The evolution of women's rights has propelled tens of millions of bright and talented women into the workforce over the past several decades -- a very good thing. Our successes in business and commerce, in the arts, sciences and humanities have given so many of us great satisfaction and a sense of personal fulfillment. But there have also been unintended consequences, among them a dramatic surge in the number of women who do not have children, whether by choice or happenstance.
I am one of these women. Moreover, in my decades as a holistic psychotherapist, a great number of my clients have been, and continue to be women trying to come to grips with palpable feelings of loss over the unimagined void of not becoming a mother. As a consequence I have felt compelled to build a platform to engage this growing population. Opening the gates of acknowledgement, conversation and connection yields opportunities for all of us to share our experiences, struggles, triumphs and possibilities with one another.
As individuals we are all unique, as are our stories. Consequently, there is predictable variation amongst this demographic of childless women, age 35-50+, as well. Yet through years of interviews, research, and data garnered from the countless women I have counseled in my practice, common threads emerged, which I have categorized and into four distinct groups.
I hope sharing this information might clarify and normalize the experience for many of you. Let's see if you recognize yourself in one of the four descriptions:
"I want it ALL... I want the whole enchilada... the love of my life, my work and my baby!"
This group includes women holding out hope that they will be able to have children before their biological reproductive window closes.
The truth about the available timetable and viability of conception remains debatable, uncertain, and variable. The fertility industry has become a multi-billion dollar business, with more women over 40 successfully having children, while the wombs of thousands of others remain barren.
These "hopeful" women, single or coupled, are dealing daily with the ticking clock conundrum. Some are awaiting their perfect life partner to co-parent. Others are vigilant in not losing more time in denial or magical thinking that it "will just happen." Many are in committed relationships and are trying to get pregnant through natural means or fertility treatments. There are also more single women than ever before pro-actively choosing to have children on their own by natural means, in vitro fertilization, or pursuing adoption.
Regardless, a common experience many of these women contend with is constantly hoping and trying to stay fertile, while not losing their footing in fear or rumination about the uncertainties of the future.
"I can't have it all. It's not going to happen. I can't believe it's not going to happen! I always assumed I'd be a mom. Giving that up is incomprehensible!"
This group includes those in the acute phase of trying to reconcile and heal from the realization that their opportunities to bear children are over. These women wanted and expected to have children and are struggling with, and grieving over this painful predicament. This is a deep and dark place for many women, usually between the ages of 38-45.
What I've observed is a common tendency to deal with this all to often private pain, through denial, dismissal, and distraction. Many of these women stay really busy, burying themselves in work or social hopscotch. The avoidance invariably prolongs the feeling of being stuck.
For those experiencing this loss more directly, the hallmark is a sense of shock: "Where did the time go? I can't believe I'm 40 and in this position!" A number of women express feelings of self-blame, shame and regret over past decisions (relationship or work choices) that resulted in "wasting my child-bearing years away." And grief seems to be the the most common emotion shared: "I can't bear the thought that I'm never going to be a mother."
"Do I want it all? Sometimes I see a baby and so want one of my own. Other times the concept totally overwhelms me. Then I'm not sure how I feel and what I really want!"
This group includes women exploring if, why and how they want to have children. Many ride the wave of volatility and carry the psychic weight of ambivalence, as they process the level of their desire to become a mother, and assess the pros and cons of having children.
On one side of the dichotomy, some express a wish for children in order to realize the life they expected: continuation of their lineage, having a "full" lifecycle experience, feeling the unconditional love between parent and child, and being comforted by the legacy of children and hope that their offspring will care for them when they're older.
The other side of the coin -- of not having children -- is the commonly expressed relief at the prospect of a life unencumbered by the immense and never ending responsibility for a child's safety, wellbeing, education, and a myriad of other parental duties and obligations. For many, remaining childless can mean preserving one's own freedom with all the possibilities of personal expression, experience and contribution that allows.
"I've Got it all"..."I am totally content today with my choices and my life. It feels good to be here."
This group includes those women who consciously chose not to have children and/or have made peace with their childless state.
* Peaceful and "Childfree":
These are the women who are clear and deliberate about their choice not to have children. For them, there is no need for resolution, for they have been at peace all along. There is no sense of regret, envy, disappointment or grief to heal from. As one woman told me in an interview, "I look back and wouldn't change a thing."
* From Heart-Break to Break-Through:
These are the women who found their way out of confusion, depression and despair over not having children into feeling a sense of peace through discovering other portals of fulfillment. Some remain childless, while others pursued other ways of having children.
Within the diversity of the experience for women without children lie commonalities, which humanize and dignify this predicament for countless childless women worldwide. If you recognized yourself in any of these groups I honor your experience and welcome your thoughts and feedback. Part II of this series will address prescriptive suggestions for each group. Stay tuned!