10 Things You Need to Know About Involuntary Childlessness
Meriel Whale specialises in counselling clients who are childless not by choice, an area of growing relevance for therapists. To mark the start of World Childless Week, she shares key insights drawn from personal experience, from the prevalence of painful triggers to the possibility for profound personal growth
‘Grief heals us, but we cannot do it alone. We cannot ‘wait it out’. Time does not heal; grieving heals. But it cannot heal until it is witnessed and held jointly, with great tenderness, in the heart and soul of another’ (Jody Day, Living the Life Unexpected)
More and more people are living without children when they deeply longed to be parents. It’s a growing phenomenon and the reasons are often very complex and multifaceted. Increasing numbers of people will need emotional support for the grief, loss and trauma they have experienced in their long and painful journeys. Some people never even had the chance to try, and their feelings are as valid as those of people who went through fertility treatment or tried to adopt.
I work as a counsellor with people who are childless not by choice, and I am also childless not by choice. Here are some of the things your childless client may need you to know:
- You cannot fix the situation
Your client has not come to you for solutions. Please do not offer suggestions, tell them there is still time, ask them if they have thought about adoption or fostering, or tell them to just go and have a baby on their own. If you do that, you are not meeting them where they are or attuning to their needs, but trying to salve your own discomfort by ‘solving’ their problem. The problem is unsolvable: you cannot give them a child or suggest anything they haven’t already thought of.
- Childless grief is real and deeply painful
Try not to compare it to other forms of grief but instead be ready to encounter deep loss, pain and profound sadness with empathy, rather than judgement or pity. Some clients might not even know that they are grieving and that to grieve is not only acceptable but necessary. Stay with the client where they are, follow their lead, and be gently present in their world of experiences, thoughts and feelings. Try to lay aside your own thoughts and feelings, especially if you are a parent, but instead offer absolute and total validation of your client.
- It is not your client’s job to educate you
Please do your own research to gain insight into the wider issues of childlessness. There are many excellent blogs and books out there, and a great place to start is with Jody Day, whose book I quote from above. Her website has an excellent book list. Start with Day’s TEDx talk and then go on to read the blogs written by childless people.
- Therapists who are parents need to own their privilege
If you are a parent, please try and understand your own pronatalist privilege, which may be out of your awareness and yet will still influence your interactions with clients. Laura Carroll’s book The Baby Matrix is useful on the topic and is available to read online.
- You may be holding some powerful assumptions
Be willing to challenge any stereotypes you may have about career women, crazy cat ladies, spinsters or evil stepmothers, or any assumptions you have made about childless people and how they have got to this place in their lives. Ask yourself what comes up for you when you think about childless people. Be willing to reality-check these views by reading about the journeys childless people have been on in their own words.
- Triggers are everywhere
Every book, magazine, film, TV show and conversation at work often seems to be based on the assumption that everyone has children, and that the most important job in the world is to be a parent. Can you get a sense of how lonely, isolating and exhausting that might be for people who are childless not by choice? Many spaces, especially workplaces, do not feel safe, and triggers arise daily and without warning.
- Shame and silence are often factors
Many childless people find that grief is compounded by shame. The grief of childlessness is often not seen or validated. Childless people feel invisible and can be scared to speak out for fear of having real and powerful feelings judged or invalidated. Childlessness can also bring up existential issues about life’s purpose, causing us to ask why we are here when we can’t have children.
- Not having children can change us as profoundly as having them
Childless people aren’t leading the lives that parents used to before they had children. Our experiences have changed us as profoundly and permanently as becoming a parent changes people. We are not the same and our lives are not the same, nor will they ever be.
- The grief stays with us through the lifecycle
Grief changes, but it does not end – the multifaceted grief of involuntary childlessness will impact a person through different ages and stages of their lives and at different times of the year. For example, Christmas can be particularly tough if you don’t have your own family, and many childless people fear aging without the support of children.
- Our lives can be just as meaningful
A life without children is different, but just as valid and meaningful as a life with children. Believing this does not mean that you undermine, bypass or minimise the deep grief that childless people will feel to varying degrees for the rest of their lives but that you know, beyond the worst grief, a unique and meaningful life is completely possible.