Involuntary childlessness or childless by circumstance is a concept that is alien and not easily understood by people, save for those who endure it
‘Our stories aren’t often told, our experience isn’t honoured and our contribution to the lives of others is often under-appreciated.’
– Jody Day, author, and champion of childless by circumstance women
Roughly 10 years ago, I walked towards the gates of one of Delhi’s most well-known orphanages on a cold, winter morning. A few months prior to that dreaded day, I had received a call from my adoption officer from the same orphanage informing me that I was being considered as an adoptive parent to twins – baby girls, eight months old.
But that winter morning when I declined the adoption and walked out forever,I felt the weight of the colossal failure that my life had become. It felt like someone had stabbed me with a sharp knife and yanked my soul out of my physical body to ensure that I never remained the same.
Pic Courtesy:Pooja Joshi
A decade later, that’s the only truth that has stayed with me. I am no longer the person that I was when I used to dream of having children – my relationships with some of my closest family members and friends finished forever; my own wajood (entity; sense of being) became a lost cause; my mental health collapsed; my decision-making skills worsened; my confidence and self-esteem vanished for the longest time; stringing a sentence together became tough given that I was overall inarticulate; my mood swings oscillated; my career took a beating; I was needy, angry, rebellious, suicidal…
Without getting into the details of why my adoption failed, it’s enough to say that the eventual unpreparedness of my immediate family members was a matter of serious concern for my adoption officer. After giving me four months to make up my mind, she was increasingly “unsure of the family being fit for the children”.
A month after I’d buckled under pressure from the family and said no, the children eventually found a loving home even as I got emotionally crippled, spiralling into the depths of depression that I hadn’t experienced before.
I didn’t like sunlight. I detested the idea of seeing another day. I hated the idea of communicating with family, friends, colleagues. Inflicting pain on myself provided temporary solace – I lost count of how many times I stared into the mirror and slapped myself hard.
I would scream and cry or go completely numb and silent. I attempted suicide on a particularly wretched night when I felt guilty and unworthy. I craved attention, I needed to be heard, I felt unloved, misunderstood…
Sometimes, I faked pregnancy, gently patting my endo belly (common for those who have endometriosis, and a major cause of infertility) in the hope to ‘feel’ what pregnant women, perhaps, felt. I remember having panic attacks in malls upon seeing pregnant couples shopping. I remember gasping for breath when I saw families with their toddlers or when a friend announced her pregnancy.
Sometimes, I faked pregnancy, gently patting my endo belly (common for those who have endometriosis, and a major cause of infertility) in the hope to ‘feel’ what pregnant women, perhaps, felt.
One summer afternoon, in a bookstore, I wondered if I’d seen the same twins with their father? I remember breaking into a cold sweat, fumbling, and fidgeting at the billing section before nervously racing out of there.
The closest I came to describing the pain in a therapy session was imagining it to be like a complicated surgical procedure done without an anesthesia.
While I would’ve never guessed surviving that trauma all those years ago, here I am, a decade later, writing this piece on the grief of being a childless woman in her mid-40s whose life has been a series of unsteady somersaults. All those years ago, I was on a raging cocktail of distress, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, and utter emptiness. What I have now is, quite possibly, a mild hangover of that lethal emotional cocktail that was forced on me.
I don’t know if there was a particular day or a time when the realisation hit me, but I do remember wanting to live again when I decided to start singing after a gap of 20 years. When I picked up the mic and went on stage, I felt I had found my baby. Today, between singing and writing, I am investing my time and energy to nurture and raise my two babies.
Back in the day, I didn’t have support to cope with the pain of being childless by circumstance. Years later, after having helped a couple of friends through their journey of childlessness, it is my hope that this piece resonates with the readers of The Mind Diaries, particularly those who are battling the grief of involuntary childlessness. I am using the term ‘childless’ and not ‘childfree’ because it was not choice but circumstance that led to me having a life without children. I’m childless by circumstance, not childfree by choice.
I don’t know if there was a particular day or a time when the realisation hit me, but I do remember wanting to live again when I decided to start singing after a gap of 20 years.
I had nothing to live for when I experienced failed adoption and to date there is a deep sense of loss that continues to live in my heart. But with the loss there is also acceptance and the power to heal people in similar situations.
They say, we cannot fight fate. While that may be true, we can still try to make sense of life and find the emotional freedom if we wish to. I found mine. I hope you do, too.
Life, unlimited: The journey within
# Understand that you are not alone: The latest figures are damning. According to Orion Market Research Report 2022, 27.5 million couples – about one in six couples – in urban India are impacted by infertility. The blame, unsurprisingly, is mostly shouldered by the woman in most cases, thus, making it worse for this gender to cope with being childless by circumstance. While in India, there aren’t many forums, in the west, Jody Day’s Gateway Women is a remarkable initiative. There’s also Stephanie Joy Phillips who annually organizes online seminars via her World Childless Week. There is a cost involved to join the main forums, but you can always join their social media pages and come away inspired and not alone.
# Find your safe circle: Those friends who are constantly badgering you to have children, making you uncomfortable, it’s time to cut ties with them (really, there’s no other way out). Some will eventually find their way back into your life and fully support you, others will go away as part of this much-needed decluttering exercise.
# Don’t be apologetic for being childless: Don’t be apologetic for feeling bad when this reality is pointed out to you by the so-called ‘well-intentioned’ lot in your circle of family and friends.
# Understand your triggers: A childless not by choice (CNBC) friend once confessed that she hated being called for birthday parties. I was upset when a friend didn’t invite me to her son’s party, reasoning, ‘you don’t have children, so you’d have been bored’. Both are valid triggers.
# ‘When life gives you heartbreak, make a song’: Engage in creative pursuits that you have neglected simply because life got in the way. Remember, that’s your baby to nurture in this lifetime. I’m raising two children – singing, and writing.
# Give journaling a shot: Penning your emotions in a raw, unfiltered manner really helps to clear the mind. Do give it a shot.
# Reading on the subject will give you solace: I highly recommend Jody Day’s book, Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children. Another book, though not on childlessness, is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
# Remember, you are special because your story of loss is someone else’s source of strength. The kind of empathy you have, no one else can offer to another person in a similar position.
# Being childless doesn’t mean you have to be in the rat race to be a ‘successful career’ woman. Success isn’t defined by those parameters simply because people around you think a childless / childfree woman has all the time in the world to succeed because, well, she has the time.
# Over time, you accept the trauma, you don’t get over it. You can still cry after years of being childless, and it’s perfectly alright.
Coping with queries
When faced with uncomfortable questions, choose from any or all these responses:
‘I’m not comfortable talking about this.’
‘It’s a private matter, I don’t wish to discuss.’
‘We will talk about this some other time.’
‘Sorry, you may be my ______ (aunt/ uncle/ parent/ brother/ sister/ best friend/ mother-in-law/ grandparent), but I really don’t want to talk about this subject.’
‘Your constant questioning forces me to withdraw because I am so uncomfortable.’
‘I don’t wish to discuss why I have or haven’t tried any of the medical interventions for having a baby.’
‘If there’s something that I need to discuss, I will tell you. Till then, let’s not discuss this whenever we meet.’
‘No, adoption is not easy. You wouldn’t understand so let it be.’
‘Please don’t force me to answer uncomfortable questions.’
What not to ask or say
# Why are you not married?
# It’s been so long, why don’t you have children?
# Why don’t you try adoption? That should be easy.
# But you have the money for fertility treatment … what’s the problem?
# When are you planning on having a baby?
# Oh! So, you’re career-minded, that’s why you don’t have kids?
# You wouldn’t understand … you don’t have children.
# You’re lucky that you have all the time in the world because you don’t have kids.
Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are involuntarily childless and want to share, cry, grieve, vent, scream, shout, abuse the world in general.