How is a childless body different?

Earlier this week, we talked about the increased risk of cancer for women who have never had children. We are also at greater risk of osteoporosis and certain kinds of arthritis. But before we all rush out and try to get pregnant to stave off cancer, we need to remember that pregnancy and childbirth have their own risks.

Pregnant women experience a host of symptoms, including nausea, weight gain, swollen feet and ankles, dark or blotchy patches on their skin, varicose veins, frequent urination, hemorrhoids and backache. They may also suffer from gestational diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure and aggravation of whatever health problems they had before. Some of the less-known possible side effects include bleeding gums, yeast infections and hair loss.

The above risks don’t even count the delivery, which can lead to death and certainly includes excruciating pain, a total loss of dignity and control, and permanent scarring from C-sections and episiotomies.

In North America, death from childbirth used to be fairly common. As recently as 1917, nearly one in 100 live births resulted in a mother’s death, and it’s still possible. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reported 17 deaths per 100,000 births in 2008. We have it comparatively good. In other parts of the world, dying during childbirth is much more common. For example, in Tanzania, it is said that mothers commonly say their final goodbyes to their other children before giving birth, because they know they might not survive.

Most of the bad effects are temporary, but some of the potential permanent effects of giving birth include stretch marks, loose skin, weight gain or redistribution, weakness of the abdominal and vaginal muscles, breasts that shrink and sag after breast-feeding ends, varicose veins, a loss of dental and bone calcium, and vaginal changes that can alter one’s sex life and cause urinary or fecal incontinence.

We don’t talk about these things, and you generally can’t tell by looking at us whether or not we’ve ever been pregnant. Looking at myself in the mirror, I see a carbon copy of my mother at this age. I do have arthritis and the beginnings of osteoporosis, but I doubt that it has anything to do with never being pregnant. Please God, I could live without the cancer that killed my mother.

What about you? Do you notice differences between your body and those of your friends and relatives who have children? Can you tell by looking who’s the mom and who is not? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Copyright 2012 Sue Fagalde Lick
Portions of this post are excerpted from my upcoming book, Childless by Marriage.

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15 thoughts on “How is a childless body different?

  1. I was just noticing the other day how much older my sister looks than me. She is only two years older but has three kids (two being twins). Her face really looks at least ten years older than mine. I guess that's one upside to being childless – we have more time for eating healthy, moisturizing and sleep.

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  2. I don't see much difference. The women I know who have had children and breastfed lament over their sagginess. I tell them that my large breasts sag too.

    After all 37 year old Double D's don't just decide to stay put as a reward for not having children. Believe me they have a mind of their own.

    I do hear from my friends that while they may loose baby weight, their hips are forever different. I suppose I can't argue with that.

    S

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  3. Anon, you are so right about the heavy breasts. Mine seek gravity, too.
    Until recently, I thought I looked younger than my parenting peers, but after all that has happened recently, I may have caught up.

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  4. It's funny… I was very overweight as a kid, but now that I'm almost 30 I'm more fit than I've ever been (from doing farm work – not from working out). First time in my life I've stood next to my peers and have been the “fit” one, though I know they've just had a hard time recovering from child birth. My peers jeer at me because of it – but they don't understand that the physical appeal doesn't ease the pain of childlessness. When I see the parents of stillborn children, however, or the husband of a woman who has died in childbirth, I can't say my pain is worse than theirs. Our bodies are so fragile – whether we've born children or not. That's why I'm going to Stations of the Cross tonight. 🙂

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  5. If you google “childbirth and longevity”, you will get all kinds of hits. From going through them, one consensus is that childbirth later in life (or fewer children) are positively correlated with longevity. For example, this:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v396/n6713/abs/396743a0.html

    Female fruit flies that have not procreated live MUCH longer than those that have. However, these are flies that are maintained in a controlled lab environment. I saw a more recent study which suggests the opposite of flies in the wild.

    From a quick search around, it seems there is no adverse effect of being childless or having given birth, and any difference you may see in yourself vs a mother your own age may be the result of a genetic lottery (even in a sibling) rather than childbirth.

    I did come across this article, which might be of interest:
    http://longevity.stanford.edu/berliner/2011/05/23/aging-childless-part-ii/

    As a scientist, I try to look at these things objectively. I can't help it. This is from 5-10 minutes of web searching and skimming.

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  6. What an interesting post. I had a doctor inform me sternly last year about my increased risk of cancer due to not having become a mother and I found it very confronting. I wish I'd had access to a post like this, to even the argument out a little! It was one of those annoying moments when you're stunned into silence and then spend the next fortnight thinking of what you should have said.

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  7. I'm 36 & childless and my sister is 30 w/ 4 kids. I weigh less than her, but besides that she looks younger still. When I hear other women complain about their post-child body – in my mind I am saying I could deal with that sacrifice to have a child.
    Newly Blue

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  8. Newly Blue, I agree with you. Sunday at church, a woman passed me carrying a newborn baby, and I wanted to sob. Even after all these years, sometimes it still just kills me that I will never have that. Hang in there.

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