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City Sanctuary Therapy - Dr. Joyline Gozho

Counselling, Psychotherapy, CBT and Couples Therapy in London Bridge, City of London,

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, and Online

Normalising and embracing childlessness in women

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Normalising and embracing childlessness in women

ln a world that is fast changing, the family structures, as well as relationship frames are also changing. Traditionally a family as a concept was made up of a father (man) who is the breadwinner, a mother (woman) who is the child rarer, and children raised by two parents.


Women typically stayed at home and reared the children, until they started rearing their own grandchildren. Women were primed to be the mothers, homekeepers, and family caregivers. The industrial revolution was indeed a paradigm shift which was defined by women leaving their culturally assigned roles of unpaid housework, into paid employment, which some will consider the beginning of feminism.

In contrast, men have always enjoyed the more superior role of being the provider, and naturally the head of the family- modern society still emulates similar dynamics. For our ancestors who were hunter-gatherers, men went to do the hunting, while women did the cooking of the catch. Despite the more recent shifts in gender roles, women have largely remained the carers, while men are the providers. These gender disparities create implicit power imbalances between men and women.

Patriarchy is a societal system which stems from the very notion that men are the rulers, and women are the ones to be ruled.  Interesting to note is the etymology of the word patriarchy, which is an English word coined from the Greek word “patriarkhes”, which means “the rule of the father”.

Changes to the family unit as well as the relationship frame in contemporary times mean we now have families made up of two men or two women in a same-sex relationship, raising their children. Advancement in the medical world means some same-sex couples can have biological children and raise them in the context of a same-sex parental home and family unit – for example, Sir Elton John.

There are families made up of two partners who are either married or unmarried and a pet. Other families are made up of two partners raising stepchildren, adoptive children, or foster children. Partners who choose to be childless can still identify themselves as a family, while individuals who are not in relationships and choose to be childless, can have what they consider their “chosen families”. These deviations from the traditional family and relationship frame made up of a father, mother, and their biological children need to be highlighted.

Voluntary and involuntary childlessness

As a therapist who has worked extensively with women who are childless by choice or due to fertility issues, I have become aware of the difference in the trajectory these women take in their journeys to childlessness and the associated emotional vicissitudes.

We tend to take the ability to conceive and gestate a live baby for granted, as it comes easy and spontaneously for some. However, many women do suffer from complex fertility issues which leaves them incapable of conceiving or gestating. In contrast, some women make a conscious decision at some point in their lives not to have children, and they never make any attempts to try. Although the outcomes are the same between women who voluntarily don’t have children and those who do so involuntarily, the difference between these two camps is the notion of choice.

Not wanting something because you are not interested in it, is different to wanting it and being denied. The woman who made the choice not to have children will have a very different experience from the one who did not make a choice and tried without success. This means involuntary childlessness, is encumbered by a sense of loss and grief and mourning for what could have been – a child, a family with children, and coming to terms with the reality.

Women who became childless by choice don’t tend to experience grief and loss as the decision not to have children is made consciously. They would have thought through and worked through it. This important distinction is significant as it helps us consider how we approach childlessness, and how we relate to childless individuals. I notice that in my using the the word child-less, less implies a lack! Childfree is more appropriate; however, I will stick to childless.

Some of the reasons why women may be childless

Women’s identities in society have changed over time. One of the ways that women are fighting patriarchy is by holding the same positions in their careers, and in jobs traditionally held by men. Gender roles have changed. There are now stay-at-home dads, female CEOs, wives who are breadwinners etc. We have even seen female presidents, and vice presidents which highlights some of the changes. What has not changed is that only women can carry a pregnancy and mother.

1. Career focus

For career-driven women, there is often a tension between their career and child-rearing, starting a family. It is often the case that the fertility window gets narrower as their careers are at their peak. Pausing one’s career to start having children can indeed be a big impingement on one’s career that they would have worked hard to achieve.

It's more natural and sensible for these women to make the decision to pursue their careers, and put off having any children. This choice aligns with their lifestyle, values, and trajectory in life. It is a decision that many women tend not to regret, as their decisions it out of choice.

2. Personal choice

Some women just make the decision from very early on in their lives, or at some point in their lives that they do not want to have children. This may be because they want to enjoy their independence, and not have to hold the responsibility of raising a child. Some radical feminists consider having children as a way society uses women as childbearing vessels and child-rearing tools. One of the ways of fighting patriarchy is by claiming the right to their bodies (womb) and how they use it.

3. Early trauma

Some women would have experienced early trauma in their own childhood, and becoming parents is something that they naturally become averse to. Adversity in childhood, such as emotional neglect, abuse, witnessing parental conflict, or discordant parental relationships informs their decision to not have children.

They may be aware of the lack of inner resources to parent due to their own deficits and, therefore, choose not to have children. Some of these women may not be conscious of how the past trauma informs their decision-making, which comes to light when they start therapy.

4. Fertility issues

A huge number of women who are childless are people who had wanted to have children and were not successful due to fertility issues. Gynaecological health issues are widespread with millions of women diagnosed with fibroids, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome etc.

These women will experience complexities in their attempts to conceive, which can be very traumatic and emotionally wounding. These women’s childlessness and trajectory in life are very different to those who voluntarily choose not to have children.

5. Socio, economic, political

The socio, economic, and political climate is very unstable now. This drives some women to become reticent about bringing children into a world with so much volatility. The rising cost of living, crime, safety threats, and the political quagmire is something that not only affects us now but future generations.

For some, they would not want to rear children in a world that is unsafe and turbulent, therefore shaping their decisions not to have children. I have heard women who choose not to have children in respect of climate change, and the world becoming overpopulated, which is a potent reason.

Societal attitudes towards childlessness

There remains a lot of stigma, shame, and negative attitudes towards women who are childless, whether voluntarily, or involuntarily. No one should go around declaring why they are childless. Society never really considers the reasons for it - the tragic stories behind some of these childless women, which include fertility problems, childhood trauma etc.

Voluntary childlessness is a personal decision and choice one makes; however, society still tends to treat voluntary childlessness as something selfish and irresponsible. Women who choose to be child-free do not have to declare their reasons for it; it is perfectly within their rights to do so. Yet they are made to feel that they have to explain themselves and they have done something immoral.

Although this shaming is common in most cultures, certain cultures tend to treat childless women more harshly than others - for example, the Black and Asian cultures. In these communities, by a certain age, women are mandated to be in marriage with a husband and children. This curtails their careers, and any other life plans these women may have. Without fulfilling this family obligation, one is met with a lot of contempt and condemnation, as they are seen as not following the family values. Some of these women unconsciously rebel by never having children or getting married. This is also their way of claiming their autonomy over their lives and bodies.

While not having a child is a personal decision, from the stories l have heard, it is often met with a lot of antipathy, scorn, pity and judgement from family and friends. Typically, family and friends tend to look down on the child-free person simply because they are childless.

Direct or indirect questions tend to be asked about why one is not a parent “yet”. At times it's sarcasm. Family gatherings become a source of stress and anxiety as these environments breed these antisocial and pernicious enquiries. This behaviour and line of questioning is inappropriate as one’s decision not to have children is indeed a personal one.

When you pity someone, you are inadvertently looking down on them, casting your shadow on them. Pity is something that most women who are childless feel from others. They are seen as misfits, and people who have failed in some way, no matter how successful they are in other areas of their lives. This does indeed impact the mental health of people who legitimately have reasons not to have children - out of choice or through circumstances - they are judged by societal standards. These attitudes are even more harmful to women who may have wanted children and failed due to fertility issues.

Self-care tips for childless women

1. For the childless woman, it’s important to create boundaries with others who may ask personal questions about your decision not to have children. You don’t have to explain your decisions to anyone, and you don’t owe them an explanation of your decision.

2. Family members and friends, if you are around somebody who is childless do not always ask personal questions about their decisions or put your judgement on their decisions. Having a child is not a sign of success, nor is choosing to be child-free a failure.

3. Instead of judging others for what you consider a failure, be curious and learn to appreciate their own decisions and choices, without casting your own views. Some women’s stories are those of trauma - when you open yourself up to the understanding that our motivations are shaped by our life foundations, we can have more empathy and compassion instead of judgements.

4. For women who did not volunteer to be child-free, but couldn’t due to circumstances, it’s important to consider this as a loss of what could’ve been. Every loss is followed by grief; it is paramount that one works through that grief and comes to a place of acceptance. Without doing that, seeing other families with children will always be triggering, as there is a reminder of what could have been - a wound that is not healed. Also being asked questions about why one does not have children also becomes very painful if the wound is sore.

5. For women who were not able to conceive naturally, consider adoption, or fostering. There are many children out there who need love and a safe home. Being a loving and nurturing parent who can provide them with a warm loving environment will change their world. And it will change yours too.

6. In general let's view childlessness as a normal experience, not an aberration that invites scrutiny. Women have the right to make decisions about their bodies and their lives.

© Joyline Gozho

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