East Coast women left with empty arms devastated when dream of motherhood dashed
Christine Macfadyen always planned on having children. Even at a young age, she wrote in her diary how many kids she thought she would like and the names she dreamed of giving them.
But she didn’t plan on getting sick.
At 24, the Rocky Point, P.E.I. woman went into renal failure. The physicians caring for her had to give her a medication that would save her life, but it had a scary possible side effect: infertility.
Macfadyen didn’t want to take the drug, but her mother reminded her that she couldn’t be a mother someday if she wasn’t here. Eventually, she agreed to take the medication — even though deep down she didn’t want to — but felt she had no other choice.
The drug saved her life but put Macfadyen into a menopausal state for a year. Doctors told her not to have a baby as they didn’t know what the added stress of pregnancy would do to her body. So, five years later, she had a tubal ligation, preventing the possibility of having to decide what to do should she get pregnant.
“It was a hard pill to swallow, but I knew it was the right thing to do in my circumstances. It broke my heart into a million pieces,” says Macfadyen. “My hopes and dreams of becoming a biological mother all went away that night in the hospital.”
ONLY ONE CHILD
Jennifer Rogers, from Thorburn, N.S., had a child at the age of 21. He is now 10 and has oppositional defiance disorder, something the single mother has worked with since he was diagnosed at the age of two.
It was never her intention to only have one child, but with her son’s mental health requiring so much attention and her not having met a life partner, she says it wasn’t possible to have other children.
“It’s very sad, and it feels like you mourn the life that you always wanted. Making the right decision for you isn’t always the one you want,” says Rogers.
Another woman, from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, had the opportunity to become a mother ripped away due to internal injuries suffered after she was raped by an intimate partner.
The woman, who is not being named due to the nature of the crime, says, “it hurt because the choice was taken from me. I had no say.”
Reactions from family members made the time more painful for her.
She adds, “I have tried to get over it but can’t. Pain has dulled with age and I’m happy where I am now, but still hurts.”
A P.E.I. native has tried unsuccessfully to have children, but lost four pregnancies, including her full-term newborn almost two years ago.
As a single woman, she worked with a clinic in Moncton, N.B. on her difficult fertility journey. Having recently turned 44, she was told she was no longer allowed to pursue simple intrauterine insemination treatments because of low success rates. It wasn’t worth the expense, and she was too old for in vitro fertilization.
She feels like she has given up on her dream.
“Having children is all I have ever wanted, and I went through hell for five years trying to make it happen, so this was beyond devastating and I did everything I could to change the outcome but failed,” says the P.E.I. woman, who has asked not to be named due to privacy concerns.
“Not having a child when it’s all you have dreamed of sets a whole new path for the rest of your life,” she says.
It puts you in a very dark hole of not knowing if you even want a future anymore, she admits, due to the things you lose: “there are no firsts, no one to focus your life on, no family, no grandkids, no one to look after you as you get older. You age alone, and who wants that? It leaves you in a very lonely place that nobody understands.”
She describes it as a grief that hits you at every milestone, anniversary, special event, and holiday. Seeing others with their kids and knowing you will never have one is beyond painful.
“Everything around you is a constant reminder of what you don’t get to have and that’s something you have to spend the rest of your life with,” she says.
Whether by choice or circumstances, for many women, realizing they will never have
children or can’t have additional children is an emotional or traumatic experience.
According to Jennifer Keough, a therapist working under J. D. Keough Counselling Services in Bishop’s Falls, as simple as it sounds, some people just really want to have children.
Not having achieved the goals in your life or not having your ideals become your reality certainly comes with many negative feelings, says Keough, including grief and loss, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration and embarrassment.
Sometimes, she points out, it becomes a matter of biological time.
“Like anything else in life, if we are placed in situations where we feel like our window of opportunity has truly closed, we feel out of control as our element of choice narrows,” says Keough.
For many women, menopause is a physical indicator they are at the end of their childbearing years. These days, the average age for having children is 35, leaving a smaller window of opportunity before seeing signs of menopause.
“I think that many women look up from life and they’re 35 and have been busy living their life, building a career, caring for others, trying to make relationships work,” Keough says.
“You are now in the biological place of now or never
and the pressure of that can produce so much panic and stress.”
FINDING A WAY FORWARD
Coming to terms that you won’t have children of your own looks different for everyone. But for many women, it’s a pain you don’t get over — empty arms syndrome is a very real thing.
“I believe it will always be something in my heart and it will never go away, as it’s something I’ve dreamed about being my whole life,” says Macfadyen.
Well-meaning people often suggest alternative options to motherhood, like adoption or fostering.
For the P.E.I. woman who suffered losing four pregnancies, though, this wasn’t an option.
“What nobody realizes is that when you are on this journey and you want a child more than the air you breathe, you have already looked into every possible scenario more than once,” she says.
She adds that people don’t understand everything involved in their suggestions. They think it’s a simple process to foster or adopt, but until you do your research, it’s far from simple.
The same goes for things like surrogacy and embryo adoption, she says. They are not fast, easy or cheap solutions, or more women would not be childless not by choice.
Macfadyen has realized — now that she is aging, single and on disability due to her chronic illness — that her situation “isn’t exactly screaming able to adopt or have a child on my own,” she says.
“I’ve looked into other ways, but a lot are very expensive or have a long wait time – two things I don’t have a lot of, money and time left to be a good candidate for adoption.”
It is dealing with this grief and disappointment that is difficult. Figuring out how to handle the immeasurable grief and pain can swallow you whole.
Macfadyen chose a career in early childhood education to help fill the no-child void in her life. Someone once reminded her that she had
been like a mother to so many children over the years and has touched many little lives.
“Hearing that is very special and is a reminder that I can be involved in children’s lives in other ways, and it helps with the hurt and the grieving,” she says.
Other things that have helped her include being involved in her friends’ and families’ children’s lives, following families on Youtube and having a kitten she could watch grow into an adult cat.
Finding others in the same situation, so you don’t feel so alone in your feelings, can also help to validate what you are going through and give you a safe place to vent what you are feeling.
Through therapy, Macfadyen has been able to slowly grieve this enormous loss, although she says she hasn’t fully grieved and likely will carry it for the rest of her life.
“I have triggers that stab me in the heart sometimes, but I allow myself to feel the emotions, sit with them and make peace and move on. Tomorrow is a new day, and take it one step at a time,” she says.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Keough has worked with many women to help them reach end points through therapy. Some examples of this could be committing to just two rounds of fertility treatments or deciding you’ll be OK with not having children if you’re not in a stable relationship or aren’t successful in your attempts by a certain age.
Regardless of their predetermined end point, when that time comes and if they have not reached their goals of having children, this is still a difficult place to be and when someone will need support, Keough says. “This is often a place where people feel less confident about their direction and future and may be in a place of redefining and restructuring,” she explains.
And remember to be kind to yourself.
Macfadyen says she tries her best every day to wake up and do just that.
“Life is still in front of me, and I have to continue living. I’m grateful I am still here,” she says.