoiding Parks and Social Situations

Single men, particularly older men, face the additional challenge of sometimes being seen as a threat to society, Mr Hughes said.

“Many men, let’s say in their 50s who are single and they don’t have children… they think ‘I want some joy in my life, I want to go sit in the park and just watch the world go by and actually watch the mothers of the children playing in the park’.

“But, unfortunately, the way that our society is now, that man who sits on that park bench watching the world go by will be seen as a threat.

“And many men have said to me, ‘I’ve watched mothers herding their children away from me because I’m seen as a threat’ and that’s such a sad situation.”

Childless people can often be seen as selfish and self-centred, Ms Roberts said.

“But actually, it’s quite the opposite, we’re often really generous and really give a lot of our time for a whole lot of different social causes,” she said.

“We do a lot of volunteering and pay a lot of taxes to support children and families and we offer this with care and love.

“Non-parents are fully realised, interesting and just different adults; we just ask to be seen, respected and valued.”

Challenges in Church Life

The church is not exempt from this view of parenting being the norm, according to Lisa, a married woman who is involuntarily childless.

“I do think that the church probably sometimes, and often unintentionally, uses the language of family and what they mean by that, oftentimes, is family unit not family, as in the family of God,” she said.

At her previous church, a big church, she sometimes felt isolated.

“All the women in my Bible study had kids and it seemed like they kind of disappeared off to collect kids from kids programs and so I found myself after church going, ‘where is everybody?’,” Lisa said.

“And they were all having their conversations around the kids pick up area, which was completely understandable… but it kind of emphasised the fact that I’m not one of them, I don’t have kids to go and pick up.”

She would like to see churches integrating people from different stages of life and providing spaces for them to interact where children can be safe after church.

Lisa was grieved when she found out she couldn’t have children, however, her faith in God kept her going.

“I do think that the church probably sometimes, and often unintentionally, uses the language of family,” – Lisa

When she miscarried, she was reading Deuteronomy in her quiet time and was moved by Moses’ farewell speech to God’s people.

“He says to them ‘the eternal God is your dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms’, and I just found that so beautiful and so comforting,” she said.

“We’ve lost this baby and there’s this sense of, well, they were so little and a lot of people wouldn’t even see them as being a baby at all, but we know that when we’re in Christ, He dwells in us and we dwell with Him.

“And that picture of ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’, it was that cradling kind of idea… and the idea that our baby was safe with him.”

Avoiding Unhelpful Words

Two friends talking in cafe
Photo: by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Involuntary childlessness is a sensitive subject and not easily understood and Ms Roberts sometimes finds it difficult to raise the topic in conversation.

“There’s not really a place in the culture for me and what tends to happen is when we do try to talk about it, there can be lots of comments that get made,” she said. “So, it can be like, ‘aren’t you lucky?’ or ‘being a parent is really hard’ or ‘have you tried to adopt?’.”

Mr Hughes also gets asked about adoption and receives similar comments.

“(I get them) all the time, so they’ll say ‘oh, you dodged a bullet there’ and that’s from the perspective of someone who has children (at) home and can see his family grow around him.”

However, the comments can be harsher in the workplace.

“At a workgroup, men might say ‘what, are you shooting blanks?’,” he said, “so they’re attacking you that way.”

Ms Roberts understands it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone says they don’t have children. She suggests that people respond by asking about the important relationships and things in that person’s life and their interests.

“It’s learning to be respectfully curious, but then also be able to sometimes ask some interesting questions, sometimes crafting interesting questions can lead to really lovely conversations.”

Providing support

When it comes to supporting people who are involuntarily childless, Ms Roberts says the “biggest thing” that women need is a safe place and safe relationships for their stories to be heard.

“Women needs a safe place to be able to tell their story, to have a look at how it’s impacted on them and then to get the support they need to digest that reality,” she said.

There are three things she suggests to women she works with – create sanctuary in their life and recognise they’re going through something big, find a good counsellor or therapist and connect with other women who are involuntarily childless.

For men, Mr Hughes also recommends therapy.

“There’s a lot of anger and that’s not directed towards any person, it’s an anger around the situation because they can’t sort this out, they can’t fix it and then their emotions well up,” he said.

“It becomes quite a confusing time where they need to start making sense of this. (I suggest they) go and talk to someone because for us guys, we bottle it up, we keep it down deep and just try to suppress it.

“But unfortunately… it festers and it eats away and it needs to be purged and come out, and through talking about it, your brain will then start making sense of it.”

Ms Roberts and Mr Hughes are part of a small group called Childlessness Australia who are looking to become a national organisation to support people who are involuntarily childless.

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Lili Kovac on Unsplash  

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