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10 things that someone who is CNBC (Childless Not By Choice) wants you to know

Involuntary childlessness can be a traumatic, stigmatized and often secret experience that can last a lifetime. With 1 in 5 women reaching the age of 45 without children - and with up to 90% of these being involuntarily childless, that makes for millions of women all around the world of all ages that have lived or are living through this experience right now. If we add men into the picture too, we have a substantial part of our society that are often “invisible” or unacknowledged. The following article is aimed to raise awareness and validate the involuntary childless experience. Everyone’s journey through involuntary childlessness and childless grief is unique, and therefore this doesn’t necessarily mean this is true for every person who is CNBC (Childless Not By Choice). I’ve gathered together some common themes expressed by those in the CNBC community (e.g. via Facebook groups), from research papers (e.g. ‘Unnatural’, ‘Unwomanly’, ‘Uncreditable’ and ‘Undervalued’: The Significance of Being a Childless Woman in Australian Society / The Social Exclusion of Australian Childless Women in Their Reproductive Years), feedback from my therapy clients who are childless, and from over a decade of my own lived experience of childlessness. As a general rule for family and friends of those who are childless not by choice; childless grief and trauma from childlessness is very real and very valid. If you’re ever unsure of what to say – imagine what you would say to someone who is grieving someone who has recently passed away. For example, would you suggest to someone who has lost a loved one, let’s say a husband, to “just be positive, having a husband isn’t that great anyway, you can have mine!”. Hopefully not - and the same stands for those who are going through childless grief. People who are childless not by choice don’t think their life would be rosy or perfect if they had kids; in fact some might come from broken homes themselves and are also grieving the opportunity to create a loving family of their own. Ultimately, someone who is going through childless grief is grieving. And it should be validated and treated as such. This doesn’t mean that those who are CNBC can’t recover from childlessness; there are those who heal or move forwards into a childfree (by choice) life, enjoying all the benefits that being childfree brings. Whatever the story; it’s valid and can vary from person to person. If you’re childless yourself, perhaps you can forward this article to friends or family or share it to a social media page to raise awareness.

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1. Childlessness can be traumatising & consist of many layers. For those of who are going through involuntary childlessness, the pain can be extremely, real, raw and persistent. Apart from the obvious sadness and grief (yes, it’s grief) of not having a child or the family you always wished for, childlessness - including the circumstances that may have contributed to our childlessness - can be traumatising. These can include for example, unsuccessful past relationships (including abusive relationships), years of dealing with chronic illness (e.g. endometriosis), feeling excluded and invalidated by friends, family, the media and in general by the pro-natalist society we live in. It can cause issues with self-esteem, it can raise questions around our identity. It can exclude us from social groups in our community. Chronic invalidation, exclusion and marginalisation can be traumatising and isolating. We may have also experienced failed fertility treatments which may in turn contribute towards the relationship we have with our own bodies. Childlessness can contribute towards any number of mental health issues as a result, including complex PTSD, depression or complicated grief.


2. Childlessness is usually a secret battle and can be unique to all of us. Some of us may have had miscarriages or failed fertility treatments, or some of us may be childless by circumstance because we never found “the right person” to have a family with and have ended up being single in late life. All stories are valid. Many of us fear speaking up for fear of being stigmatised or invalidated. Some of us fear speaking up for fear of being misunderstood. Some of us may not even realise we are grieving. Many of us have been conditioned to believe it’s shameful or embarrasing to speak up about being childless.


3. Yes, it’s grief. And often, there are many losses we grieve. The grief that we experience in childlessness is referred to as ‘disenfranchised grief’; a grief which is taboo, misunderstood and often invalidated or unacknowledged by society. However, just like “normal” grief which is socially accepted, it can be profound and extremely painful or overwhelming, and we may journey back and forth through all its stages. Because we often grieve in secret and are unable to share our pain, this can even result in Prolonged Grief Disorder or “complicated grief”. There is an element of healing in being able to share or publicly mourn our grief, and being able to voice and validate our sorrow. In “real life” when someone mourns, people usually express empathy and say things like “I’m sorry”, or “I’m here for you”. However, it doesn’t seem to be uncommon for those who are CNBC to be met with things like “just be grateful for what you do have!”, or “you can have one of my kids!” instead. Asides from the obvious loss of grieving the children or family we will never have, we may also feel sorrow at the loss of the future we’d always imagined, a loss of identity, losses of friendship groups as everyone moves on to have their families, losses of familial bonds, a loss of sense of self…the list goes on.


4. We often feel invisible & form part of a marginalised community. This can be due to being invalidated, underrepresented or excluded in the media, on the news or on social media. This can also include working in an environment that celebrates parenthood and doesn’t recognise childlessness. We live in a society where being a parent is socially expected and accepted, including issues surrounding parenting; for example, depression following on from having a child (postnatal depression) is acknowledged and validated. What about the trauma, grief and mental health issues that arise from not having a child..? During Coronavirus, we have heard daily about grandparents not being able to see grandchildren, parents home schooling, single parents at home alone etc...but have we heard about “people without families”..? or the "childless not by choice.."? including the mental health of those who may be both childless and single and home alone? Considering there are millions of people who are CNBC all around the world, I don’t seem to remember them being mentioned once. We also live in a society where it’s normalised to ridicule and invalidate childless people, e.g. “are you a crazy cat lady yet?!”.


5. Sometimes we might come across as being antisocial or unempathetic, but the truth is we may actually just be trying to cope with waves of grief or trying to avoid traumatising triggers. We may not always be able to visibly express empathy when you’re talking about things like e.g. home schooling - not because we don’t care or want to invalidate you, but because we are trying to handle our own waves of what can be profound grief. This can also involve things like grieving the loss of being able to teach our own children things, such as life lessons that we wanted to pass down. There may also be social events we avoid, including family events, because just seeing children with their parents or grandparents, hearing them say “mummy”, or seeing the exchange between them all can be a trigger for grief or trauma, plunging us into the depths of sorrow which can then go on to last for the next few days. All of these situations can appear to others that we don’t care or don’t want to be sociable or that we're even jealous; whilst the truth is we may be too traumatised or drowning in grief to be able to participate.


6. Special occasions can be painful. This is of course true for everyone, especially if you have mental health issues. As someone who is CNBC, special occasions can loom over us with a sense of dread and deep sorrow, especially if we live alone. The entire Christmas period is full of triggers, haunted by painful thoughts of not having a Christmas stocking to fill, advent calendars to buy, or sharing the wonder of Christmas magic through your own eyes…let alone waking up in an empty house on Christmas morning. Birthdays, often a cause of celebration can become the enemy as you find yourself another year away from ever having a family or reaching a milestone birthday even in old age when everyone else might usually be becoming grandparents. Easter, which is ultimately a celebration of fertility and “new life”, full of “eggs”, easter egg hunts and reminders of the children you don’t have. Mothers Day – no explanation needed. And then there are the days which aren’t special occasions, but can bring up sadness anyway, like Sunday dinners at home alone, or getting home to an empty apartment every night, or waking up alone every morning.


7. It’s often not “just a phase” and it doesn’t only affect couples in midlife. People often assume that any pain that childlessness brings is just a phase you go through – perhaps when you’re in a relationship trying for a child, and perhaps in your mid 30s or early 40s. Whilst some people do go through a phase and may even transiiton into a childfree life, for many, the pain can be lifelong and even come back with a vengeance once peers start becoming grandparents. A childless person can be any age, any gender, of any relationship status, from any cultural or racial background.

8. There are triggers everywhere. Literally everywhere. This could be attending events with friends or family, coming across our old school reports or toys we had as children, baby adverts that pop up on TV, having a walk in the park and coming across an adventure playground full of parents and kids, shopping in Zara and stumbling across the baby clothes department, participating in a Zoom or Whatsapp group chat with colleagues whilst everyone talks "parent stuff" and sitting in silence or being subjected to “jokes” like “you’re lucky you don’t have kids!”. Then of course there's Christmas, Easter etc as discussed above, the list is endless.

9. Why raise awareness and what do we want the outcome to be? We’re not expecting special treatment or for people to no longer talk about their kids! But as a marginalised community which is often unacknowledged or invalidated, it would be great to have the trauma or grief we face actually validated and acknowledged. This would mean things like…if you’re having a girly zoom catch up and you’re all mums with just one childless friend on the call - include them too. Stop making invalidating comments or “jokes” about childless women. Consider that your childless friend or family member may be navigating their way through profound grief and bear that in mind. Share this article on your social media page to show you support them by raising awareness. Be there as a friend to validate their pain. if a friend opens up to you about being involuntarily childless, say things like “I’m sorry”, rather than: “you can have one of my kids lol”. On a wider the workplace, recognise that this is another layer of diversity which should be acknowledged. In the media, stop portraying childless women as careless or unempathetic figures like Cruella de Ville. Write books that feature childless women as being empathetic rather than casting them as an old “hag” in the forest that kidnaps children. If you work in an HR department, be sure to include the CNBC as a layer of diversity. The list goes on.

10. We can still be grateful but grieving. We are grateful for the family and friends we have. Maybe we have a positive or gratitude mindset. We might be grateful for the jobs we have. For the opportunities we have. For the friendships we have. For the nieces or nephews we have. For the lives we lead. These are all separate things we are truly grateful for, but they don’t take away or compensate for the fact that we are still grieving. Our grief is still valid, and doesn’t disappear just because we have things to be grateful for. Grief isn’t a mindset. When you tell us things like “you should be grateful you can have a lie in”, our response would be “would you want to have a lie in and wake up to an empty house without your children every day for the rest of your life?”. When you say “be grateful you don’t have responsibilities!”, our response would be; “not being a mother doesn’t devoid you of responsibilities. Many childless people, especially those who are single, may have to support themselves and pay all bills. Many may have to care for elderly relatives. May have to work overtime in the office. We still have responsibilities, just different ones”. When I hear, “be grateful you can travel and can save money!”, our response would be; “families can still travel. As a single person without a family, it’s great to travel, but travelling forever alone, without any family holidays or taking my own children away is something very painful to live with. As a single person without my own family, I don’t want to always be that single person who travels alone. As for money, childless people may also be saving and spending money on fertility treatments or perhaps saving for their old age knowing that they are facing their old age alone”. 

We need to talk about childlessness. Simply invalidating the experiences that those face, disconnects an already marginalised community.

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