–Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos
If you are an involuntarily childless (childless-not-by-choice, childless by circumstance) woman, you belong to a group of women who have wanted to be mothers but who have not been able to have a child for a myriad of reasons, including but not limited to the following:
- Experiencing infertility or an unrealized adoption process
- Being past childbearing years or wanting children “too late”
- Not having optimal life circumstances to pursue having or raising a child (e.g., not wanting to be a single parent, not being financially stable, etc.)
- Experiencing competing demands (e.g., helping your own aging parents, pursuing higher education or your career, etc.)
- Having spent your fertile years working through emotional pain from your own childhood
- Feeling uncomfortable raising children with your partner
- Being in a relationship with someone who does not want to have children or with someone who already has children
- Dealing with health or mental health difficulties and not being sure if bringing a child into this world is feasible or wise
Being involuntarily childless is a life-changing process that can happen gradually or suddenly. Regardless, it can involve a shock to your system, an unexpected (and often desperately unwanted) change in your self-concept and life narrative, and loss and grief that are beyond what words can express. On top of that, you can feel vulnerable to others’ negative biases, assumptions, and stereotypes—and to others’ well-meaning but unwittingly painful comments and suggestions.
The grief experienced with involuntarily childlessness is complicated. You may question your self-worth and competence. You may look back at your life and blame yourself for past mistakes, including the ways that you have mistreated your body, the partners whom you have chosen or left (who might’ve been your only chance at parenthood), the “frivolous waste” of your youth, or the “over-focus” on other aspects of your life. You may resent your body for failing you. You may envy or blame others, including your own parents (whose mistakes impeded you), friends who are mothers (who don’t have time for you or who may not fully understand your experience of loss), or your past or current partners (who got in your way of pursuing motherhood). And, you may find yourself drowning in an existential crisis or depression, questioning the very meaning or purpose of your life, now that it will not be derived from raising a child.
What makes the grief of being involuntarily childless particularly complicated is that the loss is ambiguous, rather than concrete or tangible. When losses are concrete, people tend to take them more seriously. Ambiguous losses tend to be invisible; they often are not noticed or acknowledged in the first place, and if they are, they typically are downplayed and minimized because they are seen as less important or traumatic. As a result, you may find yourself often experiencing your loss and grief in private, and you may feel disenfranchised from society at large. (More on ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief if you click on the Resources tab.)
It is important to find support from people or professionals who understand this kind of loss and its effects, as well as to allow yourself the space, time, and permission to grieve losing the child that you had wanted to have. Hope exists and does start to emerge at some point—when it is time. In the meantime, you are in a fight for your life, bearing the depths of your grief and wrestling with the “what now” questions. It is a fight for the opportunity to birth a meaningful, worthy, and rich existence after all, which might seem unfathomable, and yet indeed is possible.