By Alisoun Mackenzie, author and founder of Women Over 40 Rocking the World
When I was young I assumed I’d become a mother one day. At no point did I consider this wouldn’t be part of my destiny. With the naivety of a child, throughout my twenties and thirties, I thought I’d have children easily. Yet here I am in my fifties finding myself childless not by choice.
My intention in writing this blog is primarily to share my story in the hope it gives comfort to women in the same position–women who wanted children but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. You are not alone. It is possible to create a joyful and meaningful life without children–even if it’s not what you’d hoped for.
If you are a parent, I urge you to read on to hear what some of your friends, relatives, and colleagues may be going through. When I’ve shared my experience with friends most have been surprised to discover what goes on for childless women.
Almost 20% of women don’t have children
Not only is being childless not by choice incredibly distressing and challenging. It’s also a desperately lonely and isolating experience too. During my child-bearing years, I didn’t know anyone else who was in the same position as me. Or at least no one who was talking about it.
Yet in England and Wales, 19% of women who reached the age of 45 in 2018 were childless at the end of their child-bearing years. That’s a lot of women who either choose not to have children or who find themselves involuntarily childless. If this is you, you are not alone.
The silent pain of being involuntarily childless
The yearning to have children isn’t something you can turn on or off. Today and throughout history, there are many women who are living with this unmet natural craving, the untamed life force within that calls for us to reproduce and nurture our young.
This natural hormonal feminine energy is passed down through our DNA. It is hard to escape from unless you’ve never felt the urge.
Women who are involuntarily childless are often quietly nursing a wounded heart, doubting their worthiness and questioning the meaning of life. They are constantly also trying to brush off insensitive expectations, prejudices, and comments made by those around them.
Modern society has yet to break free from prejudices against childless women. Pregnancies and births are celebrated. But there is no societal norm for acknowledging the invisible pain of those struggling to conceive or those who are not in a position to have children.
Thankfully I’ve now got to a place where I feel a deep sense of meaning and contentment in my life, without children. Yes, I still feel a sadness in my heart but far less so than I did when I was younger. My quest for motherhood, and subsequently letting go of this dream has been a long and often painful journey.
My thirties: hope, loneliness, and desperation
My thirties were the hardest time. As a woman trying unsuccessfully to have children, so many women around me seemed to find it easy. Every month felt like a terrible loss, with most days packed with constant reminders of what was missing in my life.
Every time a friend or colleague announced they were pregnant I’d make sure I expressed joy in front of them but secretly inside me I felt a part of me had died. I’d hold it together until I was alone again–and cry. Sometimes I’d need to make excuses to leave.
Then I’d feel guilty about getting upset about such a joyous time for others. I also experienced this cycle of grief almost every time I was supporting pregnant friends and was in the company of friends with their children.
Yes of course I still loved spending time with my friends. It was just often an emotional experience, especially where conversations revolved around babies and being a mum.
Over time many of my friends drifted off into motherhood and an exclusive club to which I would never belong. My friends quite rightly had other priorities and responsibilities, so of course, this was going to happen.
But I felt isolated. It’s a very lonely time when one group of friends disappears before you’ve built up a new circle of women without children. Especially when you’re not yet ready to accept that a life without children could be your reality. Our lives are effectively on hold for years.
What was wrong with me I kept wondering? Nothing according to the wisdom of conventional science!
This distressing time was only made worse when those with ‘child privilege’ asked insensitive questions or thoughtless comments. I’m sure most were made with good intentions but the nature of these often upsets people without children:
- When are you starting a family? A question rarely asked by those trying to conceive as we’re very aware of the pain this question can cause. It implies the purpose of life is to have children, the norm is for adults to have children and that everyone who wants will be able to.
- Are you not thinking of having a family? A variation of the first question that’s often asked with a judgement that it’s odd not to have children. For me this reinforced the feeling there was something wrong with me (which I was already feeling). The worst comments were from mothers passing judgement on me and questioning my values for having chosen a career over having children.
- You could always adopt or try IVF – Ah yes. Not only are both these options very different from having your own children naturally, they are also lengthy processes most of us will have considered and tried too. Lots of people think IVF is the magic solution but by the time many of us get to this stage, the chances of success are slim. In the UK between 2014 to 2016, there was a 77-98% failure rate, for women over 35. I tried IVF in my mid-thirties, but it didn’t work. I was also on a waiting list for over five years to adopt children before deciding I needed to move forward with my life.
- There’s more to life than having children – Really? You don’t need to tell us this. We’re already spending more time than parents trying all sorts of things to fill the hole in our hearts. I was OK hearing this from other childless women who were further ahead in the process creating a meaningful life. But when said by parents, it often felt like they were dismissing my feelings as unjustified and thought I should just be getting on with life. Even though I was also often judged for doing so and not prioritising have a family.
- Children aren’t all they are cut out to be – the clanger to someone without children. Don’t get me wrong, I hear having children is one of the most rewarding and challenging things anyone can do. But, I don’t see many parents voluntarily handing them back!
To well-intentioned parents, I realise that it’s not easy to know what to say to people without children, all I suggest is that you are mindful you could be speaking to someone who has been trying to have children, is having lots of miscarriages, or has lost a child.
Desperation then set in as my first marriage fell apart. I found myself in my late thirties and waking up to the reality that the likelihood of me becoming a mother was slipping away.
Had I known how much harder it is to conceive at forty than it is in our early thirties, I may have left my ‘practice’ marriage and/or started IVF sooner.
My forties: grieving and questioning the meaning of life
When I realised I wasn’t going to have my own children, a gaping dark hole opened up in my heart. I started questioning the purpose of my life without children.
Thankfully by this time, I’d become a life coach and therapist and so I was well equipped to lift my mood, cope better, and start creating an alternative meaningful life.
At a conscious level, I knew there were many other things I could do with my life. However, my body wasn’t ready to let go of its hormonal craving until a decade later.
Developing good friendships with women in a similar position certainly helped. Plus I’d re-married a wonderful man and become a stepmom to two young women I am very fond of.
Even though they add a welcome dimension to my life, becoming a step-mum to older children is a far more detached experience than how I imagine I’d feel with my own children.
Like many other childless women, I tried to get my need to nurture met by volunteering. I told myself there are plenty of children in the world I could help rather than having my own children.
Maybe my purpose was to serve others’ children? I feel very blessed to have got involved in a charity helping young genocide survivors in Rwanda. It was wonderful to get to know a small group of incredible young people through regular trips and online support over a five year period. Being involved in this project certainly helped by giving me another focus. But I still questioned my value to humanity.
By the time I reached my mid-forties, I was beginning to accept the reality of the situation and explore other ways to satisfy that internal primal need. That’s when I thankfully saw Jody Day’s TEDx talk The Lost Tribe of Childless Women. (You can listen to Jody Day on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast too. )
Gosh, that was such relief. I could relate to so much of what Jody said. At last, I realised I was not alone. It was reassuring to hear so many other women have a similar experience.
For the first time, I also felt I had permission to grieve. Every month for years I’d been silently grieving – for the loss of not having children, the loss of not enjoying family life, the loss of never becoming a grandmother, and for not being equal to other women in the eyes of society.
Prior to seeing Jody’s talk, expressing this ‘loss’ had felt like a taboo. I was concerned others would think I was being overly emotional.
Now it all started to make sense and I was able to start letting go of my grief. It didn’t’ take away the loss or fact that I needed to find something else to give my life meaning. But it did enable me to move on to the next stage of acceptance and exploring my purpose without children.
Isn’t the purpose of life to have children and keep the human species going? Why else am I on this planet?
A pivotal moment
In 2017 something happened that changed my sense of worthiness – I helped save a man’s life. In a brief moment of thanks from him, I felt an instant surge of healing that I deserved my place on this planet.
I may not have had my own children, but I had saved a life and at last, I felt I could justify my life. You can read about this experience here.
My fifties: acceptance and connecting to a sense of meaning
Thankfully all the work I’ve done to heal from not having children and to connect to a deeper sense of meaning has paid off. I still feel sadness in my heart but it’s no longer as acute or painful.
Instead of focusing on what’s missing, I practice gratitude for the life I have and the many wonderful friends I have around me – many of whom I wouldn’t have met had I had children.
Plus some of my closest friends from years ago are re-emerging now their children have grown up. I’ve also had the space to develop a successful business and spend more time participating in hobbies.
Together with an amazing group of friends, I raised funds to build a school in Cambodia and led the team on a trip to visit the country and school earlier this year. You can read about this here. Doing this helped me combine my love of travel and desire to make a difference in the world.
I’m sure letting go has been made easier because of the stage of life I’m at too. Menopause seems to have released me from that hormonal urge to have children. Phew, what a relief!
I guess when we get to this twilight time of life we’re also more conscious of our fragility and making the most of life.
Making the most of life without children
So what’s next? I’m honestly not sure other than continuing to focus on making the most of life in ways that light up my heart and make a difference to others. Plus helping other women to do the same.
Continuing to lead teams of women in sponsoring and visiting schools in Asia has given me a new sense of purpose. I’m excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.
There may be times in the future when I’ll feel a sense of loss again e.g. missing out on having grandchildren. I’m not going to dwell on that. There are plenty of parents who never become grandparents.
Instead, I choose to focus on the liberation I can enjoy as an older woman who is free to create and embrace a different sort of life.
What about you?
Have you resonated with anything I’ve shared? What thoughts, ideas or emotions has this triggered?
Whatever stage you’re at, know whatever you’re feeling is normal. If you are involuntarily childless please be reassured you are not alone. There are many people, tools, techniques, and healthy interventions available to help you cope better during this challenging time.
This article first appeared on Alisoun’s blog.
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Alisoun Mackenzie is an inspiring coach, mentor, speaker, visionary leader, author, yoga teacher and retreat leader. She empowers women over forty to thrive, enjoy a meaningful life, and have more impact in the world. Alisoun runs a community called Women Over 40 Rocking the World. She is the author of Amazon best sellers Heartatude, the 9 Principles of Heart-Centered Success, and Give to Profit, How to Grow Your Business by Supporting Charities and Social Causes.