The Irish Times - Article

Tuesday 24th July 2012


Accepting a life without children

Finding ways of coming to terms with involuntary childlessness can be a difficult challenge, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

JANE GUNNIGAN should have a child starting school this September. Instead, after five miscarriages, she and her husband are trying to come to terms with the idea that they may never be parents.

As happy as she is for friends and colleagues when they announce they’re pregnant, it does get to a stage when she is uttering “Congratulations! When are you due?” through gritted teeth.

“And the thing that really gets me in the gut is that I will never be that woman,” says Jane (43), her voice cracking with emotion at the “huge loss” in her life. Married for seven years, they have been trying for children for the past six.

“People say it is akin to bereavement and I would agree. It is one that just never goes away. As you get older, I am sure it all comes back because your siblings and your peers become grandparents and it is all going to happen again.”

Media coverage of the one-in-six couples who have fertility issues usually focuses on the success stories, she points out. We seldom hear from couples who have reached the end of the road on fertility treatments and have nothing but heartache to show for it.

“Every time you read an article about infertility, particularly in Irish newspapers, it is nearly always ‘oh, we tried for years and years, did all these treatments, we got a miracle, look at us now and we are all happy ever after with the baby’. There is very little print or air space given to couples who have come to an acceptance about life without children.

Brid Ní Chionaola (47), who was “very, very traumatised” by not being able to have children, after getting married nine years ago, now accepts it. That is not to say a specific event or comment won’t trigger negative thoughts that she has to deal with.

“I have got to the place where I have been ‘spared’ from having kids,” she says. “My life is about something else.”

However, while she and her husband abandoned the long, drawn-out adoption process because they thought they were too old for it, she is considering fostering. For Ní Chionaola, the path to letting go the dream of motherhood has been through The Work of Byron Katie – a way of dealing with stressful thoughts that was developed by an American woman who had struggled for more than a decade with depression, anger and addiction.

It wasn’t the first thing Ní Chionaola, who lives in Co Meath, had tried. In 2006 she emerged from a 10-day silent retreat believing she would never feel stressed again.

Within days she was diagnosed with breast cancer “and I went ballistic so that didn’t really work!” The diagnosis also put an end to her plans to try IVF treatment. With the cancer, Ní Chionaola wasn’t happy to die but at the same time “I didn’t want to go out kicking and screaming”. It was while trying to find a way to control the “horrible” thoughts racing through her mind that she came across The Work.

“It helps deals with your thoughts and pins them down. You get them down on paper and the war in your head can end.”

It is applicable to any stressful thoughts and “it has completely changed my life, she says.

Now one of four certified leaders in The Work in Ireland, she offers workshops in the technique to various groups, including the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISI). She wants to help people who are calling a halt to infertility treatments to find peace in their head with that decision.

NISI was founded in Cork in 1996 by three women who were struggling with infertility, to share experiences with people in similar circumstances. As it happened, each of the three had a different outcome: successful conception, adoption and acceptance.

For co-founder Helen Browne, her journey to acceptance was a long one. Although she and her husband invested a large amount of money and emotional energy into 12 years of, ultimately unsuccessful, fertility treatment, she is glad that she had the opportunity to try.

“I would have been angry if I hadn’t,” she says. But with Ireland being one of the few European countries which does not provide or fund assisted reproduction, she worries about people in the current economic climate who may not have that chance.

The Human Assisted Reproduction Ireland (HARI) clinic at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin regards support of patients who don’t become parents as a key aspect of its work.

“Involuntary childlessness is difficult and can be extremely upsetting,” says Joan Hamilton, head of patient support at HARI. “Our consultants are very good at helping couples understand their own particular medical challenges and our patient support team works closely with the couples to help them work though their options which may include looking towards a different future than the one they had hoped for.”

Couples may start to consider other ways of building a family such as adoption, fostering or surrogacy, she adds. “Or they may decide that they can live a childfree life and move towards a different future together.

As a single, childfree woman of 40, Eileen Reilly wrote in The Gloss magazine earlier this year about trying to come to terms with “planning for a different kind of way than the family way”.

She urged other women like her to be more open about their feelings, to raise awareness and understanding. “Lack of discourse contributes to a sense of taboo.”

Believing she would need the help of a partner to raise a child, Reilly is not putting her fertility to the test. But she shares a similar sadness and sense of loss as couples who have found themselves infertile.

Indeed, Reilly has sometimes felt like she has “failed on the double” being neither a partner nor a mother. However, gradually she is working out a way of happily living a life she hadn’t envisaged.

In the wake of that article and knock-on media coverage she has started a web-based, “Childfree in Ireland” resource.

Gunnigan, who is the youngest of seven siblings and the only one who doesn’t have a child, says at times she feels like her whole life is being spent as a bystander to other people’s lives.

All around her are people in their 40s who are married with children and who are going through all the events that revolve around child-related milestones, starting school, First Communion, starting secondary school, college, graduation etc. Whereas without those, “there are no events in your life other than your 40th birthday; that whizzes by, then you’re 45 and then you’re 50 . . .”

Social occasions can be an ordeal if she has to deal over and over again with that standard conversation opener: “Do you have children?”

“I nearly feel like getting the T-shirt printed: ‘No I don’t have kids, I have three cats’.”

It really bugs her that people do not regard a couple like her and John as a family. “The only time you would hear people referring to childless ‘families’ is in the context of prospective adoptive parents,” she says.

Friends and family are well aware of her sadness at not being a mother. “I wear my heart on my sleeve,” but she would hate people to exclude her from baby-related events in the fear that they would upset her. “But they have to make allowances for the fact that maybe you will not always be able to include yourself.”

She and her husband are considering adoption but know that it is a very long and difficult road, with no guaranteed happy ending there either.

Meanwhile, one outlet they found for their “strong sense of nurturing” was having two seven-year-old girls from Belarus in their Co Tipperary home for two weeks of recuperation last Christmas, through Chernobyl Lifeline Ireland.

While in the run-up to the visit, she talked about “hosting” the girls, “you don’t ‘host’ two seven-year-olds, you parent two seven-year-olds”, she points out with a laugh.

The girls didn’t have a word of English, she and her husband didn’t have a word of Russian “but it worked, fantastically. We formed a huge bond.”

They hope the girls will be back and it is something she highly recommends to couples who are in the same situation.

It gave her and John the gifts of joy, laughter and love “and seeing our house in the way we had intended it to be, full of shrieks and noise and play”.

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FIVE YEARS ago Stuart Findlay (43) thought he had accepted that he would never be a father.

On his own after two long-term relationships, he did the maths and reckoned by the time he might meet somebody and settle down, it would be too late because he didn’t want to be an older father.

“I don’t want to be sitting in a car outside Wesley when I’m 60; I don’t want to be that old parent; I don’t want to be changing nappies at 45.”

But it is only recently that the reality of that “rational” decision is dawning on him. It has become much more of an issue since his older brother, his only sibling, has had two children.

His feelings towards his now seven-year-old nephew and five-year-old niece “is bringing home to me what I am going to miss out on throughout my life,” he says over a cup of coffee in Dublin’s Temple Bar. “And I think the emotions I have around them would only be a fraction of what you would feel as a parent.”

With his brother married to a Finnish woman and the family living in Finland, he only sees with them once or twice a year. But he sees from pictures how “gorgeous” the children are and describes as “bizarre” the way his father’s likeness is so apparent in his nephew.

As a man approaching his mid-40s, he has, in theory at least, a continuing “reproductive window” that a woman of the same age doesn’t have, but the reality is that if he were to settle down with a contemporary, it would almost certainly be too late for them to start a family. If he were to meet a younger woman, having children would be “definitely negotiable”, he says. But for now, he is more concerned with accepting for himself that the chance of parenthood has passed, “rather than getting worked up about the fact that it is gone”.

It is a subject he seldom discusses with friends but when he does he is bemused by the amount of resistance he encounters to the idea that he is too old to be a father now.

People don’t want to admit that there are things you can rule out of life these days, he suggests. “You can’t say you’re too old for something; you have to imagine you can do everything.” Whereas he thought he was being “quite grown-up and responsible” in accepting he was too old to be a father.

While men certainly get broody, he agrees, he thinks maybe it is a bit different from women who long to hold a baby in their arms.

For him it is the “classic thing that men fantasise about – teaching a son to do things and having those experiences. Maybe men fantasise more about the later period.”

Having lived up to the age of 11 in Greenock, on the west coast of Scotland, his family moved to France and later to the south of England, before he came to Trinity College to study physics. After doing a PhD, and working in the Netherlands and Portugal, he is now a software engineer back in Dublin.

He has always had a “youthful” existence, he says. “I can definitely see things about myself that would have changed if I had had that responsibility . Decisions, things I have drifted through life with, just letting go and maybe not taking such a serious look at planning the future. Whereas if I had kids, that stuff is unavoidable if you want to look after your family.”

Findlay misses both not having a life partner and not having children. “It is a loss I can’t do anything about just at the moment.”

He sometimes wonders if he made the decision about not wanting to be an older parent “too rashly, too soon. Maybe I closed myself off at a time that maybe I didn’t need to.”

He is not saying that changed his behaviour one way or the other, “but I think there is a chance it had some sort of subliminal effect on what I might look for in a relationship”.

At this stage he feels he is looking for “a best friend” to share his life with, “somebody who doesn’t mind going to see 10 films a week during the film festival”.

Does he try to focus on the advantages of not having children?

“I don’t but maybe I should start!” he says with a smile, as he rushes off to catch a late afternoon showing of Your Sister’s Sister at the nearby Irish Film Institute.