Infertility vs. Childlessness by Circumstance

Did you attend World Childless Week last week? I missed most of it due to health problems and other complications, but as things calm down, I’m enjoying the recorded sessions and the written testimonies submitted by many childless men and women, including me. I encourage you to give it a look at https://www.worldchildlessweek.net.

You can also watch me and other childless elderwomen gab about what our legacy will be as people without children. I love those ladies. I suspect that if we met out in the world, we would not spend all our time talking about childlessness; we’re all too busy with other things.

Most of the speakers at World Childless week and other online childless gatherings are dealing with infertility. Some spent years trying to get pregnant or to carry a pregnancy to delivery. They suffered multiple miscarriages. They tried IVF, vasectomy reversals, surgeries for endometriosis and other maladies, and none of it worked. In some cases, the speaker’s partner was the one with fertility challenges, but they faced them as a couple, both wanting children.

Only a few talk about being childless by marriage, or lack of marriage in some cases, situations where there is no physical problem, where if both parties were willing, they would have babies. Although we have many challenges in common—the stupid questions people ask, feeling left out among our mothering friends, grieving the life we thought we would have—it is quite different in other ways.

Some of the programs at World Childless Week address learning to love bodies that have failed to procreate, ovaries that don’t offer eggs, uteruses that don’t welcome fetuses, cervixes that release the baby too soon. But for many of us who are childless by marriage, our bodies are just fine. There’s no physical reason we can’t have children.

It’s our situation that doesn’t allow us to have the family we had planned on. We hooked up with a partner who never wanted children, who had a vasectomy, who has already had children and does not want any more. With infertility, we can seek medical intervention, find a sperm or egg donor, adopt, or take in a foster child, but without a cooperative partner, we’re stuck. It’s very different from a couple facing infertility together, both desperately wanting a baby.

Have any of you ever answered the ever-present questions about when you’re going to have children or why you don’t have them with “We can’t.” I admit that I have. Technically, because of my husband’s vasectomy, that was true. But there were ways around if it he was willing. He was not. It was so much easier to say “We can’t” and change the subject than to try to explain the real reasons we did not have children together.

There are always going to be people who won’t understand, who will blame us for bad choices, even if it was really just unfortunate timing.

When someone says they tried to have children, but they couldn’t, it’s as if they get a free pass. People may pity them. But it is an acceptable reason. Of course, then they may have to explain why they didn’t “just adopt.” As if it were as easy as going to Costco and picking up a baby.

I can see how those who have suffered miscarriages, endometriosis, early hysterectomies and other medical problems may have difficulty loving their bodies, but how do we feel about ours? Do we crave the scars and stretch marks we never had or love our bodies for the perfect creations they are?

Let’s talk about it. How is being childless by marriage different from being childless by infertility? Face to face with someone who physically could not become a parent, how do you feel? Is your grief as valid as theirs? Do they respect your challenges? Do you feel like you’re both going through the same thing or do you feel somehow guilty?

Does this all make you really angry at your partner or your situation?

I look forward to your comments.

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8 thoughts on “Infertility vs. Childlessness by Circumstance

  1. I thought it was a really good talk. I particularly liked how they addressed being an only child who doesn’t have children and being both the first and last of your family to go to University. The part about being chosen by your ancestors was quite powerful. I just wonder why there is nothing about men’s experience of grief on the panel. It makes me wonder if there is an implicit expectation that a man who doesn’t want to be childless would leave an infertile woman. It also makes me wonder if there’s an expectation that men aren’t socialised with expectations to be fathers in the same way women are raised with expectations if motherhood. Neither of these are true. I think that is a discussion worth having.

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    • It was a good talk. The men certainly experience some of the same issues. A whole day of World Childless Week was set aside for the men. You might want to listen to their sessions. You ask a good question about whether a man would be more likely to leave an infertile woman. What if she wasn’t infertile but just didn’t want to have children? It is a discussion worth having.

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      • I have a mother who has devoted her entire career to the study and practice of early years education who is experiencing grief for not being a grandmother. I do feel some reproach for the choice I made and my wife senses reproach for her health and lifestyle choices. It’s not as simple as saying the woman’s emotions should be validated.

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  2. Very good points! So many nuances to the grief.

    Interestingly I think I’m childless by both circumstance AND infertility. I wasn’t comfortable doing parenthood alone, but didn’t manage to find someone to marry until I was 36. Thus my infertility treatment began at a later age, and was completely unexpected as my mother had somehow managed to reassure me that she “never had any trouble getting pregnant” so I assumed I would still be able to have children even if I was cutting it close.

    So I was thinking, if I had never found my husband, I may believe myself to be fertile yet childless by circumstance, as I was always extremely fit and healthy with regular periods and was ignorant of how common infertility really is.

    But I recognize the different grief in never having been allowed to give it a shot and find out.

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  3. Your comments about loving our bodies as they are spoke to me. I am “curvy,” meaning that when I put on weight, it mostly goes to all the right places. I can carry weight well. Which is good, because due to thyroid issues I often have extra weight. But still, compared to my sisters-in-law who have all given birth multiple times, I probably have a nicer body than most. So I sometimes get these backhanded comments that used to give me a bit of guilt with their side eye, “Oh sure, I’d have nicer breasts too – if I hadn’t had to breastfeed three babies.”

    I disliked those reminders that the quality of my body is due to my lack of children. Eventually, when their bodies would bounce back and they lost the baby weight (and they were flaunting their full breastfeeding breasts), I’d have my own complex. “I should look better than this, I haven’t ever been pregnant.”

    Then there was the period of time when I’d start saying, “Oh no, my body isn’t the greatest . . . look at these varicose veins. Disgusting!” I was practically begging them to give me grace and “accept” me. I wore clothes that did not flatter me so that I could be more like “one of them”.

    I have found – in certain circles – that nothing you do will make you “one of the girls” when you don’t have children. It’s taken me many years, but I’m finally understanding that these comments are completely about the person who utters them. And I should pay them no mind. And I certainly shouldn’t be tearing myself down!!

    I still get flustered when toxic comments come my way, but I’ve learned to say, “Thanks, I love this top. It’s so comfortable!” even when I know they are judging me for my forever milk-less, and less saggy then theirs, boobs.

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  4. I have suffered from several miscarriages and it has taken your comment about how you feel about your body to make me realise I don’t trust or like mine. It’s an odd feeling because you usually take your body for granted, but I think I need to work on accepting myself again. As I have become older I realise women are generally harder on themselves than men, but few people have true control over their lives and the trajectory it takes. Hope is a great thing but very hard when it comes to letting go of the dream of a child you won’t get to meet.

    It’s a societal failure in my opinion; females are very guided and influenced in their younger years and then left to it as they approach middle age and it’s then when you need support the most as that is the age when you suffer from grief, having or not having children, career shifts, friendship shifts, financial issues etc etc.

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