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The toll of not being able to have children

Monday, 14 September 2020 Hayley

Hayley always wanted to be a mum, but it never happened. In World Childless Week she blogs about how it’s impacted on her mental health.

This week (14-20 September) is World Childless Week. It’s an awareness week of one of the last taboos in society and something that impacts profoundly on mental health. I am childless not by choice and a bit like having longstanding mental health problems it is another club that I never expected to be in.

Like many people I have always dreamed of being a mother – I guess I first thought about it aged around  12 or 13 when I started babysitting in my local community and was told “You are a natural with kids” “You would make a great mother one day”. It is also the same time I started struggling with my mental health, (depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts have plagued me on and off throughout my life). I remember talking with my friends as a teenager about the statistic that one in five couples can't have children and having a sneaky feeling that would be me but shrugging it off. Fast forward to my thirties.

This isn't a story about my childlessness journey but instead about the impact it’s had on my mental health. The tests, the hopes, the years that rolled from one to the next. All around me family and friends were getting pregnant, but not me. For years, it tore me apart, and I became the shell of my former self.

Being childless not by choice has so many similarities with having mental health problems. People want to fix you, they tell you about miracles stories and how friends and family members have overcome situations –  not realising that everyone’s situation is different and a complex muddle of biology, social and emotional factors. I have found the same with mental health – people want to offer miracle cures and well-meaning advice, without truly understanding the battles inside your mind.

The best way I can describe the relationship between the two is that my anxiety is like a fire sometimes it rages other time it dies down to embers, childlessness on the other hand is like petrol. Sometimes the childlessness is the source of the explosion. On good days I have strategies to cope with announcements and baby bumps, but when my anxiety is starting to burn it creeps up.

To the outside world, I was a happy outgoing person who supported everyone else. Inside I was dying, lost in my pain, putting a brave face on at every pregnancy announcement. I would hold my pain and panic attacks until I could reach the sanctuary of the toilet to lose myself in panic and despair.  Announcements, baby showers, birthdays, first days of school, graduation, weddings, grandchildren - all things that I would never know. Both my childlessness and mental health left me isolated … kids parties I don't get invited to, visits that don’t happen, no longer having things in common with the people closest to you, because you are not part of that club, no play dates, no catching up at the school gates.   

But you can learn how to manage your mental health and your grief at being childless and I have done.

My battle with mental health is ongoing but with hard work, I am slowly coming to terms with the life that I haven't chosen. Some days I thrive, others I just about survive but I am happy to be here and often tell myself when I run in the rain I am grateful to be alive. The following things have helped me:

  • Investment in therapy - both in terms of time and money. My feelings will never go away but dealing with them and with the multitude of unhealthy coping strategies I have adopted is slowly helping
  • Peer support - both the Childless Not By Choice and the mental health community. Hearing other people articulate their experiences has helped me feel not so alone. Volunteering for Dudley Mind has helped me to share my experiences and support others with their mental health.
  • Being open about my experiences.
  • Working with my therapist to redefine my expectations and values and work out what makes me happy and who I am.
  • Giving up alcohol – whilst this isn’t for everyone, it has helped me to keep myself safe.
  • Being a big kid and having an outlet for the "love" that I don’t know what to do with. For me this takes two forms, 1) volunteering with children with disabilities each summer in Belarus 2) spending time with my nieces and nephews – taking them on holidays, having them to stay and generally just having fun.
  • Running has been my saviour - it gives me an outlet for the all anxiety 

As I work to deal with my own dual diagnosis I am trying to show myself the same compassion I show the outside world and want to help others going through similar journeys. For many people, being childless not by choice is a trigger for mental health that is why I want to raise awareness of this link between the two. The women who yearned to be mothers, the men who dreamed of being daddies and watch their kids play football or walk their daughters down the aisle are all experiencing grief, which has been memorably defined by Jamie Anderson as “grief which is love with nowhere to go”.   

Everyone is dealing with something in their lives - and very often all we want is feel listened to and be heard.

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