(In)visible women.

by Nicole Matusow

A quick google search for “childlessness” will yield results about how childlessness is on the rise, soaring, and bad for America. It’s the kind of childlessness that women decide for themselves, because having kids is not high on their list of priorities or just not something they want for themselves. Although that writer thinks it’s bad for America, it’s not a problem for these women. In fact, women who are childless by choice often feel comfortable with their decisions in the face of criticism and judgment. Women who are childless not by choice, however, are another story.

Childless not by choice, involuntarily childless...these terms are descriptive enough, but a little cold. I haven’t discovered anything warmer. There are some websites, articles, and blogs for these women too, but very few. In fact, many of them are from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. I suppose my google results don’t show anything from non-English-speaking countries, but there’s a glaring omission: America. Well, as we learned, some think that childlessness is bad for America.

If I look deeper, I’m sure I’ll find something. But why should I have to? Where are the stories about women who never had the chance to have children because of an illness, never finding a partner, a marriage or divorce late in life, ambivalence, indecision? We hear about infertility, but usually when it’s in progress or successful. What about the women for whom infertility treatments didn’t work? Maybe they continued on their pursuit and adopted a child. If they did, they no longer fall under the heading childless not by choice.

Childless not by choice refers to the woman who planned to have children when she got married, but she never got married. And the woman who married late and was ready to get pregnant, but was then diagnosed with leukemia and had to undergo treatment for the rest of her safe childbearing years. And the woman who wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children with her long-term partner, and now she’s past the point of deciding. The list goes on, because everyone’s life is singular and unpredictable.

The women I’ve spoken with who squarely fit in the childless not by choice category shared that they feel shame, loss, and a general feeling of “not being enough.” They describe a society that reveres mothers and having babies. Some of them feel “less than” when they see their peers are pregnant or pushing strollers. They worry that they’ll be asked when they’re going to have children, because they’re “not getting any younger.” They feel “left out” when their co-workers and friends discuss their children’s various activities and achievements.

They feel invisible.

As I write this, I feel like I’m sharing dirty little secrets. Their feelings wouldn’t be secrets if they had a place in their own society. Instead, they’re a forgotten and dismissed group of women who yearn to belong and be heard. They long to feel acceptance about their circumstances or their indecision...or to feel like they’re enough. They don’t want pity; they just want to have value.

I’ve been trying to start a therapy group for women who are childless, not by choice. It hasn’t been easy to recruit members. For many of the women who reached out, there were various obstacles to joining the group. I can’t help but wonder if the women’s reticence mirrors society’s message: We’re invisible. If childless women are not of value in our society, why should they value their feelings about such a shameful thing?

Women who spent their entire lives without having become mothers isn’t a new phenomenon. It can’t be. Yet, in 2018, they’re wholly under-represented in America. And on the internet. And, maybe, in their own hearts.

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