How to Start a Childfree Life After Infertility

Choosing (or Learning to Accept) Your Situation

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Living childfree after infertility is an option some men and women choose, and some must come to accept. Right now, you may see living childfree as the “worst case scenario.” But it can be an empowering resolution to an emotionally exhausting situation.

What does it mean to live childfree after infertility? How does a person come to this decision? Is choosing a childfree life after infertility “giving up”?

What's the Right Name for the Situation?

There is some disagreement over what to call a life without children after infertility. Are you childfree or childless? Are you childfree by choice or childfree not by choice? (Childfree not by choice is abbreviated as CFNBC in online forums.)

Some feel the term childfree doesn’t reflect the emotional pain that brought them to this life situation. Childfree, they argue, is for those who actually chose to be without children from the beginning. Childless is the term for those who wanted children but could not have them.

On the other hand, some feel that the term childless is too negative, that it doesn’t adequately reflect the joyful life they are currently living, even if living without children wasn’t their Plan A.

You can call it whatever you want; there is no right or wrong answer.

What Does It Mean to Choose (or Accept) a Childfree Life After Infertility?

When someone says they are childfree after infertility, they usually mean that they

There’s some debate over that last point, as some couples will decide to “not-try-but-not-prevent.” In other words, they aren’t pursuing fertility treatments, and they aren’t actively tracking their cycles and attempting to get pregnant.

But they also aren’t using any form of birth control. (This assumes they are not, in fact, sterile and incapable of conceiving without treatment.)

One of the biggest challenges of this approach is it doesn’t allow the grieving processing to begin and end. You may still find yourself thinking about getting pregnant, and feeling disappointed when your period arrives every month, even if you're not "actively" trying.

Not-trying-not-preventing can be a transition stage for couples moving towards the decision to be childfree after infertility. Others may stay at this stage indefinitely.

If you’re considering to not-try-but-not-prevent, pay close attention to whether it adds more stress to your life or prevents you from moving on. While it can feel strange to go on birth control after infertility, it can be liberating and provide you space and closure.

The Decision Not to Adopt

Choosing a childfree life after infertility means not pursuing adoption. For some, this isn’t a choice; it’s a reality. Adoption can be expensive, there is an approval process, and it’s not a viable option for all people.

For others, not adopting is a choice. They have the funds and probably could get approval, but they have decided that adoption isn’t for them.

There is also a third group: couples who try to adopt and don’t succeed, or they decide at some point in the process to stop pursuing it.

Adoption can be as heartbreaking as fertility treatments, as potential adoptions can fall through. It’s not uncommon for prospective parents to get hope that a child is available, prepare for that child, and in the end, the adoption doesn’t or can’t take place.

“Why don’t you just adopt?” is a phrase many couples with infertility hear. Those who are childfree after infertility may hear it as, “Why didn’t you just adopt?”

There is also absolutely nothing wrong with deciding not to adopt.

Adoption isn’t the automatic next step after an infertility diagnosis or failed fertility treatments. Adoption isn’t a “back-up plan” for having children. Treating adoption as a back-up plan is disrespectful to adopted children. (Are we saying they are second-choice kids? Of course not.)

Asking people why they “just didn’t adopt” also disregards the unique challenges and rewards of adoptive parenting. Many adopted children experience trauma in their early years or struggle with attachment or abandonment issues. Some are born addicted to drugs, born prematurely, or have other physical or learning difficulties. The children can overcome these challenges, but an adoptive parent must be prepared to help the child through it. Not every person wants or is capable of providing that support.

It’s also legitimate to not want to adopt because you wanted to have children only if they are genetically related to you or your partner, or if you carried the pregnancy. There is nothing selfish about that desire. 

Bottom line: no one should feel like they “have to” adopt if they can’t conceive naturally or with fertility treatments. Adoption is a decision of its own.

When Does a Decision to Remain Childfree Occur?

When does childfree after infertility become a reality? It’s different for everyone.

Some may only reach the decision after years of failed fertility treatments. They may decide to be childfree after their third or even sixth IVF cycle.

Others may make the decision before they even start trying to conceive. While most men and women discover they are infertile only after they start trying to have a family, some are diagnosed with fertility problems years before they are ready to start a family. They may make a decision to be childfree then.  

What’s your “enough” point? These are not easy issues to think about, but every couple who faces infertility should consider them—even before they start treatment. Even if later, they change their minds about the “end” point.

How Do You Determine Your “Enough” Point?

Again, this is a personal decision that you will make. There are no right or wrong answers.

Here are some “line in the sand” examples:

Completing a predetermine time limit

You may decide that you are willing to try to conceive for a specific period of time, and once that time is up, you’ll stop trying. You may decide two years is enough; you may decide ten years is enough.

Reaching a particular age

That age may be 28, 30, 35, or 48.

Reaching a particular cycle limit

You may decide you are only willing to try four IUI cycles. Or only three IVF cycles. Sometimes, these cycle limits are made by your doctor, but it also may happen that you need to decide when to stop trying.

Decision not to pursue specific (or any) fertility treatments

You may decide you’re not willing to try any fertility treatments. Or, you may decide you don’t want to pursue specific treatments.

Decision not to try treatments with low odds for success

What are low odds? That is partially up to you and your partner. Some doctors won’t prescribe or carry out a fertility treatment if the odds are too low, but others will let you try. You may need to make the final call.

Ethical or philosophical objections to a family building option

Insemination, IVF, adoption, surrogacy, and using donor eggs, sperm, or embryos—all of these can be controversial ways to build a family. If you don’t feel comfortable with the recommended treatment for your situation, you may make a decision to remain childfree. 

Reaching a particular financial situation

Some couples are forced to stop pursing treatments or adoption because they have reached their credit limit. Others choose not to pursue any treatment that will put them in debt. And then, there are those who find themselves somewhere in between. They could theoretically go into more debt but have chosen not to.

You are under no “obligation” to go into debt before deciding to be childfree. You don’t have to try borrowing money from friends and family, either. These are options, but it’s acceptable for you to say no to them.

Reaching your emotional limit

Infertility can be emotionally exhausting. You may know that you just can’t tolerate one more cycle, one more month, or one more year of trying to conceive. Hopefully, you realize you’re nearing your breaking point before you arrive there.

That said, the reality for many couples is they only choose to be childfree after they’ve passed their emotional limit.

Is Choosing to Be Childfree Giving Up or Failure?

Choosing (or needing to accept) a childfree life is not giving up or ending in failure.

What if I tried just one more cycle? What if next month would have been the month?” These are common worries. However, it’s simply not true that if you keep trying, you will eventually get a baby. There are no guarantees. There is no such thing as a 100 percent chance of pregnancy or a foolproof adoption journey.

Plus, the most important thing isn’t that you have a child. Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos, the author of Silent Sorority, advises, “As difficult as it is to put a halt to medical intervention in a culture of ‘Don’t give up!’, please don’t sacrifice yourself or your sanity.”

Moving On: Coping With Your Decision

Choosing or deciding to accept a childfree life can bring relief and resolution to your infertility struggle, but it also can bring on feelings of sadness and even anger. If you’re in debt from fertility treatment costs, paying that monthly bill can make it even harder to move on emotionally.

Know this: you will eventually move on, and you will eventually find happiness again. It will take time—and effort—but things will get better. Here are some ways to get through this difficult period.  

Give yourself time to grieve

When someone loses a parent, child, or spouse, people understand that it takes time to grieve. Society also understands that the person who has lost their loved one needs support. However, the loss that comes with being childfree after infertility is invisible. You are also mourning—you’re mourning the life you imagined.

Be patient with yourself, and give yourself time to feel better. According one study, it took between three and four years for childfree women to stop thinking of their primary identity as “infertile.”

Read about living childfree

Living a childfree life isn’t something that we see frequently, and so it can feel abnormal. There is, however, nothing abnormal about living your life without ever having children.

Reading about childfree living can help you feel more comfortable with this lifestyle, and help you feel less alone. Look for blogs, books, and memoirs on childfree life, even from those who have actually chosen this lifestyle and didn’t come to it via infertility.

Write your story

Don’t just read about living childfree—write about it. Tell your story. You can start a blog, or even write a memoir. Your story can serve as a comfort and support to those experiencing the same thing. You don’t need to make your story open to the public, though. You can write your story just to a friend or a therapist.

Reach out for support

You do not need to do this alone. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association has support groups, and in some areas, they have groups for those who are childfree after infertility. Find one and join it. (Don’t have a group in your area? Consider starting one! Contact RESOLVE to find out how.)

Other possible sources of support include:

Take time to develop a Plan B (or C)

Don’t just wait to see how your life will be different. Take the time to actually envision what you want, now that children are not going to be a part of it. A therapist can help you with finding a new path for your life.

Seek out other opportunities for nurturing

You may not be ready for this right away, but eventually, look for other ways to channel your desire to nurture. Maybe that means getting yourself some “fur babies.” Pets can be a great source for comfort and love.

If you’re lucky enough to have nieces or nephews nearby, embrace your role as an awesome auntie or uncle. You may also want to look into volunteer opportunities with children.  

Allow yourself to be happy

It really is okay to be happy. Sometimes, people feel it’s a betrayal of their loss to be happy childfree after infertility. They (mistakenly) believe that to enjoy their life without children implies they didn’t “want” them as much as they did. You can simultaneously enjoy your childfree life and mourn the life you once imagined. Both can be true.

A Word From Verywell

The decision to be childfree is yours to make. You have no obligation to try every route possible before choosing a childfree life. You may find yourself in a situation of choice, or you may feel you’ve been forced to accept a childfree life.

No matter how you come to be childfree, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. If you and your partner (if you have one) are at peace with the decision, it’s the right one. With time, support, and possibly professional counseling, you will heal. A happy life is possible without children.

Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos has this to say on the healing process:

“You're going to have to hurt before you can heal. The healing is non-linear. There will be good and bad days. Infertility is not something you get over. You come to terms with it. Reminders of what might have been will remain, but the pain will, in time, subside. Peace and joy will return to your life. You now possess a level of compassion that will serve you well for the rest of your life. You will find you're stronger than you ever thought possible. Your transformation will provide a means for a new life. Seize the opportunity to apply all you've learned.”

Sources:

Rosner, Marni, "Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study Of Women Living Without Children After Infertility" (2012). Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Dissertations. Paper 20.

Email interviews with Brooke K, Brenda B, Cathy B, Different Shores, Elaine, Kallie S, Kate, Kinsey W, Klara, Lesley Pyne, Linda R, Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos, Sarah Chamberlin.

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