What to Expect When You Aren't Expecting

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but a recent demographic trend is turning American society on its heels.  Women choose to have children less and less frequently.  Scholars and demographers debate what drives women to live child-free.  Some point out that the drop in birth rate correlates strongly with the increase in women's education.  Young women forgo childbirth in exchange for better education or competitive employment despite the social consequences.  

But what about women who have this choice made for them?  What about those who find themselves a third wheel to the cultural debates?  What about women whose child-free lifestyles are not by choice, but by way of uncooperative biology?

In middle-class America, motherhood ushers women into adulthood the way that marriage and careers make men of boys.  Mothers enjoy social rituals like mommy lunches and mother's day, and with the advent of social media, mothers receive immediate positive feedback for their choice by posting pictures, stories, and hardships of rearing children.  Motherhood is community.  So, where does that leave mothers who choose to have children, and can't? 

What about women whose child-free lifestyles are not by choice, but by uncooperative biology? 

Fortunately, for women who can easily navigate their desire for biological birth to raising children born of their hearts and desire, adoption is a salve to the grief inherent in uncooperative biology.  For others, letting go of biological birth is too difficult.  Fertility treatments can sometimes restore the biological birth dream.  But fertility treatments don't always work, and even if they did, they are still out of reach for many families who find no financial support from their insurance coverage.  

What do these women do? How do those families cope?  How should families who choose not to adopt or pursue fertility treatments respond to the dream they once believed possible?

But fertility treatments don't always work, and even if they did, they are still out of reach for many families who find no financial support from their insurance coverage. 

Coping with the loss of biological birth is not too dissimilar from losing a loved one.  Many women feel like mothers long before they become pregnant, choosing their children's names or dreaming up their children's lives between pregnancy tests or doctor's visits.  I once had a client tell me that during their fertility treatments, she and her husband dreamed about how their son would be an incredible athlete, taking on his father's traits and exceeding them.  

Parents without children not only lose access to social rituals like mothers' and fathers' day, but they must grieve the privilege of giving children to the world.  

So how do you cope?

First, families must prepare themselves for unnecessary and inappropriate questions.  Our society has not yet figured out how to treat people who can't have children, who choose not to have children, or who choose not to pursue alternative options.  Prepare yourself for questions like, "Well have you thought about adoption?" or "Can't you guys just do artificial insemination?"  Questions like these will come from family members and perfect strangers alike, ignorant to how these bullets go straight to the heart.

Second, allow yourself to grieve.  Grieve this loss as if you were grieving the loss of your spouse, parent, or significant other.  Grief potentiates meaning, significance, and strength.  Choosing to grieve empowers you to make sense of your pain and eventually, slowly, painfully, envision your life without children as a joyful and fulfilled one. 

Third, and probably most important, find a community of others who share your experiences.  Fortunately, social platforms like Meetup create social functions centered around almost any platform.  "Childless not by choice" groups gather to provide support and to remind each other that they are not alone.  

Finally, you may consider seeking support from a counselor or therapist to help walk you through adjusting to this new path before you.  A therapist can expedite the process of grieving, adjusting, and meaning-making.  

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

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