My experiences of loneliness come from involuntary childlessness. I am a mother to unborn children, after fifteen years of try to conceive and 6 rounds of IVF treatment. I have recurrent miscarriages. No amount of medical intervention or alternative treatments can fix that.
During the years my husband and I were trying to have a baby, the jokes about having fun wore thin after the positive line on the pregnancy test was followed by severe pain and loss. My husband was better at laughing it off than I, and so I began a slow retreat. A first glimpse of loneliness as we took different roads around the state of infertility.
Then we found ourselves bound together as the only couple we knew who were referred to IVF. Sitting outside the maternity ward in our local hospital, waiting to be assessed was the most isolating experience we had thus far. Our fear of being the only people who had been through this, was somewhat relieved by arriving at Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire and finding a room of nervous couples. Isolation was replaced by hope as the presentation made IVF seem so easy.
But IVF is a lonely business. For men it’s isolating watching their partners go through injections, anaesthetic and battling their bodies. For the woman, it’s frightening. My husband overcame a lifelong needle phobia to help me with the injections, an average of 120 per cycle before miscarriage, so we felt united in this experience.
Involuntary childlessness is a lonely place for anyone no matter how they came to be without children. Gateway Women’s founder, Jody Day, cites ’50 reasons not to be a mother.’ Despite these reasons there is little mental health support and a sense that infertility is taboo. This leads to misunderstandings and breathtaking rudeness from those who dismiss the concerns of childlessness by saying it won’t kill us, yet the American Psychological Association found that women who had been through failed IVF suffered severe PTSD [https://www.livescience.com, April 2012] which can be life threatening. I have listened and read all manner of fixes from ‘just adopt’, to the loan of children (yes, really) and several offers from men who apparently had super sperm. People offering up solutions that are unwanted, without fully realising how complex adoption, fostering and infertility are, pushes us further away. It can feel easier to retreat into our minds, and into our homes, affecting our wellbeing, as the agony of infertility wasn’t already enough. This is doing our ‘tribe’ a disservice because we’re not dispelling the myths that affect us all. By understanding the causes, effects, words to say and actions to take, society can do so much to help men and women who are struggling with infertility and loneliness.
What is the right action? For me, I wanted someone to do was give me a hug and empathise. Since few people did, I stopped talking and kept my thoughts to myself. I began avoiding parties because I felt I had nothing to share and was scared of being hurt by the fixers.
If we’re not careful, involuntarily childless people can feel isolated in the workplace too. Baby showers and bringing babies to work are wonderful celebrations for mums and dads. But the impact can be understandably devastating to many who maybe too afraid to speak up. Many friends have left good jobs in which they worked well because there was no policy for infertility treatment or little care for their mental welfare in such situations. Many have been the only person who wasn't a parent and felt lonely as office conversation turned to children.
As our last round of IVF came to a close, we left our one embryo in a clinic. Alone. This fragile life is still there and I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to her, for I think if I had the bravery to defrost this mass of cells and by some miracle, they survived this would be our daughter.
Through Gateway Women and by speaking out, I have found friends who are also involuntary childless. I’ve also spoken in the media and set up my own award-winning site that tells the stories of those who have found hope. I have been fortunate to find the most wonderful communities who are as sociable and likeable as anyone who is a parent, who are diverse in their interests and in their own ways trying to integrate into a maternal and paternal landscape. I have also been open with my family and long term friends about what has happened to us, in some instances it has lead to a parting or reassessment of the relationship which had been painful.
This article is not about creating divides, to ask for comments about to solve infertility or pitch infertile against fertile (because I simply wouldn’t wish my journey on my worst enemy), but to building bridges. I have a great example of this. My best friend is a mum to two teens and we’ve through so much together. She is a friend for life because we’re respectful of each others challenges and we have huge range of shared interests beyond her children or my infertility. She and I should not be a unique but in listening to my infertile friends, I feel that we might be. Nobody should be lonely because we can’t have children, dealing with this knowledge itself is devastating enough.
It's why I set up the @childlesshour Twitter chat that take places on a Tuesday at pm and the Walking Forward Inspirational Network, to encourage conversation. Through groups like Gateway Women, the newly launched CNBC magazine and World Childless Week we are starting be heard and in turn build our communities. I'd love to talk to you.