In the UK and USA, almost one in five women reach midlife without children*. For women born in the 1970s, it is thought one in four will reach 45 without giving birth. The vast majority are childless by circumstance, not through choice. Statistics for men are less well researched.
Often people think of childlessness in terms of people who ‘do not want’ or ‘cannot have’ children. The actual reasons are far more complex. While 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'. 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 society in general. 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 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. 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 in the body of the email?
If a friend, family member or colleague does choose to open up to you (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.
Some practical tips you can follow, from Karin Enfield de Vries, a World Childless Week Champion:
- Acknowledge our story
- Be empathetic
- You could say “That must be hard, how are you doing?”
- Be mindful of you use family-focused language
- Be inclusive
- Show interest
- Give us a heads up about baby news
- Share magical baby stories
- Dismiss our emotions
- Ignore the topic
- Surprise us with baby news on the work floor
- Make assumptions about our life
- Say “why don’t you just adopt”
- Timebox our grief period
- Make family events about traditional families only
If a colleague chooses to talk about childlessness and the impact on their wellbeing with you, please take the time to listen. The advice on this page is here to help you. We also have a network of staff wellbeing champions, some of whom have shared experiences who can provide support and a listening ear. Colleagues can also get in contact with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information and support
University of Bath staff can join the No Kidding support group, hosted by staff wellbeing champions with experience of childlessness.
World Childless Week – raising awareness of childlessness not by choice.
Jody Day, Living the Life Unexpected – download the first chapter.
Dr Robin Hadley is the UK’s leading academic in the area of male involuntary childlessness.
Gateway Women – blog updates, resources and the Lighthouse Women online community.
The Childless Men's Community – a closed Facebook group created and moderated by Michael Hughes and Andy Harrod.
Childlessness – the unspoken workplace inclusion issue. Published by Diversity Council Australia, written by Michael Hughes
Growing the inclusion pie. Inclusive Growth Show, Episode 70. Toby Mildon interviews Jody Day. Audio and transcript.
Jody Day’s lecture on disenfranchised grief for York University’s ‘Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience' project.