Help me adapt to the idea of being childless
January 8, 2014 2:12 AM   Subscribe

I’ve recently discovered I am almost certainly infertile. For different reasons, assisted conception and adoption are highly unlikely to be options for me. I need help to make my peace with the idea of being childless. Please, no hopeful stories about “I never thought I’d have children, but now I do”; there are plenty of these in previous questions about infertility.

Some personal background, though I’m not sure how relevant this is: I’m in my 30s. I’ve always loved kids. I’ve always been told I’m good with kids. I’ve always wanted kids. People comment on my motherliness, and it’s always been a strong part of my self-identity. I tried for a baby with my previous partner without success, and I’m currently single. I’d rather not go into medical details about my fertility, nor why assisted conception nor adoption are options for me; I’m not interested in “I had that and I got pregnant”, as I can talk that through with my doctor, but rather dealing with never getting pregnant.

My best friend is heavily pregnant, and it seems like every month there is another of my friends posting a picture of their ultrasound to Facebook. If I can’t deal with this, then I can’t spend time with most of my friends. As I said, I love kids, and I’d love spending time with my friends and their families if this wasn’t breaking me apart.

I realise therapy is likely to be suggested as an answer to this, and it’s certainly something I’m considering, but I’m in the UK and this is both more difficult to access and less commonly used than in the US.
posted by Coobeastie to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First, deepest sympathies for what you're going through.

Second, take the time to be kind to yourself. This is, like any other loss, something of a grieving process, and you deserve to be looked after by yourself during that time. Remember that you're only defined by your situation if you choose to be.

If you have a list of "someday" items ("some day I'd like to..."), maybe dig that list out and start checking things off it. Remind yourself that you can live a full and wonderful life without having kids, and start proving that to yourself.

And in that vein, try making a vision board for yourself for the next year (or some other period of time). Concentrate on the things that make you happy, that make your heart sing.

As for therapy, it's worth at least trying out a therapist for one or two sessions — it's not used as often here, no, but it is available and can work wonders. Depending on where you are, it's not necessarily that difficult to find a therapist, and many of them will consult over Skype should that work better for you. Counselling Directory can help you find a therapist or counsellor suited to your needs.
posted by gmb at 2:49 AM on January 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Can you align with the attitude that you are 'child-free' rather than childless?

Or is there something in your core that makes you feel you need this in your life?
posted by hal_c_on at 3:01 AM on January 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The answer is likely to be therapy, and I write that as a UK person constantly bemused by how quickly US MeFites suggest it as the go-to solution to so many questions.

For background: Mrs MM can't have kids, something nearly a decade of effort, actual pain, false hope and cost have taught us. Adoption is not totally out of the picture but the odds are more against it happening than for. I think I understand your experience.

I think this is one of those situations where therapy may well be exactly what you want because the task you want to achieve - not just reconciling yourself to your situation, but facing what your friends have and being happy for them is such a monumental task. In effect it requires you to embrace childlessness and see the positives of it - because you have no other option - but still coo, cluck and probably play the doting godmother to other people's kids. And that's a tough contrast. You will probably be surprised at how much you get from just being able to discuss your feelings because although your situation is not wholly uncommon, it's not like one can just turn to one's nearest and dearest and expect them to get it.

I suspect the answer lies in:

1) grieving for and closing off the life you might have had with your own kids
2) embracing the benefits of not having kids, and actively building a life and lifestyle and some new friends round that
3) establishing how you want to interact with other people's kids

1) is really hard for many people, which is why trained or professional help can make a big difference. I don't think 2) or 3) can really happen until you're ready because embracing yay childless me will feel like sweeping things under the carpet.

There are benefits to not having kids, as sleepless, harried, poor parents rush to remind you, often with a surprising lack of tact. The process you have to get to is making this feel like a choice, I think, so that even if childlessness is not a choice the positive response to it is, that the lifestyle you get is not a not-child lifestyle but something else - an independent lifestyle. I.e. that when you get to sleep in late or go on an exotic adventure holiday at 7 days' notice you aren't thinking "I can only do this because...." but rather "my life is great. How cool is this?"

There is no one piece of guidance for how to interact with other people's kids. It does get easier as they, the kids, get older. I still basically put on a good show of being the doting uncle or godfather. Sometimes it is genuinely fun. Sometimes it is just a show and I'd rather be poking my eyes with knitting needles because it is painful. There will be good days and bad days. It does help that almost without exception other people's kids are not nearly as endearing as they are to their parents, especially as they hit their terrible twos.

Finally - I know you've kinda written off adoption upthread. My experience: I've personally spoken to three different agencies over five years. One offputting experience where they basically said we can't ethnic match you so don't bother, one terrible experience and one good, recent experience that has at least made adoption seem like something worth thinking about again. It can be a crapshoot because there is a full spectrum of poor and excellent social workers and the whole arena is surprisingly politicized and surprisingly subject to dogma.

One thing I would say is that this government is intent on massive speeding up and streamlining the process so however painful, arduous and invasive the process is - success or failure - it is A LOT shorter than it used to be. It's a sea change in how things work from even as recently as a year ago. There are still lots of kids needing homes. The fallout from Baby P means protocols for removing children from negligent or abusive parents are put in place much quicker, which in practice means there are more younger children, if that's your thing.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:17 AM on January 8, 2014 [22 favorites]

There must be support groups for this - it's reasonably common, and often very devastating - it may be good for you to find others in your situation.
posted by thelonius at 3:22 AM on January 8, 2014

I should also add that you shouldn't feel bad about making some changes to your social network/priorities if you end up not having kids.

Your friends having kids will be making new friends, through NCT or elsewhere. They'll acquire new friends as their kids go through nursery and school. C'est la vie, because life will heavily revolve around the kids in the early years.

The outcome of this is that their social network will change radically, as will their lifestyle. Particularly when their kids are young, there is a strong chance that their closest friends will be the ones who have kids of similar age.

In other words - don't feel bad about seeking out people whose lifestyles and situation more closely match yours.

Good luck. You have my sympathies.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:26 AM on January 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Seriously, it will help. Because you're grieving, and that's normal, we grieve over all kinds of missed opportunities. But you're also catastrophisizing--giving this way, way, way more FOREVER DOOMED kind of weight than it really warrants. Not because you should be pining away hoping for children instead, but because you have a lot of life to live. Some people adopt in their forties or fifties--that doesn't mean you have to, it means you've got tons of time to actually get to the point where you like your life regardless, and then to make decisions.

If you hit 50 and you still haven't wanted it enough or had a stable enough life or whatever for adoption purposes, then I'd say at that point you look back and you think, gosh, I'm glad I didn't have kids, because imagine how I would have felt if I'd had a screaming toddler to deal with on top of my [ambivalence/financial issues/health problems/whatever], that would have been awful. Or you hit 50 and you decide to do something fantastic and meaningful for children that isn't raising them yourself. (Retire early, start a day care? My provisional plan is that if I feel like I've missed out in another ten years, I'll do foster care.) Just, in general, there's still about a billion ways this could go if you get your head on straight, and whichever way it goes will be the way it ought to go.

I had a spate when I was younger of feeling completely tragic about this, but it's passed for me and I think it'll pass for you. Once you're dealing with the cognitive distortions, you'll be in a better place to actually assess your life as it is and figure out what other things you can do that will make you happy. This sucks, but eventually you'll file it away with other things about your life that suck, and they'll be counterbalanced by the good bits.
posted by Sequence at 3:48 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding @gmb's idea to find (an American?) therapist who will talk with you via Skype or Facetime, etc. You're mourning a major loss that's challenging your identity.

"My best friend is heavily pregnant, and it seems like every month there is another of my friends posting a picture of their ultrasound to Facebook."

I'm sure you already saw my recent Ask, from part of the other side of the best friend coin. I'm really glad you're posting this here, and my heart goes out to you. So you've identified the specific kinds of baby-related news that are understandably triggering for you. Maybe find a way to use FB a bit less and/or to filter out the pregnancy stuff. You have permission to block people who won't STFU about postings that inadvertently hurt you. Begin to exchange the FB stuff for more in-person, 1:1 interactions with local friends who both understand you and with whom you can chat easily about topics other than babies, babies, babies 24/7.

Speak honestly with your best friend about your grief and the kind of feelings with which you're grappling. Let her know it's not her, but this is an incredibly hard time for you, and while the healthiest part of you is of course overjoyed for her, the fact is anybody's baby news is really tough for you right now, and ask for her support. You have every right to excuse yourself from her baby festivities. This can be extremely isolating, but if she's a real and true friend, she'll understand and know this isn't about her. Give yourself enough emotional room to retreat when the going gets tough.
posted by hush at 4:06 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds painful... I can certainly relate to life not panning out how I would have chosen.. but I guess that happens for a lot of people... I love kids and good with them too (your age) but personally am ambivalent about having my own, which right now there's no chance of anyway. Some things I think about (in the NOT wanting side) are how crazed the world is, how many other things I like to do, how as much as I love kids... I can find a ton of time with them a little... boring.. at times, how much I'd hate to be woken up a few times in a night by (ok a cutie..) wanting to suck my nipples perhaps until they cracked and bled, how I have friends with kids who have no time to pee, feel torn and guilty all the time about trying/needing to have a career and a kid, or being tied to another person (ie partner) forever.. through another, innocent person, that maybe things go totally pear shaped with.

I probably haven't put the most positive slant on this... but I'm trying to say there are good things and bad things to everything .. kids and partnerships included.. having or not having them.

A friend of mine said to me recently something along the lines of "we're getting to that age now where we realise.. we can't have everything we want".. this weirdly sort of helped, though she said it better.

Have you thought, when and if your ready about perhaps being a mentor for a kid? So you have the chance to build a special 1:1?.. all be it boundaried relatiionship, with a kid away from your personal circle?

Then there is the complex issue of overseas adoption. I'm not for a minute saying that is clear cut or 100% ethical.. but having had a very 'sound' friend work for years in a 'developing country' where she volunteered in an orphanage... she said to me "the bottom line is.. it's a kid who needs someone" having seen friends give up on adoption in the UK because the process was so convoluted, she made me see it a tad differently. To some extent it would/could be as ethical as a responsible adoptive parent allowed it to be.

One final thought.. I was mothered way, way better by a stepmother than my biological one. None of us know the whole story yet, or which way the road will turn.
posted by tanktop at 4:20 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Considered foster care?

If you go talk to any local foster care agency you will be quite stunned at the number of existing children in desperate need of good parenting and the difficulty the agency will be having in finding people willing to provide it. And although the stated aim of fostering is usually to provide a temporary home until family circumstances improve to the point where the kids can return to their birth family, which is the essential legal difference between fostering and adoption, this often can't and doesn't happen.

I chose non-reproduction at the age of 30, seeing it as my only ethically sound response to the fact of six billion people dominating the biosphere, and became quite attached to the principle that no child I raised would be one I made. After all, I share 99% of my genetic heritage with any randomly selected chimpanzee; how much does a child have to share with me to qualify as family?

I'm 51 now, happily married, and we have been foster parents for about ten years. Fostering certainly comes with its own unique set of political and social challenges, but looked at strictly from the perspective of the relationship between carer and child it is parenting, no more and no less - and if you're working with a decent fostering agency you get access to absolutely invaluable parenting training and support (the kind of support that could, ironically, prevent a great deal of the need for foster care if made available to every parent).

If you have not already looked into fostering, I urge you to do so before shutting the door on the prospect of mothering. But if you have, and you actually meant to include fostering within the adoption you mentioned as a non-option, then I'm sorry to have given you a non-answer.
posted by flabdablet at 5:12 AM on January 8, 2014 [17 favorites]

if you can bring yourself to do it, talk about this briefly with those close to you - esp. your friend who is quite pregnant. maybe it would help to say "Friend, i'm so glad that you and i are in each other's lives. i know you don't mean to cause me any harm, but right now it hurts to see your ultrasound photos/pregnancy stories/spend afternoons with your kids. can we focus on something else, just for a while? it's not that i don't want to be involved with your kids or hear about the pregnancy but i need time to come to peace with this."

stop logging into facebook for a while, or hide things on facebook strategically, if that makes it less painful. go to therapy. grieve. would also urge you to consider (after you've moved through this a bit) finding a way to "mother" in other contexts, whether as a volunteer working with youth, becoming a foster parent etc. don't assume right now that because you cannot give birth to or adopt a child you will never be able to do parenting things.

off the top of my head i can think of many people i know who were de facto parents to kids they didn't adopt or give birth to. maybe at first they were a coach/trainer, a teacher, a volunteer, a foster mom, a social worker, a neighbor, a godparent etc. but if you ask the kids they would tell you it was more than just that. we lived next door to my godparents and my godfather basically helped raise my brother, although he didn't have any children of his own then. my brother was deeply affected and shaped by this man's influence, definitely in a positive way.
posted by zdravo at 5:38 AM on January 8, 2014

Have you ever worked with children? If not, would you consider working with children? Some of the best teachers of young children I've known have been child-free themselves. They pour their heart/soul/brain into their teaching all day and then go home to peace and quiet. It's a wonderful way to have children in your life.
posted by mareli at 5:56 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, just a reminder: OP says adoption is not an option, please take this into account when answering.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:10 AM on January 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well, for me (a disability makes it nigh impossible to have kids) I transitioned from grief/ feeling purposeless to filling my life with creative stuff. For me, it's writing and guitar, but really, creativity can be so much, so many things. My life is full indeed. I don't go on Facebook though, and I have a limited patience with people who talk about nothing but their kids. It's sort of a survival strategy: I don't want to be around people who are really in one's face about parenthood, because I want to maintain my sense that being a childless person is an okay thing. And it is an okay thing. And there are so many other wonderful aspects of life to explore.

I'm really sorry about your bad news. Hang in there.
posted by angrycat at 6:13 AM on January 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have a genetic issue that suggested a prophalactic hysterectomy as young as possible. I always knew that I had a ticking clock and while I was young, I wanted children, as I got older, I found that the life I had built for myself was full enough and that by the time I did have the surgery, I actively didn't want children.

I was lucky, I had YEARS to come to terms with the idea that, "if it doesn't happen by age X, it's not going to happen."

I'm here to tell you that it takes time to accept infertillity. You're still raw. You'll have to make your way through the stages of grief on this one, Anger, denial, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. The journey is easier with a therapist.

By all means, discuss your feelings with your friends. Explain that while you're wrapping your head around what all this means for you, that you may need to distance yourself from their happy-baby-chatter.

Find folks in similar situations, support groups, etc. The more you talk about it, the more you can process it, and the more you can be at peace with it.

If you want children in your life, you can have that. Adoption, fostering, mentoring, teaching, etc. I taught high school for 2 years, and I'm a Godmother. I'll always have children in my life. I am auntie or tia many times over. And I LOVE it!

I'm so sorry you're hurting, I promise, it gets better.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 AM on January 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Realizing that you don't have to have children in order to enjoy them is a big step. You can be the best friend ever to some of your friends who have children. They will be absolutely desperate for a child rearing relief. Also spending lots of time around friends' children is the best way to cure yourself of wanting children. Children are wonderful some of the time and kind of horrible most of the time.
posted by srboisvert at 7:13 AM on January 8, 2014

Childless by choice here. You sound like you are well grounded and are working to keep your head on straight during what must be a very difficult transition. Give yourself space and time, and ask your friends to give you space and time, to deal with this as you come to terms with the door in your life that has closed.

...And then try to focus on the many many doors that have opened, and decide which of them you wish to go through. Speaking for myself, I love life childless... I and my wife have the time, cash, and energy to enrich the world (and our lives) in some very important ways. Working demanding jobs and volunteering for community groups and still having the wherewithal to travel and care for our older parents. You now also have broader opportunities in these realms.

You love children and are good with them. You may consider continuing education for a social work certification and pursuing a career or volunteer opportunities with a child-centered nonprofit in your area - you could leverage your aptitude by helping less apt parents learn how to care better for their kids, or in some other way that may help you fulfill your child-centered desires while making a difference.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:35 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Echoing what Ruthless Bunny said. It might help to remember that there are many, many ways to be involved in the lives of children short of raising them yourself. You can throw all of that maternal love and energy into being the best "auntie" in the world for your friends' children, as part of a volunteer group, even as a part of your career if you're so inclined. You can still find plenty of love and snuggles and cuteness and closeness through babysitting, cheerleading, celebrating. Just showing up consistently and with affection would make you an important figure for any child.

The door to a life that includes children isn't shut entirely; it just doesn't look the way you'd expected it to.

Deepest sympathies for you. I hope you find your way to tremendous happiness, one way or the other.
posted by Andrhia at 8:00 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always thought I wanted kids, and I'm very happy and lucky to have a child. That said, it is way harder than I thought it would be. There are lots of parts of my old life that I've had to just basically say goodbye to, at least temporarily, and in some ways I've sort of lost myself as a person by being a mom to a four year old right now. Having a kid really can sort of end your old life and your own extended childhood where you are the center of your own world, and change your life into one that is almost completely centered around someone else. I'm not sure if this is coming out right. I'm just trying to say that dealing with a small child 24/7 is actually pretty hard and stressful. You may think you want it and maybe you would love it but on the other hand it could also make you depressed, unfulfilled, angry, lonely, tired overwhelmed and/or bored in ways that you couldn't imagine beforehand and almost certainly couldn't control or protect against. You may unknowingly be mourning a sort of idealized vision of parenthood when in actuality parenthood can be sort of a mixed bag, and parents themselves ultimately also have to mourn the loss of their old lives and freedoms once they understand the scope of the change that a baby brings. Without kids, you will remain the center of your own life, and I understand how that is a little bit of a curse, but it is a little bit of a gift, too. Best of luck to you in working through this.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:07 AM on January 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: If you're specifically mourning the loss of the mom-of-small-children experience you'd been looking forward to, it might help to step back and consider how tiny a sliver of life that stage is, even for people who have kids. Right now your demographic is at peak childbearing, so you're surrounded by friends popping out babies and toting toddlers and it seems as though your life is really, conspicuously, eternally different from those people's. But in ten years, those moms will just be sometime-chauffeurs, chefs and counsellors to surly tweens and teens with their own separate lives. In 20 years they'll be empty-nesters whose day-to-day experience of parenthood mostly revolves around six-figure college bills, distinguishable from you in no respect except their rattier furniture and smaller bank accounts.

In the normal course of life, most women don't get to spend more than 5-7 years in the intensely motherly, booboo-kissing phase of parenting; so while it's certainly sad to have nurturing energies and no small children to expend those energies on, you should remember that grief over that loss is by no means something that your child-having friends will be spared. Everybody, mom or not, eventually has to find an outlet for their nurturing and creativity beyond their own biological children.
posted by Bardolph at 8:38 AM on January 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: My situation's not exactly the same as yours, but has some parallels. I had gone back and forth on the whole wanting children someday thing; it wasn’t until I lost all the relevant bits to ovarian cancer eight years ago and felt primarily a profound sense of relief that I fully realized how much I had hoped that that “someday” when I’d have to make the choice would never come. So, although I can’t really empathize with the feeling of truly wanting kids and not being able to have them, I certainly can empathize with the position you’re in regarding your friends and society in general. It doesn’t seem to quite trust childless women, does it? And many women of a certain age don’t, either.

A lot of how you go forward will depend on what sort of people your friends are. If they start excluding you, there’s not much you can do but ignore them and get involved in activities with other people. I’ve fallen out of touch with friends who only socialized with other parents of babies and small children, but drifted back into my life when their children got a bit older and more independent, and they were less wrapped up in them. Others made an effort to include me once they realized I didn’t mind being around their little ones.

You may consider volunteering with children if it’s not too painful for you and it fits around your schedule. Afterschool programs are probably too early in the day, but museums and libraries often have weekend programs for kids that need volunteers. You could teach Sunday school or work in the nursery if you’re a churchgoer, or stay involved in your circle of friends by occasional babysitting.

Or, as others have said, maybe this is the time to embrace the things you have the freedom to do without children. The same women who exclude me from their conversations and pull their kids away from me like I’m going to lure them to my gingerbread house and fatten them up for the oven still occasionally say things like, “Man, I wish *I* could just drop everything for the weekend and go away!” or, “I wish *I* had time to be in a show!”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:18 AM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'll echo the notion of changing your mindset. I have friends who relish their child-free status, and they joke about having fun with their friends' kids and leaving when the little ones get fussy.

Having kids, especially young kids, means a DRASTIC shift in your life, as I'm sure you've seen from your friends. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss some of those self-focused "let's go somewhere for the weekend on a whim," or "let's stay another hour because we don't have to think about getting somewhere quiet for nap time." Our days are much more regimented than we ever imagined, being focused on getting the little one breakfast, lunch, nap, dinner, and sleep on a fairly firm schedule every day.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:35 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: I'm sorry you're hurting. I'm in a similar boat and I'll out myself as a selfish jerk by saying the "spend time mothering other peoples' kids" suggestions never made me feel better. I didn't want to ONLY be the fun auntie or my friends' best babysitter or the volunteer teacher. I wanted to be a mother. There is a big difference, and you and I both know it.

The only thing that has helped me is allowing myself to grieve that life that I wanted but couldn't live. I'm allowed to feel sorry for myself occasionally. I'm allowed to sigh and feel sad when I see an ultrasound pic. I'm allowed to share my blues with friends, just as we gripe about jeans that are all-of-a-sudden too tight or stress at work. (But I don't share my sadness with friends when they're announcing their joyful news.)

And then I make myself move on, like I moved on after breakups and deaths of loved ones. After all, I don't want to let this one untrodden path to define my whole life.

Sending you warmth and hugs.

[By the way this: "The same women who exclude me from their conversations and pull their kids away from me like I’m going to lure them to my gingerbread house and fatten them up for the oven..." cracked me up so hard. God it's so true.]
posted by kimberussell at 10:10 AM on January 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: So, I could have written this question, the big differences being that I'm in the US and I've known that I'm infertile for about 15 years. I'm a firm believer in not bullshitting so here is the brutal truth:

Wanting to have kids and not being able to is horrible. It sucks. It half kills you some days.

How to deal? What damn choice do we have? You have to deal with it and it's very, very painful and you can't escape it. Strangers and your friends (and soon enough, their kids) will be having children all around you and it just fucking suuuuuucks. Even when people with kids say, It's not all it's cracked up to be, you're sitting there thinking you'd walk across broken glass for ten miles to experience just one of those kid problems.

Time does make it a little better, or you learn in time to deal with it. Time takes time, though, right? It takes a long, long time to get over this particular sadness, if ever. The goal of "dealing with it" is to be able (in time, your time) to see those ultrasounds and go to those baby showers without dying inside or wanting to curl up into a ball and never stop crying. Those lovely friends of yours aren't getting pregnant to hurt you, and these are their joys and we want to be able to share our friend's joy with them without feeling like crap. But that takes time.

In the meantime, be nice to yourself, do nice things for yourself. Do some of the things that your friends with children can't do, or can't do without at least a years notice. If you need to back away from the baby showers for a few years, your friends who understand will understand. The rest, screw 'em. May they never have to know how painful infertility is.

I feel ya, babe. We just have to survive like others have done, one foot in front of the other.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:23 AM on January 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

I'm allowed to sigh and feel sad when I see an ultrasound pic.

OMG, the room where they did the ultrasound that confirmed my tumor was plastered with pictures of fetal ultrasounds matched up with pictures of the babies they eventually became. I mean, that was pretty rough on ME, and as I said, I didn't truly want babies when it really came down to it. It would have been inhumanly cruel if I'd been dying for one all my life, or if I'd been in there to confirm a miscarriage or birth defect.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:34 AM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: Like all other losses and disappointments and failures in life, you get over this one, too. Even though it's not an actual choice (unlike, say, going to school to become an accountant, instead of pursuing the path to be a violinist in the orchestra), it begins to act on your life just like any other choice. This is the path you're on, instead of the alternate one. You work to define yourself and your life not by the absence of the children you always assumed you'd have, but by the presence of the things you do have. You know it's the truth that you will not be a parent, so you become okay with it being the truth. You have not actually become a different person; your life has just taken a different shape.

Like someone mentioned above, it's complete bullshit that you can substitute close relationships with nieces, nephews and friend's children or volunteering with children and expect that to make up for what is a profound loss. You can have lovely, even profound relationships with other people's children, but it is simply not the same thing. You'll know it--so don't try to force those relationships to take a shape they don't have. It's not selfish to want your own child--not someone else's--it's not uncommon to find that developing close relationships with someone else's child doesn't heal that loss. Why should it? It's not the baby you want; it's not the chores you want; it's not even the hugs or interaction you want; it's the Ding an Sich of being a parent which is foreclosed to you and relationships with children not your own do not give you that.

Even so, you are still a whole person with a meaningful life. Remember that. Treat yourself as though that is true, always, and this loss will fade.

Of course, expect that once you've made peace with it, something will happen to disabuse of that notion totally out of left field. But you'll be okay. You really will. You are a person who matters and infertility does not change that.

You may need to stay away from the baby showers and stuff for a while or even on and off. For years--it seems--I had to completely avoid baby showers, had to hide people on Facebook the second they posted their ultrasounds, had to find other rooms to be in at family gatherings. That's okay--for a while, but don't try to build a world when you never experience or hear about kids. That's not going to happen and I don't think it would help you make peace. You're a woman without a child in a world which still expects women to be mothers. That's going to make you angry sometimes; you just have to pass through the anger.

Take care of yourself, separate yourself from the things that hurt while you practice defining your life and self as What You Are and What You Have, not by the Mother You'll Never Be. Don't close yourself off from relationships with your friend's families and your nieces and nephews, but don't expect them to be adequate to the grief. Find the balance, get help from the people closest to you. If you find you get great joy from other people's children, embrace them. Be everyone's aunt, be everyone's babysitter. But if you find that isn't what you want, so what? It's okay, if you don't have children of your own, not to find ways to be around them.

Grieve. Be okay with grieving. Then learn to stop grieving. Just like Grlnxtdr says.

It really helps to have someone who understands. Better if it's someone who is comfortable with not having children (but not all smug about being Childless By Choice). It's not too bad if it's someone who's good at separating her Self from her MommySelf.

I'm terribly sorry for your loss and your pain. But it gets better.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:38 AM on January 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

I used to look for interesting people (writers, artists...) who didn't have children, and tried to find their views on being childless. It was often surprising, and comforting.
posted by nicolin at 12:12 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I empathize hugely. I am so sorry. This is utterly heartbreaking. I know the feeling of seeing a pregnant woman on the street (a stranger!--to say nothing of your best friend!) and wanting either to die or to smash things. It's incredibly hard. Also, almost no one gets it. And certainly there is no support from popular narratives; it's all "but then we miraculously gave birth / adopted!!" or else "I never wanted children, and I feel awesome!!" There is no recognition of the painful "it just never worked out" place, and what it means to accept that that's a part of your life.

If it is any help, here are some things from my own experience:

I desperately wanted children, tried with a previous partner, am infertile, have considered both adoption and fostering (have done neither, for various reasons), and have also--by turns--felt really happy not to have children. My partner and I started actively "trying" when I was 30; I'm now 44.

I honestly don't know what the future holds for me and my current partner (who doesn't want kids). Some days not having kids really sucks. Some days it's pretty awesome. My friends are a mix of with-kids and without-kids … and a common denominator among them is that NOT ONE of them considers having children a sacred, unparalleled activity that makes one FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT from all other human beings. In fact, my best friend has two kids whom she loves like a mother bear, and she'll be the first to tell you that 1) sometimes it really sucks to have kids, and 2) anyone who thinks being a parent is superior to non-parent-hood can take a fucking walk.

(That friend is also the one who sat me down, at my request, and told me exactly what it feels like to give birth. I have always wanted to know, and I never will. I wanted someone to give me their story, without bullshit. She did. It was hysterically funny, and we also both cried. Also, comparisons were made to "taking a really big poop.")

I mention all this to say: To the extent it's possible, surround yourself with people who "get it," and who make you feel affirmed and SEEN in your non-child-having-ness. People who can listen to "I don't know what will happen in the future" as well as "This is settled, it's never going to happen, and my heart is broken." People who love you for who you are. And who won't lay a trip on you about what children are supposed to be, or mean, while also understanding how much it means to YOU not to have children.

Finally--when you want this--gravitate to the people who really affirm and value your role in their kids' lives. I have some friends/relations who make sure their kids know me and care about me, and it is a huge thing for me.

Again, my utter sympathy and empathy go out to you. I'm glad you wrote. Love from me.
posted by rhetorista at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

There are many better answers above, but just another voice to say, I'm so sorry that you are having to go through this.

I was kind of where you are handful of years ago, sure I would never be able to be a mother, something I wanted from a very young age. I feel like I reconciled myself to the idea that I wasn't going to get what I wanted, and that sucked, but that I could still have happiness in my life. It was DEFINITELY a grieving process, one that took some time, and sadness, but I felt, well, reconciled. Full disclosure, I was wrong, I had a kid, so I only had to be 'reconciled' for a year or two, so not sure how much my advice is worth.

It might have helped me at the time that part of the reason for my expected childlessness was that I was dealing with was a chronic illness that left me pretty disabled, and so I had become acutely aware that energy/ability (to engage, create, participate, and just do any damn thing) was finite and that the loss that hurt so much meant that I would be able to open other doors. I mean this as something beyond the "kids take up so much time/energy". People who have always been fairly healthy can take for granted how truly limited resources can be, and don't always realize you really CAN'T do everything. They think if they have another cup of coffee, get a little less sleep, just keep pushing pushing pushing that they can do everything. And they can do a lot, but the reality is that there is always a trade off. Thankfully most folks don't run up against it when it comes to decisions about whether to brush one's teeth OR take a bath, but the limits are still there. The upside of going through this period of disability for me was that I was acutely aware that there was always a trade off, and while it was not the choice I would have made, I would be able to do things because of not having kids.

Also, you might be surprised how understanding and sympathetic some women who do have kids are to what you're going through. Just because someone has a child doesn't mean they didn't struggle with fertility. Or know someone they love who struggled with it. Or who are just sympathetic. I think there's a lot more unspoken understanding out there than you'd expect.
posted by pennypiper at 12:54 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd like to share the perspective of a friend of mine, who really also wants children, and at this point it doesn't look like it's going to happen (she has health issues, has miscarried in the past, etc.). I just had a child, and several of our friends have kids, while others haven't - by choice and my fate,.

I think what has kept the relationship strong in our group is that we talk about it. Her talking about her feelings, of regret, of frustration, isn't a 'downer' any more than me talking about the fact that I am finding myself unexpectedly sad because it seems I won't be able to breastfeed is me being 'thoughtless'.

Exploring and discussing how we feel about not getting what we want, or even getting it and finding out that it isn't what we thought (it might be better! it might be worse), is pretty much par for the course in many of my strongest relationships. I think there is space for your feelings of grief, or whatever you are feeling, even with your pregnant best friend. I hope you won't feel you have to isolate yourself or your feelings from anyone, whether they are parents or not. I want to support my friend, and want her in my life. Part of her life right now is the anger of not having a child herself, and that's okay.
posted by anitanita at 1:04 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The only reason I mentioned working with kids is that doing that was part of my process of realizing that while I like them a lot, I didn't, in fact, have the burning need to bear my own that society had raised me to believe I was defective if I didn't have. Obviously, that's not going to be helpful for every individual, and it wasn't intended as a statement that other people's kids are the same as,or a substitute for, your own.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:27 PM on January 8, 2014

And there's this to think about too. Many of the people I know have practically non-existent or excruciatingly antagonistic relationships with their grown children.

I agree with the ones above who say it sucks to be childless [at times]. Christmas and weddings are difficult. The prospect of seeing my peer's grandchildren is often enough to send me into a mild funk. But the truth for me is this...

Most days I am busy with my own life, and I have learned to push all these feelings into a big black emotional chest labeled, "Awwwww, Fuck It!"

Eventually, You will learn that it's just better to keep on moving and [try] don't dwell on it.
posted by AuntieRuth at 3:45 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, I've been assuming that I'm infertile (or at least very low fertility) for years now, and am in the process of confirming a diagnosis (and my doctor thinks it is very likely that I will have very low fertility even if it isn't the diagnosis we expect). Just got back from a transvaginal ultrasound, actually. Adoption is also likely not an option for me, especially if I stay with my current partner.

So. I'm young but have had years to deal with this.

1. Find sympathetic ears. Being able to talk about it with a friend--over meals, over drinks--will help.
2. "If I can’t deal with this, then I can’t spend time with most of my friends." This sentence, and this sentence alone, is why I'm recommending therapy if you can get access to it in the UK. You're so hurt that it can affect your daily life.
3. Stop focusing on the future and try to live in the present. Don't think about the Could-Have-Beens. Try to find joy in small, daily things. Similarly, try to consciously stop yourself whenever an ultrasound or a kid makes you think of the world of Could-Have-Been; instead, enjoy the kid's presence in that moment.
4. That said: feel free to cut down on Facebook, or alter your news feed so posts by the pregnant show up less often for you. You can do that.
5. I'm also an anxious person. So the Anxiety & Phobia Workbook helped. Specifically, it recommends the following activities to get away from obsessive thinking (which you might be suffering from right now). It's focused on obsessive worry, but:
-Progressive muscle relaxation
-Evocative music
-Distractions (if you find yourself dwelling on your infertility, TV, crosswords/puzzles, or taking up a hobby might help)
6. This is not the end of your life. This is just a repiloting. You still have so many options. Don't focus on the one path that's closed to you, anymore than you would focus on lost loves or fateful moves.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:06 PM on January 8, 2014

This is a huge loss. Give yourself time and permission to grieve.

It's ok to not be ok.

If you aren't familiar with the five stages of grief: denial/anger/bargaining/depression/acceptance, I suggest a little quick google research, as that framework can be very helpful for coping.

Anxiety and even anger towards those that still have the thing you have lost is a totally natural part of the process, and it sounds like that may be at work here. This too shall pass. In the meantime, coping strategies are excellent. Pre-planned or canned responses to friends with 'great news' can really help. So can un-following (temporarily) people on Facebook that frequently post items that trigger your anxiety. Take care of yourself and breathe through it.

And I heartily endorse pulling out or making the list of all the things you've also always wanted to do. You may not be ready for it yet, so leave it on your nightstand or desk. And one day, you will pick it up...

My heart goes out to you.
posted by susiswimmer at 6:30 PM on January 8, 2014

Best answer: I've been through this and I know how hard it is. Here are some things that worked for me. Just think of them as tools you can pick up to see if they helped you like they helped me.

1. Therapist: I recommend finding a therapist that specifically specializes in grief. This was by far the most helpful thing for me.

2. I recommend getting used to thinking and saying to yourself "I am not a mother." Not "I do not have children" -- because there are many ways of having children in your life if you want them (nieces/nephews, friends' kids, mentoring, teaching, so many ways even besides adopting). Not having kids in your life is not the issue that can't be fixed. The issue that can't be fixed is that you can not be a mother. Motherly, nurturing -- you are those things already. But taken the parameters of your question, you are not a mother, and you will not be. I needed to adapt to this phrase, this reality.

3. Allow yourself to be angry, sad, mad, resentful, and anything else when you think and say this. Part of adapting is accepting the onrush of feelings that come after thinking and saying "I am not a mother." This statement is something you can adapt your feelings around, but let them come. It will be hard. I couldn't say it without having a physical reaction, for example, of great grief. But, one day, you might be able to say it with calmness. Or with defiance. Or even with pride. Or even with relief. Or with just acceptance. I got there. It took a long time, and sometimes it still bowls me over and I can't say it without getting a little wobbly. But the way I say it and how I feel when I do has changed. It was fine and good to make lists of all the things I wanted to do or could be. But to truly adapt, I needed to get really comfortable with not being something that I wanted to be, to losing that as an option.

4. People with children will say all kinds of unintentionally ridiculous things to you, especially when they try to convince you that having kids is not all that great. Again, not the issue. The issue is that you can not be a mother. They, by definition, have no clue what that is about. Ditto people who have chosen not to have kids. It's fine to develop stock responses to the silly things that are said, but more importantly for me was to develop stock thoughts, even if I did not say them out loud. Some of these for me included the following thoughts: "You have no idea." "You are not like me." "This is one of those conversations." "I hate this." "I hate you right now."

5. It can be very important to seek out relationships with people who don't have children. Or, if you can't do that or don't want to, it can be helpful just to make a list of people who don't have children that you like or admire. They are not mothers or fathers. Why do you like or admire them?

6. Sometimes infertility results in a huge crash of confidence in other areas of your life. "If this pretty basic thing didn't work for me, why would X?" You may lose your sense that basic things are going to work for you, or that you can do basic things. Just know this is A Documented Thing. It can often get in the way of all those lists that people want you to make that detail what you can do because you don't have kids. So watch for signs of this crash of confidence. Hunt them down. It can help to really start flexing your muscles at something that you're good at, or to learn a new skill or two, just to prove to yourself and the universe that Things Do Still Work for Me.

I wish you peace.
posted by beanie at 11:08 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your answers - they've all been helpful for working out where I'm at, including the ones where I haven't marked them as best answer.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2014

Best answer: Sorry to be late to this question but I've been mulling it over since you posted it. I have a couple of thoughts and some advice:

First of all, it helped me to understand that the number of people who cannot conceive unassisted or at all and do not pursue infertility treatment or surrogacy and do not adopt is vanishingly small in contemporary Western culture. Other than my husband and myself, I know two offline people who are similarly situated. One is my godmother, so I've known her for 42 years, and the other is my electrician, who I just met last week. It helped me to know that this felt isolating because it is isolating, and support is thin on the ground. Infertility support groups are populated by people undergoing infertility treatment or who are pursuing adoption, fostering or surrogacy. In my group cohort, we are the only household not parenting -- everyone else ended up with kids one way or another.

Even outside these groups, friends continually offer up those options as a way to "solve" your infertility and people get tetchy when you reject those avenues because humans are very, very defensive about the ways they've acquired their offspring. This whole area is so overwrought that people interpret your decision to not do X as criticism of their decision to do X and it's sort of continually awful. I would rather pretend we never wanted kids than have the "but WHY won't you adopt?" conversation ever again.

Net result: I spent a huge amount of time on the couch sobbing with a grief and loneliness few people demonstrated they were capable of understanding. And as ridiculous and melodramatic as it sounds, I feel like my dog saved my life. I adopted her after I couldn't watch the Baby Channel anymore and switched to Animal Planet for my couch sobbing sessions. She had been abused and was a high needs dog who fulfilled my overwhelming need to nurture and to help another being grow and blossom. She died this Christmas after 7 years with us and within 2 weeks, we were dog fostering because while I'm not ready to give my whole heart to another dog, this kind of care taking is pretty clearly vital to my well-being.

Even with that, I was careful to protect myself and there was a good 5 year period when I went on baby strike: no showers, no hanging with visibly pregnant friends, no Christenings, no infants under three months. I was able to pull this off because I was brutally honest with people: "I love you and I am genuinely happy for you but this infertility thing is fucking brutal and it kills me to be around pregnancy and infants right now." Anyone who can't accept that is an asshole, and that includes siblings: sparing you pain should not diminish their joy.

In the last two years I have reached a place of much greater peace regarding not having children. It is possible that as I've grown older, I've just sort of... aged out of baby fever... and if this is true, I hope it happens for you too because it's a huge relief. I volunteered to be my sister's birth doula and took care of her and my niece for their first two weeks; I've thrown a baby shower; I've rocked and fed newborns. Our life (and often our house) is blessed with fabulously bossy and outrageous toddlers. None of that causes me longing any more. It's lovely.

So my suggestions are: adopt a special needs dog or find another way to nurture if that's a compelling need for you. Put on your own oxygen mask first and avoid whatever you can avoid that is torturous for you. Give it time. And pay out of pocket for a few sessions with a warm and wonderful female therapist to whom you can pour your heart out so that someone validates your pain and what an identity headfuck this is. Yes it is spendy but it's also cheaper than raising a child, so that's how I justified it.

I wish you peace; feel free to memail me.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:40 AM on January 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

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