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How I found joy in life without children of my own

“Perfect for families,” read a sign next to a pizza fridge in the supermarket.

“Get lost,” I thought.

I walked past, tears welling, and headed for frozen fish instead.

Right at that moment, I was at the peak of what I look back on as my “fertility freakout” – a period when I struggled most with not having become a mother. I was 41, and still hoping I could change that.

About a month before I wept in the pizza aisle, I had gone for a fertility test to understand whether, as a single woman, I could have a baby via donor sperm. I didn’t expect to have the ovarian reserves of a 25-year-old, but seeing the test results printed in black and white at the clinic – that I only had about a one in 10 chance of producing an egg suitable for implantation – hit hard.

“If you’re going to do this, now is the time,” the consultant said, explaining that my fertility would decline sharply from there.

A few weeks after the tests, I attended my first meeting at the Nurture Network, a monthly group for women (mothers or not). There, I found myself sitting in a circle announcing my fertility test results to 10 strangers. It was upsetting, but I felt relieved to be able to say out loud what I’d dreaded acknowledging for years: that I may never give birth to a child.

I never truly asked myself why I wanted children – like many, I blindly assumed it would just happen

Some people know they don’t want to have children, but I always did. During my 30s, I was ashamed not to have met someone I wanted to have a family with and felt embarrassed when colleagues or people at networking events asked if I had kids. I didn’t think I needed to explain, but I also didn’t feel strong enough to tell them it was none of their business.

For a long time, I carried this feeling of shame around with me like a ball and chain. When friend after friend got pregnant, I was happy for them but sometimes pictured myself lying in a coffin, being nailed down, the box becoming darker as each one made their announcement. Yet there was always a chink of light in the corner, some hope to hold on to.

When the UK, where I live, went into lockdown in March 2020, that hope was fading. I sought help from David Edmonds, a life coach who encouraged me to ask myself different questions from those I was stuck on. The first one he suggested was deceivingly simple: “How might I have a great life beyond having kids?” At first I resisted, because asking this meant accepting that it might not happen. But eventually, I started to engage: who would I be if I didn’t become a mother, and how could I feel fulfilled?

The future finally held some possibilities, and slowly I decided to start opening up to them.


In my quest to find some answers, I seek counsel from Dr Gertrude Lyons, a relationship coach. I tell her I want to look deeper into why people say they want children, what longings they think they will fulfill, to try to understand whether those can be satisfied in other ways.

“A lot of people say: ‘I want kids,’ but when you start looking at yearnings, it’s like, ‘Oh, I yearn to have an impact,” she says. “Raising a child, you feel like you’re making a difference” is something she often hears in her practice.

I never truly asked myself why I wanted children – like many, I blindly assumed it would just happen. What I do know is that when my friends were getting pregnant, the feelings of missing out on what “everyone else” was doing were strong, and they lived alongside the desire I had to nurture another human. And when the fertility consultant asked why I wanted kids, I blurted out, “So I don’t die alone,” although I knew that having children is no guarantee of care in later life.

To get different perspectives, I send a message to a WhatsApp group where nine of my university friends regularly gather. I ask them why they chose to have children. Alongside the biological urge to do so, many say they wanted to have a focus for their love, someone to teach and learn from. Some acknowledge that the convention of having children resonated and others felt the pressure of meeting society’s expectations.

One points out that she has a lot of love to give outside her family, nurturing – or mothering – beyond her children. And another rightly suggests that the positivity I have started to feel is due in part to seeing how tough being a parent can be, which I recognize is bloody hard work and can come with its own identity crisis. Listening to them, I have the sense that I might be able to meet some of those needs outside of having kids.

Lyons advises her clients to start thinking about their bigger vision or purpose in life, something beyond what they thought they would have or want. She advises people to write down what comes to mind without overthinking, or perhaps creating a collage. Some of her clients have even written poems or a song.

Lyons often finds that what people envision is similar whether they want children or not. “I still want to learn and grow; I still want to use my gifts and talents; I want to explore, expand and live to my potential,” clients tell her.

One night at the Nurture Network meeting, our homework was to create a life board where we allowed ourselves to dream of our futures. Alongside images showing my career and home ambitions (write a book, cultivate a garden), I cut out a magazine photo of a man standing in a field holding a child.

I used to resist the idea of a vision board, discarding it as foolish, but digging deeper, my main concern was the “what if” factor, also known as fear. What if I glue a photo of a cute baby to a piece of cardboard and never have a child?

Younger people I speak to in the “what if it doesn’t happen” phase say they are concerned about missing human connection or being lonely. Like me, they want to hear positive stories about life beyond having kids.


Childfree women are indeed having a moment. Tracee Ellis RossJennifer Aniston and Michelle Yeoh have all spoken about the desire or expectation that they would have children and how they came to terms with not having done so (Ellis Ross says she tries to think about it “with curiosity instead of heartbreak”). The journalist Ruby Warrington’s Women Without Kids book and podcast has also been a resounding success.

It is, however, not only about women. Men are often left out of the conversation, in part because their fertility has not been regularly recorded by official data collectors. I want to know how they feel as well.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the United States Census Bureau released a report on men’s fertility – using data from 2014 – revealing that almost a quarter of men aged 40 to 50 don’t have children, compared with 16% of women in the same age group.

Dr Robin Hadley wants to tell the stories of men who hoped to have children. He has carried out extensive research into the complexities of their situations, covering topics such as male broodiness and the impact of not having kids on older men, both emotionally and in terms of care provision.

Hadley always wanted to have children but fell in love with a woman (now his wife) who had chosen not to. When we speak over video call, I ask him if he feels comfortable discussing his experience. He talks about his fondness for his neighbor’s children, and tears come to his eyes. “It makes me emotional,” he says.

“Something is missing [when you don’t have kids as a man], is what came up in my research,” he says. “I can’t describe it, there’s no words there, no narrative, no structure, no ritual … that’s why I do all the stuff I do, because voices need to be heard,” he tells me.

Hadley interviewed 14 men aged between 49 and 82 who wanted to have children but haven’t for his 2021 book, How Is a Man Supposed to Be a Man? Male Childlessness – A Life Course Disrupted, finding that many had a sense of loss, were concerned about their role in life, and were worried about being seen as pedophiles if they did interact with children.

He disputes the idea that men don’t have a biological clock, citing research showing that sperm declines in efficacy after the age of 35, and urges medics, therapists and policymakers to recognize the effect of not becoming a father will be different for each man.

Hadley’s book reveals the sadness those men feel, but some have found connection with children in the form of surrogate grandfather roles. Alan [not his real name], for example, a gay man who’s 82, “was approached at a local football match by the father of two teenage boys to fill the role of ‘adopted’ grandfather for a school project”, Hadley writes.

This honorary grandad role continued for three years and then informally as the boys grew up, and the older child continued to yell “Grandad!” when Alan watched him play football. “That makes me feel like I belong. Makes me feel I’m part of something,” Alan told Hadley.

The freedom I now feel in not having kids might sound like a cliche, but it has meant working out what makes my heart sing

Has Hadley found ways to fill the gap he felt when he didn’t become a father? You can contribute positively to children’s lives, whether you have your own or not, he says. In his previous career as a photographer, Hadley took on teenagers for work experience, and he enjoyed seeing their confidence grow. “You don’t have to be a biological contributor to give a legacy, to pass something on … Over quite a short timeframe, you can make a difference,” he says.

It gets me thinking. While I’m fortunate to finally feel at peace right now, emotions and circumstances evolve. How might I feel when I get older?

I talk to Catherine Rushforth, who, along with running the Nurture Network and working as a couples therapist, is a child-safeguarding expert who has contributed to UK government policy on early years development.

She does not have children and explains that in her 20s, she had relationships where things might have “led in that direction” and later made the decision that she would only consider having children with someone who “would meaningfully be a joint co-parent with me”. That didn’t happen, and she is now 62 with no regrets.

“There are many, many ways to live life. You know, your baby may be a different kind of baby,” she tells me; hers is the safeguarding training consultancy she founded 30 years ago. Plus, she says, not having her own children means she has time to commit to supporting other people’s.•••

I look back at the life board I made and realize that some of the images I included could be reframed. Instead of “I would like a child”, I am now ready to reconsider this as “I would like to have children in my life”, and I do: I am auntie to two cheeky and gorgeous little boys, and I love being godmother to a nine-year-old girl and a baby boy.

I can also see that the images could represent feelings, like the vision Lyons talked about. Mine are a sense of achievement, contentment, joy and nurturing. Consciously or not, I have sought those out, and not having children is giving me time to find things that inspire those feelings. The freedom I now feel in not having kids might sound like a cliche, but it has allowed (and sometimes forced) me to work out what makes my heart sing.

I’ve taken improvisation classes and performed with a group on stage – the loss of control felt liberating – and I’ve been traveling by myself to India, Bali and Vietnam. During the UK’s second pandemic lockdown, I made and delivered flyers to about 150 homes on my street, inviting people to join a WhatsApp group, which helped me forge local connections. I even went clubbing with neighbors who are 20 years younger than me.

I’ve made many new friends by joining a co-working space, I write a newsletter, and I’ve started weight training. This isn’t the life of the lonely woman I once feared becoming; it’s a joyful one that I have been fortunate enough to create.

Letting go of the shame and accepting myself has meant I can now say “no” with confidence when someone asks if I have children. I no longer resent the question: sometimes it’s asked by a parent seeking common ground, and I am now content to say that I haven’t, and I don’t feel the need to explain.

I no longer feel like I’m lying in a coffin: the lid is off, and I am free. 

Story by Lucy Handley: The Guardian

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