According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), over 18.4pc of Irish women over 45 don’t have children. Irish women have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world.
Within this group of women, there are sub-groups: there are the women who have consciously chosen to remain child-free, the women who want to become mothers but who have fertility or other health issues, and then there is another group which is a little more complex. This is the cohort of women whose childlessness is due to their circumstances. There may be a cross-over with some women in the latter two groups. The bottom line is that there are many women who long to be mothers, but are not, for one reason or another. Not meeting “Mr Right” at the right time, seems to be the most common reason so many women are childless "by circumstance". Most women have motherhood wrapped up in a relationship. Separating motherhood and partnership is a very difficult, often impossible, thing to do.
I know what I’m talking about because I was one of those women in my 40’s whose life didn't go exactly as I had envisaged. I found myself aching with the thought of not fulfilling my deepest dream of motherhood. I am now able to write about it, talk about it, and share my own journey, because I did make the painstaking decision of pursuing solo motherhood at the age of 48. I did succeed and defied the OECD’s cut-off age of 45 as the end of childbearing years. I became a mother to my beautiful daughter two months before my 50th birthday. Thanks to science, an amazing fertility clinic, and much soul-searching.
Living with regret
This was very much the right decision for me. It was not by any means an easy road to get here. It took many painful years of waiting, hoping, and praying, not to mention disappointments, stress, shame, isolation and even depression. I think it’s so important to mention, that making the decision was the hardest part of my journey. Once I made it, I felt like a huge weight was lifted. I felt relieved that I was finally taking control of trying to make my most important dream a reality. I was very clear that even if I didn’t succeed, I was doing all in my power to try.
It eventually became clear to me, that living a life of regret that I didn’t do all I could to become a mother would have been far worse for me than never having my baby.
If I can in any way shed a light on the reality of being childless by circumstance, I hope that it will help other women feel less isolated. It can be a very lonely place to be. There is little or no empathy from friends, family, and society, for this group of women. Well-meaning friends and family can rub salt to the wounds. Throw-away comments such as “well you should have thought of that at 30”, reinforce the feelings of alienation and shame. It can be an extremely tough, and vulnerable place to be, and mental health can suffer.
Shame, isolation and sadness
Blaming myself for not prioritising my desire to have kids only fueled my deep sense of shame. Yet how could I have a family without a husband? I didn’t want just any husband either. Like many women, I kept hoping that I would still meet the right man who shared my dream and I’d get my happy-ever-after. It wasn’t that simple. There’s immense pressure in a relationship when there’s any kind of agenda, especially when it comes to the biological clock of a woman which is ticking louder than ever.
A slow realisation
Although my 40th birthday was a turning point, it was not a wake-up. It was the beginning of a slow realisation that I may never become a mother. I tried to make peace with my “plan B”. I tried to envisage a different kind of future. I was in a relationship with a loving man, but who did not share my dream at this later stage in life. No matter what else was good in my life, I couldn’t find solace in any perspective of a future without motherhood.
By the time I reached my mid-40s, I was filled with a deep sadness about my reality. I felt so isolated. It was impossible to have a real conversation about it with many of my friends and family. I am so grateful to a few good friends who empathised, and simply listened. One was a long-time friend who understood my painful dilemma, who actually did the research and found me the clinic I used abroad. There were other “helpers” who showed up to help me make my difficult decision. These included an intuitive psychotherapist, a compassionate women’s coach, as well as the empowering professional coaching course I had embarked on.
I did get my happy-ever-after. I consider myself beyond blessed. But I am acutely aware of the complexities of making this choice.
Navigating your way
From my own experience, I want to share a few lessons learned, which I hope will help any woman who is navigating this same place.
- Be gentle and kind with yourself. Tell yourself that you have made the best decisions for you, at the time. Feelings of blame, regret and shame may be common. Acknowledge them, and any other unwelcome feelings, but try not to dwell on them, or allow them to get out of hand.
- Acknowledge that you are in pain, and that the sadness you are feeling is real grief.
- Find somebody you can talk to, who can empathise and listen, without judgement. It may be worth working with a specialised coach or psychotherapist.
- If you’re single and actively looking for a relationship, are you able to give this a break for a while? Use this time to work on yourself, and to take the focus and pressure off dating.
- Explore your options. This may mean looking into options that you would never have considered, such as solo motherhood, or donor eggs. It’s normal to be stuck in certain ways of thinking, without really questioning our reasoning. Can you educate yourself more and open your mind to another possible way to motherhood?
- Be mindful of who you discuss your situation with. It is easy to take-on other people’s opinions, fears and judgments, especially when these people are important to us. Remember that this is your life, and your choices.
- Connect with other women who understand and can empathise. There are many women out there who have been there, and this can be a valuable support.
I hope that this article will help any woman who needs to hear it. There is no easy way to move through the grief of not fulfilling a deep, and natural desire to be a mother. But, there may still be other paths that can be explored to try and make this dream a reality. Or, the gradual acceptance of a life unimagined is possible. Either path can take many ups and downs, twists and turns, like a roller-coaster. Remember that this is a place that you never imagined you would be, and that you may need some help to navigate it.
Note: I first came across the term “childless by circumstance” at Gateway Women, a resource for women in this group.
Kerry White is a Motherhood Clarity Coach, helping women get clarity around their desire to pursue an alternative path to motherhood.
She is also a Workplace Wellbeing Facilitator, Speaker, Shiatsu Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Kerry is especially passionate about supporting women feel well on every level - physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.
Read more about Kerry here.