The No Kidding group, is an informal support network for University of Bath staff who are childless not by choice.
The vast majority of people are childless by circumstance, not through choice. The following personal stories shared by members of staff identify some of the complex reasons for childlessness.
Personal story 1
Jody Day talks about ‘50 ways not to be a mother’, illustrating the many and complex reasons that can contribute to childlessness. For me, that outcome has roots that stem back several years before my husband and I decided to try and start a family. For many years I felt ambivalent about motherhood and didn’t realise until too late that we really did want to start a family. I was unknowingly misinformed about how fertility declines with age, including by my GP. I somehow imagined motherhood would ‘just happen’ one day if we made the choice to try.
In my early thirties I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E.), which made the prospect of becoming a parent feel impossible, as I struggled to regain my health. It took me around three years to learn to manage my health condition, which gradually improved with very careful management and treatment, and significant adjustments to my work pattern. So it wasn’t until our mid-thirties that it felt possible to try to start a family. There was still a lot of doubt about how it would affect my health. I certainly didn’t expect the journey that followed.
When pregnancy didn’t ‘just happen’, I went to my GP who was prompt in referring us to a fertility clinic. The process of referral and diagnosis still took several months. With a diagnosis of ‘unexplained subfertility’, we went through several years of fertility treatment, including medication (with side effects that severely impacted my mental health) and two rounds of IVF. The first round of IVF was unsuccessful. The second resulted in a very brief pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. During these years, I felt like I was leading a double life. At work, each day felt like ‘putting on a mask’ to face the day. Beneath the surface I struggled with extremes of anxiety and grief. Maternity and new baby announcements were especially hard. I chose to share what I was going through with my managers and a close colleague. Thankfully, I had their support, which made it possible to keep going and function at work. Later, at the end of the fertility treatment journey, I shared with my immediate colleagues. This felt very vulnerable, but it felt impossible to hide behind the mask any longer. I couldn’t come to work and simply pretend it hadn’t happened.
Of course, during this time, life’s other challenges didn’t go on holiday. In parallel to the fertility treatment, I faced family bereavements and caring for a loved one through ill health. There was a very marked contrast between the ‘acknowledged grief’ of parental bereavement, which most people can relate to, and the hidden grief of the childlessness journey, which remains unspoken.
In the workplace, there was a difficult relationship with a colleague, and a department restructure where my team had to re-apply for job roles, with some redundancies; the type of things which can happen at work, but the resulting stress paled into insignificance compared to events in my personal life. I made my way through with a great deal of support: from family and close friends, with long running visits to a counsellor (with expertise in supporting childlessness) and at work with support from managers and close colleagues. But by the end of the fertility treatment journey, I felt extremely vulnerable. My confidence, both in and outside the workplace, was at an all-time low.
Gradually, I’ve been rebuilding a sense of self-worth. At work, the staff coaching service was extremely helpful for reflecting on my strengths and rebuilding confidence. Beyond, I joined the online Gateway Women community and discovered a new network of women with shared experiences. It has been a revelation to be able to hear from others and to recognise that the difficult, dark and complex emotions that come with childlessness grief are perfectly normal and are in fact a shared experience. I have taken part in World Childless Week to share aspects of my story through poetry, painting and writing, and I’m gradually ‘finding my voice’ to express parts of my story more openly.
It’s a journey in progress, but I’m beginning to find purpose and enjoyment on this unchosen path. I hope that sharing these experiences will help others know that they are not alone, and that it is possible to talk about childlessness. It’s a reality which affects a large minority of people. I am learning that it’s ok to talk about it and in doing so, to let go of self-blame and shame. Connecting with others to acknowledge this reality can provide a great source of support and validation.
Personal story 2
I wasn’t a very confident person – I was an anxious child who didn’t believe in themselves, always worrying about my family and the possibility of something bad happening to them. As an adult, the worrying continued. I had conflicting feelings – I loved the idea of having my own children but whenever I was faced with compliments about how good I was with children, or whenever I was confronted with any questions related to whether I wanted children, I would avoid answering and change the subject. I didn’t believe that the compliments I received were true. I also didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t think that I would be a very good parent.
However, a year after stopping the contraceptive pill, I got pregnant and I was so excited! It was totally unexpected as we weren’t planning to start a family.
During the very early stages of my pregnancy, I didn’t feel that my husband really shared my excitement (years later we would discover that he was very ill and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression). About eight weeks into my pregnancy, I had a miscarriage. I was totally devastated. After an operation and a week off sick from work, I started to rely on work to keep me going, as a distraction. The following year I miscarried again, and again the year after that. My husband and I had hospital appointments to find out why this was happening but he seemed so distant. The years went by and it didn’t happen.
My husband was really struggling generally. He had a breakdown and eventually lost his job. We both struggled on for years but after eventually receiving help from mental health professionals (which was when he was diagnosed with PTSD and depression), his mental health began to improve. He was eventually well enough to start employment again, but by this time it was too late to have children.
After struggling for years without really knowing why, I finally discovered the reason for my insecurities that started as a young child. I too had depression and also General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Since being in a ‘better place’, I have been able to talk openly about my experience as childless and talking about it has helped massively with my grief and loss. When my husband wasn’t working, we were very fortunate to be able to adopt two rescue dogs. They healed us both immensely.
It still sometimes hurts when someone asks if I have children, but time heals and I am becoming more emotionally stable and able to answer random ‘do you have any children’ questions without bursting into tears or falling into a depression. At work, I spent years feeling isolated and putting on a brave face or just avoiding situations.
My advice to anyone struggling is to reach out and share your experiences and worries, no matter how daunting and hopeless it may seem. It may not be obvious to anyone (as was my case) that you are struggling. The important thing is to feel that you are being listened to and cared for.
Personal story 3
My story starts like most couples wanting to start a family. I had all the hopes and dreams of having a little one that would look like his/her mum and dad, dark curly hair and cute little dimples. I could already picture them in my mind.
After several months of trying to conceive, I happened to stumble across an article that said if you’re over 35 and have been trying to conceive for more than six months, consider speaking to your GP. I was very lucky to have a GP who was very understanding and willing to make a referral to the fertility clinic straightaway. I was aware this was not the case for many people in the same situation.
After numerous checks and tests being carried out by the fertility clinic, I was told I had ‘unexplained infertility’ and that the best way forward would be for us to consider IVF. Never in a million years did I think we would end up there, and for a needle phobic like me, this was worst-case scenario! I decided I needed to have CBT sessions to help me overcome my needle phobia so that I could eventually inject myself with the IVF drugs. Desperate to fulfil my dream of becoming a mum, we embarked on the rollercoaster ride also known as IVF.
Nobody could have prepared us for what lay ahead. The emotional impact far outweighed the daily injections and invasive treatments − it was all-consuming. I had convinced myself it would all be worth it and that our treatment(s) would eventually be successful, as that’s what the media tells us with their ‘IVF success stories’, often resulting in twins.
With IVF, you are aware of the exact moment of conception as you watch the implantation of your little fertilized embryo on the screen. For the next two weeks (known as the dreaded ‘two week wait’), the clinic advise you to behave as if you are pregnant, so avoiding certain food and drink, no heavy lifting etc. Once home we pinned the scan of our little embryos on the freezer and gave them cute nicknames. We started discussing baby names, potential pre-schools, changing the car, converting the spare room into a nursery − all the things normal parents-to-be plan and think about when expecting a baby.
After unsuccessful treatments and a lot of heartbreak as the weeks turned into months and the months turned into years, it was becoming obvious that IVF was not going to be successful for us. My mental health was taking a battering and so was my husbands. He felt helpless. It was also having a big impact financially − IVF treatment is not cheap!
What followed was an incredibly difficult time learning to deal with what was happening to us, and feeling incredibly alone and isolated whilst all those around me were successfully getting pregnant and having babies, sharing their happy news along with scan and new baby photos. During this time, I found an online forum called Fertility Friends. To say this forum was a lifeline would be an understatement. Suddenly my world opened up and I found hundreds of women and couples experiencing the same emotional rollercoaster.
The forum supported me through another couple of years until eventually I stumbled across a post entitled “How do you know when enough is enough?”. This struck a chord with me as my husband and I had been discussing when we should stop treatment and accept it wasn’t going to happen for us, but I was really struggling with this decision as we still had several fertilized embryos frozen at the clinic. I read the blog and I could have cried; it was a small group of women all facing the same heart breaking decision. We supported each other with daily chat about the painful reality of living with infertility and having to put on a brave face and the ‘happy mask’ particularly at work while our own worlds were falling apart.
Eventually my husband and I decided enough was enough for our own sanity and for the sake of our relationship. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but we were both getting older and the whole process had taken a massive toll on our mental health and our savings. We both signed the declaration form letting the clinic know that we had decided to end treatment. I cried so hard outside the clinic while my husband hand delivered the form to reception. It was a heart breaking end to our journey.
Whilst in a pretty dark place emotionally, I heard from a friend about a woman called Jody Day, who had recently set up a support network called Gateway Women for women who are childless not by choice. My friend and I instantly joined the group and again, it was like a breath of fresh air, being amongst women feeling exactly like me! I no longer felt alone or isolated.
I was very lucky to meet Jody in person at one of her talks in Bristol. Jody gave a very raw and emotional talk about her own personal journey through unexpected infertility. It was a very emotional event for everyone there but at the same time, it gave us all comfort knowing we were not alone. The support of Gateway Women guided me through an incredibly tough time in my life, a time I thought I’d never recover from, when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But like any grief, being childless not by choice takes time to come to terms with. You don’t ever recover from it; you just learn to make space for it. It’s like a scar − it’s always there as a reminder but it never totally disappears, it just fades.
I’m now eight years on from making that final decision to stop trying for a baby and I can now finally say I’m happy and content with my life again. It’s been a very long process and things do still trip me up and trigger a painful memory. When that happens, I may have a cry and feel down for a couple of days, but then I get back up, dust myself down and onwards I go.
To find out more about being childless not by choice and access additional information and support external to the University, visit https://www.bath.ac.uk/guides/being-childless-not-by-choice/.