Not long ago I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time. He asked me what I’m doing now. I told him that I’m a life coach.
He went on to say how wonderful that is and then asked if my coaching focus is on burnout. He was visibly enthusiastic about my being a life coach at that point. When I explained that I help women who are childless not by choice his reaction instantly changed.
Now, this is someone who knew that I don’t have children but he didn’t know the reason why – he never knew that I am childless not by choice.
But with my explanation of what I do he quickly put the pieces together and his reaction changed immediately. The excitement was gone and his smile disappeared. In its place was visible, palpable discomfort. He averted his eyes, hemmed and hawed and kept shifting his weight from side to side. He had no idea what to say. Couldn’t look at me. His discomfort was so obvious.
This reaction is all too common when people ask if I have children and my answer is that I don’t. Sometimes people have simply assumed that I have kids and have gone straight to “how many children do you have?”.
What happened in this instance is one of the most common responses – it’s a look of complete discomfort with no idea where to go or what to do with this information. The discomfort could be empathy for the grief. Sometimes it’s because of pity. Ugh. More commonly a woman being childless not by choice brings on discomfort in others because of their judgment of women. Women too often are judged by fertility status.
Which brings up another common reaction to a woman being childless. The reaction of disgust and criticism. This comes from the assumptions about women who are childless. The belief that we’re selfish, that we haven’t tried hard enough, that we must not like children, that we’ve made wrong choices and our priorities are flawed.
In the past, when someone reacted like this, I would have been uncomfortable too. I would have felt shame. I would have felt lonely thinking that I’m the only person in the world who is childless and that there’s something wrong with me.
The discomfort and pain wouldn’t have ended with that interaction. I would have continued to stew over it. I would have allowed his reaction to affect me for a long time – I would have viewed myself through his discomfort. My shame would have loomed so large over me for days.
But that’s not what I do anymore. Because I’ve learned that those are his thoughts. His thoughts have nothing to do with me or with my thoughts and feelings.
I don’t have to internalize his or anyone else’s thoughts and judgements about my childlessness.
I’m able to recognize that what someone else thinks about my not having children is about them, their own assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices. That has nothing to do with my worth, my self view or my value. It is about them, not about me.
So, instead of feeling shame and hurt and doing everything I could to change the subject and make HIM more comfortable, I took a deep breath to calm myself so that I could react without getting angry, being rude or in a way that left me feeling ashamed for myself about my childlessness. I reminded myself that his discomfort belongs to him and not me. I wasn’t thinking to myself that I’m the only childless person in the world as I would have done in the past…because I’m not alone. In fact approximately 20% of women reach the age of 45 and do not have children with about ½ of them being childless not by choice.
After I took a deep breath I did nothing and let him manage his own discomfort. I stood there quietly but confidently. His mood then noticeably changed. His awkwardness dissipated. His discomfort dissolved and he relaxed. Because he realized from my behavior that I don’t view my childlessness as a failure and I don’t see my fertility status as equating with my worthiness.
Understanding that your value isn’t defined by whether or not you have children allows you to appreciate your innate worthiness. Recognizing that being childless isn’t a failure does as well. By embracing this all it enables you to feel more confidence in yourself. When you embody that you give others the message that they shouldn’t be viewing you through the lens of fertility status – that you are more than your childlessness…and you are worthy!
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