What is childlessness and how is it experienced by those affected?

If a 12-month period of sexual intercourse of normal frequency ends without pregnancy, a couple is said to be involuntarily childless. Between 10 and 15% of all heterosexual couples are involuntarily childless. In approximately one third of all the cases, the problem is attributable to the male partner, and in a third of all the cases, the problem is attributable to the female partner. The last third is attributable to factors affecting both partners or reasons unknown. 
Generations ago, involuntary childlessness was more accepted as a fact of life, or the problem was resolved through adoption or some other means. In the past 50 to 60 years, the availability of new techniques and a change in attitudes have resulted in a greatly increased need to treat involuntary childlessness. In the past 10 to 20 years, it has also become more common in most Western countries to offer treatment to both single women and female couples. The group of single women in particular has risen sharply and today accounts for over one third of all treatments.

Involuntary Childlessness can be Described in the Following way: 

  • The Psychological Pregnancy Begins Long Before the Physical one

Being involuntarily childless - what does this mean exactly? For parents with children, involuntary childlessness can be hard to imagine, but for those affected or those who have been affected, the meaning is both clear and immediate. For both involuntarily childless couples and couples who achieve a pregnancy relatively quickly, the so-called psychological pregnancy starts with the desire to have a child. However, this is where the similarity ends. For whereas the pregnant couple gives birth to the child of their dreams within a foreseeable future, the involuntarily childless couple may have to wait two to three years and even as long as seven years, with many couples waiting even longer. Some couples never have the child they wish for and after a while must finally accept the loss that never having their own child can mean. For the vast majority, involuntary childlessness is a challenging life situation.

  • Involuntary Childlessness can Place a Heavy Burden on a Relationship

Men and women often experience childlessness differently, which is hardly surprising given gender differences in outlook. This difference often results is recriminations, disappointments, and in worst cases, a crisis in the relationship which can end in divorce. It is often couples who see themselves as being in a strong relationship that seek infertility treatment, as it requires great commitment to face the problem and attempt to do something about it. Similarly, many couples have stated that the period of childlessness and any courses of treatment have strengthened their relationship, which is a source of optimism amid all the gloom.

  • The Desire to Have a Child in Relation to Treatment Options and Possibilities in General

The desire to have a child must always be offset against the actual possibility of achieving pregnancy. Many couples begin a course of treatment after having decided that artificial insemination is not for them, and that they would rather stop if insemination with the man’s sperm does not result in pregnancy. However, often the couples gradually change their position on which type of treatment they want to use. For example, couples who began by rejecting adoption may finally have to accept this option and are very happy with this solution. Finally, there is a group that must face life without the possibility of having their own children. This may be a situation a couple accept without seeking infertility treatment, or it may be a situation a couple has to face after several years of treatment without a positive outcome.

  • Making Sure that Life is About more than the Desire to have a Child

Even though involuntary childlessness can be very hard to bear, and the absence of a child can be a heavy burden to carry, it is important not to see it as one of life’s shortcomings. Just as the lives of normal fertile couples do not solely revolve around a child, it is important not to make the absence of a child the focus of one’s life. Try and view life in its wider context and do not let childlessness take over your whole identity but merely reflect one aspect of it - even though childlessness can be hard to accept at times.

  • Finding Someone to Talk to - Choosing how Open you Want to be With the Outside World

Some couples choose not to discuss childlessness in order to avoid sympathy, questions and the well-meaning suggestions of others. In the worst case, they may miss out on the help and support they could otherwise have had. Having said this, there are also advantages in being selective in one’s choice of confidant in order to avoid negative experiences such as a lack of understanding, rejection in the form of insincere condolences or simply facing a wall of silence. Some people see involuntary childlessness as a luxury problem, and are therefore not very understanding or supportive. There is no sensible justification for calling involuntary childlessness a luxury problem given the fact that most people want children and will go to considerable lengths to have them.

Source: Danish National Association of the Involuntary Childless