New research has been investigating how people react to unsuccessful fertility treatment and how best to them. Although such comparisons are difficult to make, going through unsuccessful fertility treatment is thought to have a worse impact on your mental health than divorce and is almost comparable to the impact of bereavement.
When research participants were asked to share their experience, they talked about an intense grief made of profound pain and feelings of loss, sadness and emptiness, which was sustained over time and only very progressively tended to diminish and become bearable. They also said that it was hard to stay connected with the people around them who have children and to discuss their situation with others, and this resulted in feeling very isolated. In addition, most people perceived to be abandoned by their fertility clinics and expressed a need for psychosocial support.
We now know that with time, around nine in every ten people are able to let go of their desire for children and rebuild a happy and fulfilling life. What we haven’t know, is what the things that helped those people to come to terms with their unmet desire for children.
To investigate this adjustment process, Dr Sofia Gameiro from Cardiff University worked with the patient support charity Fertility Network on an online study aimed at answering two key questions. First they wanted to find out whether this grief and the adjustment process is experienced by everyone who is unable to have the children they wanted or is unique to those who had had fertility treatment. Second, they want to investigate the mechanisms which helped people to adjust and could be used to support others.
There were 420 responses to the survey and the vast majority were women with an average age of 35. The survey results showed three key things that help people come to terms with their unmet desire for children;
The results from this study are in the process of being written up for publication and have been crucial to the development of educational and supporting materials that Fertility Network UK is making available in its More to life website, which is specially dedicated to support those facing the challenges of childlessness. The materials will be launch on Tuesday 30th October and can be accessed here.
I’ve just finished reading an interesting book by Vivienne Edgecombe called Already Complete – Beyond the Myths of Childlessness which is about finding peace about a future without children. I first met Vivienne when I worked for the charity Fertility Network UK, and asked her to be one of the speakers at a day-long conference I organised for More to Life, the part of the charity which supports those who are living without children. Vivienne gave an amazing and truly inspiring talk about how she had found happiness despite living with involuntary childlessness, so I was excited to read her book.
Vivienne believes that our feelings are governed by our thought processes. Relating this to involuntary childlessness, she explores the idea that how we feel about this is entirely down to our thoughts and that once we see this, we can free ourselves from our thoughts and stop their impact on our feelings. It’s an interesting theory and she puts forward a number of key myths about childlessness which she aims to show are no more than myths. She takes these apart, explaining that they are far from inevitable truths but that the pain we may feel is more to do with the way we believe our thoughts about them. By deconstructing our thoughts, she believes we can free ourself from them. I would be really interested to know how this resonates with those who may have recently stopped treatment or who are in the early days of exploring life without children when they have wanted them. The central theme of Vivienne’s book is that no one needs children in order to be complete as we are already complete, whatever our situation.
There’s an interesting article in the Daily Mail (yes, really…) about ‘reproductive harassment’ after actor Jennifer Aniston spoke out about being judged and repeatedly questioned about when and whether she is going to have a baby. As she is now 49, this seems a somewhat insensitive question, and yet the pressure on her to reproduce has been kept up by the media for many years. It’s bad enough feeling that pressure in your everyday life as a normal (non-celebrity) person, but imagine how it must feel to see your childlessness discussed by people who know nothing about your individual situation in the global media.
The article explains that this kind of questioning is most often aimed at the woman in a partnership or at single women, and yet people would rarely consider cross-examining a single man in his thirties about when he is going to get round to having a baby or suggesting that he ought not to leave it too late.
As Jennifer Aniston has pointed out, women without children are often judged and misunderstood. She has now hit back saying that maybe her purpose on this planet isn’t to procreate, and that maybe there are other things she is meant to do. Her words will resonate with many of those who have experienced involuntary childlessness, but who have gone on to have very happy and productive lives without children. Check out Lesley Pyne or Jody Day if you are looking for inspiration.
It’s one of those things people don’t even want to think about when they’re going through fertility treatment – what might happen if it didn’t work, ever? Could you really be happy if you didn’t end up with a baby? What would you do if all that time, effort, money and emotional investment led to nothing? Would your life ever feel fulfilled and enjoyable? Could the overwhelming sadness go away? I want to tell you about someone who is a brilliant example of the fact that life after IVF treatment can be both fulfilled and enjoyable. She’s called Lesley Pyne, and I first met her when I was a trustee for the charity which is now Fertility Network UK. Lesley was one of my fellow trustees, and had joined as she was involved with the section of the charity for people who were involuntarily childless known at the time as More to Life.
Today, I met Lesley for the first time for a while and it struck me that she looked about 10 years younger than she did when I last first knew her – which means she must look about 20 years younger than she really is! Her eyes were bright and shining, and her zest for life was almost palpable. Lesley, who always seemed to be making an effort not to stand out when we were fellow trustees, was dressed in bright colours with electric blue nails. She is happy, she is making the most of the good things in her life – and she has just written a book explaining how she went from feeling devastated by unsuccessful treatment to this confident, happy woman who gets the best out of her life – it’s due to be published in June and is called Finding Joy Beyond Childlessness.
It strikes me as we talk that Lesley has embraced something we could all learn from – living for the moment, focusing on the positives and making an effort to enjoy what we have. I haven’t read Finding Joy Beyond Childlessness yet – but she explained that it contains her story and those of a number of other women who have come out the other side of involuntary childlessness to find fulfilment. She says it is a journey, and it can be hard along the way, but that there is life beyond childlessness, there is more to life – and if you need help along that path, keep an eye out for Lesley’s book when it comes out in June.
If you’re fed up with people DOING things for January – whether it’s Dry January, joining a spin class or taking up tap dancing – you may like to read Lesley Pyne’s latest blog post. I’ve known Lesley for a long time and have witnessed her building up her support network to help other people who are experiencing involuntary childlessness – she offers lots of support and inspiration for anyone living without children, and has helped many people through their own difficult times. You can sign up for regular emails from Lesley which offer tips and advice. What’s more, she’s right about January and people doing things – it can be exhausting to be faced with other people’s bouncy enthusiasm when you’re just trying to get through things yourself.
I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year – I’ve come to the conclusion that if you try to give things up, you just feel more focused on them and have a sense of being deprived when you can’t have them. And when you don’t feel you HAVE to go to the gym or go running, it can make exercise seem much more attractive. I know it may be my strange logic, but it works for me…
For anyone who is facing a future without children, there is a free webinar which may be of interest later this week. In support of National Fertility Awareness Week, Kelly Da Silva, who set up an online community called the Dovecot to support people who are living without children, will be running the webinar on Thursday 2nd November from 7pm – 8pm.
The topic will be ‘Dealing with Involuntary Childlessness’, and Kelly will be taking questions after an initial input in this topic where she will be discussing the key challenges of childlessness including, shame, disappointment & the impact of childlessness on our daily lives. You can find out more and details of how to join the free webinar on the Dovecot Instagram page here.
Thanks to Stephanie Phillips for starting the first World Childless Week which runs from 11-17 September and aims to raise awareness of the many millions of people around the world who are childless-not-by-choice.
When Stephanie realised that she was not going to be able to have children, she gradually started to link up with others in similar situations through an online group and gradually realised that the peer support she received was making a huge difference to how she felt about her life.
She realised that there was no focus for people who were childless in the Fertility Awareness Weeks in the UK and USA, and needed something that didn’t focus on happy endings after fertility problems but on life without children. That’s why she decided to start World Childless Week. Her aim may have been to help a few people know that they are not alone, but it has done far more than that already and has really helped to raise awareness over the last few days. You can find her website at http://www.worldchildlessweek.com
You may have already seen quite a bit about the week on social media, but I hope that Stephanie’s brilliant awareness-raising idea continues to be a huge success and starts to increase understanding and empathy for those who are childless-not-by-choice. Thank you Stephanie!
Other sources of support for those who are childless-not-by-choice include Jody Day’s Gateway Women and Kelly Da Silva’s the Dovecot
Some of you may remember that we have been supporting a researcher, Megumi Fieldsend, in her search for participants for her work on involuntary childlessness. Megumi is now putting out a final call for men who might be willing to help her study on “life without children – lived experience of a man who wanted to be a dad”. She is aiming to carry out her final interviews by the end of July so if you know someone who might be a potential participant, could you ask him if he would be interested in taking part in Megumi’s research project?
There are set criteria for participation, and if you have any questions about the study or want to check about the criteria, please do get in touch with Megumi who will be happy to answer any questions. You can contact her by calling 0778 026 3685 or by emailing her at
If you have had unsuccessful fertility treatment and are in the process of moving on after this, you might be interested in a discussion group being organised by Louise Hesselvik who is training to be a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire.
Louise is researching how women who have had fertility treatment are able to move on when treatment has not been successful. If you have tried fertility treatment in the past but have decided to stop treatment, and if you do not have any biological children, Louise would be very interested to speak with about participating in this group.
She will be holding a small focus group to present my research so far, and to get your thoughts and perspective on this at Conway Hall, London on February 2nd at 6:45pm- 8:15pm. By participating in this study you will contribute to a better understanding of the factors which help women coping with unsuccessful fertility treatments and those who are involuntarily childless. Her aim is to use this research to help to guide health professional in how best to support women in this situation.
If you might be interested in participating, you can email Louise at email@example.com and she can give you more details and answer any questions.
If you haven’t already read this article by Bibi Lynch in The Guardian, you should do. It’s a powerful piece about the reality of being childless in a world where motherhood is given a status you aren’t even aware of unless you aren’t or can’t be a mother. So much of what Bibi Lynch says will resonate with anyone who has experienced fertility problems as well as those who are living with childlessness.
She talks about the way people react when she says she doesn’t have children, about the assumption that only parents can care about children or are kind and loving people – and the idea of hardworking families as if anyone who does not have a family could not possibly be hardworking.
Read it, share it and give it to your family and friends to read – it may help them not to make assumptions or unhelpful comments, and to appreciate just a bit of how it might feel to be involuntarily childless. You may also want to read Bibi’s previous article about childlessness.