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Designing a Childfree Life

Designing your life after making the decision to be childfree.

When I had my hysterectomy at 35, I felt like the only person in the world whose infertility story didn’t end with a baby. I needed reassurance that it was possible to create a life I could fall in love with, even if it didn’t include children. Jody Day of Gateway Women was one of the first childless voices I found online. This isn’t surprising as she is a pioneer in and vocal advocate for the childless-not-by-choice community. Her words brought the comfort I sought, reassuring me that this was not the end of my story, but a new chapter.

Living the Life Unexpected Blog Tour

Two years later, I am thrilled to be a part of the blog tour launching the 2nd edition of her book, “Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children” available March 19. This book is the bible for those who are designing an unexpectedly childfree life. Which, I guess makes Jody the Patron Saint of the Childless.

Through her book, she serves as a guide; holding your hand, offering reassurance, walking with you as you take baby steps to envisioning your plan b. If you’d like a preview of the book, you can access the new introduction and first chapter here. You can also pre-order the new edition here. If you’re in the U.S., order through the Book Depository for free international shipping. I just ordered mine this morning.

About the Book

I love Jody’s beautiful quote in the new introduction:

It is my deepest wish that you find your place in this world again through the pages of this book, and that your dream of motherhood can be put to rest with the tenderness and love it deserves. Letting go of hope when you can’t see any other kind of hope ahead is terrifying, like swimming away from the shore in the dark without any idea when you’ll reach land again. Let this book be your lighthouse; let it be your hope in the dark. Those of us who’ve already made this trip are waiting for you on the other side, and many others are in the water alongside you, each feeling that they’re swimming alone. But you’re not alone. Welcome to your Tribe.

I was lucky enough to read this with a group of childless women through an online book club I hosted last year. I saw first hand the power of this book to heal and inspire. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of childlessness, together they take you on a path to finding acceptance, working through your grief, and envisioning new possibilities for your life. Exercises are included to help you apply the information to your own life and circumstances.

Updates to the New Edition

The introduction is just the first section that’s been updated. Jody has included a number of updates in this new edition. Including:

  • New “Resources” section highlighting organizations, websites, and support groups worldwide; recommended blogs (including this one); and fifteen pages of recommended books for further reading.
  • A look at Childlessness Around the World that includes up-to-date data on both the involuntary and voluntarily childless.
  • New sections to the chapter on grief that include: childlessness after abortion; grieving while single; grieveing as a couple; grieving as a lesbian, gay or bisexual woman; grieving as a woman of faith; grieving as a woman of colour.
  • New thoughts on ambivalence about motherhood.
  • Updated list of childless role models.
  • New section on fears and myths of aging without children.

Jody’s Book Club

While I am no longer offering a book club for this book, a guided online reading group, led by Jody, is part of the Gateway Women private online community. Complete with videos to introduce each chapter and weekly discussion prompts, the group is free for all members of the Gateway Women Online Community. Members can join in wherever they are in the book,  whether it’s their first or fourth reading!

Coping with Mother’s Day Webinar

On Saturday, March 14, Jody will also be offering a webinar looking at the ways different experiences of childlessness and Mother’s Day can painfully intersect, offering insight, support and self-care tips. You can RSVP for the webinar here.

Pre-Order the New Edition

I am such a fangirl of Jody and am floored by all devotion she has shown to creating resources, support, and community for those who are childless-not-by-choice. I’ll leave you with the endorsement I wrote for the book, included in the new edition:

If you are childless-not-by-choice and are needing support, to know that you’re not alone, and guidance on how to create a plan b for your future, you need this book. Go pre-order your copy!

*For a chance to win a free autographed copy of the book, courtesy of Jody, head over to my Instagram account and on the book review post, answer the following question in the comments:

Why are you excited to read the book?

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This piece was originally featured on the amazing blog, Boo & Maddie. While the blog is primarily focused on lifestyle and home, the writer is childfree after infertility and has weekly posts dedicated to sharing childfree stories. You can check them out by clicking here.

The conservative church I grew up in shaped my earliest views of motherhood. As a child, I learned that being a mother is the ultimate purpose for women on earth. That motherhood is an eternal concept. That even in heaven, women will spend their eternity birthing ethereal “spirit children”. 

Growing up, I didn’t know many women who weren’t mothers and the few I did know, I pitied. To me, womanhood equaled motherhood. I couldn’t imagine that women could have true joy, meaning, love, and fulfillment without kids.

Matt and I were young when we got married. We were 24 at the time and had no clue what we were getting into. By then, I had distanced myself from the Mormon church, but the beliefs about motherhood stuck with me. So much so, that I didn’t plan to go to college or have a career. My plan was to be a stay-at-home mom. There was no plan b. Neither of us felt ready for a baby though, so we waited. Years passed and I started taking college courses at night for fun. A decade later, I found myself with a master’s degree and an unexpected career.

After almost ten years of marriage, we finally felt ready for a baby. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I started tracking my ovulation, reading pregnancy books, dreaming of baby names, and designing a nursery. My anxiety grew as three months passed, then six, then a year, with no positive test. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened over the next four years.

If you’d like to read more about my infertility journey, you can find it by clicking here.

My life became doctor’s appointments, invasive tests, anxiety, depression, and disappointment. Each month I held a negative pregnancy test with no explanation of why I wasn’t pregnant. Everything changed when my reproductive endocrinologist (RE) told me I had endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a chronic illness where tissue similar to your uterine lining grows in other parts of your body. It affects 1 in 10 women, yet it takes an average of ten years from the onset of symptoms to diagnose. In my case, I had seen dozens of doctors over the past 20 years and every one of them dismissed my pain.

The next few years became a jumble of appointments, medical jargon, and big decisions. In the course of three years, I had three surgeries and a failed IVF cycle. I was getting conflicting advice from my RE and my endometriosis surgeon. I moved toward treatment options that would balance my need for pain relief with my desire to become a mom.

After four years of infertility, I decided I had sacrificed as much as I could to the pursuit of parenthood. I had given so much of my life, health, body, time, relationships, money, mental health, and I was done. I chose to put my health first and decided to have a hysterectomy to improve my quality of life.

I’ve spent the two years making peace with my decision. I’ve tried not to internalize the message from society that my life means less because I am not a mom. Connecting with others who are childless/childfree has helped me shift my perspective.

It’s been strange to work through grief while simultaneously embracing the benefits of a life without kids. For so long Matt and I based life decisions on the assumption that kids were in our future. With that option off the table, we wanted to explore new possibilities.

Last summer, we made some big changes. We left our home in Atlanta and bought a cabin right outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I told Matt I wanted a home that felt like a sanctuary and the cabin is everything I hoped for. It’s tucked away in the mountains on an acre of wooded forest. Here, I’m surrounded by animals, wildflowers, fireflies, and a lively stream. It’s so peaceful and quiet.

I also received a promotion at my job which I’m very proud of. I work for a nonprofit that advocates for better policies around children’s issues. It feels good to know that my work impacts the lives of children around the world. It’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in my career considering I never planned on having one.

My promotion also gave us the financial flexibility to allow my husband to follow his dream of starting his own company. After all the love and support he has poured into me these past few years, it’s been amazing to be able to offer him the opportunity to pursue his passion.

Embracing a childfree life has also forced me to redefine my identity and priorities. To explore this, I started this blog focused on designing an unexpectedly childfree life. It’s been therapeutic for me and an amazing way to connect with women in similar circumstances.

I’ve also had more energy and emotion to invest in my relationships. I’m lucky to have such an amazing partner and am grateful for the intimate connection we share. When we were planning to have a kid I was always worried we would lose the almost magical closeness we enjoy. He’s my best friend and I love the life we’ve created together. I appreciate the time I have to focus on him, as well as my relationships with family and friends. I thrive on connections and appreciate that a life without kids allows me to invest in those I love in unique ways. I have time for deep, uninterrupted, conversations. Whoever I’m spending time with has my full attention.

Another childfree perk is the freedom I have to invest my time and energy wherever I choose. I have always been full of passion and curiosity. I love the ability I have to become absorbed in whatever interests me at the moment. It could be a relationship, a conversation, a hobby, writing, reading, exploring, or traveling.  

I’m an extrovert, but over the past few years, I’ve become much more introspective and find I need time alone. Without kids, I can easily find time for this, as well as for self-care. While my health has been better since my last surgery, there is no cure for endometriosis. I appreciate having time to rest when I need it. I also love that my free time is mine. I try to be a good spouse, friend, sister, daughter, and aunt, but at the end of the day, no one is dependent on me to have their needs met.

Some may look at my story and say the term “childfree” doesn’t apply because I tried for a long time to have kids. They would say that “childless” is more fitting. But I don’t want to be defined by what I lack. For me, having a childfree mindset is aspirational. I know women who couldn’t have kids but have created such beautiful lives that they would no longer trade them for parenthood. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet but I know I’m getting closer each month. I love my current life and am enjoying the unique benefits that a life without children offers.

I wish I could tell my younger self that there is nothing here to pity. That womanhood does not equal motherhood. I wish I could tell her not to worry. That her life won’t look how she expected, but it will be full of joy, meaning, love, and fulfillment.

How about you? What do you wish you could tell your younger self? Let me know in the comments!

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Trauma creates change you don't choose. Healing creates change you do choose. Michelle RosenthalI suck at creating babies. Even the most advanced medical interventions available can’t convince my body to perform one of its most basic biological functions.
 
During my infertility, all I could do was watch months turn into years with no hint of a positive pregnancy test. I started feeling like a failure. It was devastating to know that the thing I longed for most in this world was not within my power to create. No amount of will, desire, or action was going to change the outcome.
 
I spent so many years focusing on what I couldn’t create that I lost sight of what I could. Since making the decision to embrace a childfree life, I’ve worked to identify and celebrate what I create in my life and the world. To see myself as the powerful source of creation I am. Here are a few of them.
 
  • I create loving, compassionate relationships.
  • I create a better world for children through the policy change I work toward at my job.
  • I create a healthier earth by respecting the planet and being conscious about the resources I consume.
  • I create music when I play my ukulele, sing or write music.
  • I create space for magic and play in my life.
  • I create nourishing food and a connection to the earth when I garden.
  • I create an understanding, supportive space for people to connect through my blog and social media accounts
  • I create kindness by treating those I meet with respect and courtesy.
  • I create beautiful surroundings when I take on remodeling projects at home.
  • I create a better world by donating my money and time to causes I care about.
  • I create self-love by taking care of my mind, body and soul.
  • I create compassion by opening my heart to myself and others.

If you need another reminder of how powerful you are, check out my post, “I’m not a mom, but…Life isn't about finding oneself. Life is about creating oneself. George Bernard Shaw

  • I create laughter by making those around me laugh and seeking out humor.
  • I create a more just society by voting and using my voice for social activism.
  • I create a vision for my future by developing and moving toward goals.
  • I create happiness by focusing on the positive aspects of life.
  • I create a healthier future for myself by letting go of the past.
  • I create authenticity by following my inner voice instead of trying to fulfill others expectations of me.
  • I create health and joy by cooking delicious, healthy meals.
  • I create courage by letting go of fear.
  • I create peace by practicing forgiveness.
  • I create knowledge through reading.
  • I create resiliency by accepting and adapting to the shit life throws at me.
  • I create meaning in life by defining and following my dreams.
  • I create a new future by letting go of regrets.
  • I create self-acceptance by loving myself, flaws and all.
  • I create a connection to the world through travel.
  • I create confidence by gaining new skills and recognizing my achievements.
  • I create empathetic space for others who need a listening ear.
  • I create awareness by sharing my experience with endometriosis and infertility.
  • I create my own truth by questioning the beliefs and ideas of others.
  • I create deeper connections with myself and others by living in the moment.
  • I create meaningful conversations by listening and being open.
  • I create memories by taking photos of the people and places that are meaningful to me.
  • I create a life I’m in love with.

You are also a powerful source of creation. What are you creating in your life and in the world?

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How do you make new friends as an adult?

I was grappling with this question a year ago and faced some challenges as I began my quest.

  • I had recently moved to a new city.
  • I didn’t know a single person.
  • I’m not religious and don’t belong to any organizations.
  • I work from home and don’t live near colleagues.
  • I was looking for friends who weren’t parents since I was embracing my identity as a nonparent.
  • I wanted to meet people who shared my interests, hobbies, and values.

Impossible, right?

I kept seeing women at restaurants, coffee shops, and book stores who looked very friend-able. I would rehearse opening lines in my head, searching for something that wouldn’t sound weird or creepy. I would compliment her style and we’d talk about her shoes or hair for a minute and that would be it. I could never find a way to turn that initial conversation into a hangout.

For more ideas on how to expand your social circle, check out my post, “There’s More than One Way to Create a Family.”

Bumble BFF

My actual Bumble BFF profile.

Then I found Bumble BFF. If you’re not familiar with Bumble, here’s the gist. Bumble is an app that includes three settings for connecting with new people:

  • Bumble Date,
  • Bumble BFF,
  • and Bumble Bizz.

You can download the app for free, create a profile and instantly connect with people in your area.

I’m only discussing my experience with BFF mode since I haven’t tried the other two. In fact, you can disable the other platforms all together if you don’t plan to use them. In BFF mode, you’ll only see profiles of the same gender you select when setting up your account.

Spoiler Alert

I have so many new friends! After a few months, I had connected with dozens of women. Of those, I met up with about ten, and ended up with a handful of new friends that I adore! Just yesterday I met a friend for ice cream, art, and dinner (yes, in that order). I met her through Bumble almost a year ago and we’re still hanging out. Next week, I’m grabbing a drink with someone I connected with a few days ago.

For more ideas on how to embrace your unexpectedly childfree life, check out my book review of “Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again.”

Getting Started

My actual Bumble BFF profile.

  1. Create your account. If you already use Bumble Date: tap on “Bumble Date” at the top of the page. From here, you can toggle to Bumble BFF to get started. If you’re new to Bumble: select ‘New Friends’ when creating your account.
  2. Set up your profile. You can add photos, fill in the “about me” section, and basic info. You also have the option to link your Instagram account so users can view your pics.
  3. Choose your settings. In the “settings” tab, you have the option to disable Bumble Date. You also have the option to select the age range and distance of your desired friends.
  4. Start making friends! You can now view the profiles of potential friends. When a new profile pops up, look through their info to decide if you’re interested in connecting with them. If you are, swipe right on your screen; if not, swipe left.
  5. Get connected. If someone you swiped right on also swipes right on you, Bumble will notify you that you have a new match. Now you can message your new friend directly. But don’t wait too long, the match will expire after 24 hours if neither of you reaches out to the other.

So, does it work?

For me, it absolutely did! I’ve met some amazing women over the past few months and made a few new besties. I live in a small town so you don’t have to be in a big city for this to work.

Tips for Success

  • Include what makes you unique in your profile. I’m surprised at how many women don’t include any info in their profiles, just a few pics. Or, how many read exactly the same. I can’t tell you how many women only list wine and Netflix as interests. Let your personality and interests show through!
  • Make the first move. I’m not gonna lie, it’s awkward to connect with strangers. But you’re both there because you are looking to make new friends. Be brave! Send that message, set up that hangout! You’ll be glad you did.
  • If you’re looking for friends who aren’t parents, include that you’re childfree in your profile. It will help others who are also looking for childfree friends find you.
  • Be patient. Making new friends kind of feels like dating. You’ll probably have to hang out with a few people before you find the ones you connect with. Keep trying!
  • Have fun! Your new besties are waiting for you!

What does making friends have to do with embracing a childfree life?

My actual Bumble BFF profile.

Part of embracing an unexpectedly childfree life means shaping your identity as a nonparent. Making new friends is a fun way to explore that.

In the past year, I’ve met other women and couples who don’t have kids and it’s been amazing! They help me identify the benefits of a childfree life, and are so much fun to spend time with. I love my friends with kids (love you so much!) but it’s been affirming to add a few friends who can provide a different perspective. If you’re coming out of infertility, making new friends can also help you reconnect to other aspects of yourself that may have been on the backburner.

Good luck!

Click here for more posts on designing an unexpectedly childfree life.

Have you tried Bumble BFF? How did it go? Let me know in the comments.

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I used to be infertile. According to Jean and Michael Carter, authors of Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again, “you can stop being infertile even if you are not fertile.” That “when a couple is no longer ‘trying to get pregnant’, they are no longer infertile. They no longer have the medical problem called infertility.”

I have a lot of books I want to review but I’m starting with this one because it played a monumental role in helping me see a path forward after infertility.

Who should read it?

Anyone who feels they are reaching their limit for how much they are willing to sacrifice in trying to create a baby. Whether that’s time, money, physical or mental health, or energy. Maybe you have run out of options for fertility treatments or aren’t willing or able to pursue the options available, but the alternative of a childless life is terrifying to you. Maybe you stopped trying to get pregnant or gave up on your dream of motherhood a long time ago but find that you can’t move past your grief, and infertility and childlessness is still dominating your identity. Read this book.

While the main audience for this book is those who are infertile, it also applies to those who are childless by circumstance. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, check out Jody Day’s list of “50 Ways to Not be a Mother.”

Lastly, this is a great read for those who want to support a loved one who is moving from infertility to a life without children and you’re not sure how to help or don’t understand why they are making the decision to stop trying. Read this book.

The gist.

The main theme of Sweet Grapes is that “you may be able to transform yourself from childless to childfree, from a life defined by what you don’t have to a life defined by the opportunities that living without children can bring…there is hope that your infertility crisis can be resolved and you can get on with your life, even if you don’t end up with a child.”

If you’re in the midst of infertility and are holding on to the hope of a baby, this idea probably terrifies you. Those of us who end our infertility journeys broken and babyless are the worst nightmares of those who are still trying. In the midst of infertility, you need to believe the odds are in your favor. However, if you are getting to a stopping point you absolutely need a new dream, something new to hope for. The authors propose that the “decision to live childfree is not giving up hope but finding hope once again, the hope that you can have a good life without children.”

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. The authors recognize that “infertility is one of the most traumatic experiences you can endure.” The transition from childless to childfree is hard and your loss and grief won’t vanish completely, but you can create a new vision for a rich and satisfying life that is waiting for you, even if it looks different than the one you originally planned.

In the book, the authors propose a four step process to move from childless to childfree that looks like this:

  1. You begin with a need for something better, and a hope that you can find joy in life again. Also important at the beginning is an awareness that choice is possible, that childfree is possible.
  2. You search yourself for any decision blockers and work to reduce or eliminate them. It is necessary to grieve for and accept the loss of your fertility before you can work on living childfree. But even with acceptance of the loss, there are other blockers that could obstruct your decision making.
  3. Then you do the real work of making a choice. You communicate, and through communication you search out ways to redefine your life according to the potential gains to be found in living without children. You try on the idea of living childfree and see how it fits.
  4. If you find that living childfree feels right, you commit to it by registering the decision and living out the benefits that childfree offers.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is it includes an amazing section on step two: working through grief. This was helpful for me because so many resources on grief specifically focus on death. “Infertility, however, is what one psychologist calls a deathless death. What makes infertility so painful is that there are so many focuses for grief: every trip to the doctor, every pregnant woman we see, every month when the period begins.”

I appreciated that the authors included so much information on moving through grief because to me it seems this is the most challenging aspect of coming to terms with being childless. The book includes a few different grief models outlined by psychologists Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and John Schneider, and how they apply to an infertility crisis specifically. They also talk about the importance of actively working through grief instead of getting stuck in it, and how this can make all the difference in making peace with your situation.

For example, denial, in Schneider’s model, comes from the defense mechanisms of holding on or letting go.

Holding on is a strategy by which people attempt to cope with a loss either by ignoring it or by trying to direct their energies in another direction. Letting go…is a strategy through which people try to cope with their loss by minimizing that loss as much as possible. They convince themselves that what they have lost is not important anyway…Both holding on and letting go are normal responses to pain of a loss or a potential loss. It hurts and we want to limit the hurt. However, when people rely too much on these coping mechanisms, they become stagnated in this phase, unable to take their grief any further. The problem with this is that while we are holding on or letting go, grief cannot run its beneficial course. You can’t grieve as long as you deny that there is a loss.

The book also talks about two concepts that many in the infertility world might say they no longer have: choice and control. In Jean and Michael’s opinion, living childfree requires making a conscious choice. The alternative choice is trying the next treatment or taking steps to adopt. Those who don’t choose anything becoming what they refer to as drifters, “people who don’t decide to stop treatment, they just don’t bother to go the the doctor any more. They don’t decide not to adopt, they just never get around to it…they don’t decide to live childfree; they remain childless.”

So what does it mean to choose to live childfree? “It means embracing your childlessness as a positive state, as an opportunity for growth, as a path to greater achievement and happiness. It means no longer defining yourself in terms of what you don’t have. It means changing failure into success, negative into positive. It means reclaiming the energy that allows you to be yourself again.” It’s passages like this that make me love this book so much. Wisdom from those who moved past their infertility crisis to create a rich, beautiful life without children.

Other topics in Sweet Grapes include: dealing with regret, how to prepare for not having children in a pronatalist society, finding new outlets for your maternal instinct, planning for old age, what reactions you can expect from family and friends, adoption, and redefining your identity.

The pros.

The authors, Jean and Michael Carter, do a fantastic job of incorporating their own story as well as research studies, relevant theories, and advice. The writing duo is a married couple who experienced infertility and, when their journey didn’t end with a babe in arms, decided to move to plan B by embracing the benefits of not having children.

This book was written in 1998 so it was ahead of its time and one of the first to focus on how to move forward when infertility doesn’t end with a baby. While there are more current books out there, this one is unique in how it frames the concept of transitioning from childless to childfree.

I bought this book while I was planning a second IVF round, but didn’t read it then because the idea terrified me. The thought of getting to the end of my infertility journey without being a mom was too painful for me to consider. But, as my endometriosis pain got worse and it became clear that another IVF round would do too much harm to my body, this book helped me make the difficult decision to stop treatment. It was a godsend because it gave me hope, a new vision for a happy and fulfilled life without children.

If you are still trying to get pregnant but are realizing you may be reaching the limits of what you can sacrifice in hope of a baby, read this book.

The cons.

This book was written in 1998. Because of that, it does feel dated at times. The terminology, societal context, research, and statistics all reflect that. I would love to see an updated version.

My second issue with the book is it’s very repetitive and a bit disorganized. The authors have a few ideas they obviously loved and keep repeating them with slightly different wording throughout the book. A few more rounds of edits and reorganizing some of the content would have improved readability.

Favorite quotes.

“Instead of being unsuccessful parents-to-be, we were very successful nonparents. Failure was no longer the major theme of our lives.”

 

“According to this medical definition, infertility is a very specific and limited condition. It doesn’t mean that your marriage is infertile or that your life is infertile.”

 

“We realized that choosing to live childfree is just as ‘successful’ a way of resolving an infertility crisis as having a biological child or adopting. It is not a failure or resignation to fate, instead, it is an affirmation of who we are and of our ability to live full, productive, happy lives because of who we are. We discovered that we don’t need children to be a family.”

 

“There is more than one way to ‘cure’ infertility. One is by becoming fertile, having a child of your own genetic structure. That’s the cure we all hope for during our infertility workup and treatment. But there is another cure, too: by no longer wanting to get pregnant. One way to effect this second cure is by putting your dreams of a biological child behind you and deciding to adopt. Another way is by discovering that for you, life without children can be rich and satisfying, and thus you no longer want to have children.”

 

“There is no equation in which three romantic dinners equal one wet kiss on cheek. On the other hand, if there are some benefits to living without children, why not take advantage of them?”

 

“I am learning that I am limited as a person only as far as I allow myself to be, that my happiness does not depend on having children. I must let go of what I do not have and concentrate on what I can become.”

Have you read Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again? What did you think?

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Whether you’re childfree by choice, circumstance or infertility the questions “Do you have kids?” or “When are you having kids?” probably induce some type of negative emotion, ranging from annoyance to dread. My guess is that 95% of people asking you these questions are just trying to engage in small talk or idle chit-chat, and the other 5% are being tactless and nosy. Either way, they are expecting your response to be “yes” or “not yet”. Anything outside of this can put you both in awkward territory fast. If you plan to interact with other humans you probably can’t avoid these questions, but coming up with a few answers in advance can help you feel more in control of the situation.

Why is it such a big deal?

Maybe you are in the middle of infertility, just broke up with the partner you planned to have kids with, are single and at the end of your fertile years, are in a same-sex relationship and can’t afford expensive fertility treatments, your adoption just fell through, whatever the reason, you are trying to process the fact that no matter how much you desire it, a baby is not in the cards for you. You’re going through something personal and excruciating and strangers, colleagues, relatives, and friends are standing ready to unknowingly poke your open wound.

I have two personal examples that were particularly painful for me.

The first was a month before my scheduled hysterectomy. I was at an event, with endometriosis symptoms so bad it hurt to move. I was seated at a formal dinner, doing my best to make it through the event so I could get back to my bed and heating pad. I was chatting with people at the table when someone asked me “Do you have kids?” “No, I don’t,” I replied, feeling pretty good about my ability to respond without getting teary. It was the next question I was unprepared for, “Do you want them?” My stomach dropped and I felt my eyes filling with tears. I knew this wonderful woman sitting next to me was just trying to make small talk. She had no idea what this question would trigger.

How was I supposed to answer? Honestly? “Yes, we’ve been trying for over 3 years including a failed IVF cycle. I’m depressed, barely holding it together and am having a hysterectomy next month. I want a baby more than anything and my dream is turning black and disintegrating before my eyes.” Yeah, that wasn’t going to work. I looked around the table and thought of the humiliation that would come with a full on teary breakdown and took a deep breath. Before I could really think, I heard myself respond, “No, we’re not planning to have them.” It felt so inauthentic! To give this woman the impression that I didn’t want kids felt like a betrayal of everything my spouse and I had been through the last few years.

The second was on Mother’s Day, 5 months after my hysterectomy. My husband and I were eating lunch at a restaurant when the waitress unexpectedly asked:

“Are you a mom?”
“No,” I replied.
“Do you have pets?”
“Nope.”
“Oh. I was going to tell you Happy Mother’s Day but, never-mind.”

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. As she walked away, tears started streaming down my face. I frantically said to my husband “Quick, tell me about the fun plans we have this year,” I needed an immediate distraction as I was on the verge of a full on public melt-down.

Planning your response in advance.

It would be naive to think we can control when and how emotions will hit us. To some degree, these situations may always be difficult, but I’m hoping with the passage of time and a little preparation we can feel more in control when they arise.

I think it helps to have a few prepared responses you can choose from depending on the situation. Here are some factors that may influence your response:

Who’s asking?

  • Is it a stranger, a colleague, a close friend, an uncle you see once a year?

Where are you physically?

  • Are you in public or at a work event where you don’t want to risk a strong emotional response?
  • Are you three drinks in and can feel those emotions right at the surface?
  • Are you at home, cozy and enjoying tea with a supportive bestie?

Where are you in your journey?

  • Did you just find out your IVF cycle failed, you’re feeling hopeless and your body is still full of a billion hormones?
  • Did you decide to move toward a childfree life 20 years ago and are now living a happy and fulfilled amazing life with no regrets?

What outcome are you hoping for?

  • Do you want to raise awareness about infertility or why it’s rude to ask these questions?
  • Are you hoping to dodge the question by changing the subject?
  • Are you feeling salty and wanting to shut them down?
  • Are you hoping to open up to someone who can provide support and comfort?

You can see how different situations may call for different responses and impact how authentic and vulnerable you choose to be. In any situation, try to remember that you don’t owe anyone an answer. What and how much you choose to disclose is entirely up to you.

Some examples to get you started.

Goal: Change the subject quickly without inviting follow up questions.
This is my go-to most of the time. It’s a great way to respond to strangers or in situations where you just don’t want to deal with it.

  • “I don’t. Do you?”
  • “No, but I have an adorable _______ (dog, cat, iguana, niece, nephew, spouse, partner) that I can’t get enough of.”
  • Shrug and ask a totally off topic question. (How’s work going? What did I miss at book club last week? How’s your coffee?)
  • “No, all my time and energy has been going to ________ (a home remodel, a hobby, an interesting work project, political activism, volunteer work, planning a trip) lately.”

Goal: Respond honestly.
I’m working to perfect this one but only attempt it when I’m feeling particularly strong and unemotional. I’ve realized if I respond confidently and without sadness in my voice it typically goes well. If I get emotional, the other person wants to comfort me, will respond with pity, will probably say something stupid or tactless, and make me more emotional. Also, honesty may invite follow up comments like, “You should adopt!” or “My friend…(ends with a miracle baby story)” or “You should try…” or a stream of platitudes. Proceed with caution!

  • “No, I wasn’t able to so I’m moving forward and am focusing on the benefits of a childfree life.”
  • “My uterus was defective so it wasn’t in the cards for us.”
  • “You know, I never met the right person.”
  • “I wanted to when I was younger but am really happy where I am.”
  • “We gave up after spending $30k in infertility treatments.”
  • “We tried for a long time but it didn’t work out.”

Goal: Shut it down!
This is gonna get awkward. Maybe don’t try this with someone you’re hoping to continue a relationship with. Also, I fantasize about these responses but would never have the guts to use them.

  • “Wow, that’s a really personal question. I’d rather not talk about that.”
  • “How’s your sex life? Oh, I’m sorry if that made you uncomfortable. Your question was so personal, I thought we had reached that level of intimate conversation.”
  • “I want to but we can’t afford infertility treatments. Can I borrow $30k?”
  • “The answer is somewhere in my medical records. Do you want me to send you a copy?”
  • “You ask me this every time I see you! Why are you so obsessed with my uterus?”

For the research nerds.

Last year I found a research article called Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study of Women Living Without Children After Infertility by Marni Rosner. It’s fantastic and I’ll be talking more about it in future posts. In it, she mentions a concept by another researcher named Goffman called “face-work” that made me think differently about the factors at play when we engage in these conversations. I’m going to paraphrase but encourage you to check out the link to the research article above.

The basic idea is that we have a “face” or persona that we present when we engage with others. If our “face” is supported and validated during the interaction, we feel more confidence and acceptance. If it’s not, we feel shamed or threatened. We can protect our “face” or persona through social skills and diplomacy. On the other hand, we are also supposed to protect others’ “face” by avoiding insults or faux pas. Here’s how Marni Rosner relates this concept to infertility, although I think it could extend to women who are childless by circumstance as well:

The woman grieving the loss of her fertility often becomes careful regarding the face she presents in her social interactions. If she reveals her sorrow, she risks feeling unacknowledged and shamed if her grief is passed over; if she shows her displeasure with another’s response, she risks committing a social faux pas in not preserving another’s face. Most significantly, interactions that were previously easy and uncomplicated risk becoming complex and problematic. As a result, relationships may be interrupted, resulting in further limiting self-disclosure. Yet, self-disclosure is critical to integrating the loss into one’s identity and assisting with the sense making process.

Damn! So you can see how complex this dance is. Someone asks a question that is meant to be small talk or a way of creating an instant connection through a shared experience (having kids). But when the person being asked doesn’t have kids, they have to think about how to save their own “face” and the questioner’s “face” when formulating a response. If they respond honestly, they may not get the support and approval they are hoping for and that may lead to more shame and reinforce their desire to not respond honestly or disclose in the future. But that disclosure is instrumental to their healing and forming a childfree identity. Responding with honesty may also make the questioner feel uncomfortable and like you aren’t protecting their “face” by pointing out their faux pas in asking the question.

Let’s be honest, these situations are full of emotional landmines. But with some advanced planning and practice, hopefully they get easier over time. If you haven’t already planned a few responses, I hope this inspired you to start brainstorming so you feel more in control the next time someone asks if you have kids. And if you’re one of those people who uses “Do you have kids?” as an opener, maybe it’s time to get a new schtick.

How about you? What responses have you tried that work well? How do you navigate this situation?

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