SUPPORTING AND UNDERSTANDING THE INVOLUNTARILY CHILDLESS
Eight actions for family, friends and the rest of the world.
#3 LISTEN, LISTEN AND LISTEN
What? Yes, the healing power of a willing ear and open heart
I thought I’d start off with a short list. What do the involuntarily childless need from people in their lives? I think you’ll find what we need has a lot in common with what people living with other life altering and traumatic losses need.
WHAT WORKS WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Abidance Attempts to fix
Open ears “Advice”
Open hearts Dismissals and minimizations
Commitment Time stamps (on grief, experiences, etc)
Bearing Witness Indifference
Just like people who go through any other life altering traumatic loss, those who wanted children but couldn’t have them and people living with infertility and its related traumas need to be heard every bit as much as we need privacy. We need abidance, acceptance for wherever we are at and most of all empathy. Perhaps you’ve been through a life altering, out of the normal spectrum loss of your own and can apply your wisdom and experience to support someone in your life who is coming to terms with their childlessness.
The mindless responses we all engage in with our fellow humans from time to time can do more damage than many realize. Judgements as well as attempts to fix and pathologize incite disconnection. So does un-solicited “advice” from those who haven’t been there. I’m no more qualified, after all, to tell someone who lost their spouse mid-life or someone who is in the process of a gender transition how to be, what they need, what they should do or how they should feel than is someone who received the privilege of living children qualified to tell me.
Sadly, normal emotional responses to not being able to have children when you wanted them are typically dismissed by others as crazy, petty, selfish, exaggerated and misguided just to name a few, when in reality they are most often a normal, universal human response to extreme and abnormal circumstances.
Given the uprooting nature of reproductive crisis and/or the loss of the entire life track of parenthood, and the unimaginable emotions that are an inevitable part of any life altering loss, a consistent open human ear and heart is a most powerful and precious offering. And, it needs to be an open-ended commitment. Listening for five minutes or on one occasion to a childless person in your life you consider yourself close to and then thinking “Ok, that’s done!” is not helpful, as it is not in alignment with the ongoing experiences of involuntary childlessness.
Because much of grief is solitary, many don’t realize the crucial importance of the quality of support they offer. How well and consistently someone is heard and accepted can either facilitate their healing, while not being heard and accepted can actively impede it. In many ways, grief is a dialogue between the bereft and their loved ones and community. Having these entities bear witness to pain has been proven to be an essential component to the healing process.
Due to the lack of societal acknowledgement of our losses, and well as the high degree of silence that is expected from us, people who wanted children but couldn’t have them deal with massive levels of disenfranchised grief. This will take at least one if not more generations to shift; in the meantime it renders it that much more important that we are heard, accepted and supported by those close to us.
Listening continues to be key as people who wanted children but couldn’t have them view and experience this world, in many ways, differently than those who parent. As raw grief begins to subside, the loss of the life track of parenthood often requires an intense level of reinvention (usually NOT in the early phases of the grieving process). Unfortunately, this phase is typically overlooked and goes unnoticed, even by close friends and family. This rebuilding process can benefit greatly from the interest of others, or even from simply being witnessed and non judgmentally acknowledged by others.
For me, things such as creativity and connection have taken on a much more crucial nature, and demand more cultivation in the absence of my children and amid all of the social losses that come with that. Experiencing meaning again via whatever ends up providing it is a key component to the healing process – however the involuntarily childless people in your life end up finding new meaning needs to be heard and nurtured when it happens.
In addition, being childless not by choice means that person is now part of a highly invisible and under valued minority demographic. We need to be heard not only on the pain rendered from the loss of our children and/or parenthood itself, but also as we navigate our way through life as not part of the dominant and severely emphasized social norm of parenthood. This is no doubt a care and support eliciting experience!
Evolving and transforming through and then beyond life altering loss is one of the most alive, connected and courageous things a human being can do. We need people around us who can honor, support, patiently abide with, and even take an interest in this process, and one of the best ways to do this is by listening.
If you’re here because you’d like to support someone in your life who wanted children but couldn’t have them, thank you for stopping by.
While we make up approximately 20% of the world’s population, the childless not by choice are one of the most invisible and yet likely fastest growing demographics on the planet. We are living with a loss that will impact us in one way or another for the rest of our lives.
Many of us make our way through the grief and trauma and come out on the “other side” to rebuild a full and meaningful existence. At the same time, most of us have done this with sub standard or no support from others, even those who are supposed to love us. We commonly feel isolated, sidelined, abandoned by our society and not valued for our unique experiences and hard-won wisdom.
Given our numbers, which are expected to rise in the coming decades, I often reflect that our lack of integration into the daily mainstream doesn’t benefit anyone – our demographic or the greater whole. The childless not by choice deal with frayed relationships in every category – from siblings, to friends to parents and beyond. In addition, we field derogatory stereotypes and are left out of the human conversation on a daily, if not hourly basis. Bu tit doesn’t have to be this way. As building bridges between us and the rest of the world needs to be a collective effort, I’ve created the following to aid the process.
FINDING ANY OF THIS DIFFICULT?
You’re probably not alone. Infertility and childlessness related topics have been kept under wraps for so long in our culture that none of us, those affected directly and indirectly, have any precedent on which to base our behavior, words and feelings.
Some things to keep in mind:
A) There are other crisis and trials in life besides infertility and involuntary childlessness. Sometimes people are at a point or in the thick of something else in life and cannot take on someone else’s life altering loss. This is ok and it happens, just make sure to acknowledge and own this (within yourself and outwardly, if possible) instead of blaming the person who has suffered loss and needs you through no fault of their own.
B) The way we assimilate the pain of others is a direct reflection of the way we meet and honor our own pain. If you are experiencing a lot of resistance to empathizing and supporting those living with infertility and involuntary childlessness, this might be a good time to take a look at how you tend to your own emotional and empathic capacities. It’s typical in our culture to bypass the development of these things in the name of working hard, striving, forcing happiness or a positive attitude, and believing the myth of “rising above” our emotions. Finding yourself in a place where you are not able to be present for someone else’s pain is not so abnormal, and can be a good opportunity to take a deeper look at your own internal landscape.
I believe one of the single most important functions of a human being is the willingness and ability to be present with pain, both ours and other people’s, which is an inevitable part of life. I believe it is crucial for the survival of our species, it is a key way we connect, heal and grow. A mindfulness practice, journaling, and/or a qualified therapist can help to facilitate emotional and empathic growth and expansion.
#1 Myth Awareness, #2 Know the Numbers, #3 Listen, Listen and Listen, #4 Have An Informed View of Adoption, #5 Respect the Grieving Process, #6 Setting Reasonable Social Expectations, #7 Know Your Audience, #8 What To and Not To Say