If you had hoped to become a parent, coming to the realisation that you won’t be able to have a child can be incredibly painful. For many, it follows months or even years of trying for a baby and undergoing infertility treatments.
People who’ve faced these challenges previously, describe that the news can represent the loss of an imagined future – and the life and dreams they had planned.
In that moment, I became acutely aware of myself, almost as if I were an observer of the scene from outside my body. And then it came to me: it’s over. I’m never going to have a baby. – Jody Day, Gateway Women.
Feelings of deep longing are often compounded by isolation and the stigma associated with infertility and not having children.
Impacts of involuntary childlessness
Your experience will be unique to your life and circumstances (whether you’re single, partnered, had infertility treatments or experienced other perinatal loss). We know from research and lived experience, however, that coming to terms with being unable to have children can greatly impact upon your mental wellbeing, and have psychological impacts too.
Common responses to involuntary childlessness
Some of the common responses people identified when faced with involuntary childlessness are outlines below.
For many, the realisation that they will not have children comes after a long period of infertility treatments, and in many instances may have resulted in pregnancies followed by loss. Reaching this point often comes with emotional, physical and mental exhaustion – for both men and women.
The experience absolutely devastated us … We individually felt we had failed each other. We were both in a dark place. – Michael Hughes
Grief and loss
As well as the initial grief, many describe that the heartbreak of involuntary childlessness can be recurring, felt in varying intensities throughout their life. For some, the feelings resurface when friends and family have children and again when entering the “grandparents” stage.
The most challenging part was letting go of the family we dreamed of, and all of the experiences we had attached to that.
This grief may take a different form for men and women, or individuals to mourn the loss of fulfilling their their individual hopes for parenthood.
“The grief of my wife was around the loss of nurturing a child … [For me], I wanted to instil in a child the values I never experienced with my dad. This is the sort of thing that men grieve — not leaving a legacy behind.”
“Men experience a different kind of grief and we do it alone. – Michael Hughes
For some, deciding to end fertility treatments or to stop trying for a baby can also bring a sense of relief and resolution after months or years of having their life on hold.
I wanted my life back, and I remember feeling great sadness at the thought of never being pregnant, more than that, never having a child, but also a huge relief that I wouldn’t have to go through another IVF cycle and the disappointment and grief that it brings.
A sense of having failed
Women who have undergone fertility treatments often describe feeling as though they have failed. This can result in anger, directed towards themselves and their bodies. It may also be directed at others.
Sometimes, there’s also a sense of failure: your body has failed, you’ve failed as a woman … you’re not able to have children.
Men can also experience strong feelings of failure.
If you don’t have children as a man, you are basically saying you are a failure as a reproductive human being.
Letting go of the dream of parenthood can lead to a loss of identity. Many describe facing an almost “existential crisis”, and needing to find meaning and purpose in life again.
Coming to terms with not having children meant that I needed to see myself and my future in a different way. I had to let go of that part of what I wanted to be part of my life – being a mother.
Not being able to have children can place relationships under strain, particularly as others announce pregnancies and births. If you and your partner process your grief differently, it may also lead to conflict as you adjust to a life that may be different to the one you had planned together.
One of the things I find hardest to deal with is people with a child talking about the next or one planning their first as if they are going to order one and the universe will deliver, at particular age gap, what sex they want and that be most convenient after their holiday so they can enjoy a drink!
While being childless by choice is increasingly spoken about and recognised in society, being childless not by choice remains taboo. This can compound feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Both my childlessness and mental health left me isolated … kids parties I don’t get invited to, visits that don’t happen, no longer having things in common with the people closest to you, because you are not part of that club, no play dates, no catching up at the school gates.
What kind of support can I receive?
It’s important to remember that grief is a unique experience. Coming to terms with or accepting what comes next can take time. Some people find that talking to others who have experienced a similar journey of childlessness, or joining online forums and communities can help, particularly with feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Life can go on AND having children is not the only way to find meaning, contribute to society or play an important role in children’s lives.
Seeking support from a health professional who has special expertise in grief and loss can also be helpful. Counselling can help you to process what you have been through and help you to heal. You’re not alone.
You’re going to have to hurt before you can heal. The healing is non-linear. There will be good and bad days. Infertility is not something you get over. You come to terms with it. Reminders of what might have been will remain, but the pain will, in time, subside. Peace and joy will return to your life. You now possess a level of compassion that will serve you well for the rest of your life. – Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos
Support groups for involuntary childlessness
There are also a number of support groups online. Connecting with others who have been through a similar experience can provide you with a network of people who truly understand your experience, can share tips about what has helped them to cope, and reassure you that you are not alone in your experience.
Gateway Women is a global support and advocacy network for childless women, founded by Jody Day. Visit the Gateway Women website to learn more.
Knowing you’re not alone and having a space to talk about the issues can be life changing. – Michael Hughes