Most narratives about infertility end in a child. Memoirs, blogs and podcasts from women who struggled to conceive or adopt are reporting on their struggles while bouncing their “rainbow babies” or “forever babies” on their laps.
But what happens when IVF or adoption doesn’t result in a child? What if a partner is done with having children by the time you meet ― or you never find the right partner to begin with? Women who are childless by circumstance are still struggling for visibility when it comes to the reproductive stories we tell publicly.
In the new book Motherhood Missed: Stories From Women Who Are Childless by Circumstance, a collection of 32 personal essays, Lois Tonkin, a lecturer at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, hopes to give a voice to this population.
Many of the women in this book identify quite strongly as feminist. That turns out to be a problematic identity for them. There’s this sense of not wanting to crush the sisterhood.
Tonkin, a lecturer at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and a counselor who specializes in infertility and grief, collected and edited the stories, which are arranged in a way that suggests a subtle narrative flow from unresolved despair to acceptance.
The women are mostly from Western countries such as New Zealand, England, the U.S. and Australia, but still manage to convey that there is a deep diversity for the reasons that they ended up childless.
Yes, infertility plays a prominent role. Genevieve, 45, lost three pregnancies and now thinks of herself as a “secret mother with an invisible clan.” Adoption makes several appearances, too. Sonja, 55, and her partner applied to be a foster family but were rebuffed when she said she wouldn’t give up her career to stay home with a child.
But the book also touches on more controversial and unexpected themes, including what role women’s understanding of feminism may have played in their childlessness and the fact that not having kids has seemingly rendered them a pariah in their social groups.
Tonkin spoke with HuffPost about the genesis of her book, as well as some of the challenges childless women face in a world that has little understanding for this kind of grief.
When did you start thinking about childlessness by circumstance?
I started thinking about the subject about 15 years or so ago when I was working as a grief counselor in the community. And it was one of those things where more and more of those people started showing up, so I saw a whole bunch of these women dealing with this issue.
For them, I’m a grief counselor. One of the big problems for them was that they felt as if other people didn’t understand them. They felt kind of alienated and isolated. It felt like there was nobody they could talk to about it. And then interestingly, there was an increasing number of women who found themselves in this circumstance, and it seemed strange and difficult for those women that they weren’t able to talk to other people about it.
Public health organizations in the U.S. often quote the statistic that 1 in 8 couples are infertile, which means they haven’t been able to conceive after one year of trying. But there aren’t any good statistics on the number of these infertile people who want to have children but end up childless, either because fertility treatments didn’t work for them or adoption fell through. Why do you think that is?
Those statistics are usually, depending on the country, divided into people who choose not to have children and those who haven’t had children. And there’s no way of knowing how many of those people would have had children if they could have chosen to do so.
There’s a small number of people who are biologically infertile and have been for a long time. But a larger number of those people become incapable of doing so because of age-related infertility. So there’s no way of knowing how many of these people are childless by circumstance. This lack of data sort of makes this community invisible.
Second-wave feminism is a major theme in the book, with many women grappling with either the term and concept outright, or frankly discussing the ways that a greater access to opportunities afforded to them by feminism have changed the trajectories they had planned for their lives. What role do you think feminism has played in these women’s thwarted plans to have a family?
Many of the women in this book identify quite strongly as feminist. And many of them were also raised by mothers or grandmothers who identified as feminist. That turns out to be a problematic identity for them.
There’s this sense of not wanting to crush the sisterhood. You know, not wanting to betray those feminist ideals. But at the same time, feeling that those choices they had made because of them, or because of how they understood them, have contributed to them ending up childless and in a position that they did not choose to be or want to be in.
Your book in no way conveys that feminism is to blame. To me, it seemed more that the more opportunities feminism gives women, the more women are able to come into their own as individuals with complete and total freedom. And with that freedom comes consequences. That for every road taken, there’s another road that isn’t.
There has been an unanticipated cost, and the point I wanted to make about it is that they find themselves struggling with that unanticipated cost kind of on their own. They feel that there isn’t a set of feminist voices talking about that and helping them to make sense of that.
I was very anxious about talking about that aspect because I identify very strongly with being a feminist, and there is no way that I wanted this to be picked up as kind of a pro-natalist argument. But at the same time, I feel that those voices need to be heard, and that conversation needs to be had.
A subcategory of this feminism discussion is the abortions that these women brought up. Some women in your book struggled to break out of this zero-sum notion that “because I had an abortion in my youth, I’m not allowed to grieve being childless in my middle and old age.”
Grief around something that you have made a choice around isn’t something that is explored a lot socially. There is not a lot of space for women to grieve for something that they’ve made a choice about.
And given their choice again, they would make the same choice. They’re not regretting the choices they’ve made. But at the same time, there isn’t a social space for them to talk about the losses that, for some of them, came alongside that.
I was really struck by a lot of women in your book who said they felt shut out or condescended to by people who are parents. How can others ― and especially people who have the children that they wanted ― make this world more welcoming for this population?
First of all, recognizing them as a population. Recognizing that people who don’t have children may not have necessarily chosen to do so. Recognizing that other choices are valid and useful choices. Acknowledging the kind of difficulties around that. It comes in very small changes in the way we talk about it. Very small changes in language and practice.
Beginning to develop some awareness, if you have children yourself, of how much society around us, the community around us, is structured by this idea of prioritizing children and families. How difficult Mother’s Day and Christmases are. Making spaces for those kinds of social institutions to include women and men who don’t have children.
It’s a question of becoming conscious of this as an experience in women’s lives and thinking differently about the language you use, and thinking of how to be inclusive of those people when you’re planning events.