Child-Free Zone

13th March 2015

Following last issue’s Look At Life on the subject of intrusive questions about prospective parenthood, and in the light of this weekend’s heavily promoted Mother’s Day, Heather Harris investigates the final taboo…

The Pope and the actress Helen Mirren may, on the surface, seem poles apart (the pontiff rarely seen in a red swimsuit advertising face cream; Dame Helen not known for waving from balconies to massed crowds) but, ironically, both have recently generated media interest for their conflicting view on childlessness – a word hard enough to say let alone experience.

Pope Francis, in one of his February general addresses in St Peter’s Square, said, “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that consider them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.” He then added, “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”

It’s a view that was particularly controversial in Italy where the birth rate has been declining in recent years.
In the past, 67 year old Ms Mirren,who has been happily married for 15 years, declared with defiance, “I have no maternal instinct whatsoever. Motherhood holds no interest for me.” In the latest issue of Vogue Magazine, though, she has mellowed and admits that she did in fact always expect to have a child. “ It was not my destiny,” she says, “ I kept thinking it would be, waiting for it to happen but it never did, and I didn’t care what people thought.”

If this last fact is true and she is not merely using her actress skills to hide the hurt – then she is lucky. Speaking to the various women I met researching this piece, I discovered that it’s other people’s opinion that has the most impact. If you are a couple without offspring, whether childless by choice or due to medical problems, you are judged – as Marianne, a 49 year old Business Manager for a large legal firm, found after she and her husband made a conscious decision not to have children.

“His mum pulled me aside in the ladies loo and demanded to know why we hadn’t got any children,” she says, laughing at the memory. “The truth is,” she goes on, “even as a child I could never imagine myself as a mother – married, yes, but not with children. Then, when I met Bob, he admitted he too was reasonably ambivalent about it.”

Marianne and Bob did agree that if either of them changed their mind at any time then they would go ahead, but it never happened. As it happens, both came from loving families and it was not their backgrounds that put them off parenthood. “I do remember, though, going to my parents for Sunday lunch in my 30s and then a few days later my Mum ringing me to say she and my Dad had been worried about something I had said about work. To me it was a minor thing but it struck me that they still worried about me when I was an adult. This seemed a terrifying commitment.”

Angie felt the same. Now in her mid 50s, she and her husband, Ian met through a mutual love of diving and have now travelled the world pursuing their passion. “We met in our mid 30s so knew that a decision on having children had to be made quickly. Sadly we both knew couples who had rushed into children for exactly this same reason and it ended up ruining their relationship and obviously had an impact on the children themselves.”

Ian makes an interesting point, “It was precisely because we do love children that we didn’t want to rush into having them and risk the impact it may have on us and them. People assume if you are childless you are child haters!”

Assumption is one thing that both couples have come to live with. Marianne says that when she meets people for the first time the initial question is so often about the number of children she has, and when she explains that she is childless by choice, the reaction can often be astonishment. “We are wheeled out like some zoo exhibit – a rare phenomenon to be questioned and probed. Luckily we see the funny side!”

She confesses, though, that she does tend to avoid large groups of women at social events. “Even if they know I don’t have children, the conversation soon revolves around GCSE results and temper tantrums – and I simply have nothing to contribute.”

Angie and Ian found that their social life definitely gravitated towards other couples without children simply because there was no need to explain themselves. “People just accepted us as two individuals not some social misfits.”

In reality childlessness is on the rise worldwide. Latest figures reveal that 25 per cent of women of childbearing age will never have a baby. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five 45 year olds in the UK are yet to start a family, a situation which has doubled since the Nineties. A third of women in their early forties do not have children in Germany and Japan and one in five in America.

But still, as Sue Fagalde Lick, author of Childless by Marriage, explains, “Women who reach their mid-thirties without giving birth are forced to justify their decision to family, friends and often strangers. The expectation is that they will marry and have children and if they don’t everyone wants to know what’s wrong with them!”
And sadly, even with the technological advances of modern medicine, infertility remains an ‘incurable disease’ for many couples and a source of huge distress.

“That’s what people don’t understand. If someone has cancer, quite rightly there is unquestioning sympathy, but when I tell people I can’t have children there is a mixed reaction, with some people clearly assuming it is because I have made a choice to follow my career and left it too late,” Suzy tells me, sitting with her husband Simon who is visibly upset.

After six miscarriages her inability to carry a baby full term remains unexplained. “This also means that the traditional fertility treatments such as IVF are useless as they only help couples get pregnant, which is not my problem.”

With Simon out of earshot, she adds that she does feel a lot of guilt as clearly her husband could father a child with another woman.

Guilt such as this is something which many of the callers to Lesley Pyne’s support line express, and many see it as a huge threat to their relationship. Lesley set up her website – tagline: ‘Supporting childless women to heal and create a life they love’ – when she and husband Roger accepted that after ten years of trying to conceive, they would have to face a future without children in it.

“Our infertility was unexplained,” says Lesley, “which in a way is easier to handle as infertility either brings you closer together or you fall apart. The divorce rate is high for childless couples, especially if one person knows that the medical problem lies with them.”

Medical advances in fertility treatment, including the increased acceptance of surrogacy, have, in fact, made it more difficult for many couples. “There days even at 50 it is medically possible for a women to have a child, so accepting that it won’t happen becomes harder and harder. There is always a glimmer of hope.”

Experiencing very little emotional support herself Lesley went on to train in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) in an effort to help herself and others.

“Without professional help it took us many years to work through those negative feelings that childless couples know too well, like grief, the sense of loss that comes and goes, dealing with the triggers which set off our emotions, the anger, lack of confidence and self-esteem.”

She found that NLP encouraged her and her husband to look for positives in the freedom and independence as well as financial security that being childless brings. “So now I’m passionate about using what I know to help other childless women to quickly ease their pain and shorten the healing process so that they can get on with their lives, “she tells me, adding that she understands that this is by no means a simple process.

For Suzy the pain is still there, despite being nearly 60. “For some reason I can cope with Mother’s Day but Christmas I still find impossible to bear. I can’t even see my own nieces and nephews and godchildren. I go away skiing and try and forget. Simon tries to understand but it is different for men – the physical emptiness is not there.”

Hearing the devastation that childlessness can clearly cause, I was interested to know whether those who made the decision consciously ever had regrets.

For Marianne it was when her husband went into a hospice five years ago. “He had terminal cancer and a part of me wished we had had a baby so I had a bit of him to hold on to,” she said, adding, though, that a close friend had quickly told her that this would have been a selfish reason to have brought a child into the world… “…something which I now recognise,” she adds.

Angie feels her life is now so busy that the advantage of nieces and nephews and godchildren is that she can get to enjoy the company of children – “…because I honestly do, despite what other people may think” – while pursuing the independence that she and Ian thrive on.

Clearly we’ve come a long way since Henry VIII dumped Catherine of Aragon after 20 years because of her failure to produce children. Now we just need to stop pestering celebrity non-mothers such as Kylie Minogue, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz to reproduce, and start putting Dame Helen on the front page because of her acting talents and not her fertility. Perhaps then having or not having children can finally be seen as the business of the individuals themselves and no-one else – not even the Pope.

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