As Helen’s face appeared on the screen I knew instantly this was going to be a good conversation.
We covered so much, so much in-fact this piece started of over 15,000 words long. One thing we did touch on and is not mentioned below but I wish to highlight as I feel its really important.
Helen is a creative, a very talented creative and I have put some of her work at the close of her interview. When we were taking Helen called her work ‘silly’. I was very quick to catch this and ask, ‘why?’ We spent a long time exploring why it felt silly, if indeed it was silly. We came to the conclusion that it was far from silly, it brings Helen joy and she is clearly talented . The reason I wanted to note this, is often we can view things we do as silly, and often it is connected to our playful creative side. I feel its of upmost importance to nurture this side, to engage it and indulge it. I truly believe that if it makes you smile then it can not be silly.
Lets give credit to what we do.
Helen’s story in powerful and thoughtful. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed taking with Helen.
Can you share a little bit about yourself?
I live in the US and I grew up in Seattle, Washington State on the West Coast. I have moved all over, I went to school in San Francisco for a little while. I’ve had different sorts of careers; I went to school for architecture for a little while, and then decided what I really enjoyed was urban planning.
I got a certificate in massage therapy, and did that for a little while. I’ve been mostly working in non-profits, primarily for the last while.
I live here in New Mexico with my husband. We’re actually; celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary later this month. We really have kind of a quiet life, which is nice. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted the two of us our two cats and our dog. I really love art; I do a lot of painting, sketching and lino printing.
I would say I’m kind of a true classical introvert.
Anotherhood is about turning up the volume of the voices of women who do not have children, can you tell us why you wish to share your story with Anotherhood?
I have benefited so much from others sharing their stories. Every story has helped me feel less alone and has helped me feel more confident about being open with my own story. I hope by sharing my story I contribute to reducing the stigma so many of us feel around not having children. Sharing my story also helps me remember that I’m not alone and that there are people like you two who are listening and working to connect those of us who don’t have children.
Can you share with us what was happening in your life when you realised you would not be having children?
I realized I would not be having children about a year ago, after about three years of pursuing parenthood. Two of those years were spent going through fertility treatment, during which we discovered that both my husband and I have infertility factors. I have diminished ovarian reserve, adenomyosis, and likely endometriosis, and my husband has DNA fragmentation. Our first intrauterine insemination (IUI) procedure resulted in a pregnancy and we were so excited. Then I miscarried around 5-6 weeks with no clear answers as to why. We went on to have three more IUIs with no pregnancies. We switched fertility clinics and moved on to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Our first and only round of IVF resulted in one viable embryo, which became my second pregnancy. After weeks of everything looking healthy, I had another miscarriage at about 8 weeks. Again, there were no clear answers as to why, but it was likely a combination of all our infertility factors.
Conversations with our doctor made it clear that doing more rounds of IVF was likely our only real chance for future pregnancies, and that chance was pretty low due to all our infertility factors. For weeks after my second miscarriage, my husband and I found ourselves asking the same question: “how many more miscarriages can we handle?” Looking back, it seems clear now that what we were really asking was, “do we want to keep trying and risk the same devastating outcome plus more financial debt?” The answer to the original question was “none” and the answer to the second was “no.” Even though our chances of having a healthy pregnancy probably weren’t zero, even though our desire to be parents hadn’t disappeared.
You spoke about making the active decision to stop trying because it wasn’t financially viable but more importantly it sounded like it wasn’t emotionally viable for you. You touched a little bit on it but what was it like for you after you made that decision?
It was a lot of different things, the main feeling was relief in a lot of ways because I realised I had become terrified of being pregnant again. With all I mentioned, like our medical conditions, it was not likely that I would have a viable pregnancy. So there was a lot of relief in knowing that once we had made that decision that I was also making a decision not to go through the possibility of another miscarriage.
There was a lot of guilt as well. The guilt was pretty big. Feeling guilty that, I didn’t try hard enough, maybe I stopped right before and the next time would have worked.
A lot of the guilt, I think is tied to my family. I am the oldest of three siblings I have two younger brothers. My middle brother is not going to have kids. My youngest brother is 26 and he’s in law school so, that’s probably not happening for him for a while if he wants to and I’m not really sure if he does. My parents want to be grandparents and a lot of the guilt was around not being able to give them grandchildren.
I realise it was guilt about not fulfilling the role that they had expected of me.
There is a lot of grief and loss as well. I mentioned kids always being a part of my life forever. I had always thought about being a parent and that’s been our plan. That’s part of why my husband and I got together because we both wanted children.
A lot of different feelings but the relief was big, the grief is still big.
What has been your experience in sharing your journey of not having children with those who are important to you?
I’ve been very lucky to have a few close friends who have been very supportive. They don’t fully understand because they haven’t experienced infertility or childlessness, but that hasn’t stopped them from asking about our journey or from being empathetic and caring. Outside of those few close friends, most people don’t know what to say, so they generally say they’re sorry and then don’t bring it up again. I think people want to help but don’t know how and are afraid to ask. Some people have encouraged us to keep trying, to start up treatments again, or try working with another fertility clinic. That’s the most frustrating response because making the decision to stop trying was extremely difficult for us, and I feel like I have to defend or justify that decision. That might be more of a me problem, but I haven’t quite figured out how to respond to those “suggestions” without feeling really frustrated and hurt.
What do you think would be a useful response for you in a conversation when you say you are unable to have children?
That is a really tough one; I think just an immediate kind of acceptance.
I have a therapist and she’s met that with;
“That must be really difficult, I’m really sorry, that’s something you’re struggling with.”
I feel that’s really valuable it feels the kindest, helpful and non-judgmental way to respond. That’s all that’s needed really, a form of acknowledgement, as it is hard and not what you had planned for your life.
I wonder has it impacted relationships with those around you, in the past and to this present day?
Right after my second miscarriage and our decision to stop pursuing parenthood, I was very angry and sad and feeling lost. I felt like sharing those feelings with friends and family was a burden, so I kind of shut down. I tried to hide how hurt I was, which made me feel removed from people. Today, I do still feel a bit distant or removed from a lot of the people in my life because most of the people in my life have kids or want to, and that’s a huge part of their lives. I’ll never be a parent, so as much as I love kids, I can’t fully participate in the conversations parents have about their kids. To borrow my husband’s analogy, it feels like we’re now side characters in a story in which parents are the main characters. I have some friends who are childfree by choice who provide a kind of model for what our lives could look like without children, and I’m trying to build new friendships with people I’ve met through online communities like Anotherhood.
Do you feel not having children has impacted the way you view your body?
Yes, and I’m still navigating that. Finding out it was extremely unlikely that I’d be able to have children like most people do and then undergoing infertility treatments made me feel out of control of my body. I couldn’t get pregnant “naturally” like my body was “supposed” to, and the fertility medications gave me lots of uncomfortable side effects. Each time I got pregnant, my body changed and then never changed back, so I feel like I’m getting to know a new body in some ways. It’s a little disorienting at times, but it’s also empowering to think that it’s just me in here and I’m trying to take back some of the control I lost along the way.
What has been the most challenging part of your experience of not having children?
Figuring out what our life looks like long-term has been the most challenging part so far. Part of why my husband and I got married was because we both wanted children. Our plan for our lives always involved having and raising children, and there’s a general societal map for that. There’s not really a map now, and that feels overwhelming. Even before we started trying to have kids, we made decisions to accommodate kids. We made decisions about where to live, what jobs to take, which dog to adopt… Now we have more options than we thought we would and we’re trying to figure out what we want to do, what’s best for the two of us.
You spoke about taking back control, I wondered if you’re comfortable could you share anything you’re actively doing that’s helping you feel like you’re taking back control of your life, your body?
I was actually talking about this in my therapy session and realising how many of the decisions I’ve made in my life were about preparing to have a child. Everything from the career I chose. The job I have now I took, because we were starting treatment and I knew it was going to be flexible.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what do I really want to do? What do I really want to do, as a job. Do I want to have a career? Do I want to just have jobs?
I also got into a mindset that in evenings for example I really wouldn’t do the things that I like to do. I think because I was preparing for not being able to do that with a child. I would end up thinking I really want to draw or paint or read a book but, I would get this kind of mental paralysis. I didn’t realise I was telling myself, you can’t do that because in the future, you won’t be able to do that because you will have a child. Which is classic anxiety.
So I’ve been doing the smaller things are really helpful to me, because that is what makes life easier with the anxiety and depression.
I’ve really been starting to set different patterns for myself.
I’ve been taking a Spanish course; I have ordered a bunch of books that I’ve wanted to read. I’ve been starting to work on ideas for art projects.
One of the things that you talk about is society’s pressure on women and probably the first time I could really point to in my life that I felt totally in control of my body when I got that tattoo a few years ago.
I am really enjoying doing stuff with my husband and with our friends and knowing I don’t need to worry that we really could be out all day.
I have been noticing and taking stock and my therapist has been a great help with this. In noticing all the little things that are now open to me that probably wouldn’t have been, it feels good.
As well as the challenges you have experienced, I wonder can you share any positive aspects?
I’m very lucky to have a supportive and patient partner who stuck with me through all the heartbreak and frustration. I never had any doubt he would, but I still feel incredibly lucky to have a strong partnership with him. The process of becoming childless/childfree after infertility brought us closer together in some ways, and I’m not sure that would have happened if we had kids. We’re having conversations about wild dreams we have that are more possible now, and we’re learning more about each other through that. My life is a lot more flexible now than it would have been. I won’t have to make the tough decision about whether to go back to work or stay home with a child, won’t have to plan child-friendly trips, won’t have to worry about inevitable trips to the emergency room, etc. I can prioritize what I want, sleep in on the weekends, and make life decisions based on what’s best for me and for my husband.
If you could change one thing about how not having children is viewed, what would you wish to change?
I think society generally views not having children as sad and/or strange. If you’re someone who can’t have kids due to infertility or other life circumstances, I get the feeling people think we’re always sad or broken, or that our lives will always be incomplete and lacking love. If you’re someone who chooses not to have children, the assumption is that you’re lacking in compassion or hate children or are selfish. I wish people who don’t have children were viewed as whole people.
Anotherhood is about connecting women with shared experiences, I wonder can you share anything that you have found that has helped you to embrace your life without children?
When I was first navigating the decision to stop trying to pursue parenthood and what that really meant, I felt like I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know anyone who had experienced that besides my husband, and I wasn’t finding any support in infertility groups online. I somehow stumbled onto the online childless/childfree community which has been enormously helpful in working towards embracing a life without children. I’m also lucky to have people in my life who are childfree by choice, and that helps me remember that I can have a full life without children. Grieving with the help of my therapist has also been really helpful, as has just acknowledging that this is just really hard and lonely and heart-breaking at times and letting myself feel the loss rather than just papering over it. Not having kids when you’ve wanted to and tried to for so long is awful, and that feeling of loss might never fully go away, but that’s ok. I’ve had a pretty great life without kids thus far, and I can continue that way. I realized I don’t have to be totally ok with everything all at once, and I’ve already made a lot of progress towards acceptance.
If you could travel back in time, knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self?
I would have said that, you know, there is a way to stay true to the values that you hold.
I mean it’s not really a rebellion, but it’s the creativity I guess. Saying there is a way to integrate the creativity, the freedom and the fun you’re having, as an adult, and still have stability.
Are there any podcast/ books that you have found have helped you on your journey?
The Live Childfree podcast with Erik and Melissa is great! So far, I haven’t read or listened to anything else specifically about living childfree/childless, but the podcasts Unladylike and Ologies talk a lot about reducing all sorts of stigma and are just generally really interesting and have helped me get excited about all the things I could do and be in the world.