In the UK and USA, almost one in five women reach midlife without children (Day 2016). For women born in the 1970s, it is thought one in four will reach 45 without giving birth (When childless isn’t a choice, 2014). The vast majority are childless by circumstance, not through choice. Often people think of childlessness in terms of people who ‘do not want’ or ‘cannot have’ children. The reasons are far more complex. Whilst childlessness can be due to medical reasons such as infertility, it is much more commonly due to circumstance (for example not meeting a partner at the right time in life). Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women online community, writes about ‘fifty ways not to be a mother’.
You may have heard the terms childless and childfree, some people also use the term NOMO (non-mother). Childfree usually implies the person or couple have made a choice not to have children whereas childless generally means the outcome has not been an active decision. Being childless not by choice is very hard in the workplace and generally in society. The world is very family-focused and this is often highly visible and pervasive in advertising and social media. Those without children, not by choice can feel excluded, alone and vulnerable.
Coming to terms with being childless not by choice involves loss and a grief. Jody Day explores the ‘disenfranchised grief’ or ‘living loss’ of childlessness. Because the grief is unseen it can cause a real struggle when it comes to putting on a brave face to carry on with life. This in turn can have a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. Disenfranchised grief, also known as hidden grief or sorrow refers to any grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. This kind of grief is often minimized or not understood by others, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through (Raypole, 2020). In a pronatalist society this has an impact on mental health and wellbeing.
What can help?
Colleagues may choose not to discuss childlessness in the workplace. Sometimes life at work can feel like a ‘safe zone’ compared to time outside work where interactions with peers or family can feel overwhelming, so don’t push to start up a conversation, let the individual open up only if they feel comfortable. Think about how you discuss family, children and grandchildren at work. Do you ask people about children as a ‘conversation starter’? Be mindful that for some people this question can be triggering and far from neutral. Do you work in an office where social or break time conversations are dominated by talk of children or grandchildren? Does someone feel excluded? How are maternity, or new-parent announcements handled? Are they sent to wider mailing lists or to specific groups? Do they include photos?
If a friend, family member or colleague does choose to open up to you, (I can guarantee that in itself will have taken a lot of courage) please don’t offer them advice or start the “have you tried….” conversation. Without a doubt yes, they will have thought about adoption, they will have thought about many other treatments and dozens of other options too (including ‘just relaxing’ or ‘taking a holiday’ – yes, we’ve heard both!), decisions about which options to pursue or not are often agonising. Don’t offer the person ‘your kids’ as a joke. Please just be there to offer an open ear, a friendly smile, a shoulder to cry on and maybe ask if there is anything you can do to support them. Whether that is being an ally at work, going for a coffee or being someone at the end of a text. The person experiencing this doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’, however well meaning, they just need to be heard and seen and not have their experience and pain dismissed so it becomes invisible again.
Suggest searching for online support groups, in person and online. As this can be a very sensitive and personal experience, it is quite likely that the person may not know of anyone in their close circle who has experienced the same. Online support forums can be a great place to start, to help someone realise they certainly are not alone, but also be aware that these can also be triggering. It will be down to personal choice.
Women who don’t have children, for whatever reason have often in the past been referred to as selfish. This is such an unfair assumption, as you never know what a woman has experienced to get to where she is today. I’m sure you will have noticed, albeit subliminally that childless women on TV, in films and cartoons are often portrayed as selfish, career driven, the wicked stepmother, witches or child haters (e.g. Cruella Deville!). Childless men are never portrayed in the say way and are rarely asked the same questions as women, for example “oh, so you don’t have kids?” or “when are you going to start a family?”. If you are experiencing CNBC, try to look for positive role models instead, there are plenty out there! Gateway Women has a section on childless role models on the forum if you are considering joining.
If they wish to talk about childlessness and the impact on wellbeing with you, there are Wellbeing Champions with shared experiences who can provide support and a listening ear. If you would like to refer a colleague for support, please contact Heather Girling on firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are three stories about how childlessness has affected staff.
Information and support
World Childless Week – raising awareness of childlessness not by choice
Gateway Women - online forum, blog updates, Facebook and Instagram
Jody Day, Living the Life Unexpected, first chapter download
The Clan of Brothers – a closed Facebook group created and moderated by Michael Hughes and Andy Harrod
Dr Robin Hadley is the UK’s leading academic in the area of male involuntary childlessness
Jody Day’s lecture on disenfranchised grief for York University’s ‘Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience” Project
Childlessness in the workplace
Instagram page suggestions – Gateway Women, Finding My Rainbow, World Childless Week, Chasing Creation (along with many more)