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Infertility

Living without children

For many couples, treatment does not work, or they are not able to afford to continue with treatment. While adoption may be an option for some (see ‘Adoption’) others come to accept that they will not have children. Deciding to stop treatment can be extremely difficult, and people are sometimes left feeling anger, grief and relief.
 
Some people we spoke to were still in the process of coming to terms with their treatment failure. Maggie, who had stopped treatment 5 years earlier, acknowledged that she would always want to have a child. Sarah had also stopped treatment and felt isolated, disappointed and cross that the future she imagined for herself, as a mother, had been taken away from her.
 

Maggie was “fairly OK” about not having children and when people ask her if she has children, she...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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I still, I do feel fairly okay about it. I, I know some people refer to themselves as childfree, rather than childless. I don’t think I’ll be saying that for a good while. And I do still want to have children. I don’t think that will ever leave me. I think, you know, while I have a breath in my body I’ll still, I would still want to have a child. But generally I feel okay about it. And also I don’t really feel the need to apply a label to myself now. G-, people do ask you, especially in Ireland, “Oh, any family?” Just random people that you meet in a shop or at the bus stop or something, people will ask that question. And I actually, I used to find that a very very difficult question to answer. But now I just say, “Sadly, no, I don’t have children.” And I think that conveys everything that I need to say, without having to go into a huge long explanation to a stranger about why at this age I don’t have children. And that feels a more positive way of dealing with it.
 
But did it knock your self-image quite a lot sort of when you were first starting treatment and first getting this label?
 
I did feel very, I think for, certainly for women and also for men, I know from my husband’s perspective, a lot of our image is around this kind of fertility. You would see, you know, people having three or four kids and, you know, this kind of earth mother thing, this yummy mummy thing came in. And it was very much, you know, people, film stars and pop stars didn’t used to have children, you know, they would d-, devote their life to their kind of art. And then all of a sudden it became very fashionable to have a huge family. And I did start to feel very kind of as though my sense of being a woman was questioned. You know, “Isn’t that, isn’t that what women are here for? Do women not just have babies?” And that felt, did feel quite difficult to deal with.
 
 
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Sarah always thought she would have children and remains disappointed that friends around her...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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It is less frequent. But like me mother has got a picture in her flat of me and my sister when we were little, on the windowsill, and like even every time I see that I just feel, I just think God when I were that age I would never have thought that I would… turn out to be so disappointed, you know, because you always assume you are going to have a baby. You spend all your life playing at dolls don’t you and pushing dolls round in dolls pram, and like if any of my Mum’s friends or anybody we knew had got a baby we always wanted to go round there and see it and like I were always much, much more into children then my friends and when they all started having their babies before we started, you know, trying or whatever, it turned out they were always ringing up and saying what you should do and you know, I guess out of everybody I knew I would probably have been the one person that everybody would pick in terms of someone who definitely wanted to have children, you know, you know. Like there is one couple that we met that lived, two couples and we all kind of did things together when we were in New Zealand and they have got three children each and they have kind of got three children all the same age as each other. They have got, you know, they all go on holidays together, they have got three children. And the time that we have been back eight years now easily we have been back, they have found and planned a family and they have got, you know, a whole gang of folk between them and they can do all these nice holidays, and each kid has got, you know, an age appropriate playmate. And we are just not.

However some people we spoke to were very positive about their life without children. Others were accepting that treatment had failed and a childless future was the only option. 
 
Sally and her husband stopped treatment over a decade ago. While at the time she found it difficult to give up on treatment, she now reflects positively about the life that she and her husband share. She feels that that she has had far more time for her marriage and has been able to pursue her career, which she would not have done had she had children. She and her husband have a lot of children in their lives, through nieces, nephews and god-children. 
 

Sally talked about how her treatment failure felt like a distant memory. She felt she had a...

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 31
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And I did become very aware that for some people it was, you know, such an absolutely critical part of their lives to have children that you know life without children just didn’t seem a possibility and the rest of their lives were on hold and they were putting each other under tremendous pressure and you know, that is why I wanted to talk to you, because I think it is quite important to put the side of people who have come through infertility and for whom it is a sort of distant, vaguely, vaguely uncomfortable memory but, you know, very much just a memory, that you know, I don’t feel as though, you know, it hasn’t had a negative impact on the rest of our life. If anything I think, obviously we have had much more time for each other, you know, probably we have got a happier, happier marriage or less stressful marriage. We probably would be still be married if we had children, but probably just feel we had less time for each other. And you know, we have been lucky in so many respects and I realise we are not typical because we were both contributing to the problem, so there wasn’t a sense of one member of the, one partner feeling that, he or she was to blame and feeling terribly guilty about it. For us it was just, well just one of those things. At least we weren’t making two other people have stressful times [laughs].
 
And, then my husband doesn’t have any nieces or nephews, I have now got, we have got six nieces and a nephew and we have both got a lot of God children and we just get tremendous pleasure now. I mean, to be honest, I am not that interested in babies, but I love the children as they get older and seeing them develop, and you know, I feel I will get every bit as much pleasure and perhaps less of the pain of see them then grow up and be friends as they become adults.
 
I saw, you know, I would say that that seems to me, I don’t know what I am missing but I don’t feel that I am missing things. It is not sort of you know, an ongoing ache. It is an occasional twinge. But, you know, being involved with children’s lives is tremendously important and worthwhile. It is nice to be able to do it, but you don’t have to be a parent to have a huge part of, amount of pleasure from it.
 
I just felt that perhaps, it is easy for me to say this, because I can see all the reasons why it was it was an easier decision for us, than for other people, but I still think that the message is, you know, look at your life as a whole, not as, you know, it is empty without children. You know, children obviously are fabulous. They are a wonderful part of people’s lives but they are also a huge amount of, you know, stress as well. And there are, you know, other means of fulfilment that I think are equally important. 
 
No I had always imagined having children. But in a way I think that reflected my lack of imagination [laughs] and ambition, you know I really wasn’t very ambitious. I thought, you know, I thought I would like to have children and I thought my Mother had done a very good job, and, you know, she seemed to be fulfilled having children and yes, I came from a happy and stable family. So it seemed like the obvious thing to do. So I suppose that when I, because I realised after, I also thought well it is not as if it was so much a choice, it was, just, you know, what I thought I would do. 
 
And, once we stopped trying to have children and my husband encouraged me to go back to work and you know, I seemed a bit, I was lacking in confidence at that time, but once I got back to work, I just felt so much, you know, I got into it and I realised that probably I was much better off working than I would have been, because I, you know, I hadn’t intended to try and juggle work and children. Because I just think people who do that have a lot more energy than I do. And so I was going to be a full time Mum, especially if I struggled to have them. But I think I am a more fulfilled and probably a happier person perhaps from what happened. So I suppose I am a great believer in fate. 

Perhaps working out better than you sometimes think it does. Yes. I am probably a glass half full sort of person because I look for the good points, and that has been a benefit, yes.
 
Some described themselves as optimistic about not having children. Tim and his wife had been pursuing fertility treatment for eight years. Tim described himself as “not bothered” if their treatment wasn’t successful. His attitude was that he would not miss what he had not had, although he admitted that it could be his way of coping with the disappointment, and his wife did not feel that way. Naomi had treatment over a six-year period before finally conceiving twins with donor eggs and sperm. She described a discussion she and her husband had as they faced the last stages of their treatment, where they agreed that their lives would be OK without children.
 

Tim felt that it wouldn’t bother him if he and his wife were not able to have children.

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
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And do you think about moving on to a life without children. If it comes to that?
 
Yes, I don’t think it would bother me at all. Because again I am one of these people that if I haven’t got it now, then I don’t know what it’s like to have one, so therefore I am not that bothered. I mean, I have not got a big fancy four by four or something so I don’t particularly want one. I mean once I have driven a Jaguar or something and I think oh I like that, I will really want one, but at the moment I have never had a child, I have never had a baby, so therefore what I have never had I will never miss. But obviously my wife doesn’t see it that way, but again may be it is a coping mechanism I don’t know. 
 
Did you always expect to be a father? Is that something that you had in your sort of life map?
 
I don’t think I ever looked at it to be honest. As I say the only time I actually considered parenthood is when you are going out in the early stages and you have a scare or when we first when we decided to have a go for a child, it was when it was first discovered you know, there might be difficulties. They are the only two times really that we have considered, or I have considered sorry, about being a father. I can’t visualise myself as a father. I never have. But it doesn’t bother me. Again whether it is down to coping mechanism I don’t know. But I just never see myself in the future sort of running around kicking a football with a little kid so…
 
 

Naomi and her husband discussed that their lives together would be really happy, even if they...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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We had thought about it a lot. I don’t think I ever really accepted that it wouldn’t happen. I am not saying that was me being incredibly determined. I think that was me being very blinkered, and me just refusing to believe that it might not work. I think my husband was probably more geared up to it not working, but I think how ungeared up I was probably scared the hell out of him. And it was quite strange that it was the night before our embryo transfer in [city] and we were out for dinner and I actually said to him, “No if this doesn’t work we can still be really happy together as a couple.” I think that was the first time that I had ever actually accepted that it might not work, but that actually we would still be right together. Up until then, I think I had just thought naively, just thought it will work, it will work, it will work. I am just going to keep going until it works. And I imagine that probably scared him a bit, about what, there’s no guarantees, what if it doesn’t work?

 

Sally offered advice to those who are facing a future without children.

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 31
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And what about any advice that you would give to other people thinking about that are in treatment, or thinking about going into treatment, or stopping treatment…?
 
Well I suppose just to, it is easier said than then done, but, you know, try to remember that there is a life out there and try to remember, yes, it will be fantastic if it works but you know, a life without children isn’t, is by no means meaningless and that you are very likely to find other things that are really important to you. 
 
And you know, to make sure, you know, that you don’t lose what you have currently got in an attempt to get the final piece of the jigsaw, you know, I think it put marriages under tremendous strain and some people will split up because of it. But what seems to me is a tragedy is if it splits up, if you split up because of it, when actually if you hadn’t let it become such an issue you would have had the chance to enjoy each other. Live you know quite happily in a very good fulfilled way.
 
 You know, I mean I think some people will decide that children are more important to them than to a marriage perhaps, you know, so that is what they really want but to me, I was fairly clear which way round my priorities were, and I don’t think I ever had that, you know, very strong yearning for a baby. I always thought of it in terms of children, so it wasn’t as if seeing a baby caused a great maternal rush. It was more, you know, I saw, yes, I wanted a family life like my parents and in fact that is one other thing that I felt, and it was very, quite a strong influence that, you know, you came across people who were having infertility because they had one child and they were unable to have a second and there was some people whose view as well, they have got one child why would they want another and I realised that I didn’t want to have an only child. I actually think it is quite hard to be the only child, and that is probably because I wasn’t one and I could see the benefits of siblings, not always, generally benefits of siblings. And also that it is a very big responsibility for an only child with aged parents. I mean I am going to be a nuisance to a large number of nieces, but at least, you know, they can share it out. So perhaps I am just over pragmatic to be, you know, thinking my old age before I have even had a child, but there was this feeling, well okay so we have one child, what next, you know, apart from anything else a second child would have a different Father and you know, and time was not quite running out but it was moving on, you know, I felt as if, you know, my parents, my family, my friends and family were having their children and that if we didn’t have one until about the time they had their third then we would be perpetually lagging behind. Which I know isn’t terribly rational but I was getting very pragmatic about what the next steps might be and how it all fitted into the picture of family life that I had.
 
So in fact that was, yes, having realised how difficult it was going to be, you suddenly thought well hang, this is really makes sense.
 


​Last reviewed July 2017.
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