“Wow! You’re pregnant!” “Oh my goodness, congratulations!” “When’s the baby shower?”
Celebration, joy, and universal elation abound, but what goes unsaid?
“You’ve made it! You’re a real woman! Welcome to the club!”—a silent acknowledgment of an upleveling of womanhood those who have never not been part of might overlook.
We see it in social media superlatives all the time. ‘There is no love like a mother’s love!” “Well done, you Supermama!” “There’s nothing harder than being a mother!” “You birthed a baby, you strong woman!”
It’s like a fait accompli—you are, by definition, an amazing human-being by dint of having a child. Just the act of having a baby seems like a Golden Ticket to some sort of higher kingdom.
And while pregnancy and childbirth are no mean feat, it seems strange that the quality of parenting or motivations for having a baby, seem irrelevant, especially given studies cite poor parenting as a leading contributor to delinquency, trauma, and crime. I can certainly attest to the devastating impact of poor parenting through men I’ve dated who suffered notable trauma through subpar parents—the consequences of which had a ripple effect on me—and workshops I’ve done in prisons, where many inmates were victims of abuse themselves.
So why the cult of motherhood?
Case in point, when I confessed to my twin sister, who is a mother of two and empathetic to fertility issues, that I wasn’t totally sure about having children, she admitted: “One thing I would say, much as I hate to admit it, is it really does open doors socially.” True but ouch. Welcome to the club, right there.
I get it. Pregnancy is a magical event. It attracts visibility and status because it elicits wonder and excitement, whether strangers touching your tummy or friends sending gifts to welcome your beautiful new arrival. I’m sure any of us who have children in our families, like me, can attest to their magic. I love being an Auntie—my niece and nephew, like most children, are singularly innocent, charismatic little beings who give us a well needed break from the seriousness of adulting. It can, however, be “othering” realising that you may never get membership to that exclusive club that requires no real test bar: giving birth.
And that’s why I’m sharing this confession: to bring some acknowledgment to those feeling “othered” by the prospect of “social infertility” (the concept of not being able to have a baby because you haven’t met the right person in time), because when I’ve searched the internet in darker moments around “how to deal with not having children,” I’ve only found women talking about how empowering it is to choose not to have children—”childfree” as they put it, not “childless.” And while these two notions may have the same outcome—no children—they are entirely different beasts.
Where one is born of intention to live a “childfree” life, childlessness is something you don’t plan—it’s something that creeps up on you like the anti-fairy tale that Cinderella wasn’t. And with the focus at school being entirely on how not to get pregnant rather than the realities of fertility falling dramatically after 35, the reality of childlessness can hit you out of nowhere like an iron to the face. And with over half of women now childless at 30 for the first time ever, social infertility is likely to become more and more prevalent.
Many of my childless friends struggle with similar feelings—feelings of being excluded in child-centric conversations at dinner parties or always being the one expected to drive up the country to meet friends who have children.
I had a similar experience at a recent family dinner where the focus of conversation was entirely around children (don’t get me wrong, I was happy to listen), but I found myself thinking, “I’m going to have to become Barack Obama’s life coach to get any kind of recognition if I don’t have children!” A bizarre thought when you’ve strived hard to become truly happy and successful in life, yet suddenly, none of it feels like it counts.
As an identical twin currently leading a childless life versus my sister’s life as a mother, perhaps these realities are more pointed—just as geneticists use twins to probe life’s great mysteries, such as the power of nature versus nurture, being twins on different paths sheds light on common existential themes including fertility and its bearing on the female social identity.
I’d always been the more extroverted of the two with a pretty constant stream of boyfriends—until my twin had babies and I felt an “othering” and invisibility I’ll admit is hard to share. While more free-spirited female friends treat us the same, far more interested in who we really are as people than our status as mothers, the majority leave you feeling like the last one picked in the playground for a sports game.
It’s a lovely club to be on the inside of, I’m sure, with balloons at baby showers and validation from excited grandmothers versus the words I’ve been met with from my own, well-meaning mother, which rather reflect society’s messaging: “What have I done wrong that you’re not married at 40?” Ouch. Nothing, I think, bar working hard to challenge myself to grow as a person, whether moving to different countries, becoming fluent in languages, or setting up my own life and career coaching business. I could literally travel to the moon and back and discussions about children would be of more interest!
It’s often the same socially—only recently I was excluded from a conversation between two women that focused entirely on their children. Ironically, I tried to approach my four-year-old nephew for company, and he told me to go away! So I made an excuse I had a work call at 8 p.m. and left. I guess accepting my improbable excuse was more convenient for the child-centric conversationalists than adapting conversation to be more inclusive.
This rather binary state of affairs was also brought home quite forcefully this year by a friend who had struggled to get pregnant during months of IVF. She fell into a deep depression, couldn’t bear to see friends with children, and swore she’d have to leave the 2.4 family vibe of the Cotswolds if she failed to have a baby. Luckily, she’s pregnant now and can rest easy in the suburbs. She now feels like a somebody again. She belongs.
Little wonder given Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are met quite squarely by pregnancy: the physiological need of reproduction, a sense of social connection and belonging, self-esteem, status and recognition, and the pinnacle of the pyramid, self-actualization—the desire to become the most that one can be. Unsurprising, then, that it can feel so devastating for women who long to have a baby but are unable to do so because they haven’t met the right person. These basic human desires can feel like they remain squarely unmet, and this is both created and reinforced by a society that lauds motherhood as the pinnacle of female “success.”
Extreme as that may sound, it’s a reality many face who struggle either to get pregnant, or who don’t meet someone in time to have the chance to. However, while medical infertility is something you hear about all the time, social infertility is rarely spoken about.
So here are my top tips for dealing with it:
1. Rise above unhelpful comments.
This might include people giving unsolicited advice such as suggesting you consider a sperm donor. They mean well, but their flippancy is often more commensurate with a cappuccino order at Starbucks. For many of us, having a child alone simply isn’t feasible financially or otherwise, and suggestions like that can be triggering for how far-removed they may feel from the fairy tale. So be selective about who you talk to about fertility worries and ring-fence your vulnerability for more sensitive friends.
2. Keep the faith.
Internet videos will scare you out of your mind about conception over 40, but I know plenty of people who have conceived naturally at this age. Instead, control the controlables and focus on keeping fit and healthy so you optimise your chances of conception if the right partner comes along. If you do have children, you’ll likely be a more understanding parent for having weathered fear and challenge.
3. Find your tribe.
Not everybody is socially agile—being overlooked socially for not being a mother is a poor reflection of others, not you. It’s vital to protect your energy by seeking out a like-minded tribe who value you for more than your status as a mother. Remember, interesting women will have plenty to talk about beyond baby Billy eating peas for the first time.
4. Identify childfree icons.
Some of the most inspiring female figures out there never had children whether Helen Mirren, Marie Forleo, or Oprah Winfrey. All these women are notably successful and achieved such fulfilment that they chose not to rock the boat with children. As Jim Rohn said: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” so make sure you filter in on inspiring women you admire who have blazed their own trail.
5. Ring-fence your truth.
More settled friends can be patronising, suggesting it’s your fault you haven’t met someone in time. Maybe you’re not too picky and haven’t made bad decisions. Stand up for yourself calmly if this happens and connect with nonjudgemental folk who are a little more nuanced. Also, remember that meeting the right person is largely luck and that many of your friends with children may not be in great relationships—some of my most eligible female friends haven’t met the right guy yet and aren’t prepared to settle for less.
6. Connect with your values.
It sounds cliché, but helping my coaching clients connect with what energises them day to day is a happiness game changer whether going to the gym, learning new things, or meeting new people. I found it stifling being in the Cotswolds with the parent gang, so I started housesitting around the world, which plays to my sense of adventure. Leaning into my freedom and independence feels empowering versus trying to fit in with people on a different page.
7. Explore other interests and drivers.
What would you feel proud to look back on at the end of your days beyond motherhood? How might having more time and energy support your wider life goals and interests? If your life was a movie, what would the highlight reel look like? What would be possible without children?
8. Embrace your freedom.
You never know when this may be taken away, whether through illness or maybe even children. So embrace those long lie ins, soaks in the tub, and quality time with your best friends—and remember, research shows that couples who don’t have children may have better quality relationships than those who do, which is a definite plus for the romantics amongst us!
9. Freeze your eggs.
While there’s no guarantee this works, if you can afford it, it can give you a sense of control and can alleviate the pressure of needing to meet “The One” tomorrow. There isn’t a great deal of helpful material on egg freezing online, which is why I produced a podcast episode on this.
10. Express your feelings.
It’s okay to let yourself grieve the possibility of not having children whether through journaling, therapy, or with trusted friends. It can be a lonely, confronting reality to realise that no matter how eligible you are, you may have missed the baby boat. As an honest (and wonderful) older friend confided, “It doesn’t get easier not being part of that club with age—it gets worse.” She even confessed she wished she’d baby trapped a boyfriend in her younger years. However, that same lady is super successful professionally, living in Dubai with her hunk of a husband and making plans for adventures the baby gang can only dream of.