On being circumstantially childless
They expected to have babies but found themselves at the end of their natural fertility without having done so. Perhaps it was due to prioritising work, study or travel. Maybe it was due to not having met someone they wanted to have children with.
Whatever the case, the impact of "unintended" or "circumstantial" childlessness on women's lives needs to be more widely acknowledged, University of Canterbury researcher Dr Lois Tonkin says.
"They are in the unusual position of being neither voluntarily childless nor involuntarily childless ... an unexpected consequence of other choices," she says.
HELEN MIRREN ON BEING CHILDLESS: "It was not my destiny, I kept thinking it would be, waiting for it to happen, but it never did, and I didn't care what people thought … It was only boring old men [who would ask me]. And whenever they went, 'What? No children? Well, you'd better get on with it, old girl,' I'd say 'No! **** off!" Quote: British Vogue February 2013/Photo: Reuters
A GRIEF LIKE MOURNING
Tonkin, who has a background in counselling, has written a thesis on the subject for a PhD in sociology, examining the experiences of 26 New Zealand women in their 30s and 40s who expected to have children but found themselves at the end of their natural fertility without having done so.
"Circumstantially childless women very often grieve for the loss of the opportunity to become a mother and for some this grief is likened to the death of someone close," she says.
"My study participants often said they felt misunderstood, judged, unacknowledged, ignored and isolated by others around them. Many talked about feeling like a failure."
Kate*, in her late 40s, who "desperately" wanted children but simply did not "meet the right man" in time, says the question, "How many children do you have?" often comes up when meeting new people.
"There is nothing like the good old conversation killer, 'I unfortunately do not have any'. All of a sudden you are looked at like a creature from another planet. It is like they have doubts about you as a nice person," she says.
"I watch everyone I know and their evolving families and my life seems to stay the same. I am now in a relationship [and] his kids have grown up. I try to accept my life is what it is. I cannot change it now. I try to love the children I do have the privilege of meeting and being involved in their lives through family and friends."
Tonkin says circumstantially childless women's grieving is often triggered by times (Christmas and Mother's Day are "particularly difficult"), people, things and places that symbolise motherhood for them.
However, over a long period of time, they often find other "creative" ways of being a "mother" in the world, she says.
Kate says she wants people to know she is "the same as every other woman — kind, nurturing and caring".
"Just because I do not have children does not make me hard, uncaring and different," she says.
CAMERON DIAZ ON BEING CHILDLESS: "A baby — that's all day, every day for 18 years ... Not having a baby might really make things easier, but that doesn't make it an easy decision. I like protecting people, but I was never drawn to being a mother. I have it much easier than any of them. That's just what it is. Doesn't mean life isn't sometimes hard. I'm just what I am. I work on what I am. Right now, I think, things are good for me. I've done a lot. And I don't care anymore." Quote: Esquire, August 2014. Photo: Getty.
ONE PER CENT OF WOMEN BORN IN 1936 CHILDLESS
Tonkin says the number of circumstantially childless women who have left it too late to have children is rising "markedly" in many western nations.
"It seems to be tied in with changing trends in women's lives and expectations in terms of work, education and late partnering ... and perhaps too because it is becoming more socially acceptable for women to choose not to have children than it has been in the past," she says.
In New Zealand, Census data shows childlessness in women aged 40 has increased from less than one per cent of women born in 1936 to almost 10 per cent of women born in 1965.
"Data indicates that this figure will rise to 25 per cent for those born in 1975," Tonkin says.
However, it is "impossible" to establish statistically how many women are circumstantially childless.
OPRAH ON BEING CHILDLESS: "If I had kids, my kids would hate me ... They would have ended up on the equivalent of the Oprah show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would've probably been them." Quote: The Hollywood Reporter, December 2013. Photo: Reuters.
PUTTING EMOTIONAL ENERGY INTO SOMETHING ELSE
Rachel Brown, 44, who "always assumed" she would have kids, has only just resolved a series of "really interesting questions" that her own childlessness unearthed, such as: "What do I do without the purpose of children and the milestones they bring? How do I get meaning?"
When Brown was 31, her mother was diagnosed with and later died from ovarian cancer and all her time and emotional energy went into caring for her.
During this time, Brown married a man who had children from a previous relationship and did not want any more.
"Having children was not on my mind. I think there was so much going on that I was OK with it. I did not have the emotional capacity to give it any real thought. I was exhausted," she says.
Later, however, after Brown's marriage ended at 42, and she was in a position to become a mum with a new partner, "it was too late, despite fertility drugs and tests".
Eventually, she came to terms with the fact that her life would never be defined by child-related milestones.
"You are able to be more indulgent, potentially, financially because you have two incomes, and with your free time. There are definitely several benefits," she says.
Despite this, Brown says it's important to do "something that is more meaningful than just going to work and taking holidays" and to "find depth in relationships elsewhere".
She does this by continuing her work with the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation that she and her sister established after their mother's death.
"If I was not working with the foundation, I would be involved with animal welfare or a social cause. I definitely feel the need to contribute and nurture beyond my own existence."
*Not her real name.
KIM CATTRALL ON BEING CHILDLESS: "When I was five, my fantasy was to have a hundred dogs and a hundred kids. I realised that so much of the pressure I was feeling was from outside sources, and I knew I wasn't ready to take that step into motherhood. Being a biological mother just isn't part of my experience this time around." Quote: O Magazine, April 2009. Photo: Reuters.
DOLLY PARTON ON BEING CHILDLESS: "I grew up in a big old family with eight kids younger than me and several of my brothers and sisters came to live with me early on in my life. I've loved their kids just like they're my grandkids, and now I've got great-grand-kids! ... They call me 'Aunt Granny.' Now I'm GeeGee, which is great-granny. I often think, it just wasn't meant for me to have kids so everybody's kids can be mine." Quote: People Country, May 2014. Photo: Getty.
DITA VON TEESE ON BEING CHILDLESS: "My sisters have children. I love children but at this stage of my life... I was married to someone who was not cut-out to be a father. He could hardly take care of himself, let alone a child, so I changed my views, adapted accordingly, thought: 'It's OK not to have children.' Now I'm just going to watch how my life unfolds and see what happens. I'm not going to be less of a person if I don't have children. It will work out the way it is supposed to." Quote: The Independent, July 2007. Photo: Reuters.