Childless Not By Choice

Former psychotherapist mentors people who yearn for children
By Laura Marble
Posted June 20, 2007 in the Explorer

Mary Meyer always imagined she’d be a mom. But after a childless 10-year marriage, the dating scene didn’t produce much dad material.

Two years ago, the Maranan found the perfect man for herself and the perfect father for her unborn children. Not only that, he wanted kids.

But by then, her eggs were 42 years old.

Four donor egg injections later, Meyer found a former psychotherapist who devotes her time to mentoring people who want children but don’t have them for one reason or another. Siljoy Maurer guides some clients through the emotional strains of trying to get pregnant using medical technology. Others, she gives permission to grieve.

“Those who can’t have children have to grieve something that doesn’t exist,” she said. “That’s completely different than any other grieving where we have pictures and images and remember the smells. This grief is not socially supported.”

Involuntary childlessness is on the rise, largely because many women are waiting until later in life to try to conceive. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of women having their first child at age 30 or later quadrupled between 1970 and 1987, from 4 percent to 16 percent.

Some who thought they had ample time to start families find themselves single with time running out. Others fall in love with people who have children from previous marriages and don’t want more. And some studies attribute environmental factors — such as tight clothing and heat from laptop computers — to an increase in infertility among men.

Maurer’s own life story includes a variety of reasons for childlessness.

At age 21, she had a miscarriage. Within a year, doctors told her she had a fast-growing cancer and wouldn’t have children. By the time medical intervention appeared as an option, Maurer was married to a man who’d had a vasectomy.

Maurer first put herself in the role of mentor for childless people at a gathering of post-menopausal women in California. During a whole day of coming-of-age ceremonies, she offered one honoring those who had lost children or couldn’t have them or didn’t want them but felt ostracized for that decision.

“The response was overwhelming,” Maurer said. “The first two who came up to me were young woman with babies who said, ‘Thank you for finally helping me understand what my sister must be going through.’”

As Maurer began mentoring people in their acceptance that they might not have biological children, she discovered that childless men sometimes faced more isolation than women.

“For a man to talk about his sperm that is not capable of fertilizing an egg, that brings up so many issues of masculinity,” she said. “And for men, it can be hard when the bloodline ends with them.”

Maurer moved her mentoring practice to Tucson about three years ago and now has about 25 local clients. About a third live in the Northwest and Foothills.

When Meyer found the mentoring service last September, she had gone through all the eggs collected from a 20-year-old donor with still no pregnancy.

It had been a hard journey. To accommodate a high volume of doctors’ appointments and the mood swings that come with the required high dosage of estrogen — many times what people on hormone replacement therapy receive — she had quit her job as a sixth-grade teacher.

At first, she and her husband, Dan, had tried having their own child by intra-uterine insemination. But after several unsuccessful tries and a 43rd birthday, the doctor had gently suggested a donor egg. It was a blow for Meyer, imagining that her baby would not have her genes.

“I still have to deal with it every day,” she said. “I went to dinner and was sitting there looking at a really pretty mom in her early 60s and her daughter was just gorgeous, you know. And I thought, ‘I’m never going to have that.’”

But Meyer had gone to the Internet to look for donors and pulled out old photo albums to find someone who looked like she could pass for family. If she couldn’t find a convincing blend of her Mexican dad and Midwestern mom, she could, at least, find someone who resembled her niece.

“It’s a dream you have to let go,” she said. “You can’t dwell.”

When that 20-year-old donor’s eggs — a $35,000 investment — didn’t take, Meyer leaned heavily on Maurer’s instructions to walk the tightrope of staying in a hopeful frame of mind but not hoping too desperately.

“I was trying to stay very positive,” Meyer said. “You have to balance hopefulness with the recognition that it might not work.”

That frame of mind sometimes failed.

Once, at a Fourth of July celebration, a radiant father shared a story about how his little girl had feared taking a sucker from a clown but had done it and had turned to her father with victory on her face.

Meyer didn’t want to cry, but she did.

“It wasn’t for me,” she said. “It was for Dan. Dan needs to be a dad. I thought, ‘I have to keep trying for Dan.’”

The couple is preparing to try again for a baby with a second batch of donor eggs — this time from someone who resembles Meyer’s mother. If it works, they will send out announcements and celebrate. If it doesn’t, they will look into adopting. But first, Maurer will help them grieve.

“It is very necessary to grieve,” Maurer said. “Otherwise, each time the parent sees the adopted child it will remind them of the child they couldn’t have. The adopted child will most likely feel like second best. When they have grieved successfully, then their hearts are really open to embrace an adopted child.”

As for Maurer, she long ago made peace with the idea that she will never be a biological mother or, as it follows, a biological grandmother.

“Some women move from being childless to being child-free, because they really make friends with a new life not living with children,” she said. “I call myself an unchilded mother. For me, the fact that it was clear I wasn’t going to have children did not stop me from feeling motherly.”

Instead of expressing her motherhood with a son or daughter, she expresses it through work.

“The way I make myself available to mentees,” she said, “I couldn’t do it if I had two or three children at home.”