Sometimes childlessness physically hurts

When you have children, you won’t have cramps anymore. That’s what my mother used to tell me as I sat bent over double, sharp pains slicing through my lower abdomen. Every 28 days, waves of hurt would leave me gasping. Gynecologists never found anything wrong; it was just “cramps.” They’d get better when I grew up and had a family. Except I didn’t.

From age 13 to menopause at age 53, I suffered horrible cramps. My best friend stayed home when she got her period, but my mom did not believe in babying me. I took those cramps to school and work. I suffered through algebra tests and physical education classes, through interviews and deadlines.

You might say, “Why didn’t you just take something for it?” I took what was available at the time. Aspirin did nothing. We took the ’70s version of Midol, really just aspirin with caffeine, which wasn’t much help either. I tried getting drunk, which left me bombed and still hurting. I didn’t just need a pain reliever; I needed an “anti-inflammatory” drug. Ibuprofen was not available until near the end of my first marriage. And then I needed a prescription. The first time I felt the relief from that miracle drug, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to hug my doctor. And when it became available over-the-counter, oh my God. I still experienced cramps, but at least I could do something to mute them a little.

What I’m saying is my cramps were horrible, and I never experienced the permanent relief that childbirth might bring. Toward the end of her life, my mother confessed that she had never had cramps, so she didn’t know what I had been feeling or whether giving birth to me made any difference for her.

Dysmenorrhea is the formal medical term for painful periods. The sharp pains are caused by the uterine muscle constricting and tightening. Most experts say that the stretching of childbirth eases the cramps. An article at suggests that childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus. Prostaglandins are the hormones which direct the uterus to contract during labor and may also be involved in monthly menstrual pain.

If there’s something wrong, such as endometriosis, periods can become absolute agony. It’s important to get medical treatment, but for plain old cramps, the only hope seems to be medication and motherhood.

I’m no medical expert. I have read comments online from women whose periods have gotten worse after pregnancy, but in general it seems to offer relief—relief we will not experience if we never have children.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Have you experienced killer cramps? Have you seen relief via childbirth? I would love to hear your experiences in this area.

BTW, menopause was a picnic compared to my monthly periods and now my cramps are gone, so that’s something to look forward to.

Male readers, I know this is one of the girl subjects you don’t want to hear about, but maybe someone you love is having cramps right now. Give her some love. They hurt like hell.

Mom bodies vs. childless bodies

How is a childless body different?

Having babies does a number on your body. How could it not? Think about all the changes that come with pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. If you have any doubts about the motherly body, read this article from the Telegraph, “Does Having Children Make You Old?” Follow it up with my 2012 blog post detailing the changes pregnancy imposes, including weight gain, back problems, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, incontinence, changes in breast size and shape, and stretch marks. On the good side, women who have given birth have less risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer. Also, you get a ticket to the grownup table as a full-fledged member of the Mom Club.

I have written here before about how I feel younger than my peers who have kids. At a funeral for my cousin last week, I found myself gravitating toward the younger cousins because I felt like we had more in common. I’m aware of my age—another birthday coming in three weeks. I know I look like somebody’s grandma, but my life is so different from those of the folks clustered around their children and grandchildren. Lacking husband or children, I found myself hanging out with my father and my brother. “What are you, six?” my sister-in-law scolded me at one point. Maybe I am.

From the outside, I look just like my mom, except with glasses and straight hair. She had two children and that probably changed her body, but I still feel like a clone. It’s hard to imagine what having a baby would have done to me. I can read the list, but I can’t feel it, you know? Besides, I’ve seen lots of moms who look great. I guess those of us who never got pregnant will never know what it’s really like.

What do you think about all this? Read the article and let me know.

Forgive me if this post is a little wonky. Some of those kids at the funeral gave colds to their parents which they generously passed on to “Aunt Sue.” Not having kids around means I hardly ever get sick. One of the benefits.

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.