With Childlessness, the Related Losses Multiply

When you don’t have children, what else do you lose?

A lot, according to Tanya Hubbard, one of the speakers at last weekend’s online Childless Collective Summit. Hubbard, a counselor from Vancouver, Canada, specializes in working with people who are childless not by choice, a group that includes most of us here at Childless by Marriage.

She spoke about secondary losses, the often unacknowledged losses that come along with a primary loss. If someone you love dies, for example, you grieve the loss of that person, but there are other losses that come with it. After my father died, his house was sold. The new owners tore it down, ripped out everything in the yard, and built a new, much larger, house. One might say it was just a house, but it broke my heart. For 67 years, it was home to me.

For people who have dreamed of having children and now realize they never will, there are many secondary losses. Your identity in the world and your role in the family change. You lose friendships, the pleasure of giving your parents grandchildren, your sense of creating the next branch on the family tree, someone to inherit your memories and prized possessions, and someone to care for you in old age. At church, at work, and wherever you go, you will be different from most people. If you struggled with infertility, there are physical losses, such as hysterectomies, scars and trauma from IVF failures and miscarriages, financial losses, and a feeling that you can’t trust your body to do what it’s supposed to do.

However you end up childless, your dream of what your life was going to be goes out the window. Sure, you can dream a new dream. It’s possible to have a terrific life without children, but there are losses. As with everything in life, when you come to a fork in the road, you have to choose one way or the other. You can’t have both.

Hubbard suggested we draw a diagram shaped like a daisy. Write “childlessness” in the middle and then fill in the petals with other things you lose because you don’t have children. Some of us are going to need more petals. When you finish with that, I suggest you draw a second daisy, write “me” in the center and fill in the petals with everything else you are besides childless. I hope you need more petals for that, too.

We need to acknowledge and give ourselves permission to grieve our losses. Other people, particularly parents, may not understand, but the losses are real and you have a right to be sad. It’s okay to talk about it and to even seek therapy if you can’t manage it on your own. Some therapists will question what you’re so upset about. Find another one.

If you are childless by marriage, I pray that your partner acknowledges what you are giving up by choosing him or her and then helps you create a new life plan that will work for both of you.

You can find Hubbard on Instagram at @tanyahubbardcounseling.

I welcome your comments.

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.

Are you grieving over your lack of children?

As many of us know, not having children can be painful. A terrific article in today’s Contra Costa Times talks about this and describes some of the agencies that are helping childless women deal with their grief through therapy. The piece, called “Childless by Fate, Choice,” was written by Jessica Yadegaran. It includes a forum to answer the question “Have you come to terms with not having children?” I would love to have people answer that question here, too.
I’m currently working on the chapter about grief in my Childless by Marriage book, and it is interesting how one’s feelings change over time. It’s also hard not to project my feelings onto other people.
So how do you feel about it? Do you regret your choice? Are you still trying to decide what to do? What advice would you give someone like the 35-year-old woman I interviewed this weekend who is dating a man who doesn’t want any more children?