Coming to Terms - What Does it Mean?

No doubt, there is ‘more to life’ than having children–and the greatest challenge for those of us who find ourselves unwillingly childless is to discover exactly what that ‘more’ is….A key part of that journey of discovery includes coming to terms with the disappointments, pain and sadness of having certain life goals frustrated.

If we are able to truly ‘come to terms’ with our losses, we can move on. If we just fake it–pretending we’re okay to ourselves or to others–we remain, to some extent, stuck.

A good test of our progress is how we react when a friend becomes pregnant or when we’re invited to a christening or baby-naming ceremony. Those situations may trigger a pang–like the ache of old wound to ache when the weather changes–but there is a big difference between a wound that has healed–even if it leaves a scar–and one that is raw and open.

So how do we heal such profound losses authentically? As a psychotherapist specialising in fertility problems, this is a crucial for me–not just for my clients but for myself too, as I am unwillingly childless.

Over years of running groups and workshops, listening to the stories of people with fertility problems, I realised how hugely helpful it is to explore our motivations. WHY do we want a child in the first place? (Yes, I know, fertile couples don’t have to think about this–but it may help us if we do!)

Often there are hidden agendas. Our task is to disentangle them. While this won’t fully resolve the sadness of unwanted childlessness, it can release some of the urgency and anguish.

One exercise we sometimes do in the workshops is imagining our lives WITH a child. What do we envision doing with the child?

One woman saw herself sauntering through a park in a relaxed, open way, following her toddler who was discovering a leaf, a puddle, the bark of a tree for the first time. In discussing her image, this woman, who was busy and deeply engaged in running a chain of shops, realised she was longing to spend more time in nature, to relax and just ‘be’, without pressure to achieve. This was something she could rectify immediately–she saw that she didn’t need the pretext of a child to take time off.

There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, why we decide to have a child, besides the social pressures to conform to the norm and the biological imperative to procreate. Here are the top nine:

1) To prove our femininity and mark our maturity–joining that sorority of mothers pushing strollers in the park or waiting for children at the school gate;

2) To prop up or revitalise a faltering marriage or relationship;

3) To please our own parents or in-laws, who are longing to become grandparents or to ‘keep up’ with siblings and friends who are having babies;

4) Conversely, we may urgently need to separate from over-demanding parents or in-laws. If a woman is busy with her own infant, she has a good excuse for not going to Sunday lunch at her parent’s home each week or phone her mother every day;

5) Working women may be looking for an honourable way to opt out of exhausting or unrewarding jobs. The baby is a legitimate passport to stop professional work altogether or shift to a part-time schedule;

6) To have somebody who (we imagine) will look after us in our own old age or failing health;

7) To have somebody (a child) whom we can love fully, without reservation and who will love us (initially, at least) without reservation–to experience that unconditional love that most of us want and some of us feel we didn’t get in childhood;

8) To give life renewed meaning. When the limits of material success become clear, there may come a deeper search for meaning–an existential or mid-life crisis. Men and women who have achieved much in the outer world may gradually begin to feel empty inside. Where is true meaning to be found? Perhaps, the thinking goes, a child is the answer….

9) To give a child everything we think was missing or insufficient in our own childhood–more love, attention, kindness, understanding. (This is one of the most subtle and powerful motivators–and usually the least conscious.) We hope to heal the wounds of our own inner child through the agency of a NEW baby/child.

In the last case, dealing with our wounded inner child may be what is really required. An entire field of psychotherapy and scores of books are devoted to healing the inner child–and this is a more appropriate and straightforward way to address this particular issue.

In most of these situations listed above, we are loading onto the child our own agendas–the child has become a means to some end. Most of these needs can be met in other ways–more directly too. In fact some of these goals may not be resolved by parenthood–their resolution will simply be postponed.

If these underlying issues are never consciously explored or addressed, any new baby–including adopted children–may be lumbered with unrealistic parental expectations, leading to disillusionment and unhappiness, both for parent and child.

Exploring our motivations to become parents will make us more conscious, thoughtful parents–or adoptive parents– than people who simply sleepwalk into it. For those of us who never have a child, it may be crucial to making peace with that disappointment. The ‘grit-your-teeth and get-on-with-it’ style of coping is a short-term tactic that often exacts a high price in the end–in the form of depression, addictive or obsessive disorders (like over-eating, drinking excessively, smoking, over-exercising, perfectionism or workaholism–all behaviours aimed at blotting out or controlling painful feelings).

We will be able to tolerate our losses with less pain and more grace after we have met some of these valid and appropriate desires and goals through other, less circuitous avenues than having a child.

To sum up, three keys steps to healing and moving forward are:

1) Facing the losses and grieving them appropriately (ritual is often helpful here);

2) Exploring our motivations, hopes and expectations of parenthood. Perhaps some of these needs/desires can be met in other ways–and indeed should be met in other ways!

3) Finding authentic meaning in life–outside being the parent of our own biological child. This may become a quest to discover what is sacred, spiritual, transcendent in life.

For help in finding a local counsellor in the UK, contact the Information Officer at the British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) at info@bica.net or visit the website: www.bica.net


Comments (3) to “Coming to Terms - What Does it Mean?”

  1. I found Merediths workshops hugely helpful in coming to terms with childlessness. Although it is an ongoing struggle I gained enormous strengh from the safe and supportive sessions and I look back on them often with fond memories of the good company , lovely location and delicious food. I would sincerely recommend it to anyone with fertility issues.

  2. Meredith, i have just found all this wonderful support and info, which wasnt around ten years ago when I was diagnosed infertile. I havent been able to move on, as I was never allowed to grieve. Are you planning any more workshops in the near future?

  3. Hi Caroline,

    Reaching the women and (a few!) men who are interested in this approach was always my biggest challenge….I’m hoping this website will help. I have been doing these workshops for 17 years–so it WAS available–just hard to locate!

    I plan to offer another workshop in the spring of 2008.

    Sometimes I do a workshop if a number of people write to express interest. We need a minimum of about 5 people and no more than 10.

    If you know others who might be interested, mention it–and if we can find a mutually convenient weekend, we can make it happen–either here in France or in London.