'Being childless not by choice has been the loneliest experience of my life'
Dr Annie Kirby is an award-winning writer, and a part-time researcher at the University of Portsmouth. Last month a Twitter post she wrote about what it is like to be childless not by choice went viral – with more than 700,000 people reading her words. Ahead of World Childless Week in September, the 47-year-old, who lives in Baffins, writes movingly about her sadness. But Annie also gives advice on how to treat friends, colleagues and family members in similar situations with compassion:
‘I always wanted to be a mother.
I imagined first steps and first words, bedtime stories, first-day-of-school photos and nativity plays.
Cheering, freezing, on the edge of sports fields. Teenage tantrums. Prom nights. An empty nest as my children flew off to university, travelling, first homes.
I imagined sons – and daughters – in law, grandchildren; my family growing and spreading like a beautiful tree.
None of these things happened and they never will. My nest will never be full.
Being childless not by choice has been the loneliest experience of my life.
It’s hard for people to understand, when they’re knee deep in dirty nappies, wrangling toddlers or arguing with teenagers, but let me try to explain how it feels.
I would give anything to be able to enjoy baby showers without feeling crushed and alone, to hold my friends’ babies without becoming overwhelmed with grief, to chat with other parents at the soft play centre.
I would give anything not to be told I can never understand real tiredness or true love, care about the future of the planet, or feel for the suffering of a child, or that my opinion about something is invalidated by my childlessness.
I would give anything not to have spent 20 years watching colleagues go on maternity leave, once, twice, three times.
Invisible me, quietly getting on with my work, in their eyes never changing.
Some people imagine the childless to be stuck in a Groundhog Day-like extended adolescence consisting of endless free time, lie-ins and spontaneous weekends away.
Maybe that’s true for some people, but not for me.
My life is full of child-shaped holes.
The job with great maternity benefits never taken, the house with a spare room for a nursery never used, near a primary school I will never walk to with my child.
On social media, I can’t join in conversations about the challenges of being a woman writer, because so many of the posts are about how hard it is to find space and time to write when you’ve got children.
And, without diminishing that struggle, I would give anything for my spare bedroom to have a cot or bunk beds instead of a writing desk, to have to snatch brief moments of writing time on the kitchen table in amongst children’s crayons and sticky fingers.
Twenty years of trying and failing to become a mother has changed me.
I have changed as much as mothers have, but for different reasons. Parenthood is a transformative experience, but so is coming to terms with involuntary childlessness.
I have grown and changed, become more compassionate, more thoughtful, more empathetic.
But with every child born, every friendship group that has excluded me – or I have excluded myself from because it’s too painful – with every baby scan that pops up on social media, every new baby photo that arrives in my email inbox, I become more lonely.
For every comment that something I’ve achieved in my life doesn’t compare to parenthood, for every mention of ‘family’ that is really shorthand for ‘families-with-children’ and doesn’t encompass the different sort of family I’ve made – not the family I dreamt of but the one I’ve got and which means the world to me – I become more isolated.
I’ve been told I’ll never understand the sacrifices mothers make, but as a young woman I chose not to bring children into an unsafe relationship, sacrificing my dream of motherhood for the love of my future children.
Years later, starting to break, I wanted to adopt, but for myriad painful and personal reasons, it wasn’t possible. People say to me, adopt, adopt, adopt.
How can I tell them adoption is just another way I failed to be a mother?
I end with a plea for compassion and empathy, but not pity.
How can you support your childless not by choice family, friends and colleagues?
Think about how they feel with each pregnancy announcement, when social media is a constant stream of other people’s beautiful children, when the office conversation is nothing but children and grandchildren.
Let them know privately and in advance of your big pregnancy announcement. Tell them it’s okay if they need space or to unfollow you on social media for a while.
Open up the conversation to subjects that include them.
When parenthood is hard, try to refrain from telling them they’re lucky not to have children.
Remember that your childless friend is changing and growing as a person, just as you are, that they are as compassionate, empathetic, caring and invested in society and the planet as you.
Remember how lonely you were when you were parenting a new-born, when you were on maternity leave, struggling with the terrible twos or dealing with stroppy teenagers.
Hopefully your loneliness passed, but your childless friend’s loneliness will last for a lifetime.
Be a friendly ear. Listen without offering solutions. Be kind.’