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Involuntary Childlessness

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Recently, I had a woman struggling with infertility come into my office for counseling. After years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, three miscarriages, and a husband unwilling to consider other family-building options, she is considering giving up her dream of having another child. She wanted to know if she would ever get over her childlessness.

I explained that the data suggest that she would likely go through a grieving process -- for the child she will never have -- but would, with time, eventually come to terms with it. [1] Yet the literature on involuntarily childless individuals is surprisingly sparse. What little research exists suggests that some involuntary childless individuals do feel desperate and unfulfilled, while others are better able to move on and reconcile with their circumstances. [3] In her work with childless women, Letherby found that as they get older, many of these women are indeed able to put it behind them and move forward with a positive perspective, particularly if they are able to shape their identity based on other facets of their lives. A study by Lechner, Bolman and van Dalen determined that individuals with active coping strategies (contact with others in a similar situation, seeking new/alternative meaning of life, etc.) and strong social support experience less distress from involuntary childlessness than those who use passive coping (social withdrawal, fixation on childless status, etc.) and do not have adequate social support. [2]

But statistics and academic research papers do not always provide comfort for individuals dealing with painful events or trauma. Sometimes a more personal perspective is necessary, so I asked a woman I know who herself is dealing with involuntary childlessness to answer some questions about her experiences that I could share with others. This is Shannon's story:

1. Please briefly describe your infertility journey:

I met my now-husband when I was 31. Shortly after we decided to throw caution to the wind as I knew my irregular cycles would likely make conceiving difficult. A year and a half later we sought the assistance of a fertility clinic, as nothing had happened. Five years, seven IUIs, three IVFs and one miscarriage later we still didn't have the family we'd dreamed of and decided to stop trying.

2. What has been the most difficult part of your experience with infertility?

Wondering how things could have been different. If we'd started earlier, been more aggressive earlier, if we'd tried more often, if only we had more money to try more often... the "what ifs" are astounding. Plus, I'm a very go-getter type -- when I put my mind to something, more often than not I will achieve it. That was not the case here.

3. What made you decide to stop pursuing parenthood?

Time and money. I was almost 38 when we decided to stop; my husband was 40. My responses to stimulations were getting worse and worse and we'd already spent close to $50,000 with no luck. When the time came and I was finally ready to say stop I'd made as much peace as I could with it all.

4. Have you come to terms with being childless?

Almost. There are parts of me that still want to try one more cycle, just in case. For the most part I've accepted it. But I still don't like it.

5. If yes to number four, what has allowed you to come to terms with it?

Time. Only time. And the realization that we really did try. We had amazing doctors who stuck with us and tried, tried again.

6. How has infertility affected your relationship with your partner?

It's been challenging but in different ways than most people expect. It didn't push us apart, cause us to fight or argue, etc. It's brought us closer together, united us in our grief and loss. It's different for him -- he has a daughter from a previous relationship, so he was ready before I was to be finished, partially because he's older and already has a child. I think he's worried about me potentially wanting to try again because he's completely at peace with our current family situation.

7. What kind of reaction do you get from friends and family about your decision?

Relief, more than anything. That they don't have to sit back and watch me go through the emotional hell that is cycling. Sure, they're disappointed that it didn't work out for us, but more than anything they've rarely known what to say or how to demonstrate adequate or meaningful comfort when things haven't gone well, so they're just relieved that that part is over. They have kids, they just don't "get it."

8. Do you have any regrets looking back at your infertility journey?

I've recently lost a significant amount of weight, and my biggest regret is not having done it sooner. I have no clue whatsoever if it would have impacted our chances for success, but the "what if" haunts me. And, of course, I regret that we didn't have additional financial resources to have tried more often than we did.

9. What would you say to someone who is facing infertility and trying to decide whether or not to continue exploring family building options?

They'll know in their head and in their heart when the time to stop is upon them. If you had asked me two years ago if I was capable of moving on child-free I would have emphatically declined. But as time passed it just became less scary and more realistic. Never let anyone else make this decision for you -- it has to come from you or else the potential for resentment is just too huge.

10. What do you wish people knew about infertility/involuntary childlessness?

That the pain never truly goes away. You may react less viscerally to certain things than you once did, but it doesn't mean that you won't still shed a tear each year at your niece's dance recital because it's always going to be a reminder of what you'll never have, you'll never be. And that there truly are few things in this world more painful than not being able to make your dreams of a family come true. People will joke about how lucky we are -- we can sleep in, travel whenever we want, no daycare costs or middle of the night wake-ups. No having to leave work early for a sick child. But to us it's a cruel joke, because we'd trade all that and more in a heartbeat to have what they have (and complain about). So know your audience before you speak.

References:

1. Daniluk, JC. (2001). Reconstructing their lives: a longitudinal, qualitative analysis of the transition to biological childlessness for infertile couples. Journal of Couns Dev, 79, 439-449.

2. Lechner, L., Bolman, C., & van Dalen, A. (2007). Definite involuntary childlessness: associations between coping, social support and psychological distress. Human Reproduction, 22 (1), 288-294.

3. Letherby, G. (2002). Childless and bereft? : Stereotypes and realities in relation to 'voluntary' and 'involuntary' childlessness and womanhood. Sociological Inquiry, 72(1), 7-20.

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