No Spouse, No Children–What It’s Really Like

Ward, Donna. She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2020.

Married women without children feel like square pegs in a round world. Now consider those women who have never married, who are single for life, who are that dreaded word, spinsters. As they age, there is no one ahead of them, behind them, or beside them. That’s the subject of Australian author Donna Ward’s book She I Dare Not Name.

Reading this book, I broke all my rules, turning down corners, underlining sentences, and making notes in the margins because she tells so well a story most people don’t know or understand.

Even friends and family come to wrong assumptions about people who never marry or have children: “She doesn’t want a husband or kids.” “There must be something wrong with her.” “She must be gay.” “Lucky her. She’s free to do whatever she wants.” Ward wanted the usual things. It just didn’t happen. Every relationship turned sour, and now she’s in her 60s, single and childless. As so many of us have experienced, her friends moved on to marriage and children, then grandchildren, so she’s often alone. Sound familiar? It sure does to me as a childless widow, but at least I have that validation that I was married.

Most of us are guilty of misunderstanding. I have to admit that when I meet men my age who have never married, I immediately think something’s wrong with them. Of course, I think the same thing if they have been divorced more than once. But that’s not really fair. Maybe they just never had the chance.

Ward and others, male or female, who have never married could be called Childless by Unmarriage. How does this happen? It just does. There’s no guarantee we’re all going to find a partner. I think it’s a miracle that any two people get together and love each other for a lifetime. And yet people assume, until you tell them otherwise, that everyone has a partner and everyone has kids.

“I am suffocated by other people’s impression of my life. I am wizened from explaining myself,” Ward writes. (p. 285)

“I did not choose against children, or against coupling. I do not despise marriage. I did not choose career over marriage. I do not think loneliness within marriage is better or worse than mine. The lack of a partner is not evidence that I want to be alone. Thank you for asking. I am not a lesbian. The lack of children is not evidence that I don’t want, or do not know how to be around, babies, children, teenagers. . . .” She goes on, trying to debunk all the misunderstandings.

Ward is very honest about the challenges of being a single in a world set up for couples and families. Who is her backup when she falls ill or needs care in old age? Who cares about her in that way families do? This quote from p. 307 really struck me:

“It seems a human right, as basic as the right to breathe, that everyone has at least one person dedicated to them, a person who would be so distracted by grief they might not survive their loved one’s passing, yet here I am, personless in this world.”

Yes, personless. Oh my God, that’s it.

I have read that part of the reason one feels lonely is that humans traditionally lived in groups to protect each other. Alone, we feel vulnerable, out in the cold while the rest of society is warm and safe by the fire.

Now, before you call me on it, I know you can have children on your own. In the U.S., 40 percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers. But we don’t know how many of those women are choosing to parent without a partner via adoption or sperm donor. Ward never wanted children outside of marriage. Most commenters here have also said they don’t want to do it alone.

I know several people who have never married and never had children. They seem to have good lives, but as Ward points out, we don’t know what it’s really like. Maybe some of you are also lifelong singles. Do you mourn the lack of a mate and children or are you happy with your life? Do you feel like the odd one at every gathering? Would you/have you considered parenting alone? For those who do have partners, what do you think about this? Please comment.

I highly recommend Ward’s book and the many other books she names in her bibliography. Ones I have starred to read include:

Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After by Bella Depaulo.

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick.   

Enough with All the Happy Talk

Toxic Positivity. Have you heard that term? It’s when people insist you look on the sunny side of things. “Your time will come.” “Don’t worry. You’ll get to have your baby.” “You just need to think positive.” “Look on the bright side.” “At least you have __________.”

So often people who say these things are trying to be helpful, but they are having the opposite effect. They are denying your right to feel however you need to feel. If you appear to be to be sad, angry or hopeless, it makes other people uncomfortable, so they try to put a happy spin on it. You had a miscarriage? You can try again. Your husband doesn’t want kids? He’ll change his mind. You can’t seem to get pregnant? You just need to relax. They make it sound like your negative attitude is to blame for your problems. If you just put on a happy face, everything will work out.

Yeah, sure.

Makes you want to scream, right?

That’s toxic positivity, which was the subject at Katy Seppi’s Chasing Creation podcast earlier this week. Her guests were life coaches Sadie T of Curiously Sadie [@curiously_sadie] and Carrie Hauskens, whose recent blog post on the subject inspired the podcast. I encourage you to read that post.  You’ll be shouting “Yeah!” “I know!” and “Bullshit!” along with her.

“I think it’s exhausting trying to stay positive all the time,” Hauskens said. She tends to be very honest about her infertility journey, which includes a miscarriage and a stillborn daughter. It makes people squirm. Her husband is also straightforward. He notes that the positive commenters have been thinking about this for a few minutes while they’ve been trying to have children for seven years.

“I don’t have to be optimistic,” Hauskens stressed.  

Sadie added that toxic positivity discounts what a person is feeling and what they have gone through. They’re kind of saying “It’s fine. Get over it.”

But grief doesn’t just disappear. It keeps coming back, and we need to talk about it. It’s not healthy to keep it in just to make our uncomfortable friends more comfortable.

The women agreed that in some cases you may need to spend less time with the people who keep spewing platitudes and look for others who understand what you’re going through, other childless people, for example.

So what should people say? It’s fine to just admit you don’t know what to say, Hauskens said. You can say, “I’m here for you” or “What can I do to help?” Just don’t try to correct the person’s feelings.

Just being there is enough, Seppi added.

Bottom line: Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel about not having children (or anything else). Let me feel my feelings and find my own way through them.

Does this ring any bells for you? It sure does for me. Have you experienced “toxic positivity?” How do you react? Please share in the comments.

More reading on the subject:

“Toxic Positivity is Real” by Simone M. Scully, Healthline.com, July 22, 2020.

“Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side” by Konstantin Lukin, PhD., Psychology Today, Aug. 1, 2019

Why don’t guys want to talk about childlessness?

You might have noticed most of the people commenting here are women. This is not an all-woman blog. Men are welcome, but they are definitely in the minority. Why is that?

Many women, including me, have struggled to get their male partners to talk about the baby-no baby question. They change the subject, shut down, or leave the room. Why?

At a recent World Childless Week webinar, Robin Hadley, a counselor who specializes in working with involuntarily childless men, gave some answers. Childless himself, he said he came from a family of eight children and really wanted to be a dad when he grew up. But circumstances worked against him. His first marriage ended in divorce. By the time he met his second wife, he was in his late 30s. She was older, and it was simply too late to have children. He was forced into a stay-or-go decision and decided to stay.

Hadley has learned to express his feelings about childlessness, but knows he’s in the minority.

People may mistakenly think that women are “broody” and men just aren’t, Hadley said. But they both have the biological drive to procreate. Men are silenced by the “culture of masculinity.” Men are supposed to be strong, courageous, and independent. They strive to prove their virility not just by reproduction but by work and earning money. Girls are encouraged to be expressive, but from boyhood, males are taught to be strong and never show their emotions. Boys aren’t supposed to cry. It becomes deeply ingrained, and that may be why your partner won’t discuss how he feels about having children.

Does this make sense? Male readers, do you recognize this in yourself, this need to stifle your emotions and be strong? Or is there something else that keeps you from opening up about childlessness? Please share in the comments.

These articles perhaps explain the situation better than I can. Give them a read.

“Male Childlessness: You Think ‘If I’m Not Reproducing—Then, What Am I?’” The Guardian, Nov. 17, 2018. Features interview with Robin Hadley.

Men Don’t Talk About Their Feelings Because They Don’t See the Point, Study Says,” Martha Edwards, Huffington Post, Sept. 9, 2011

Markway, Barbara, PhD. “How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings,” Psychology Today, Jan. 18, 2014

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Would you like to write something for the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

Clueless Comments That Hurt

We have all heard them, the mean or ignorant comments that cut to our souls. How many kid do you have? Why don’t you just adopt? You must not like children? This party is just for moms/dads/families.

That was the subject of a lively discussion at one of the World Childless Week presentations earlier this month. Speakers Sarah Roberts, founder of The Empty Cradle, and Krin Enfield de Vries, operations director for Gateway Women, offered some of the cutting words people had shared with them:

  • Can’t your sister have one for you?
  • I’d love to have your freedom
  • You can always adopt
  • Being an aunt is almost the same
  • You said you weren’t sure if you wanted them
  • At least you have each other

“I get so mad,” said deVries, for whom cancer took away her ability to have children. “How dare you dismiss my grief? Don’t you think we’ve considered every option already?” People would understand if someone had a child who died, she added, but they don’t get how much it hurts when the opportunity to have the future they dreamed of has been taken away. You may not have lost an actual child, but you have lost your chance at parenthood, to hold a baby, etc. Some people understand, but others never will.  

Motherhood had always been a part of her future, Roberts said. To not have that is a “staggering loss.” She is often surprised at the lack of empathy.

Comments come in all different forms, including advice, pronatalist assumptions, blaming/shaming/hostility, the assumption that you had a choice, minimizing your grief, minimizing the importance of your situation, idealizing the childfree life, or invalidating your pain. There’s also the awkward silence when people find out you don’t have children.

So what do you do? In some situations it’s okay to explain how inappropriate the comment is or to say you don’t want to talk about it, Roberts said. But you need to consider who they are and where you are. It will be different with your boss at work, for example, than with your mom or your friend. Consider what’s behind the comment, she suggested, and try to help them understand.

Other options:

  • Walk away,
  • Change the subject
  • Counter with a sarcastic comment or a joke,
  • Give a brief, clear answer
  • Be honest about the emotional impact
  • Use it as a “teachable moment”

“You don’t have to justify that you’re grieving,” Roberts said.

After such a comment, take care of yourself. Cry if you need to, talk to your friends who get it, and think about what you can do to change things. As time goes on and you become more accepting yourself of your childless status, the comments may not hurt so much. But they’re still going to come. If you can take the time to wonder what causes people to say these things, it helps. Maybe one comment at a time, we can help to make the world understand.

What clueless comments about childlessness bother you the most? How do you respond? In retrospect, how do you wish you could respond?

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Would you like to write something for the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

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I have received the first cover designs for the new book, Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both, which is a compilation of the best of the Childless by Marriage blog. I will show them to you here as soon as I’m allowed, but this is exciting. Stay tuned.

Does Being Childless Make Us Feel Unworthy?

Dear friends,

Last week I attended many online events offered during World Childless Week, put on by folks in the UK. They did a fabulous job, and I hope some of you had an opportunity to tune in. If not, the recordings are available at the website. Speakers included many familiar authors and bloggers from the childless community, including Jody Day, Michael Hughes, Kate Kaufmann, and others I enjoyed getting to know. In coming weeks, I will be exploring several topics covered in the webinars.

A couple of things kept coming up, and I want to discuss them with you. Several of the speakers mentioned “coming out” as childless. We’re all familiar with the usual meaning of this, when someone who is gay or lesbian discloses that fact to family, friends, and the world. But here, it was used for telling people about their childless state. And maybe how they feel left out among their mom and dad peers. Is this something that we need to announce? Do we try to hide it? To “pass” as parents? Don’t those who matter already know, and as for the rest, it’s none of their business? Is it that there comes a moment when we know it isn’t going to happen and we feel the need to tell people because otherwise they assume we have kids? I don’t know. What do you think?

Another thing that came up quite a bit was “worthiness.” We had guided meditations and panel discussions on the topic. We chanted, “We are worthy.” Some of us, especially women, but also men, may feel that we are worthless because we haven’t had children. We may push ourselves to excel at work or in other areas to make up for our childlessness. Do you ever feel that way? I know that I tend to work round the clock and don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not working, but is this because I’m childless and trying to make up for something?

Karin Enfield de Vries, operations director at Gateway Women, cautioned against identifying solely as childless. “My childlessness is part of me; it doesn’t make up all of me. I have so much more to offer.”

Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women and a psychologist, said we tend to draw our worthiness from other people’s view of us, but we have to take our worthiness back from other people’s opinions. Childlessness is only one aspect of who we are.

As someone noted in the comments, some of us make our work the definition of who we are. I wrote it down because I do that. I am all about work, both the writing and the music, because what else am I? A dog-mom, sister, friend to many, but what else? With my parents and husband gone and no kids, I guess I need to work on that. Or do I? Maybe the real answer is to convince myself I am already enough, that I am worthy and I don’t have to justify it. And neither do you.

I’m going to sign off. We’re having a huge storm with such strong wind I expect to see Dorothy and Toto from the Wizard of Oz flying by any minute. But I ask you: 1) Do we need to “come out?” How? When? Why? 2) Do you feel worthy? Why or why not?

See you in the comments.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

Can You Be Both Childless and Childfree?

One of the speakers at a World Childless Week webinar that I watched yesterday, Les Finneman, introduced himself as “childless some days, childfree others.”

I had never heard anyone say that before, but if I’m being completely honest, I feel the same way, childless some days, childfree others. Some days it breaks my heart that I never had children. I want to cuddle my babies, teach and take care of my older children, watch my teens grow into adults who contain parts of me and their father. I want to applaud at their graduations and cry at their weddings. I want to shower my grandchildren with love and gifts and guide their little fingers on the piano keys. When I need help in old age, I want them to . . .

I know, I know. They might not be there. Last week I sat in the ER with my friend for seven hours (she’s going to be okay). She has grown children and grandchildren, but they’re all far away. “Sue and I just have each other,” she told the doctors and nurses.

Yes, I feel childless much of the time. I am missing something important in my life, grieving that I don’t have children, hating that I’m different from four out of five women.

BUT sometimes I am just fine with my non-mom status and the freedom it gives me. Fewer people to worry about. Freedom to write, play music, and travel. Freedom to spend money on whatever I want or need instead of saving it for my children and grandchildren. Freedom to walk away from the toddler wreaking havoc at the grocery store and be grateful I don’t have to deal with that.

Child-free. I didn’t choose not to have children, but there is freedom in it. I feel guilty for saying so, but sometimes I like that freedom.

Do you ever feel kind of glad you don’t have children? It’s okay to admit that you’re sad about it one day and a little happy the next. Life is not black and white, and neither are our feelings.

The webinar Finneman spoke at, about the childless network he and colleagues created at the University of Bristol, was part of the UK-based World Childless Week. I really should have alerted you sooner, but I didn’t realize there was so much to it. They are having webinars every day. Many are at times that don’t work for me here in Oregon. 2 a.m.? But all the sessions are being recorded, and you can watch them for free. Today the theme is aging without children. Tomorrow they’re offering the male point of view. Sessions go on through Sunday. It’s quite miraculous that we can attend these events from all over the world. Visit the website for the schedule and give it a go, as the Brits might say.

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The new “best of Childless by Marriage” book, actually titled Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both, is currently with the designer, who will pretty up the pages and design the cover. I hope to show you a picture soon.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

He was an Older Man with kids…

Today, as we sit breathing smoke and looking out at orange sky from wildfires burning all over Oregon and California, we have a guest post from “Kimberly.”

I just discovered the term for the grief that has been building up in my throat and tear ducts yesterday as I was scouring the internet for anything to define my current emotional state, and I finally found it: childless by circumstance. Finally a phrase to equate with this heavy unwavering feeling that pervades my soul.

I always wanted kids, since I first taught kindergarteners at Vacation Bible School at the tender age of 13. Sunday school followed that, and I even became a nanny at age 22 to an adorable toddler named Alex. My life was to be filled with kids—dirty diapers, tiny fingers grasping my thumb, wispy, sweaty baby hairs that I would tenderly wipe away and salty tears that would dry up instantly with my hugs.

But then I fell in love at age 27 with a man 10 years my senior, separated from his wife, with 10 and 14-year-old children. We dated on and off for years, a desperate and mesmerizing love story. I tried countless times to move on from him and start a fresh relationship with someone who could give me the safety I craved, complete with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. But he was my soul mate, so I followed my heart and married him finally at age 37. He never wanted more kids and told me so, but I guess I believed that love would eventually change his mind. It didn’t and I accepted that—or I thought I did because I grew to love his children, especially his daughter, like my own. I even bought Natalie her wedding dress.

Then Natalie got pregnant at age 26, and I grew so excited at the thought of becoming a grandmother at age 44. Except once the baby was born, the grief hit me like a tidal wave. Here was what I could never have. The loss of the life I dreamed about was amplified and triggered by her newborn, and I realized I had never told one person in my life how much it hurts to lose my baby dream. I never even whispered it. I just bottled it up into some tiny piece of my heart and hoped that being a stepmother and eventually a grandmother would be enough. No one knows how hard it is to walk in my shoes every day with a profound sense of loss—what a burden I feel—and how lonely it is to be childless by circumstance.

I have a friend right now who is almost 41 and actively trying to get pregnant for the first time. She too married later in life and was never sure if she wanted to have children. But then out of the blue it hit her, that yes, this is the path she wants to go down. Somehow I have become her confidante and the only one she tells about all that she is going through. It never occurs to her how much this might hurt someone like me, someone who never got the chance to have kids. How each time she calls me, I end up sobbing afterwards, how I do not think I am strong enough to support her in this journey, how much I wish that journey was mine.

Kimberly, we do know how you feel because many of us feel the same way. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Well, readers, comments? Commiseration? Hugs?

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Please pray for everyone involved in the western wildfires, including the firefighters and the thousands who have had to leave their homes. The heat is extreme and the wind near-constant. Here on the Oregon coast, the sky is orange and full of smoke, and it’s almost dark at 10 a.m., but we are safe so far.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

Childless Suffer ‘Disenfranchised Grief’

On a recent podcast, UK childlessness guru Jody Day and host Kathy Seppi talked about “disenfranchised grief.” We have talked a lot about grief here at Childless by Marriage, but something clicked in me when I heard that.

What is disenfranchised grief? Grief researcher Ken Doka defined it as “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Let me put it another way. You have suffered a loss, such as the chance to have children, but other people just don’t get why you’re hurting or acknowledge your right to grieve.

Seppi, whose Chasing Creation podcast focuses on infertility, said disenfranchised grief is “the feeling you have to prove how much it hurts.”

Jody Day, who is also a psychologist, added, “We want people to see our pain.” Grief changes a person, she says. Our lives might look completely the same from the outside, but grief changes how we feel about it from the inside.

At a site called whatsyourgrief.com, Litsa Williams lists 64 situations where people tend not to acknowledge the right to grieve. They include death of an ex, moving to a new place, losing a friend, and death of a dream. Losing the family you had expected to have certainly fits on that list of things we grieve but other people don’t understand why.

Not long ago, I sang at a funeral for my friend’s husband. I found myself in tears. Not only was I sad for her and missing her husband, who was also my friend, but I felt my own losses–my father, my mother, my husband. But most strongly, as I watched my friend’s adult daughter holding onto her, taking care of her, I kept thinking who will be there for me? Once again, I grieved the loss of the children I never had.

The grief is there. I will always be different from all those people at the funeral who have children. It’s not something I could speak of, certainly not that day, and not something that anyone would have thought about when they saw me trying to wipe away tears around my COVID mask.

I don’t look bereaved. You can’t tell from the outside. I’ve got a pretty good life. But still, that thing is there. Aug. 21, on the first anniversary of my father’s death, I posted a picture of him with me and my brother as babies on Facebook. No one will ever post a picture like that of me, and that hurts.

Childless grief is tricky. If you had a baby who died, you could hold a funeral. You could maybe dress in black and avoid society for a while. But grieving for something that never existed, for the lack of something you wanted with all your heart? People will say buck up, you’ve got a good life, look at all the freedom you have and all the money you’ll save. Right?

If you burst into tears at the office . . . well, you feel like you can’t. You mustn’t. And yet we do want people to see that we’re hurting and to offer comfort. Just like when we were little kids and skinned our knees, we want someone to hug us and bandage our wounds, to acknowledge that we are hurt.

With childlessness, it’s like we didn’t get that doll we saw on the TV commercial; what right do we have to cry and carry on? We want to be held. We want someone to stop the bleeding. We want someone to say we didn’t realize how much it hurt. Here is your doll. Now wash your face and we’ll go get ice cream cones. Isn’t that what we want? Of course it is.

You know what? I think it’s okay to express our grief right out loud. I wanted to have a baby. My heart hurts because I never did. Will you hold me and help me feel better? Let’s say it out loud.

COVID be damned, I want to hug all of you.

Please share your thoughts.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

Closing the Door:  Bipolar Disorder and Motherhood 

 Happy Wednesday! Today I offer you an essay by a poet friend who is also childless. This piece previously appeared in an online literary journal called Quiet Storm. As you will see, there are many different ways we can end up not having children. In her note to me, Sherri said that when she told her father she would not be able to have children, he responded, “Get yourself a dog. Dogs are more loyal.” Which they are, but that’s not the point. As always, please feel free to comment.

By Sherri Hope Levine

Sherri Levine I have been grieving over the loss of a dream for many years. The feelings of profound emptiness and sorrow have overwhelmed me. I have always wanted to have a child, and I knew that I would make a wonderful mother. I would break the cycle of critical voices that played a big part of my childhood. Ideally, I would be a loving, nurturing, and accepting parent.

Whenever I see a mother and a child holding hands in the park, or a mother strolling her baby with other mothers, or watch my sister read Harry Potter to her son, I cry out: “Why not me? It’s not fair!” I tell myself to try to move on with my life—to remind myself that I have a loving and supportive partner, family, and friends, that I have a rewarding job teaching English to immigrants and refugees, that I am a passionate and published writer. But is this enough?  Do these things take the place of being a mother? Is this the dream? Is this something I have been dreaming about my whole life?

My mental health has suffered tremendously from bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness. During my teenage years, I endured severe depression and was hospitalized due to suicide attempts. In my twenties, a psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant, and I immediately shot into a full blown manic and psychotic episode. I was living with my mother at the time. While in a heightened state, I impulsively packed all my belongings and took the train from New York to San Francisco. While living there, I was reckless and impulsive. I slept with many men, spent most of my money, and I lost a lot of weight. When my dad found out I was calling my grandma in the middle of the night to tell her I was an artist and model, he flew me home.

What I didn’t know is once you are committed to a mental hospital, you cannot leave. I didn’t believe this. I thought for sure after I got stabilized, I could leave. At first, the doctors figured out the right combination of medications, and I got better. But then I became depressed. Why was I still there if I was better? I had a tough time coping in there because I saw many sick patients, a lot worse than me. The only way “out” of there was to write. I found poetry. The staff allowed me to sit in an empty room with a computer. And that is what saved me. That was my escape. The staff recognized that I was well enough to take day passes out of the hospital. They came up with a plan for me to attend classes at a local liberal arts college. I worked closely with some very fine poets. My writing improved, and I became a student there. I even graduated without any of my classmates knowing that at the end of the school day, my ride had been a shuttle that took me to a locked mental facility on the outskirts of town.

After I graduated, my friends had moved away, and my sister had relocated to Seattle.  I wanted to live near her, so I moved to Portland, Oregon. Little by little, things started to improve again. I took my medication, entered a master’s degree program, and got my first job as an English teacher at Portland Community College, where I have taught for almost twenty years. I was finally stable, happy, and productive.

After months of rest and recuperation, I felt strong again.  I was ready to settle down, get married. I married a man twelve years younger than me. Another impulsive decision! Then I found out that he didn’t want children.  He didn’t even like children. I was so upset because I knew if I was stable, I could have children. I did everything I was supposed to do to prepare myself for motherhood.  I took my medication, continued my teaching job, ate well, and exercised vigorously. I remember talking to my doctor about medication and pregnancy.  It was a risk, he said, but I would be monitored carefully. Still, my husband wasn’t interested in having children or having sex. He finally did give in, and we tried to get pregnant for a year, but something was wrong. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting pregnant.  By then, my husband had become increasingly withdrawn from me. He stayed at work late, and when he came home, we hardly ever spoke. I was devastated. I wasn’t a mother and my marriage was falling apart. I felt empty.

My husband and I split up. I was alone, without a child. By then, I was in my 40s, and it was too late for me to conceive. I thought about adoption, but I was single, so I knew it would be difficult to raise a child on my own.

Many people can tell you to move on, but it does not help. Letting go is part of the grieving process. Losing someone is the most difficult part of life. I believe that raising a child with a mother who has a chronic mental illness would not be fair to the child or to my family.  It would put a heavy burden on all of us.

I have thought about what it would be like if I did choose to be a mother. I might have to stop taking my medication during the first trimester. This risk could cause me to become manic or depressed. Then, after I gave birth, sleep deprivation could also cause an episode. Who would take care of the baby? My husband who was absent most of the time? My 80-year-old mother? My sister who lives in another city? If I became ill, would I be in the hospital loaded with medication? Would the court take away my child?

Some dreams do not come true. I have had to close the door on the dream of being a mother. It doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve, but the intensity of grieving has waned. I have learned to accept the reality of my situation. I put my efforts into my art and my writing. My work has been published in various journals, and I have been hired to be a poetry editor of a literary magazine. I have a loving partner who has a young son. My friends and family are all around me. I realize that embracing loss is embracing life. As I close the door on my dream, other doors will continue to open.

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Sherri Hope Levine is a poet, artist, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She received the Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize and Oregon Poetry Association’s Poet’s First Prize (Poet’s Choice). Her poetry and other writings have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including CALYXThe Timberline ReviewPoet LoreThe Jewish Literary Journal, and Mizmor Anthology. She founded and hosts Head for the Hills—a monthly poetry series and open mic. Her first book, In These Voices, was published in 2018 by The Poetry Box. She escaped the harsh weather of upstate New York and has been soaking in the Oregon rain ever since.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

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Notice anything different about the blog? Yes, the puppy picture is gone. As I polish the “Best of Childless by Marriage” book–and as WordPress makes changes in the formatting software–it seemed like time. I’m still working on making the header type more visible. What do you think of the new look so far? 

Reader Caught in Childless by Marriage Dilemma

   

Readers,

I received this email from “Kristin” over the weekend. At her request, I am sharing it with you. What do you think? What would you do?–Sue

My husband and I have been married about eight months, but were together nearly eight years before we were married. To fully tell this story, I feel like I have to go back in history a little because a portion of our eight-year relationship we spent apart. That breakup was because I was sure I DID want kids and he was (and always has been) sure he did NOT. To be honest, I can’t really say how we came back together, other than we did.

He is my very best friend. I think when we got back together and decided to get married a few years later it was because I genuinely thought I could compromise. I knew he didn’t want kids, and several more years had passed where I’d seen one sibling suffer through a stillbirth and another’s infertility leading to divorce. I rationalized that both of these things were just more examples that you shouldn’t choose a mate based on a desire to have children because “there are no guarantees” in life. I wanted to marry someone because I loved him and didn’t depend on all the “extras” in life.

What I could not have predicted was that by loving someone, building a life with him, and experiencing an even deeper love in this commitment than I had before, I developed a stronger desire to have a child. All of this became very apparent when he scheduled an appointment to have a vasectomy. I felt fine with it until, I didn’t. It hit like the worst wave of depression and devastation I’ve ever felt. We talked about it, and he agreed to cancel the appointment, but ever since then, it has been brewing just under the surface. He doesn’t say it directly, but he alludes to me trying to trap him into pregnancy, frequently saying we are “playing with fire.”

I should add that we have been pregnant once—more of a chemical pregnancy than anything—enough to be positive on a pregnancy test, and then I got my period. It was actually just before we were married and was one of the worst fights we’ve ever had. I know you could say I “shouldn’t have married him” if I knew that, but it didn’t change the fact that I love him. Even the antagonistic child-hating part of him. I can’t lie and say some part of me didn’t subconsciously think that time or a miracle from the Lord would change his mind. I think I also sort of have a false hope because he didn’t go through with the vasectomy yet. Like, he loved me enough to compromise on delaying it and then more false hope came about.

Today we are arguing again—and I am depressed, again. He will list all of the logical reasons why he doesn’t and has not ever wanted a child, and I will fail to articulate my emotions—because that’s all I can say it is now, a feeling. What I guess I wonder is: Will this pass? Is my love for my spouse enough to carry me, to carry us through this “fear of missing out” and whatever else may be rolled up into my desire to have a child right now? I am thankful for the solidarity of knowing that other people experience this, too, but it feels so painful that this is undeniably such a divisive thing. I don’t know how I won’t resent him at some point if I continue to feel this way, and yet a life without him isn’t something I want either. 

HELP

–Kristin 

Well, this is the crux of our “childless by marriage” problem. She wants kids; he does not. She loves him, he loves her, but neither is likely to change their mind. What do they do now? I know many of you have been there, done that. Me too, but my situation was different because Fred was older, a father of three, and he’d already had the vasectomy. I stayed with him, and I’m not sorry. But what advice do you have for Kristin?

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

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After more than 700 posts and with a new best-of-the-blog book coming, I am making some changes. I am using a new “header” image, but having troubles with it. The glitches will be fixed ASAP. Meanwhile, stay tuned.