A flurry of activity unfolds around you. The work is done and you sit quietly, containing yourself. Watching the children play, you try to be joyful but the tension is building in the pit of your stomach. The conversation revolves around parenting, the funny anecdotes, the hard bits, the sleepless nights…
You gently press your teeth to your bottom lip, and hold. You breathe deeply to suppress the feelings. A kindly older relative leans across the table and inquires, “When are you planning to have children dear?”
How do you begin to answer? How do you explain that you’ve upended your life? That you’ve turned yourself inside out trying to have kids, only to find yourself crying on the loo each month, your period a stark reminder of yet another failed attempt to become a mum.
You’re not sure how long you can keep going, yet you can’t imagine a future without kids. The depth of the love you feel for your unborn children is mirrored by this searing pain. You feel invisible, stuck, ashamed, alone… You implode, and then you just get angry.
You’re not alone.
If this is your story, you are experiencing something that is almost invisible in mainstream culture: Childlessness grief.
Contrary to the image of the carefree or career driven childless women, the vast majority of women arrive at childlessness by infertility and circumstance, not by choice.
LISTEN: A story about miscarriage. Post continues below.
We’re waiting for the latest census data, but estimates are around one in four Australian women are childless by 45. We come poorly equipped to navigate our grief journey as we exist within a cultural vacuum. We are barely mentioned in the grief literature and poorly understood by many helping professionals, let alone our families and friends, and the media around us.
We become childless through loss, loss of an actual child, an embryo, or failure of our longed for child to arrive. The losses add up, but at its core, it’s the loss of children, motherhood and the ability to create our own family.
This experience can throw us headlong into grief.
Over the 10 years of my unsuccessful fertility journey and final decision to stop, I experienced such depths of grief I wondered at times if I could bear it, and even as a counsellor, minimally understood my experience.
The trip to the psychologist who told me that being a mum wasn’t ‘all that it was cracked up to be’ and the problem was that my thoughts needed restructure. In fact, I was in deep, deep grief.
A dive into the grief literature, words such as “living loss” and “chronic sorrow” jumped out, these were the breadcrumbs that helped me piece together my experience and healing journey.
A childless woman will never hold her baby to her chest, never feed them, never give and receive her child’s love and cuddles, never laugh with joy with him or her, never collect the cute anecdotes or tear her hair out with frustration, never feel the exhaustion of parenting but melt like a raindrop with gratitude and love when their child delights in the joy of life.
We will never know how motherhood could have shaped us. The challenge, the exhaustion, the everything. It’s not that we thought it would be easy, we just wanted the chance to say yes.
Childless women navigate a world full of potential grief triggers every single day. Social media feeds fill with pictures of newborn babies, first days of school, funny stories, family holidays and understandable frustrations with the challenges of motherhood.
Family, children and motherhood are all around us. Whilst we are deeply wounded, we have to learn ways to live with it, often we are left to do this by ourselves with minimal support.
Our inability to just be purely happy for our dear friends and not at times be triggered by our grief is another loss we grapple with. Our identity is further wounded as we struggle with complex feelings like envy, anger and bitterness.
Then there are those sometimes insensitive remarks when we do talk about it...
- “But motherhood is so hard”
- “Aren’t you lucky, you can lie in, you have all that free time”
- “Here, take mine!”
Imagine, just for a moment what those comments might feel like to a woman whose child had died?
Whilst it’s not the same, involuntary childlessness can be in the same psychological ballpark, it is a sense of grief.
We will never ‘not be’ the young woman who wanted to be a mum. What we do is create a new relationship with her.
She becomes a part of us and our journey but is no longer the whole of us.
It’s not a matter of boxing up the pain, dealing with it and moving on, when we open ourselves to the fullness of grief, it transforms us and changes who we are. This means our future vision for ourselves, if we can see it at all, might evolve as we go through the grief journey.
This, and more, is the hard won gold.
The Empty Cradle offers counselling, online resources, workshops, courses and the power of a loving community. We bring women together to grieve the loss and create a life they love. www.theemptycradle.com
With over 25 years experience in counselling, teaching and community work, Sarah Roberts has brought together a unique combination of professional skills and lived experience to create The Empty Cradle, a service that supports women who have lost the opportunity for motherhood.