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How I accepted my 'childless' life

Red (UK) logo Red (UK) 22/03/2019 Lorna Gibb
a bicycle parked in front of a door © Acerebel - Getty Images

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Sometimes in life, we all have to get used to things that aren’t exactly what we might choose. When I was growing up, the very first was that I wouldn’t have the brother or sister I always wanted. Childish longings, followed by more mature realisations on a multitude of issues, were about coming to terms with my world.

Yet I never imagined that I would have to accept that my life would be a childless one. When I met my husband, Alan, parenthood had seemed an important thing to agree early in the relationship and, despite the fact that it can be a difficult topic to navigate, we did so easily in the first few months we were together. Of course, there would be children, probably two. But, in retrospect, I wasn’t a good bet; we just hadn’t learned to read the signs. By the age of 35, I had had severe endometriosis for almost a decade. There were four lots of surgery before we finally knew that we would never be able to have a biological child of our own.

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Realisation didn’t bring acceptance. It brought sadness at the unfairness of it all, anger at the doctors who had wasted so much time dismissing my agonising period pain, guilt that my husband, who was so great with children, would never be a dad because of me. Alan shrugged it all off, saying he almost wished that he was infertile so I would stop blaming myself. There was a sad camaraderie in our predicament, and a lot of love.

Everyone presumed we would have children, and I played along while we had hope, but later the assumption irked me when I realised we could not. There were well-meant questions about our plans. My then workplace had a family friendly policy, and I could rarely choose our holiday times, and always had to work late to fit in with other’s childcare. Occasionally it felt I was being punished for not having children.

I was unsettled and unhappy. The house we had bought just over a year before, a small ex council place with an extra, hopeful bedroom, seemed too empty. The plans we had made seemed obsolete and I had no enthusiasm for the alternatives. We got a cat, called him Ivanhoe, and I doted on him. We decided to travel, taking Ivanhoe with us, to a job I’d been offered as an Associate Professor at Qatar University. There, in the Middle East, I looked for other women like me, hesitantly at first, but then with determination, as I thought of how I might write about the shared experience of being childless in very different cultures.

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From Doha, we moved to the French-Italian border so my husband could take up a job opportunity in Monaco. For the first time ever I found it difficult to make friends. Italian social groups centred around families. I went to a local woman’s group and left when I discovered that the purpose of the group was to share babysitting. I tried to seek out childless women. The role of faith and its outward manifestations in those Ligurian women who refused to give up hope, became more stories to tell, more voices. Alongside the Arabic wives whose husbands had taken a second spouse because they couldn’t have children, there was the Indian woman who told me of her infertile daughter’s tragic suicide. I learned how fortunate I was. Had I been born in Bangladesh, I might have been cast out from my community as a harbinger of bad luck to others. Yet, despite the differences in severity and suffering, commonality existed. Understanding of our shared involuntary childlessness, a future without pregnancy, was a bond that brought me hugs and kindness from women, in other countries, whose lives were far, far more difficult than mine.

With time, Alan and I found that our own way of being, changed. Not in the dramatic way of some people who find themselves in our involuntarily childless state, but gradually, by increments, until we realised we had taken up a different life.

Odd things happened. One close friend fell away - my infertility made her awkward. She didn’t know if she would upset me with her baby photos and toy-strewn living room, so she avoided me. I carefully wrapped baby clothes in daintily decorated paper and sent them as gifts, but received no acknowledgement. Yes, some childless women are caused pain by the sight of other’s children, but I never was. I wished she had asked me, rather than assumed. Normally a stoical person, I was hurt by media reporting and discussions that began with the words ‘As a Parent’. I felt excluded, in some cases even insulted when the rest of the sentence was telling us how caring or sensitive or socially aware that status made the speaker. Phrases like, ‘As a parent I understand how upsetting it would be to lose a child’. I’m not a mother, but I understand that too. Surely I can be empathetic even if my reproductive organs don’t work. It was an indignation I shared with child free women, those who had chosen not to have children. Not having children for whatever reason marked us, even in our supposedly progressive society.

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There was a global assumption that we were less compassionate and more self-centred. The Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, announced that childless women were ‘giving up on society’. Pope Francis said that not having children was selfish. The UK media debated whether a childless woman could make as good a politician as a parent. It didn’t make sense. Even although I was involuntarily childless, I could see that a woman working tirelessly for others in her chosen profession might be just as altruistic as a woman who devoted her time to her offspring, or shared her time between her kids and her career. Phrases beloved of politicians, such as ‘hard working families’, pervaded the media. ‘Was a couple still a family? What about a single person? Did I have to have children to be represented by anyone at all?’ And too often policy assumed that the burden of old age care would lie with sons and daughters, with little to no contingency in place for those without them.

And yet, my life is not without children. Close friends of my husband asked me to name their new-born son. I called him John, after my late dad, because I felt it was the best way of honouring both our families. This year, John’s elder sister, Christina, became my newest goddaughter and my dearest University friend, Michael, made me the godmother to his daughter, Hannah.

Tentatively, I tried to build a relationship with these children, a share in whose lives had been gifted to me. My husband is great with kids and always seems to know how to make them laugh. I do not; at the outset I was oddly bashful, afraid that they would dislike me - perhaps my awkwardness was a testament to the fact that I would never have made a good mother anyway. But children are forgiving and generous and wise. Christina and Hannah and John were oblivious to my insecurities and loved me regardless.

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After five years abroad, we came back to Britain. Now, free of endometriosis pain, following an early menopause, I wanted a career again. We would be nearer to my mum, and to the friends who had been so understanding. It was then my acceptance began. I wasn’t restless anymore, the underlying note of loss that had been playing in the background of my life for four years, became a quiet hum, then fell silent. My husband’s steadfastness had brought me to a place where I knew that he loved my brokenness because that too was part of me.

Now I have a job I love, teaching University students again, young people filled with promise, whom I feel privileged to be able to encourage and educate. We might be a childless couple but our married life is not child free: Hannah, John and Christina are an important part of it. We will never know the experience of having offspring of our own, but the lives we have made despite this, are fulfilled and happy, blessed by the kindness and understanding of others. 

It wasn’t just those closest to us who brought my calm reconciliation of our state. Listening to the stories of women, like me, but different, from societies where infertility was a curse that could see you cast out, shamed, divorced, shunned, taught me how fortunate I am in the life that I live, the love that I have. Helping their voices to be heard in a book became something I could do for myself as well as for them. The other night I asked Alan if he still had sorrow that we didn’t have a child, and he said, ‘Not anymore, the life we’ve made makes me happy. I wouldn’t want to wish it away for something that might have been’.

Gallery: 9 answers to the most common questions about endometriosis that you were too scared to ask [INSIDER]

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