Not Everyone Chooses to be Childless: World Childless Week

The week of 11-17 September was the first ever World Childless Week. Portsmouth writer Annie Kirby makes an impassioned plea for increased social awareness of people who are childless through no choice of their own.

World Childless Week (WCW) aims to reduce the stigma and isolation of childlessness and to help people who are childless-not-by-choice – and their friends and families – to find support.

‘It took me years to find the support that helped me,’ says WCW organiser, Stephanie Phillips. ‘If I could let just a handful of people know that they are not alone and perhaps help them find their way to a form of support that little bit quicker, then surely it must be worth a try?’

If you’re a parent, or you expect to become one in the future, or you’ve never wanted children, you probably think an event raising awareness of childlessness is not relevant to you. But World Childless Week also raises awareness in order to help the friends and family of those childless-not-by-choice to better support their loved ones through what can be an extremely painful and traumatic experience. You might think you don’t know anyone who’s childless-not-by-choice, but the chances are that you do.

In England and Wales, around 17% of women born in 1970 were childless by the time they reached the age of 46 (which is the age when the Office of National Statistics considers women to have reached the end of their childbearing years). Statistics vary for women born in different decades, ranging from 10% of women born in 1940 still being childless at the age of 46, to 19% for those born in 1960 and 21% for women born in 1920; averaging out over the last 97 years (for which statistics are available) to approximately 15% of women still being childless aged 46 years. Research from the Netherlands indicates that within the group of women who remain childless, only an approximate 10% are happily childfree (in other words they unambiguously didn’t want children). Another 10% are medically infertile, and the remaining 80% are ‘childless by circumstance’.

Childless by circumstance includes anybody who would have liked a child but for some reason it just didn’t happen. In contrast to the popular stereotype of women concentrating on their careers and leaving it too late to conceive, this category covers a huge range of situations including: having a partner who didn’t want children, being in a violent or abusive relationship and deciding not to bring children into that, not being able to afford a child, being widowed, being in a same-sex relationship and so on.  (Writer and campaigner Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, a support group for childless-not-by-choice women, provides a comprehensive list in her article ‘50 Ways Not to Be a Mother’).

Including the medically infertile (some of whom, of course, may have chosen not to have children even if they had been fertile) and those childless by circumstance, that’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of childless women who did not happily choose a childless life. To put that into perspective, recent population estimates for Portsmouth indicate that there are just under 39,000 women aged 46 or above living in the city. If around 15% of these remained childless, that is somewhere in the region of 5,800 women over the age of 46 who haven’t had children, of whom about 5,000 did not happily choose to be childless. (These figures obviously exclude women under the age of 46 who already know they will never be mothers due to medical infertility or circumstance, and childless men, for whom no statistics are available – although some research suggests that men are childless at around the same or possibly slightly higher rates than women).

Despite these numbers, we rarely hear about childless-not-by-choice people. Parenthood, or the expectation of parenthood, is the dominant narrative in our society. Consider the current We Are Family commercial for McCains. ‘When it comes to family,’ asks the narrator, ‘what’s normal?’ It answers that question by showing families with single mums, stay-at-home-mums, working mums, nans and grans, dads, two daddies, long-distance and weekend daddies, granddads, brothers, half-brothers, friends and sisters. It’s a lovely idea, to acknowledge all the different types of families out there, but families without children in them are conspicuously absent. It’s symptomatic of a deep seated assumption that ‘family’ equals ‘children.’ We say ‘starting a family’ when what we really mean is ‘having children.’ We say something is ‘family-friendly’ when what we really mean is ‘child-friendly.’ But I have a family, and so do many other childless-not-by-choice people. It just happens to be a family without any children in it.

If childlessness is dealt with at all in popular culture or media, the state of childlessness is often solved in some way, for example with the appearance of a miracle baby or an adoption. This airbrushing of the childless-not-by-choice from our cultural narratives contributes to the stigma of being childless and exacerbates the difficulty of talking about it. This means many people do not how to respond when confronted with someone’s childlessness.

A few months ago, I set off to my usual hair salon in Portsmouth for an afternoon of pampering. It was just what I needed after a few stressful months making some big changes in my life. The hairdresser, who was new to the salon, listened carefully to my instructions on length and style and after a quick wash and condition, I settled down in the chair waiting to be transformed. ‘So,’ she said, picking up her scissors, ‘have you got any kids?’ My heart sank.

The ‘do you have children?’ question is one that I, and most childless-not-by-choice women, dread. There’s literally no way to answer it without bringing the conversation to an uncomfortable, crashing halt. When I was younger, and answered ‘no’ to this question, people would often respond with comments along the lines of, ‘Well, you’d better hurry up,’ or the more snarky, ‘Oooh, a career woman.’ Now that I’m middle-aged, those sorts of comments have tailed off and people tend to assume I’m happily child-free. Sometimes people tell me I’m really missing out, or they imply I’m selfish for not having had children. Sometimes I answer, ‘Sadly not,’ to try and shut down these assumptions in a polite way that doesn’t invite too many questions, but this often results in an awkward silence and me crying into my wine at parties, after the questioner has made a hasty exit. I didn’t fancy spending the next hour of my life trapped in a stony silence with the hairdresser – neither of us was going anywhere soon – so I opted just to say ‘No,’ and hope she wouldn’t pry.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘So you’ve lived a free life.’

Well, no actually. People with children tend to think of the childless as living the lives they led before having children. In other words, they imagine the childless as perpetually living in their twenties, drinking cocktails and enjoying spontaneous weekends away. But the childless are not fixed in amber – their lives have moved on too, just in a different direction to the lives of those with children. They will have jobs, pets, responsibilities caring for elderly parents and voluntary work. Yes, they might have more time to read books than parents do, or find it easier to fit in their gym sessions. They might even have a high-flying career, but most of them would happily give this up if it had meant they could have a child.

Those who have experienced infertility will tell you that there’s not much freedom in the devastation of your period coming each month, in painful medical conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis, in the frustration of unexplained infertility, or failed IVF and all the expense that entails. The childless-not-by-choice would say there’s nothing ‘free’ in having to smile through other people’s pregnancy announcements and scan photos, baby showers and gender reveal cakes, losing your friendship group because they all have babies now and you’re inadvertently (or deliberately) excluded. There’s nothing free about not being able to book holiday because of ‘what ifs’ – what if I’m pregnant by then, what if we’ve decided to start IVF, what if we get our miracle, what if, what if, what if? For most people dealing with infertility or involuntary childlessness, the miracle never comes. So, no, we don’t live ‘free’ lives.

The truth is, childless-not-by-choice people are at best misunderstood and at worst invisible. This is why World Childless Week, and the awareness raising that comes with it, is so important. If you’re childless, please look at their website for information and support. If you’re not childless, the website is still a valuable resource to help you support friends and family coming to terms with childlessness. ‘Perhaps a parent or two may even read one of the articles and see a glimpse of the world through our eyes,’ says Stephanie Phillips.

Not asking strangers if they have children is just one small thing you can do to help (ask what they’re doing at the weekend instead – if they do have children you’ll soon know and if they don’t, well you won’t have made them feel like social pariahs). Your support would be appreciated, because although we may learn to live with our childlessness, the pain of it never really goes away.

Find out more about World Childless Week on their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Image by Sarah Cheverton.