Empty Space

Overcoming the Taboo of Involuntary Childlessness

by Siljoy Maurer
Posted May 6, 2001 as a Mother’s Day Sunday Commentary in the Monterey Herald

Do You know a child-less ‘mother’/woman? Could You ask her about how she feels? On Mother’s Day? Give her a moment of presence? And compassion? You might be the first person she ever mentions her pain to.

As we are approaching Mother’s Day, everyone wants to give some special attention to mothers, and rightly so. Yet, there is a group of women/men which is hardly ever noticed, addressed and appreciated. Mentioned only in connection with the newest medical research for infertility treatments, involuntarily childless women/men may struggle with emotional pain, identity problems, grief and isolation. This happens even if they are childless due to reasons other than infertility, such as in second marriages in which one partner has already children and does not want any more, or physical impairments through cancer or accidents, same-sex-relationships, etc. Research and literature about childless people mostly refer to being child-free, by choice, or childless due to infertility problems. But even with the latter there is hardly any mentioning of the emotional suffering and effect which involuntary childlessness has on relationships.

Just as a mother stays a mother until the day she dies, a childless person stay childless and grand-childless.

In the groups and seminars I have conducted for people without children, about 80 percent of the participants give a lot of their love, caring and energy by supporting mothers/fathers. Some choose to, and are able to, adopt children or become foster parents. Yet the impossibility to have a biological child first needs to be dealt with. Otherwise all unacknowledged feelings and experiences are carried forth inside.

Having to grieve a loss that bears no face and actual memory, because one is grieving the nonexistence of a child, is different than mourning the loss of a being with whom one can connect actual memories. This “facelessness” furthers the taboo surrounding involuntary childlessness, because there is no tangible evidence, such as photographs, that something precious was lost. These “memories of an existence” often serve as metaphors for the appropriateness of mourning and societal support. So moving through the grief of one’s childlessness is still mostly a lonesome and isolating experience.

Sometimes I get a call from someone who introduces her/himself as “a childless mother/father.” The person might not even notice the language “mistake,” yet the words show the person feels like a mother/father yet isn’t able to live it. In my experience as a Life Mentor and advocate for involuntarily childless people, I keep meeting responses like “why can’t you/they just get over it?” We childless ones are constantly asked, directly and indirectly, to wipe our pain out, just erase it from our consciousness, as there is nothing “factual” anyway? Even a big local women’s organization recently rejected a brief letter about childlessness for its May newsletter, because the editors “…want to steer away from heavy topics.”

Society is us. We can make it easier for involuntarily childless friends, siblings, daughters/sons, neighbors and colleagues. For many childless people the family holidays — Easter, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and Christmas — are very painful. Let us remember and appreciate them also. They are the ones who often help mothers and fathers and become that special aunt/uncle who can make all the difference in a child’s life. Have you had such a person in your life, too?