Is Childlessness by Marriage Not the Same as ‘Real’ Childlessness? 

“Imposter syndrome” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days. In my understanding, it means you don’t feel qualified for the thing you are doing. For example, I would be suffering from it if I believed I wasn’t a good enough writer to be published, even though I have been published many times. 

Says “Very Well Mind”: “To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck.”

Some of us probably feel this way in our careers. When I play the piano at church, I expect someone to figure out that I don’t have much training and leave out a lot of notes because I can’t play them all without my fingers getting tangled up. It hasn’t happened so far. I get lots of praise, but I know, and God knows. 

But how does this apply to being childless, particularly childless by marriage? Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos, author of Silent Sorority, talked about it at our Childless Elderwomen fireside chat last Sunday. (You can watch the video here if you missed it). I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized I had felt that.  Here are some ways we might be feeling like phonies and fear being caught:

  1. You’re in a gathering where most people are parents. They’re chatting about their kids, school, sports, whatever. You’re nodding, adding a comment here and there. But you just know any minute someone is going to ask how many children you have and you’ll have to confess you don’t have any. Busted!
  2. You’re hanging out with friends who don’t have children because they never wanted them. You agree about the freedom, spare time, and extra cash it gives you. But you’re faking it. You would gladly give up your time and money to have someone call you “Mom” or “Dad.” 
  3. You’re talking with people who are physically unable to have children, sharing the yearning and grief, but you know you are not infertile, that if you had chosen a different partner, you could have had all the kids you wanted. So what right do you have to complain? 
  4. Your partner has children, making you a stepparent, legally or in practice. How can you call yourself childless? 

Are we phonies? Are we imposters? No. Our grief is real. We had a dream of how our lives would be, and we lost that dream. For one reason or another, we did not create life. Maybe it was our choice of a partner. Maybe it was just bad timing.

I can’t imagine the pain of infertility, often coupled with multiple miscarriages. And yes, I do enjoy the freedom I have. My husband shared his children with me. Although it was not the same as having my own, it was a little like having kids–for a while. But I still ache for those children and grandchildren I will never have. I am not an imposter, and neither are you. 

The subject of Sunday’s chat was the blurred line between being childless and childfree. We have more in common than you might think. Nosy questions, rude comments, feeling left out, fear of old age alone, we all experience that. It’s a continuum, and we’re all on it. 

Your truth, whatever it is, is real and valid. You are not a phony. 

I welcome your thoughts in the comments. 

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12 thoughts on “Is Childlessness by Marriage Not the Same as ‘Real’ Childlessness? 

  1. Sue,

    This post really struck a chord with me.
    I’ve been In those situations many times and it can make for an uncomfortable experience. As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be 70 tomorrow). I handle these situations much better.
    You’re so right in what you say. And I’m delighted that it’s been posted for discussion.

    Like

  2. As an infertile person, you’ve raised some issues for me, which I might address elsewhere. But I will agree with your conclusion that you are not phonies, not imposters, not frauds, in any way. And you have every right to join with me and complain about your situation. We’re essentially living the same reality – at some stage we wanted children, but for whatever reason, we don’t and will never have them.

    I haven’t listened to the fireside chat yet (it’s always a little early for me to listen to live), but I agree that, however we got to our involuntarily childless situations, we also have a lot in common with the childfree … minus the grief.

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  3. I really hate the idea that being childless by marriage is not as “real” as being childless due to infertility. I think being childless not by choice, regardless of the circumstances (by marriage, by infertility, by not meeting the right partner, by cancer, by poverty, by mental health conditions, etc.), is extremely painful.

    I deal with imposter syndrome occasionally, in professional and in social settings, for different reasons. I try to counter it by reminding myself that I am an expert at being me and that nobody can be me better than me. Sometimes it helps but not always, Ha! But I truly believe that we are all valuable and we all have something to offer others.

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  4. I really hate the idea that being childless by marriage is not as “real” as being childless due to infertility. I think being childless not by choice, regardless of the circumstances (by marriage, by infertility, by not meeting the right partner, by cancer, by poverty, by mental health conditions, etc.), is extremely painful.

    I deal with imposter syndrome occasionally, in professional and in social settings, for different reasons. I try to counter it by reminding myself that I am an expert at being me and that nobody can be me better than me. Sometimes it helps but not always, Ha! But I truly believe that we are all valuable and we all have something to offer others.

    Like

  5. This also really resonated with me. I am new to your blog and book, but it’s nice feeling not so alone. I believe there’s a special little place for the childless by marriage women- physically being able to have children but our choice of partner made our dream not ever a reality.
    Thank you for this post!

    Like

  6. I have just found your blog and I am so relieved that there are others like me, able to have children but married to someone who is not. Even after 30 years I am still trying to act as if everything is alright. But never being really good at it.

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  7. Scenarios 1,2, and 3 ring true for me. I turned 40 just recently and I’m just starting to process my feelings about being childless. I thought it would be in the cards one day, but some obstacles are too big to overcome.

    Like

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