Archive for the ‘Childlessness/Infertility’ Category

I wanted to share this wonderfully brave and honest blog post — well worth reading!


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In class last week I watched my own couple therapy unfold before my eyes.

My professor played one member of the couple, an older man with children from a previous marriage. A classmate played his younger, childless wife.

He didn’t want more kids; and when they got together, neither did she. But she’d changed, and he hadn’t, and though they were happy in every other way…there they were.

It was surreal. My classmate—not a stepmom—did a really amazing job predicting and expressing the feelings I had poured out before my own therapist.

My professor said afterward that this was a real case of his. He wanted to demonstrate what are, to him, the most heartbreaking cases of all: the ones where a wonderful couple just can’t agree on an issue for which there is no possible compromise.

And how strange to know that my husband and I were, more or less, that tragic couple. I couldn’t help thinking that, if this demonstration had come only a few months earlier, I probably would have left the classroom in tears.

But if you’re like me, you want to know what the outcome was for this couple in real life. My professor said that they finally agreed to try for a child for six months. If they were not successful, they would stop. And that’s what happened. The husband’s daughter ended up having her own child, and the stepmom helped raise the baby. My professor pointed out this last as a positive, though I know many a stepmom whose heart would remain forever in pieces to see her own stepdaughter having the experience she was denied.

Caught in the uncertainty of trying for my own child, I have no way of knowing if this woman’s fate won’t also be mine. All I can do is hope for better, and be grateful that my husband—like this man—came around.

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In my graduate program there is a huge age-and-life-experience divide. Most students are in their young-to-mid 20s, unmarried with no children. A significant group is in their 40s and 50s, almost all married or divorced with children. I, a childless stepmother at 34, sit squarely between these two camps.

And not for the first time in the past year, I witnessed the parents smugly patronizing the non-parents.

It started out innocently enough. My professor was talking about the impact that children have on a marriage. And suddenly he said, “When you have children, your capacity for love instantly expands. It really affects how you do therapy.”

That’s right, folks. Having kids not only makes you more loving, it makes you a better therapist!

Well, you can bet the parents in the class jumped all over that jazz. They were all glowing and sharing anecdotes about their marvelous expansive love.

Oh, but wait. Before anyone could get too annoyed, too offended, there came the attempt to level the playing field…

“That’s not to say that you have to have kids to be a good therapist,” my professor hastily explained. “There are lots of ways to get in touch with that kind of love.” He went on to say that one of the best marriage counselors he knows is a nun.

I believe he meant it. But the damage was done. The non-parents got the good old patronizing pat on the head. I’ve seen this same treatment over and over again: Having children is the most meaningful thing in the world! they gush. Oh, but there are lots of meaningful things in the world. Don’t you worry, now. And then they go on their self-satisfied way, feeling like they’ve exonerated themselves from rudeness while still having made their superiority perfectly clear.

Witnessing all this, I felt worse for the other non-parents than for myself. After all, my classmates know I’m a stepmother, and never would I admit to them that my experience in that capacity has been any less satisfying than their own lives as parents. And perhaps before too long I’ll have a biological child of my own.

But I still wanted to punch them all.

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How do you ever get over the feeling of being a non-entity in your stepchild’s life?

I know, I know: Better to be neutral than evil. But is it? It’s more peaceful, sure. But the toll of feeling insignificant, valueless—in your own home—is devastating. The constant subtle reminders that you don’t really count, you don’t really register, perpetuate this slow steady siphoning of your self-worth.

And the kicker is that the stepchild is doing nothing wrong. The stepchild is perhaps a model stepchild, in fact, a kind and polite and friendly stepchild.

But this stepchild doesn’t love you as you want to be loved. And it’s the only child you’ll ever have.

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I will confess—I love going to B&Bs. I love all the hokey decorations and the faux Victorian stylings. But the one thing I don’t love so much is having to talk to the owners and other guests at breakfast.

I prefer my breakfasts quiet—just my husband and me—and (I have to be honest) I really don’t care about chatting it up with people I’ll never see again. But what makes every B&B breakfast ever so much more uncomfortable is everyone’s inevitable suspicion that I am a not a “real” mother.

It always goes something like this. The kindly owner asks about our summer. My husband mentions our daughter —he always says she is ours; I know some don’t like this, but I do. (So far so good.) Then he mentions that she plays competitive sports. (Cue the quizzical look.) Then he mentions that she is 14, or in high school. (They are openly looking at me now, sizing me up. “She’s much too young to have a daughter in high school,” I can hear their minds ticking. “She must be the stepmother.”)

And so I can feel the burning in my face, the shifting in my seat. I’m actually not too young; I’m twenty years older than my stepdaughter. But that isn’t the point. I look young, my husband looks older, and I know what people think. And the truth is that I hate even being thought to be a stepmother. I go on vacation, at least in part, to escape life. I can pretend to be a young mother or one half of a happy child-free couple.

Until the B&B breakfast.

I don’t really understand my shame. In reality there is much to be proud of in being a good stepparent. It is one of the most difficult roles in a family, and to take it on and do it gracefully should be considered by all to be a major accomplishment. Yet that’s never how it feels in the wider world. Stepmother, especially childless stepmother, equals “less than.” It means “not real.” And there I sit, blushing into my omelette, exposed as this lesser creature.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if stepparents were admired and praised for taking on the challenges we do? I close my eyes and imagine this: compliments, encouragement. Wow, that’s great! You must be very courageous. You must really love your husband to do such a difficult thing. Your family is lucky to have you! It would change my experience completely if I thought that people equated stepmother, especially childless stepmother, with “more than”—more bravery, more patience, more self-sacrifice, more thoughtfulness.

Maybe that day is coming. I wish I didn’t need it. I wish I could sit there and hope that my husband revealed my step-identity. I wish I could happily smack down my home fries, brimming with pride that I and my friends embrace this difficult life. Because the plain truth is that we are “more than.” And I don’t know why I let strangers make me feel like anything less.

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When I listen to other childless stepmoms talk or write about their partners, one emotion that repeatedly and palpably emerges is longing: longing for more attention, more focus, more time, more status, more love. Many failings we may have, but a lack of passion and commitment is not one of them. Stepmoms are, no question, women who love their husbands.

It stands out. I rarely hear women with biological children, or even women without any children, ache for and crave their men the way childless stepmoms do.

It’s hard to hear all that pain. It’s hard not to want to shake these guys and show them how they are hurting these wonderful women who love them so very much. Can’t you look away from yourself or your kids just a little bit less, I want to say, and give your wife just a little bit more?

But then I got to wondering if there’s a (peculiar) silver lining in all this. Maybe the longing actually keeps the marital magic alive.

Stick with me. In regular, garden-variety relationships, the passion starts to fade after about two years—or so they say. But when the relationship involves some kind of deprivation—such as in illicit relationships, when the couple’s time and freedom are constrained—that cooling can be pushed back indefinitely. I wonder if the imbalances inherent in a stepfamily relationship create that same deprivation loop that keeps the partners passionate about each other long after a more traditional couple would be going through the motions.

I realize that none of this says very splendid things about human nature. But if these are the trajectories of most romantic relationships—and I am told they are, though I will explore this in much greater detail in my future studies—perhaps there is something to be said for longing after all. I think, if I had the choice, I would rather yearn for my husband than take him for granted. Is it possible that living in a stepfamily helps keep us on the passionate side of this critical continuum?

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I often struggle with childlessness and this is one of those bad times.

Last night my professor elucidated something remarkable: in her brand of therapy, the goal is to treat the client just as an ideal mother would—with responsiveness, attunement, unconditional regard, and space to think and grow. Over time, this type of interaction gives the client a new way of understanding relationships, a new trust in life—a new start. (Or so claims the theory and my professor’s careerful of evidence.)

The concept brought tears to my eyes. Though I am never to be a mother, could I be one, somehow, in a different way? Could I serve that function I know I could do so well, not for any tiny offspring but for dozens of wounded adults?

Writing it here, it sounds stupid—delusional. I’ll never be anyone’s mother, even if I can change lives through therapy.

But in class it sounded truly transformative—not just for future clients, but for my grieving childless soul.

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When you’re childless, it’s often hard not to feel like the only one. Growing up, I did not know a single woman who did not have children! And the few childless men I knew were those who’d “screwed up” in life, never managing to get steady jobs let alone the wives and children that would make them “normal.”

Luckily, my horizons have broadened as an adult. I know several child-free men and women, and countless wonderful stepparents who do not have biological children. The notion that childless people are somehow weird, cold, or deficient has been permanently stamped from my psyche.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid feelings of difference and isolation when friend after friend starts a family, when every other woman at the mall sports a bump beneath her flowing tunic. (And now even the fashion industry has all of us wearing maternity clothes! What gives?) I don’t really consider myself childless, and yet I’ve never been pregnant nor raised an infant or toddler. I’m much more likely to squeal over dogs than babies. In short, I’m different from most adult women I meet, and it usually feels like I’m padding around in my own tiny puddle while everyone else is diving into the ocean.

But it turns out that my pool is much more crowded than I thought. According to a 2005 study of US women, 28% of those ages 30-34, and 19% of those ages 40-44, were childless in 2004. Given fertility limitations, most of that 19% probably remains childless for the duration. And that’s not such a bad number as far as company is concerned!

Given that the vast majority of U.S. adults—96%—gets married at least once, a significant portion of those remaining childless are probably child-free by choice. I view this as a positive—a further broadening of minds and options. As more and more people demonstrate that not having children can be a viable, positive choice for the marriage and the individual, the stigma against childlessness will (hopefully) continue to erode. And that’s a good thing for the childless, the child-free, and those of us who are somewhere in between!

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