Sunday, 14 September 2014


One thing I really don't get is the extreme emotional misery some women go through when they find they're infertile. For them, it's not just bad luck, not just an unfortunate quirk of nature, it's something that tears them apart and makes life unbearable.

Tracey Richardson-Lyne, writing in the Observer today, says no one understands the sheer emotional pain of infertility - the feelings of grief, anger, jealousy, isolation, uselessness and failure.

She says that just walking around, seeing pregnant women, dads with pushchairs, or children looking for mummy or daddy, fills her with loneliness and dread.

She feels guilty that she can't reproduce like a "normal" woman, that she can't give her husband a child or her parents a grandchild.

To me, this seems like an oddly extreme reaction to something that should surely be no more than disappointing or frustrating. Can you not just accept the situation and find other things to do with your life? And surely a woman's identity shouldn't still be defined by whether she can reproduce or not? Or whether there's a toddler clutching at her?

But feelings are feelings, and just because I don't understand them, it doesn't mean they're invalid and she shouldn't be having them. If she's in emotional pain, then of course she needs help to deal with the pain and hopefully, one day, get pregnant.

Emotional pain is so much easier to bear if at least other people have been through something similar and can understand what you're feeling. It must be so much worse if you're bearing it alone amid widespread incomprehension.

I can't judge her. I can only wish her some relief from what she's going through, some respite from the suffocating misery.


  1. possibly your most insensitive moment ever, nick

  2. Hello Nick,

    Having chosen not to have children, this places us in a difficult position to comment upon this situation. But, of course, as with all things, choosing a course of action is one thing but being denied it makes it all the more attractive and all the more hard to bear if by a quirk of nature one is denied access.

    And, being childless either by choice or by fate is not always easy to live with in some families which do seem to have an overwhelming interest in the personal affairs of its members. Having to explain why one does not have a child can be frustrating at best but exceedingly demoralising at worst.

  3. I feel like I have written this here before...My brother and his wife chose not to have children a long time ago. They have a better marriage than most.

    I think you are probably in that same place.

    There are children out there to adopt, or for foster care, they might not be infants, but they are there.

  4. Oh dear
    Prepare yourself Nicholas

    The urge to the most powerful innate urge known

  5. Wow Nick, a wee bit harsh, n'est pas?

    And why just women, I know men also who are devastated at their own infertility - i.e. feel they are less "manly". And refuse to adopt as then the world would know of their failure. :(

    At quite a large discussion around a table at my house several years back the women there discussed the mad urge to reproduce in our late 20's early 30's, even if already haven given birth, like myself. We described it as a tsunami of biological urging that faded away at about 33-38.

    The feeling was primitive and primeval. Even for the childless by choice who felt lucky they hadn't acted upon it.

    We are a couple of genetic tweakings away from our mammal sisters and brothers.

    Reproduction. Look around you. With the world crashing and burning. None of it is logical.

    Your bring logic to a primitive feeling.


  6. John is right, Nick. Mothering is an urge. Look at him: All those hens, Winnie and what not. I myself have applied to snuggle up underneath his wings - one day, when I am put out to pasture.

    After I got married, and for years, I never had the urge. As you may remember I am daughter number with quite a few much younger siblings, my mother never shy to rope me in as her right hand. Which was fine. I love my siblings. But for years (past wedding and moving to England) I used to joke that I'd had "my" children. What to you know: Eight years later and I was a woman possessed. It was like something out of a comedy sketch.

    Having said that: I would have never ever pushed the issue. If it weren't to be it weren't to be. We can't satisfy all cravings.

    The mothering instinct is one of the most basic. Only on par, if I may say, with that of a man defending his family, if necessary by violent means. It's primal, as the Angel would say. Wired. Bred in the bone.

    Neither is woman/motherhood a competition. I know women, oddly most my female friends, who don't have children. Who make great aunts, friends to kids of others. Or just ignore anyone under 18.

    Does any of them weep quietly - once in a while, privately? I don't know. Some may, some won't. Never let's presume anything.


  7. Kylie: Look who's talking....

    Jane and Lance: Very true that being denied something can make it even more attractive. Also true that some families take an obsessive interest in whether a child is on the way or not. I could also mention the constant parade of happy families in the media and in advertising, which we're all assumed to aspire to.

  8. Wow, Nick, seriously? We're not talking about women who choose not to have kids for whatever reason. We're talking about women responding to a hard-wired biologically driven urge. And I feel absolutely certain I would have been heart-broken if I had not been able to have children. Being a mother is something I have always wanted. Always. Not because I want people to see me with "a toddler clutching at" me (a not particularly kind description of motherhood, by the way) but because having children is an expression of love and connection to the future. My bond with my children is unlike any other relationship I have ever had. It is primal and insanely powerful. Of course I'd have dealt with it and found other things to do with my life if I could not have conceived. I have plenty of other things I do with my life even with kids. But infertility is not merely frustrating or disappointing. For many women it is a deep, sorrowful loss. Suggesting women who want kids but can't have them should just get on with their lives is like telling someone who has lost their life partner that it's just a disappointment and they should suck it up and find other things to do with their time.

  9. Susie: You may have done, I touch on this theme occasionally. We did indeed choose to be childless quite early in our relationship. Whether that has kept us together for so long I couldn't really say - it's one factor maybe.

    As you say, there are loads of children crying out to be adopted.

    John: As you know, I don't shy away from controversy. You may be right that the urge to mother is one of the most basic. But then again, why is the population of some countries falling because there aren't enough children being born?

  10. www: Indeed, there are many men distressed by their "unmanly" infertility (though personally I've never had any urge to prove my fertility). And yes, the "ticking clock"/"missing the boat" syndrome is very prevalent.

    Ursula: I'm not sure that women have the same urges as hens....

    Interesting that you were a "woman possessed" but then concluded "if it weren't to be, it weren't to be". What prevented you from following your impulses, I wonder?

    And did you notice that even your phrase "a man defending his family" assumes we all have families?

  11. So much emotion can be tied to a woman having a child. I have not by choice because of health condition I believed would seriously be negative to proper development of any child. I still feel a choke of emotion when I think about having a child of my own while knowing every moment it would not have been a good situation.
    For some women it happens in the natural course of a life shared with a partner without specific thought. For others it is a very conscious "can I or can't I"; "should I or shouldn't I"; and, beyond that "I choose to or not".

    I am well past child bearing years but there is no feeling in the world as touching and poignant to me as holding the babies of my nieces and nephews. As already said it's primal to my being.

    I helped raise two of my nieces who live close by. Four months ago I had just taken oldest niece to hospital for 37 week check up when her water broke within an hour of getting her home. Back to the hospital we went for C-section to deliver transverse twins. The same hospital where 2 years earlier I spent 6 months taking same niece to chemotherapy not knowing outcome or if she could conceive a child after treatment. It happened naturally when doctors told her she had a window of time when it would be safest health wise for her to try. Nature is random.

    I will admit I don't feel "complete" as a woman or have "fulfilled my full potential" since I've not had a child of my own but that is MY issue and definitely not one that I'd condone for any another woman.

    All have a right to their feelings on bearing a child whether we understand them or not.

  12. Agent: I'm sorry I offended you. Thank you for expressing your own feelings so strongly and so clearly. I didn't mean to imply there was something "wrong" with having such a powerful urge to be a mother, only that I don't understand it. Maybe because I'm male, maybe because I don't have the parenting gene. There are so many infertile and desperate women out there, obviously it's deeply traumatic and something to be respected.

    It seems to me that losing your life partner is very very different in that it's someone you've actually lived with for many years and become very close to. The desire to have an as yet non-existent child surely isn't the same? But maybe there again I just don't get it.

  13. Nick, to be an infertile woman in India is worse than being a zombie. I know of women who were blamed for not producing children and subjected to tests of all kinds till it occurs to some moron inlaw to get his son tested. No one talks about male infertility and I think that is something that needs to be addressed too in childless but wanting children couples.

  14. Anon: Thank you for that. It must indeed be poignant holding the babies of nieces and nephews, knowing that you wanted to have a child yourself but for a good reason chose not to.

    I can imagine your niece's joy when she finally had twins after knowing that the chemotherapy might have prevented her having children.

    "All have a right to their feelings on bearing a child whether we understand them or not." Absolutely. I may not understand those feelings but that doesn't mean they're wrong or unacceptable.

  15. Ramana: Yes, I've often read that being a childless woman in India is a serious stigma. And you're right that the possibility of the man's infertility is often overlooked. Though I think that's less the case in the UK, where nowadays the man is routinely checked along with the woman.

  16. When I married, I never quite expected to produce any offspring. However a complicated women's department and an older husband did not prove to be an impediment to having our daughter just ten months later. We were thrilled to bits, but the primitive, basic primal desire hit me some two years later, so much so that I had to avoid walking through stores or departments selling clothes and accoutrements for babies. I found other distractions to help me through that phase, so I understand perfectly where these women come from.

  17. Grannymar: Interesting that the broodiness didn't emerge until two years after you had Elly. It must have been pretty strong if you had to avoid anything baby-related!

  18. I have to say that I have plenty of emotional pain of my own that others don't understand. But I do understand that they don't understand.

  19. OK Nick. You chose to be childless but men all want to know they are fertile, n'est pas?


  20. I'm not suggesting that losing your life partner and being infertile are the same, only that they could have a similar emotional impact. I think that since you never wanted kids, maybe you just aren't able to wrap your mind around how powerful that desire is. It truly is unlike pretty much anything else in this world.

  21. If I'm gonna use french, I gotta use it correctly, n'est ce pas---instead of n'est pas? :)

    bikehikebabe --again

  22. Bikehikebabe: No, I couldn't care less if I'm fertile or not! But of course if I had wanted children then my fertility would have mattered.

    Agent: I'm sure you're right, it's because I never wanted kids that I don't grasp the strength of feeling.

  23. I really appreciate all these comments. They make me very aware just how strong the urge for children can be, and how distressing it can be if that urge is thwarted.

  24. As I was approaching the age when I wouldn't be able to bear children, I was SAD. Even tho' I already had 4 & didn't want more.


  25. I am sad and disappointed at my daughter and son-in-law who decided that they were not going to have any children, saying that they wouldn't bring children into this terrible world we live in now.

    She is 49 now, so it's too late to change her mind.

    I agreed with her at the time and told her that I wished I had decided not to have any children for the same reason!

    I miss not having grandchildren when I see my friends doting on their grandchildren, perhaps I'm broody?

  26. I am baffled by your reply to my comment. Doesn't make sense.

    "What prevented you from following your impulses, I wonder?", you ask. What do you mean 'prevent'? Nothing. Surely you must have gathered by now, as you read my blog, that I am the happy mother of a son (Angel by another name).

    My reference to John and his "brood" a lighthearted aside.

    Other than that I am touched by the heartfelt comments of your other readers.

    I have - possibly - learnt more about you within the context of this post and your replies than in the years gone before. Which - before you misunderstand - is not a criticism, just an observation.


  27. I always wanted one child. Andy said two --- not a good idea to have an only child, so zero or two. I finally said, okay, zero, let's settle it and I can get on finding something else to do. We had one.

    I have two granddogs but no grandkids and I couldn't be more pleased.

  28. i guess you didnt like the brevity of my response so let me enlarge:

    "To me, this seems like an oddly extreme reaction to something that should surely be no more than disappointing or frustrating. Can you not just accept the situation and find other things to do with your life? And surely a woman's identity shouldn't still be defined by whether she can reproduce or not? Or whether there's a toddler clutching at her?"

    reproduction is pretty much the reason any living being exists, biologically speaking. everything is about sustaining life until successful reproduction is achieved: for some species it is so clearly their mission that they die immediately after their role is complete. Not for a minute am i trying suggest that humanity is exactly like that but as a species parenthood remains the overwhelming mission, individuals or couples who seem not to be interested are an exception.

    For a large number of us the inability to have children frustrates our entire biological reason for being and there are no alternatives. If a woman doesnt get, say, the career she wants she might be disappointed but she can have a different career. If one cant have children there are no second chances, no suitable alternative options, it is a life sentence and sure, people can do other things but none of the other things a person might choose are the biological imperative, are they?
    It would be akin to feeling hunger but never being able to eat.
    This isnt about identity, or toddlers, its about something much more primal and in one paragraph you pretty much negated all the pain that every childless individual ever experienced, dismissing it as oddly extreme.

    I am not here to suggest that everyone *should* have children, or to poke holes in anybody's decision to have or not have children. I firmly believe that everyone has the right to choose their reproductive destiny without being expected to explain to anyone, ever but it is one thing to choose our reproductive destiny, quite another to have it thrust upon us.

  29. Nick, you have often referenced an unhappy childhood. Do you believe that is the reason for your lack of paternal instinct?

  30. Bikehikebabe: I guess simply losing the ability to have children can be quite a sad experience.

    Keith: Interesting that in this case the very rational decision not to expose children to such a dreadful world overrode what others are calling a primal urge to give birth.

  31. Ursula: Well, you said you were "a woman possessed" but "if it weren't to be it weren't to be". Which sounds like you somehow restrained yourself.

    So you've learnt a lot about me from this post? Nothing too shocking or off-putting, I hope....

    Jean: It seems like there was no great primal urge for you. I'm glad you're happy despite the lack of grandchildren.

  32. Kylie: What I didn't like was the implication that I'm crassly insensitive while you're sensitivity personified.

    I would strongly disagree that the only reason a living being exists is to reproduce. How about just exercising your natural talents, or enjoying yourself, or developing your physical strength and abilities, or any number of things? And it wasn't so long ago that women spent their whole lives reproducing. Surely that wasn't a desirable state of affairs? And what about those whose children have grown up and moved away? Are their lives now barren and empty?

    And how much of the urge to reproduce is natural and how much is fostered by the endless images of families and children in the media? Not to mention pressure from relatives and friends.

    I hesitate to say anything more about the alternatives to child-rearing, as I've already had my head bitten off on that one.

    And I repeat, I wasn't negating anyone's pain, only saying I don't understand it.

    I also believe people have the right to choose their reproductive destiny. As long as they're confident they'll be good parents and bring up their children to be responsible, happy, creative citizens.

  33. Bijoux: I think my unhappy childhood has a lot to do with it. I have no experience of a tender, loving parent-child relationship and I was afraid that if I had a child I would be a similarly inadequate parent. But at the end of the day I simply had no craving for children, primal or otherwise. Other things were more important to me. I have no idea what a "paternal instinct" feels like!

  34. Another thought occurs to me. If everyone's busy having children while the planet is steadily dying, what use is that? Perhaps our first priority should be to maintain a viable planet that can sustain human life.

  35. i was talking about BIOLOGICAL destiny, not social stuff. the biological imperatives are very clear.

    and i made no implication about my own sensitivity or lack thereof. you are totally projecting

  36. I've been lurking around here for ages, rarely feeling moved to comment because of some of the provocative comments and argumentative behaviour of some of your followers.

    But I feel moved to write on this issue. I, too, cannot understand the obsessive urge to reproduce and the abject misery when a woman is unable to. I never felt it and do not understand the "biological imperative". Does that make me abnormal? No: I'm simply in the company of those who chose not to have children, despite nagging and pressurising from family.

    Now I'm seeing my contemporaries putting the same pressure on their children to produce grandchildren and making accusations about selfishness if decisions are made to be childless....and so it goes on.

    As somewhere said elsewhere, there are so many children hoping to be fostered or adopted into a loving home. If this biological imperative is to nurture, why are they still waiting?

  37. Kylie: It wasn't clear you were talking only about biological destiny. In any case, if it's biological destiny, why do so many people have no urge whatever to have children? Are they biologically defective? Am I biologically defective?

    You made a very obvious implication. Plus the further implication that I'm biologically faulty.

  38. LadyLuz: Thanks for your comment. I'm always pleased when a lurker plucks up the courage to contribute! And don't mind all these argumentative so-and-sos. I'm glad you also don't understand the so-called biological imperative. I'm also impressed that you resisted the nagging and pressurising. I think some people give in to the nagging simply to put an end to it. To see people putting the same pressure on their own children must be quite galling.

    Indeed, how is not having a child selfish? You could argue that having a child for your own pleasure and fulfillment, in a world of scarce resources, is equally selfish.

    And yes, why then are so many children still waiting to be adopted?

  39. Gosh, Nick, I'm afraid I have to agree with the very first comment from Kylie! It is not like you to be so insensitive.
    I am so incredibly thankful for my children and I cannot imagine the pain of not being able to have babies.
    '... no more than disappointing or frustrating.'

    Oh no, Nick, so very much more.

  40. Having read some of the previous comments I think primal is a key word but love has a lot to do with it as well. (I'm not saying that I've got more love than you!)

    We're all different. I still mourn for the child I lost when I was only 12 weeks pregnant yet others who've had miscarriages can shrug them off.

    And, let's face it, all I ever really wanted to be was a wife and mother! (Much to the horror of my young feminist friend.)

  41. Liz: I guess you have a very different perspective if you're a woman and capable of giving birth. I'm sorry about your lost child. I know miscarriages can be very traumatic.

    I think it's not so much insensitivity as ignorance. No woman (or man) I've known personally has ever revealed to me how distressed they were at their infertility. If I was more aware of such distress then of course I'd be sensitive to it.

    The comments on this post have certainly opened my eyes....

  42. Your posts certainly make people think, Nick.

  43. Liz: They certainly do. Which is why I love blogging. I get so many thoughtful, informative and passionate comments that quite often change my opinions and help me understand other people's lives. And sometimes my amazing ignorance is exposed for all to see!

  44. when i talked about the biological imperative to reproduce i was not implying that everyone feels it and i am pretty sure i actually said that. what i was saying was that biological drives, when they hit hard, are extremely powerful.

    everything biological is on a continuum including the drive to reproduce so for some people it is devastating to be infertile.

  45. Kylie: Fair enough, I accept all that.