Empty Cradle Blues

By Catrina Coyle, Coast Weekly, CA

Involuntary childlessness is a painful and taboo subject whose time to be  expressed has come.

For millions of Americans, holidays like Christmas and Mother’s Day are times to be especially thankful for children and family. But for countless others who don’t have kids–especially those who want them–those holidays can be particularly painful. It is for this reason that Siljoy Maurer, a Carmel Valley counselor, formed a support group for involuntarily childless women. This summer the group expanded to include men.

Once a week for eight weeks, women and men from a variety of backgrounds share their traumas and disappointments stemming from their inability to become parents. Maurer, childless herself due to miscarriage and cancer, teaches workshops and seminars to end the isolation of singles as well as couples like “John” and “Sara,” who are now in their 40s. “We were both in our 30s,” recalls John. “We wanted to settle down and have kids. We thought we were doing it the ‘right way’–get a college education, have a career…”

“Then I got in an accident,” adds his wife Sara. Doctors declared hers would be a high-risk pregnancy if attempted and advised the couple to consider other options. Only recently have the two seriously begun to contemplate adoption.

Maurer estimates that childbearing trends changed dramatically with the advent of the Pill in the 1960s. It gave women more choice in when to have children, and many during the 1970s and ’80s chose to postpone a family in favor of careers. As women waited until their 30s to get married and have children, some discovered a sad surprise: They were unable to conceive.

A report released last year by the U.S. Bureau of the Census found that childlessness among women in their early 40s rose 9 percent from 1980 to 1998. There are no definitive numbers on how many of those women would like to have children but can’t, but Maurer estimates that about a third of the cases of involuntary childlessness result from medical infertility, which receives the majority of attention. Other causes include botched abortions, miscarriages, illness, and being in either a same-sex relationship or what is becoming known as a blended family, in which one spouse has children and doesn’t want more while the other does.

Medical infertility is intrinsically connected to social trends. A report from the National Center for Health Statistics states that about 6.1 million women (10 percent) in the U.S. had “impaired ability to produce offspring” in 1995, up about 2 percent from 1988, and attributes this to the aging of Baby Boomers.

As women age, their bodies change and fertility drops. John Bongaarts of the Population Council, an international nonprofit based in New York that studies world reproductive health, observed in an October 1998 paper that fertility has reached historic lows in many developed countries. “Women choosing to defer births to older ages,” he wrote, “temporarily contribute to today’s baby bust just as younger childbearing ages in the 1950s temporarily contributed to a baby boom.”

Some women with whom Maurer works simply waited too long, not finding the right man to be a father. “Mary,” 42, is a good example. A teacher for 10 years, she has always yearned for a child of her own. “It’s been my lifelong dream to mother,”she says. “My earliest feeling was to nurture. I look at my parents and see how they enjoyed raising me. I adore kids. They fascinate me.” Now she suffers from misgivings about choices she made in the past. “I have some regret now on staying with certain boyfriends when I knew they weren’t someone who could be a father,” she admits.

With so much emphasis placed on having children as 20-something newlyweds, it’s no wonder that career women (and men) feel a pinch. The emotional tension hits on many levels, from parents expecting to be grandparents and friends having babies to strains on relationships and considering personal failure.

“Many women feel isolation, shame, guilt, maybe punishment for a past abortion or other circumstances,” says Maurer. “‘Does my body hate me? Am I worthy?’ These thoughts come after a miscarriage, perhaps.” Little research goes into the emotional aspects of childlessness. Usually communication about childlessness takes place via uncomfortable conversations with family and friends that often begin with, “So when are you going to have kids?”

“The group is helpful because we found we all had similar thoughts–the men, too,” explains John, who is something of a pioneer in Maurer’s first co-ed support group. “It’s easy to become obsessed if you keep it inside. That’s why it’s good to talk about it.”

Perhaps the most painful of all, more than personal frustration and relationship tension, are the comments and reactions from family and friends. Maurer formed the eight-week group and the occasional seminar, after being inspired at a Ceremony of the 14th Moon gathering in Big Sur two years ago, to allow people to express anger and sadness at being unsure of how to respond to daily situations.

“I’m from the South, and when you got out of high school, you got married and had babies. So my family isn’t very supportive,” says Sara.

“Sometimes I feel pitied, but not ridiculed,” says Mary. “People, in their desire to be sweet, are often patronizing. I hate it when people say, ‘It’s God’s will.'”

The participants in the group often discuss the positive as well as the negative sides of childlessness and the hardships that parents face. Being childless gives you free time, independence, more stable finances and the chance to develop your own inner life.

Maurer offered a seminar to open communications about the issue. “I think there is just an innate drive to procreate. It’s the life force. I didn’t need to have a child. I wanted one and expected to have one. Many women are this way. Coming to terms with childlessness and having support is also learning to redirect your birth-giving energy into some other kind of creativity, because that’s what it is: Birthing equals creating.”