Coming to terms with being unable to have children – Sarah’s story

Posted by Nicole Highet on 15th March 2022

Sarah Roberts is the founder of The Empty Cradle, a counselling service and supportive community for women who’ve lost the opportunity for motherhood. Sarah shares her story of involuntary childlessness as part of COPE’s #thetruth campaign.

For Sarah, having a family and becoming a mother felt like a “given.”

“Motherhood was so important that I always assumed it would happen, that I would have a family and be a parent. It was so much a part of the landscape of my life that I wasn’t even that conscious of it until it started to not happen,” she says. “It didn’t even occur to me that it wouldn’t happen.”

Sarah and her partner began trying for a baby when she was 35, noting that almost two years would pass before doctors diagnosed them with “unexplained infertility.” I was quite ignorant of my fertility and the factors that impacted on it.  What followed were four rounds of IUI and six cycles of IVF until her final round at age 45.

“We tried everything, alternative health, fertility mapping, Chinese herbalists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, psychics, alternative healers, everything…when it didn’t work, the losses accumulated and I became more and more desperate.  It was very, very stressful.”

“This isn’t going to happen for you is it?”

Sarah recalls the moment it dawned on her that she would never be a mother.

“I did my last fertility treatment at 45, but it was actually in conversation with a trusted friend about a year later. She sat down with me, and said, “This isn’t going to happen for you, is it?” and for the first time I said, “no it’s not” and I actually named it. It felt safe because she asked in this really, really gentle way. It was a combination of me being ready to hear and her being ready to ask.”

For Sarah, being able to name the grief and honour the loss was just the beginning.

“It’s such a personal and individual experience, but I had a lot of sleeplessness. I woke from this recurring dream where I was in a white night dress and just walked into the sea,” she says. “I wasn’t actively suicidal, but a part of me, the mother part, which had been so strong, was slowly being annihilated.”

The heartbreak was painful and raw as Sarah began to come to terms with what a life without children would mean. “I thought I’ll never be pregnant or give birth or hold my child to my chest. I’ll never care or nurture this little person, watch them grow and have a lifelong relationship with them. I was surprised not just by the depth of the grief, but also the response from others.”

“I just needed love and care.  To have my story held and validated. I needed to grieve, but everyone wanted to fix it, dismiss it or avoid it.  I couldn’t believe the ignorance, the lack of understanding, the silence and stigma, the shaming and blaming.  For example, a professional I sought out for support told me I was lucky to not be a mum.”

“I felt really alone. I thought it was just me, and it wasn’t until I spoke with other childless women that I realised this was a really common experience.”

In the early days Sarah says she felt the need to do something “really big” to compensate for not being a mother. “But then I realised ‘okay there might be a point in my process when I might nurture in other ways, like the counselling I now do, but back then I just needed to sit, grieve and honour the loss of the children, the personal mother and my own intergenerational family.”

Sarah acknowledges that her work now isn’t a replacement, but a way of expressing some of her nurturing qualities in a different way. “Until you’ve engaged with the depth of the grief work in a way, you’re trying to make up for not being a mother and it can be really hard to be around other children, mothers and families.”

It’s insight she now uses with the women she works with.

The grief changes over time

“The grief changes you, as you move through it, come back to the essence of who you are. If you’re going to do anything, little or big, ask yourself, am I doing this to compensate for not being a mum, which is more of a deficit motivation, or am I doing this because it’s an expression of who I am? It’s quite a different way of expressing yourself and making meaning of the experience.”

Sarah explains that while some women will go through an intense period of grieving and be able to move on, for others, like Sarah herself, it’s more of a lifelong grief, a living loss.

“One of the things that can happen with the grief is that the imaginal child, the child you’re grieving, can age as you do. I no longer grieve a baby – I’m in the space of grieving a teenager or a young adult. It’s like you have this shadow life – you’re living the life you’re in but there’s this shadow life that follows you.  I guess part of the healing was realising that the life I’m in is really valuable too.”

Whilst the grief is not as intense anymore, Sarah draws on grief theory to describe it as an ongoing living loss and chronic sorrow’ – a low level of background grief.

“The grief comes up, you allow it to move through, and looking backward you realise that another part of you has healed. That’s what it feels like that I live with. I try to avoid absolutes — I’m not saying that I may never get over it. But at this point in my life, whilst it’s not as intense as it was at the beginning, this is what I’m experiencing.”

Sarah acknowledges that while having a child was really important to her and that she’s not sure if there will ever be something that makes up for that loss, “there needs to be other ways for me to find meaning, purpose and joy.  If for nothing else then for my own psychological wellbeing.”

“For me it’s making the best life I can. This wasn’t my choice but I’m doing the best I can.  I’ve learned to truly love my younger self and make peace with my choices.  Whilst things could have been different, I no longer carry regrets. I’m living the best life I can and I’m open to the possibility of that.”

It is wisdom Sarah hopes to impart with others travelling the same journey, to feel less alone, and noting that it’s okay to do the best you can while acknowledging closure may not be possible.  “It can be awful when people expect you to get over it.  It’s when I am with my other involuntary childless friends that they truly understand.”

Childlessness can be experienced as a deep identity wound. For example, pregnancy announcements can leave you with intense mixed emotions, like feeling happy for other woman, but also feeling angry, sad, jealous, difficult emotions that can leave you feeling ashamed.  It can feel like an assault on your sense of self.

 “A lot of the healing work that I’ve done is how to be present to difficult emotions, to be self-compassionate and kind, to truly love and value myself, to embrace the whole of me. And that wasn’t easy because it’s such a shame-based experience and the empathy can be really lacking. For me, motherhood was such an important experience of being in a woman’s body. Whilst it’s not for everyone, I always thought women’s capacity to bear and birth children was amazing. That’s what I personally hoped for it. And it didn’t happen so what do I do now?”

For Sarah, the answer in the short term was planning a walk across Spain – a trip she and her partner did together. “We took seven weeks and that was an incredible experience. I remember thinking I’ll walk 800 km and it will all be sorted,” she laughs, but it was when she came home that the sadness really hit.

“What I realised was that this was like a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. This part of my life is done and it was ritualised in a big way.  The walk ended up being a chunk of time which became a full stop at the end of that sentence. I didn’t know what was next, but I was honouring the closure of that phase of my life.”

Sarah also highlights that one of the losses around involuntary childlessness, is never having your motherhood dream tempered by reality. “Before you become a mother you carry this idealised image in your head. And then of course the transition happens and reality lands. One of the things that happens is you never get the chance to ground that imaginal dream in reality. It doesn’t get tempered. Instead, you get the reality of ignorant comments like ‘why don’t you adopt?’ or ‘it’s really good for climate change.’  Often said without any compassion or empathy.  It can be quite shocking to be honest.”

“People come out with those glib not very thought through statements and I guess what I would really like to see would be probably more compassion and perhaps curiosity. Such as, ‘That sounds really hard. I don’t know anything about that. What is that like for you? How can I support you and learn from you? I’d like to see the starting point as respect rather than pity.”

Rather than othering, Sarah suggests friends, family and those in the community try to understand.  “What can I learn from you? You’ve been through this huge thing in your life that I will never know, and you bring to the table a different way of being and knowing. How does that contribute to what it means to be human?

“Social spaces and workplaces can be very family and parenting cantered. And it’s not about turning the dial down but how can we expand the conversation and allow for difference and diversity – recognising people have different experiences and maybe there are things we can learn from one another.”

A significant loss – and making meaning

Sarah describes involuntary childlessness as being a different way of being in the world and “a bit of a mystery.” A mystery she approaches with curiosity and is still endeavouring to understand.

“Whilst parenthood can be challenging, I really notice the absence of children in my world and domestic space.  Not seeing the world from a child’s point of view and being able to nurture them through to adulthood.  It’s such a significant loss but whilst the grief changes over the years, a life of meaning and connection is possible. It might look different to what you expected but it’s possible and it’s do-able. There’ are a lot of us out there doing it.

“Most important is the person you become as a result of this experience.  You become much more compassionate, and I guess, eventually, grateful for life itself. I learned that I was the miracle in my life, i know that sounds really weird.  I found the whole experience made me re-examine everything.  To let go of a lot of beliefs, assumptions, things I’d taken for granted, even ways of talking to myself.

“Eventually it made me more fully alive and taking nothing for granted.  Noticing and embracing the little things. But it was a long and very painful process. Don’t get me wrong, life still has its ups and downs, but I guess I’m just more grounded and self nurturing.”

While Sarah acknowledges it might sound a bit cliche and she’s not sure it will ever make up for never meeting her children,  “The heart of transformation is not just knowing this, but embodying it in your life.  The irony is that the person I’ve become as a result of my childlessness, would be a much better mother.  But the truth is, as an adult woman who is childless not by choice, I am much rarer, and so much more interesting.  And I don’t mean that in relation to other mothers, I mean it in relation to my younger self, and I could never have imagined saying that 15 years ago.”

Sarah’s advice for others:

“Please know, if you’re coming to terms with not being a mother, you’re absolutely part of what it means to be an adult woman. If you can, take pride in who you are, what you’ve been through, how you’ve survived and what you have to offer the world. I know this is really, really hard, you might not realise it yet, but you are truly amazing, and I say that as someone who has walked this very, very long painful path.

Right now though, just focus on the immediate step, as care for you is the first priority.”