Accepting a life without children
Finding ways of coming to terms with involuntary childlessness can be a difficult challenge, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
JANE GUNNIGAN should have a child starting school this September. Instead, after five miscarriages, she and her husband are trying to come to terms with the idea that they may never be parents.
As happy as she is for friends and colleagues when they announce they’re pregnant, it does get to a stage when she is uttering “Congratulations! When are you due?” through gritted teeth.
“And the thing that really gets me in the gut is that I will never be that woman,” says Jane (43), her voice cracking with emotion at the “huge loss” in her life. Married for seven years, they have been trying for children for the past six.
“People say it is akin to bereavement and I would agree. It is one that just never goes away. As you get older, I am sure it all comes back because your siblings and your peers become grandparents and it is all going to happen again.”
Media coverage of the one-in-six couples who have fertility issues usually focuses on the success stories, she points out. We seldom hear from couples who have reached the end of the road on fertility treatments and have nothing but heartache to show for it.
“Every time you read an article about infertility, particularly in Irish newspapers, it is nearly always ‘oh, we tried for years and years, did all these treatments, we got a miracle, look at us now and we are all happy ever after with the baby’. There is very little print or air space given to couples who have come to an acceptance about life without children.
Brid Ní Chionaola (47), who was “very, very traumatised” by not being able to have children, after getting married nine years ago, now accepts it. That is not to say a specific event or comment won’t trigger negative thoughts that she has to deal with.
“I have got to the place where I have been ‘spared’ from having kids,” she says. “My life is about something else.”
However, while she and her husband abandoned the long, drawn-out adoption process because they thought they were too old for it, she is considering fostering. For Ní Chionaola, the path to letting go the dream of motherhood has been through The Work of Byron Katie – a way of dealing with stressful thoughts that was developed by an American woman who had struggled for more than a decade with depression, anger and addiction.
It wasn’t the first thing Ní Chionaola, who lives in Co Meath, had tried. In 2006 she emerged from a 10-day silent retreat believing she would never feel stressed again.
Within days she was diagnosed with breast cancer “and I went ballistic so that didn’t really work!” The diagnosis also put an end to her plans to try IVF treatment. With the cancer, Ní Chionaola wasn’t happy to die but at the same time “I didn’t want to go out kicking and screaming”. It was while trying to find a way to control the “horrible” thoughts racing through her mind that she came across The Work.
“It helps deals with your thoughts and pins them down. You get them down on paper and the war in your head can end.”
It is applicable to any stressful thoughts and “it has completely changed my life, she says.
Now one of four certified leaders in The Work in Ireland, she offers workshops in the technique to various groups, including the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISI). She wants to help people who are calling a halt to infertility treatments to find peace in their head with that decision.
NISI was founded in Cork in 1996 by three women who were struggling with infertility, to share experiences with people in similar circumstances. As it happened, each of the three had a different outcome: successful conception, adoption and acceptance.
For co-founder Helen Browne, her journey to acceptance was a long one. Although she and her husband invested a large amount of money and emotional energy into 12 years of, ultimately unsuccessful, fertility treatment, she is glad that she had the opportunity to try.
“I would have been angry if I hadn’t,” she says. But with Ireland being one of the few European countries which does not provide or fund assisted reproduction, she worries about people in the current economic climate who may not have that chance.