real life

The heart-wrenching grief of losing something you haven't 'lost'.


Caroline Thurling is a Melbourne based counsellor, coach and consultant.

After a number of years coming to terms with involuntary childlessness, Caroline says she developed a tailored therapy that responds to emotional, psychological and social experiences unique to women who have become childless without choice.

She tells Mamamia about her story and her therapy.
Like so many of us, I was a “high functioning” griever. I maintained a successful career, was reliably present at gatherings with friends and family, actively supported loved ones in need and, (ironically in hindsight), progressed my studies in counselling.  While a chosen few knew I was “sad” coming to terms with childlessness, no-one knew the depths my grief was taking me or indeed where it nearly took me.  I began to question my sanity:  why do I feel “this” upset? I know women without children, they seem fine. Why is it just me that feels this way? Have I lost my mind – I shouldn’t be feeling “this” bad. Why am I here?

As a proud advocate of counselling it may be surprising to know that I resisted seeking help for over a year. I didn’t want to say out loud: I am childless.  That, to me, would be the end of who I believed I was – a mother. I desperately wanted to hold on to that and the idea of facing that well-worn term of ‘letting go’ struck a fear in me like no other. What would be left of me if I did?

Eventually when I did seek help – it didn’t work.   The therapeutic relationship is a two-way street and I tried as much as my two counsellors and one psychologist, to explore and connect my sense of loss to a meaning so I could begin to heal.  The problem was not in the quality of therapy but in psychological and sociological theory – or put simply, my loss didn’t “exist”.  My therapists were left to borrow from a number of approaches that simply didn’t fit the complex experience of our sense of loss and grief.


Frustrated, lonely, angry, and deeply sad, a glimmer of my former self, my fighting spirit, muscled its way through. It sparked an unfamiliar belief in myself that I could help solve the missing link in therapy for involuntary childlessness.

"Our loss is real." Image via iStock.

With ninja-like commitment, I searched, examined and questioned it all – associated theory, the media, philosophy, research, counselling peers, friends, family, workmates, government....then I discovered Gateway Womena global online community for involuntary childless women around the world.  Meeting my tribe was the focus and inspiration I was looking for.  All the research I had done began to crystallise in our shared experiences.


The epiphany

Our loss is real. What confuses and complicates it and in turn, exacerbates grief into psychological anguish, is the loss of our self-concept as mothers.  We are women "wired" for motherhood whether actively conscious or unconscious. Our inherent maternal qualities are the DNA of our personality and behaviours.  That’s not to say we would all parent the same way, but rather we have a shared foundation to our identity – our reason to be.

The challenge for therapy is to carefully unpack and distinguish the loss of children while protecting and embracing maternal qualities.  Therapy needs these unique qualities to assist in healing and in the discovery of who we are without children.

Involuntary Childlessness Therapy

At the heart of it, Involuntary Childlessness Therapy (ICT) believes engaging with individual maternal identity is crucial to recovery and self-discovery.  The therapeutic goal is to evolve a version of ourselves that unites existing maternal strengths within a new self-concept.   I like to call it: You version 2.0!

It is an integrated process that draws on theoretical themes of loss and grief, identity, and social belonging. For the client it means time, vulnerability, commitment and openness to self-exploration.


Marking your loss

For many women, grief from involuntary childlessness is complicated by a sense of emptiness or inability to reach tangible meaning for loss; a meaning they can articulate and share to be understood. In ICT, clients are guided to their loss and encouraged to visualise what they see and feel.  While the experience can be painful, under the guidance of therapy it is very safe and helpful to healing.

One of the most poignant experiences to be had in therapy is the marking of loss.  This is a time to bring your loss into the open – whether privately or with others.  Clients are encouraged to explore ideas on how to mark their loss that is unique to who they are.  This may be as simple as choosing to share the story of your loss with loved ones or to create a symbol of loss such as planting a tree, creating a piece of art or jewellery.  Being creative with marking your loss brings to life an authentic expression that is unique to your experience.

You Version 2.0

Everyone has a default, dominant identity. The driver behind our dreams, decisions, relationships – it’s how we interpret and react to the world around us.  What we’re not consciously aware of is that we can pick and choose a version of ourselves that can experience life differently. It’s one of the perks of being...a human being.

In this stage of therapy, clients are encouraged to explore the qualities and attributes of their maternal identity and to openly share how that is experienced in their relationship with others and how it shapes their beliefs and perspectives of the world around them.  Here, we focus on qualities that provide the client with resilience, strength of character and meaningful connections to others.


From here we set off on a journey of self-discovery.  With our maternal strength and qualities to guide and protect us, we aim to find, an indeed be surprised by, other traits (potential or existing) we can nurture to become part of our version 2.0

 Back in the ‘real’ world – better, brighter, braver.

Well, we all know it’s not that "real".  Society and culture is a significant influence on the perspectives and experience everyone has of the world they live in.  For involuntary childlessness, navigating these worlds can be particularly difficult and painful.  We still live in a time in which woman means womb and with that, comes the expectation and guarantee women will have children.  This presents almost daily reminders of our loss and with it, a lack of empathy and understanding of how that makes us feel.

In the final stage of therapy, ICT’s focus is to help clients to be brave. It does this by engaging clients in a number of perspectives of their relationship to the world around them.  Part educational, part therapeutic, clients gain a deeper understanding of other motherhood beliefs, why they exist and how we can navigate them, or challenge them, in a manner that is true and authentic to their version 2.0.

Caroline Thurling runs ICT retreat programs and individual counselling.