by Andrea M. Darcy
Not having children due to a pointed choice is one thing.
Not having children because it didn’t work out for you is quite another. The depression this can cause can often remain hidden and untreated.
And it’s far from just a women’s issue. In a study at the UK’s Keele University it was found that 38% of men in a study group had experienced depression due to not having children, compared to 27% of the women.
- Why is depression from childlessness so often downplayed?
- What are the signs you should look for if you are childless and worried about your mental health?
- And what are steps you can take if you feel you might have ‘childlessness depression’?
Why aren’t we talking about childlessness and depression?
It’s a tricky issue. On one hand, if you are childless after many private battles with both your body and your hopes, you might not want the world to know how upset you are.
Or you might have spent so much time hiding what you are going through – the fertility tests, the alternative treatments, the attempts at an IVF pregnancy, the praying and pleading to whatever gods that be – that it’s become a bad habit. Now that you need support, you don’t know how to start talking.
On the other hand are those who love you and want support you but who might have children, feel guilty, and just not know how to approach you.
An overlooked issue that can increase depression for one or both partners is if you have different methods of coping and getting over things. This can cause conflict and communication breakdown that means you are together but lonely.
And finally, there are many single people who have spent so long hiding their desire to have children from others — so as not to appear desperate, or worry others, or perhaps out of fear of facing their own panic over the issue — – that when they are face-to-face with a future without children they blame themselves. They continue to suffer in silence. This sort of hidden shame can often turn into the numb, ‘onward ho’ experience referred to as ‘walking depression‘.
Why childlessness causes depression
Yes, it might seem logical to ‘count your blessings’ or ‘consider adoption’, but depression isn’t logic. And such advice from friends and family can make you feel even worse.
So can trying to suppress or deny all the feelings that are leaving you depressed.
Recognising your childlessness depression and what it is made up of, if you’ve spent months or years trying to deny or downplay it, can actually feel a huge relief. It’s only when we face how we feel that we can start to work through it.
The following can all be the components of depression due to childlessness:
Even if you are still with a partner you can have a sense of a void now between you. You might also feel unable to connect with the friends and family you used to be close to if they have children.
If you always saw your future as with children, or weren’t sure but now realise it’s what you wanted, you can feel like there is nothing waiting ahead for you. A sort of existential crisis can descend.
This is a leading cause of depression. Not having children might make you feel faulty, as if you weren’t ‘good enough’ to find the right partner or attract the good ‘luck’ required. Again, depression is not logic.
Really the biggest of emotions and an umbrella that hides many of the others, not having children can leave us feeling unwanted, flawed, overlooked… riddled with shame.
Feelings of failure.
Even if we logically know we can’t control our bodies, and we did everything we possibly could try, we can feel somehow that we failed. Failure can be especially high if childlessness is because of not attracting an appropriate partner in time.
A truly alienating feeling we all tend to hide, bitterness can leave you unable to connect to others.
All the above all leads to spirals of negative thinking, which lead us to take negative actions that lead to more negative thinking, and the spiral towards depression continues.
What should I do if I am suffering childlessness depression?
Again, the first step is facing that this is the issue, and reading this article is likely a sign you are on this path.
The second step is to then allow yourself to process and explore your feelings. You might want to start this alone, with things like journalling, research, and talking on online forums.
Charities and organisations that help
There is now a charity here in the UK that focus on the issue of childlessness and fertility issues. The fertility network UK offers free resources and a support hotline for those struggling with fertility issues or childlessness. They also connect you with free support groups across the UK.
For women who are childless by circumstance, “Gateway Women” is an invaluable resource. Launched by a women who became an activist for getting childless women talking after sharing her own story in a book, it provides truly useful information on its site. Gateway Women support groups are now found worldwide, and the weekend workshops sell out.
When it’s time to seek professional help
If your feelings of depression have gone on for six weeks or more, or is negatively affecting your day-to-day life, it’s important to seek support.
Working with an impartial and caring counsellor or therapist where you can truly admit your feelings without judgement can be a huge relief. And having support in finding your way forward can mean you can make changes far faster than going it alone.
What sorts of therapy can help with childlessness and depression?
There are many styles that could help. Person-centred counselling is client-led and could be a good choice. You can choose to just talk about recent experiences, or go into the past, it’s up to you.
If you find that your negative thoughts about yourself and life are what you’d like to look at, and you want to deal more with what you feel right now then go into your past, consider cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It is a short-term talk therapy designed to help you catch, challenge, and change your thoughts.
If you feel that not having children has made you question the meaning of life, you might want to consider existential counselling. The focus here is on helping you make sense out of your experiences, and then to re-design life in a way that makes sense to you personally.
How can you help someone who is suffering from depression due to childlessness?
- don’t tell them to think positive or ‘snap out of it’
- don’t give them helpful suggestions like adopting, fostering, seeing a faith healer, etc
- don’t judge them for it
- don’t tell them they need help but you won’t help them.
Instead, do you best to listen without judgement, ask good questions instead of offer advice, and offer support (take them out, let them call you when they feel alone). If you worry they do need professional support, let them know in a positive, kind way. Read our article on “how to tell a loved one they need counselling” for advice on how to do this.
Would you like to talk to someone about childlessness depression? Harley Therapy connects you with with warm, understanding therapists in central London as well as worldwide via online counselling.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She experienced involuntary childlessness herself, but has refused to let it define herself or her happiness and has a pretty darned amazing life. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy