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Designing a Childfree Life

Designing your life after making the decision to be childfree.

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?


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?”
“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?


There are moments so life-altering that as you experience them you know you will never be the same again. That forever after, you think of your life as pre and post the experience. Birth, death, marriage, heartbreak, can change who you are so completely that it alters your identity. These moments are so powerful because of the gain or loss we experience as a result. A birth or marriage expands families and relationships. Death and heartbreak sever them.

Throughout my life, I assumed that having a baby would be one of those life-altering experiences for me. That I would have clearly defined chapters labeled “before I was a mom” and “after I was a mom”. In 2013, I started trying to get pregnant. Four years later that journey ended, not with the ever elusive yet longed for miracle baby, but with a hysterectomy.

I was wildly unprepared for this and it knocked me into a lonely, dark place. I had planned on a beautiful, life-altering event and experienced the opposite: loss and grief that consumed me to the core. So I did what I always do when my anxiety-ridden brain feels a loss of control. I researched. I read everything I could find on living an unexpectedly childfree life, found supportive online communities, went to therapy, read memoirs, talked to friends and family, tapped into spirituality, you name it.

I was looking for a road map. Instructions on how to move forward when just getting out of bed felt impossible. Unfortunately, there isn’t an aisle in the bookstore for this situation. The path feels lonely and untrodden. Slowly though, I’ve been gathering resources that, cobbled together, are helping me design an unexpectedly childfree life. Giving me a path forward through the grief and anger.

I’m at the beginning of my journey and I don’t have all the answers, but I have found hope through the wisdom and stories of women who started this journey long before me. Who have cleared the brush and left footprints for me to follow. Through Chasing Creation, I hope to share the resources I find along my journey, to add a bit of light for my sisters that will follow on this path.

Maybe together we can answer the question that plagues me: can a life defining moment that feels so devastating and full of loss eventually be redesigned into something beautiful?

For those of you on this journey with me, I hope we can connect through this project. That together we can share our wisdom, move forward on the path, and get to a place in our journey where we can yell a resounding “YES” to those just starting out.

How about you? Where have you gone to build community and healing?

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