Being Involuntarily Childless Is a Tough Reality to Face. Here’s What Experts Want You to Know.
Many have experienced the emotions that come with a much-wanted positive pregnancy test. Far little can top that excitement, anxiety, and joy of potentially having a child. In a parallel reality, though, too many will know what it means to battle with the uncertainty of trying to conceive, seeking interventions, or maybe never even getting the opportunity to try for a baby.
Those people are considered to be childless not by choice (CNBC), which is also referred to as being involuntarily childless. Childless is different from childfree, which is when someone makes the choice to not have children. According to research published in Human Reproduction, about four percent of couples remain involuntarily childless, meaning despite their efforts to conceive, they are unable to have children.
Being involuntarily childless is a silent battle that wages war with every pregnancy announcement, baby shower invite, and sometimes even walking through the grocery store.
It was both pregnancy loss and finances that contributed to Cindy Hyunh-Sturgeon, 43, deciding to move on from trying to conceive. She suffered two early-term losses and sought help from a fertility specialist. “My husband and I had sex regularly, and we both did testing to see if we’re healthy, and we both got clean bills of health,” she tells POPSUGAR. “The doctor couldn’t tell us why without doing invasive and expensive procedures” – something they just couldn’t afford.
For Anna Hornsbostel, LMFT, her journey to CNBC started in 2008, due to male-factor infertility, which was diagnosed in 2009. After two failed IVF attempts and an adoption that didn’t go through, she began to accept her fate.
No matter the circumstance of your childlessness, the end result is always the same: not everyone who wants a baby will get the opportunity to give birth to their own. Being involuntarily childless is a silent battle that wages war with every pregnancy announcement, baby shower invite, and sometimes even walking through the grocery store. (I would know. I, too, am childless by circumstance).
Research also shows that people who are struggling to conceive tend to report feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, and loss of control. And very few support groups or corners of society hold space for childless people without the constant “keep trying” or “don’t lose hope” messages. There is no ritual for the death of a dream. So how do we dare to cope?
1. Cultivate Your Support System
As a member of the CNBC community herself and a therapist helping clients through their own battles, Hornsbostel says that a support system is crucial in transitioning from family planning to childlessness. But it can be difficult to find. “Most people mean well when they want to help,” Hornsbostel says, but “they don’t understand the grief process involved or difficulty coping.”
What Hornbostel is referring to are the insensitive comments that brush off the grief, encourage people to be positive, or suggest trying other methods to have children. If your friends and family are guilty of this behavior, despite being aware of you CNBC status, it may be time to look elsewhere for support.
As a Vietnamese American, Hyunh-Sturgeon says that she had to cope with a family-centric culture that values children. She couldn’t always turn to her loved ones for empathy and understanding. Finding a CNBC meetup and online support group was essential in her journey toward acceptance. If you’re not sure where to look, Resolve, the National Fertility Association, has a support-group finder tool to help you search for peer-led and professionally led support groups near you.
2. Find Other Ways to “Mother”
It has taken years, but Hyunh-Sturgeon says that she’s finally begun to accept her circumstances and look toward a childless future. “I’m about 90 percent fully accepting of being CNBC. I always leave a little room for the grief because it’s a part of me, and it reminds me to keep looking for joy,” she says.
Her method of coping? “I count my blessings, check in with CNBC support groups if I need it, stay busy, and confide in a few close friends.” She also likes to “mother” when she can – whether toward a pet turtle, a plant, or her niece. “In my dictionary, mothering is simply being kind, caring, and nurturing for another. You don’t have to give birth to be a ‘mother,'” she tells POPSUGAR.
3. Set Healthy Boundaries
While Hyunh-Sturgeon has nearly reached the point of acceptance, that hasn’t stopped her from having the occasional cry after seeing a pregnancy announcement or suffering through an office baby shower.
In those instances, it can be important to set boundaries for yourself, Hornsbostel says. For example, some people who are CNBC will avoid baby showers and kids’ parties, she explains, emphasizing that there isn’t a right or wrong answer to navigating child-focused events.
“I think everyone has to come to their own understanding of what works for them based on their needs and resources,” she says. “For example, attending a baby shower might be difficult, but sending a gift card or taking the parents out to lunch might help someone to still feel close to the expecting parents.”
When Hornsbostel’s sister became pregnant, she let her know early on that she wouldn’t be able to be there for every aspect of her pregnancy. “I was open with my sister about how I was happy for her and sad for me,” she says. “We had to learn how to navigate our differing paths.”
If you feel that you need to attend a kids-centric event and worry that it could be triggering, Hornbostel suggests setting a time limit for yourself, and if the host knows your status, let them know that you may stay for something like cake, but not for opening gifts. That goes for office baby showers, too.
Social media can also be rather triggering, Hornbostel says. Some of her CNBC clients will avoid apps like Instagram or Facebook around the holidays since many people tend to make baby announcements then. Others who are new to being CNBC may also mute words like “baby,” “birth,” and “newborn” on social media to avoid interacting with that type of content before they’re ready.
4. Seek Professional Help
You don’t have to process this transition alone. A grief counselor or therapist can help you to navigate your feelings. That being said, it’s helpful to find someone who specializes in infertility trauma and/or pregnancy loss. Those credentials are something you want to address early on before your first session. “When they’re having their assessment, they can ask what their experience is around infertility or CNBC, and that can be a good way to gauge if they’re a good fit,” Hornsbostel says.
Ultimately, processing and grieving childlessness is equal parts complicated and time consuming. Acceptance isn’t something that will happen overnight. Everyone’s timeline looks different, and it may feel unattainable right now. That’s OK. But take comfort in knowing that over time, with a solid support system, coping mechanisms, and therapy, the transition to acceptance is well within reach, Hornsbostel assures.