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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Three Strikes, No Kids, and Still Standing

I yield the floor today to S.C., who offers this guest post:

As I prepare to celebrate my 65th birthday, I have been thinking back on my life’s journey and some of the truths that have lived with me since I closed the door on my dream of being a mother 25 years ago. I now lead a happy life with my husband of 36 years, but I hope for a brighter journey for the young childless women of today who are still coping with many of the same challenges my generation did. Although things are changing slowly, our pronatalist society still seems to be most comfortable sweeping childless women under the rug, one of the last of society’s unrecognized disenfranchised groups, written out of the dialogue because people don’t quite know what to do with us.

This post highlights some of the things that have shaped me and helped me grow into the resilient woman I am today.

I always wanted kids, and everybody knew it. I was the one at family gatherings who played with the younger kids because I enjoyed their company. I babysat as soon as I was old enough. I majored in Early Childhood Education in college and envisioned what my kids would look like, who their father would be and how we’d all live happily in the house with the picket fence, never giving a thought to how ordinary it all was but delighting in the dream of being a family. I grew up during the feminist movement and I was convinced I could do it all, family, career, personal life.

At 28 I married a wonderful man eleven years my senior who admitted to being unsure if he wanted children. I was convinced he’d be as happy as I was once they came. After a year of being married and no pregnancy, my doctor told me we should find out why. It turned out my fallopian tubes were very nearly non-functioning, with major blockages. After years of tests, procedures and being monitored for fibroids, I was finally told I had to have a hysterectomy at 39. Strike one.

With natural childbirth off the table, our only chance to become parents was adoption or surrogacy. Now my husband openly balked. He had been willing to go along with trying to have “our own” kids, but raising “somebody else’s” kids didn’t appeal to him at all. Surrogacy using his sperm was the compromise we came to agree on. Finding birth mothers for “hire” was complicated, involving contracts and lawyers, so we agreed to talk to family and friends who qualified as birth mothers. It didn’t pan out. Strike two.

Although we were down to his most objectionable option, I convinced my husband to start down the adoption path and see where it led. We pursued it for six months, but it was mentally grueling after all we’d been through, and I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. All along the way, I had felt my dream of having a family becoming less and less likely, but I knew this was my last chance. By forcing adoption, our once strong marriage would be on shaky ground and there was a better chance than not we’d end up divorced. I was faced with the impossible decision of staying in a childless marriage or leaving in hopes of finding another mate and adopting in my mid to late 40s. I didn’t want to raise children alone, and I loved my husband. Deciding to stay was strike three for my dream of having kids. 

I’d be lying if I said the next five years of our marriage were great and I was sure I had made the right decision. I was in and out of therapy, and although I didn’t want to admit it to myself or to him, I resented our outcome and pinned the blame squarely NOT on me. I didn’t say, “You did this! It’s all your fault.” Instead, I lashed out at him for things he didn’t deserve to be lashed out about. I became sullen and moody. I felt like I was in quicksand sinking fast. 

And then I did something that would turn the tide on our future. With my husband’s full support, I made the terrifying decision to quit my corporate job and took early retirement from a successful but largely unsatisfying career. Combined with no kids, an unfulfilling career had been a drain on my energy, strength, and happiness. We had planned for early retirements financially by banking my check and always living well below our means, but this accelerated the plan for me by close to ten years.

Things didn’t magically turn wonderful overnight, but they gradually got better. I began exploring career options I had always thought I might enjoy: teaching, cooking, coaching, starting my own business. I ended up working as an independent consultant in my profession of Human Resources, and my husband and I even did some corporate training together. We traveled. We reconnected.

We’ll be married 37 years this October. I left the corporate grind 18 years ago. I occasionally think about the what ifs and I’ll always be sad about not having kids. But I made the right choice. Striking out doesn’t always mean going down.

Although I didn’t get to be a mother or a grandmother, it doesn’t define who I am today: a vibrant, happy woman whose gifts include the unique perspective and wisdom gained by traveling the challenging road of the involuntarily childless. 

***

Thank you for sharing your story, S.C. Readers, what do you think?

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She’s infertile, he wants kids

Friends, I’m on deadline, so I’m going to let a couple of commenters from the old blog site have the floor this week in the hope you can add some insights and move the whole discussion to this site.

Surpermonkey: Here is my dilemma: I am a divorced mother of 2 daughters and 39 years young. Five years ago due to health reasons, I had to have a total hysterectomy. At the time of that surgery, I was married and knew that my marriage was rocky. At this time, I am head over heels in love with the man that I feel such a huge connection with. And the feeling is mutual. He is 40 and has never been married nor does he have any children. He wants them but has said that he has not found that person to give him that wonderful gift. Until he met me.

He said that he sees his future with me and wants to be with me and my girls but what is stopping him from being fully committed to me is the fact that I cannot have any more children. He says that he has to decide–get married to me, to the love of his life and his soul mate and give up the dream of having children of his own or break things off with me and hope he can find someone that can give him children so that he can experience that kind of love that a father and child has. I am afraid that if he chooses our love, then will he end up resenting me in the future?

Will I always have this cloud over me that I cannot give the one man that I love the very thing that he wants most in this world? Do I break it off with him and make this decision for him–so that he can try to find someone that can give him that? He says that by staying with me, I am changing him and his way of life or the way he had envisioned his life. My girls love him and he says he loves my girls. He is so afraid that I am going to break things off with him because of this. But how long can I continue like this? We are so happy when we are together, but then I remember that if we stay together he will never have a child of his own. Any one have any advice?

Sue: Oh Surpermonkey, what a pickle. Have you discussed the possibility of adoption or using a surrogate? If he really wants this, there has to be an alternative to splitting up. I hope you can find it together.

Tony: I’d say you have a situation on your hands. Here’s my take. I got married very late in life. I was 42 and my wife was 45. She had two boys in her first marriage and we decided not to have any kids. I was fine with it then, but I’m not now. This may be painful to hear, but you opened that door. If he feels strongly about having his own child and you can’t, do him a favor, pull the plug and set him free. I can assure you that he will resent you and your kids. That’s where I am right now and I’m 63. Men are very funny about this. I can foresee a HUGE meltdown and argument coming and feelings will be hurt. I wouldn’t adopt or settle for a surrogate. If I ever had kids, they MUST be my own DNA and sperm-produced kids. Anything else is settling for less than I deserve. My advice, hold your strength, cut set him free and get on with your life. As he feels now, nothing good can come from this.

Surpermonkey: Thank you. I am not sure what we are going to do. He would rather not adopt and we have discussed a surrogate. We know that there are other options out there but they are so costly. Obviously we have a lot more to discuss on this subject. I appreciate your advice.

So that’s what they said. I think Tony is being a little harsh, perhaps projecting the anger from his own situation onto Surpermonkey’s. But maybe not. What do you think?