I’ve gotten to know Sarah Malm over the past year or so. She and I are running a Spoonie Coworking Space. She’s a fellow spoonie and an artist who creates lovely greeting cards. We were discussing our experiences of being Childless Not By Choice and I suggested she write this post for me.
When it comes to grief, I have learned there is no ‘normal’, and it usually comes at me sideways, meaning I don’t see it coming.
Things I don’t expect to trigger grief, often do.
For example, I was scrolling along in my Facebook feed one day, as one does, and I see a photograph my mom has posted of my dad in a t-shirt that says, “Blessed Grandpa” with my nephews’ names on it.
It immediately hit me that they would never have a t-shirt with my kids’ names on it.
I was not providing them with a “blessing” of grandchildren.
I felt this horrible pit forming in my stomach.
Of course, I knew this. It was nothing new.
At the same time, it was as if I was being smacked upside the head with this sudden realization and out of the pit of my stomach came the gut-wrenching sob.
Not only was I sobbing with grief, but I was angry.
“How dare she post this! Doesn’t she realize how this would make me feel?”
It’s irrational. Everyone posts about their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, etc.
There is no getting away from it.
Any other day I may have seen her post and thought, “yep, here we go again” and let it pass, but this time I just couldn’t let it go. It gripped me.
It wouldn’t let me go.
Unfortunately, in this case, I acted out of my anger and bitterness and I texted my mom to tell her how I was feeling.
I shouldn’t have. It just made her feel bad.
Of course, we are conditioned to feel pride about our offspring, are we not?
That is the way it is in our society, I guess. That is the norm. But, not for me.
It turns out I am not ‘normal’.
Life did not work out as I planned, in so many ways.
Perhaps many of us, especially those who are blindsided with chronic illness or unexpected disability, feel that way.
I fully expected to get married, have a career, have children, etc. You know, do all the ‘normal’ things one expects to do as a modern woman. Right?
Marrying the wrong person is worse than not getting married
Well, I did get married.
I was in my late 20s when I met and married my husband. I didn’t heed the warnings and red flags that should have been obvious at the time.
I was blinded by the need to ‘get the show on the road,’ and I lacked the confidence I needed to forge ahead in life without a partner.
I already felt as though I hadn’t found a partner in life soon enough, and admittedly, acted on it too soon, and made the wrong decision.
I had assumed that when you grew up you got married and had kids.
That it just happened.
I never considered anything else.
I grew up babysitting from the time I was 11 years old. I was good at caring for children.
My mom did daycare from the time I was very young. I watched her care for children.
I just KNEW that I wanted to have children.
I just didn’t ever consider it might NOT happen for me.
Getting married at 27 years old, after many classmates from high school and college had already gotten married, made me feel like I was already behind in making that future of having children a reality.
Then, after we got married, and my husband decided to pursue a PhD, he said, “I think my degree is my ‘baby’ right now.”
Sure, he should focus on that and not be distracted by life decisions around family.
So, we waited.
Consequently, I then proceeded to fall into a major depression, which, in a roundabout way, led to a diagnosis of hypothyroidism (more on this later).
Even while supposedly medicated for these things my husband and I struggled to make things work in our relationship and the depression ebbed and flowed along with the ups and downs of the marriage.
His work on the degree dragged on for years.
Meanwhile, everything in the relationship dragged also. It was a challenge, a fight, an argument. Everything was a struggle. This didn’t seem normal at all.
Soon I realized I was almost 45 and I was the only one ‘working’ on the relationship.
He refused to go to counseling, ever. Then one day he said something to this effect: “If we had a child, I wouldn’t be included in the relationship.”
I didn’t even know what to do with that, but it prompted me to realize then how everything seemed to be about him.
I finally decided that the only way for me to live and thrive was to leave the marriage, which I did in 2014.
Not surprisingly, I started to feel better emotionally!
Blindsided by disability
Soon the physical pain set in.
It started with terrible plantar fasciitis about a year later. Some days it was so painful I could hardly walk. After several months that, fortunately, eventually corrected itself.
Things seemed to be going pretty well, but then I fell ill with acute bronchitis in 2017.
I coughed and coughed for weeks and weeks on end.
My then-partner, who is now my husband, was also ill prior to this. One evening he coughed so hard that he lost consciousness and fell on the floor!
Since then I developed chronic pain that centered in my lower back.
At first I thought it was just from all the coughing I did and it would take some time to heal.
It never healed. In fact, it got worse! I don’t know why.
Other than discovering I have degenerative disc disease in the L4/L5 area, there is nothing to explain the level of pain I have in my lower back and hips that sometimes radiates into my legs, shoulders and arms.
Feeling the loss of motherhood
In the midst of all these health issues, depression (& anxiety), hypothyroidism (which became full on Hashimoto’s), and chronic pain, I have had to grieve the fact that I am not a mother.
At different times, there have been varying levels of grief about this, too.
It comes and goes, as grief is wont to do.
It comes around every Mother’s Day to be sure, but also every time I see someone post on social media about getting pregnant or giving birth, or photos of graduations and school events.
Sometimes, it is the random email that some company sends out that targets “moms.”
Sometimes it is those moments when you realize your friends who do have children don’t really talk to you anymore because apparently, you can’t relate to their life.
Through it all, I have had one rock solid resource that has helped me get through it.
Somehow (and I don’t remember how) I found a group on Facebook now called “Childless Path to Acceptance for those who are Childless Not By Choice (CNBC)”.
Childless Not By choice supported me and can support you too!
Those who are CNBC define themselves as such depending upon their circumstances.
Maybe they never met the right partner with whom to procreate or the right partner with whom to co-parent.
Maybe they struggled with infertility, or tried to adopt and failed, or determined that adoption isn’t for them.
Maybe they have some sort of health reason that prohibits them from becoming a parent.
There can be multiple reasons.
The essence of this group however is that you have come to this place having exhausted all other means of becoming a parent, and now you are in the grieving process.
I wish I remembered how I happened upon this group as it has truly been a god-send to me.
I know I found it sometime in the midst of discerning whether or not my ex-husband and I would really ever be able to have a child.
That must have been nearly 10 years ago now.
Since then I have met so many wonderful women (and men).
Making new friends through CNBC
It turned out that one of the women actually lived less than 10 miles from me!
We have been able to get together in-person for drinks or meals.
That brought a whole new level of support.
We then met a woman from Canada whose husband is from the U.S. It turned out that his family lives in northern Iowa, and when they would come to visit, they would fly into the MSP airport.
Twice now we have been able to meet on one end of her trip or another.
Several of the women, including the admins of the group, live in England.
So, I now have several friends in England I hope to visit one day. And since my husband is not fond of flying, I just asked my Canadian friend if she would be willing someday to travel with me to visit our friends in England.
She replied with a resounding “Yes!”.
We also developed, maybe by happenstance, a group chat of five of us women from the group.
We message each other sometimes daily or weekly, about all kinds of life things but we are each other’s lifeline when we encounter some tough childless situations.
It’s helpful to have a few people like that who really know your situation well and understand the context of your life.
Since it isn’t uncommon for many folks who are childless to also be chronically ill or disabled in some way, they can usually relate to my grief over the daily pain I experience from my chronic woes.
At least two of the women in the chat group have multiple chronic illnesses, so that helps to know that they can understand from that perspective also.
It is so very helpful.
I have joined (and left) so many other groups as they relate to my chronic illnesses over the years and none of them have felt supportive in the way this group has.
That is due in no small part to the admin, Stephanie Phillips, who is a staunch advocate for all of us and, dare I say, the Mother Hen of our group.
She helps to keep safe boundaries around our sharing so that as few people as possible get hurt unnecessarily.
Resources for being Childless Not By Choice
I have been so thankful for Stephanie’s tireless work, especially as she has also founded World Childless Week in 2017.
While the Facebook group has been my main source of support, it has led me to other resources as well.
You can find some of them listed here on the resources page at World Childless Week.
The former group because of my interests in cooking, baking, and generally, creating a comfortable home that feels like a sacred space.
The latter group because my husband and I rescue senior dogs, and they are the closest thing we have to children.
Our current ones are Baxter 12 years old, (Shih Tzu/Maltese mix) and Tilly, 14 years old (Shih Tzu).
We deserve a supportive space
So, while none of this was in my plan, I am so thankful to have these groups and resources to lean on when I need them.
My original career was as a Lutheran pastor, and while that didn’t work out (that’s a whole other story), I have found a way to create connection and service through designing greeting cards.
My mission is to “Send the Love” and to support other people in sending the love.
It is important for me to see that people, especially those who struggle on the sidelines and feel like they don’t belong to be seen and heard and loved.
So, I use my artistic abilities to create greeting cards and art that are in support of that mission through Sarah Malm Designs.
My goal is to continue creating ways to support those who struggle with mental illness, childlessness, and chronic illness.
I hope that by sharing my story and these resources with you, you will also find them a source of support for your journey.
Sarah Malm lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband Stephen, and two rescue ShihTzus named Tilly and Baxter. She is an artist and entrepreneur with an online store where she sells original artwork, greeting cards and gifts, sarahmalmdesigns.com.