As told to Kathleen Guthrie Woods
Zoe’s turning point came during “an excessive attack of the googles,” when she came across a woman on a fertility board with the same stats. Upon closer inspection, Zoe realized the woman had posted seven years earlier, and had endured nine IVF failures since. “I did not want to be that woman,” she decided then and there.
But deciding to stop unsuccessful treatments and making peace with a life without babies are different things. Zoe quotes John Cleese: “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” In her own words, Zoe says, “Clinging onto hope was not something I was prepared to do indefinitely. I wanted to walk away with my sanity intact.”
Here’s her story.
LWB: Describe your dream of motherhood.
Zoe: I always said I’d have a toddler by the time I was 30. My dad used to joke that would mean I’d have to give birth at 28, so get pregnant at 27, be in a relationship by 26, and that I was saying this whilst aged 26, and it “obviously isn’t going to be that moron in the baseball cap you brought round last week, so you better start looking”.
I dreamt of filling a child’s life with music (both myself and my partner are musicians), books, wellies, dogs, silly humour, and doodles. I’d also always been positive about adopting. My parents fostered many kids before we came along, so that was part of my dream too.
LWB: Are you childfree by choice, chance, or circumstance?
Zoe: Circumstance. I always went out with guys who weren’t ready, and I respected them. I was in a long-term relationship from 26, stopped taking the pill at 30. He responded by forcing me to take the morning-after pill when he forgot to use a condom. That devastated me. Then two weeks shy of my 33rd birthday, he just left, saying he didn’t love me, wasn’t ready for kids and wanted to “free me up”. He is now a father of one with the girl he got with three weeks after leaving me.
I got with my future husband pretty quickly after that—we’d been friends for years. He’d had an undescended testicle till aged 12, and two years in, we confirmed he had very low sperm count and IVF ICSI was our only option. Six months later, when I was just 36, we found out I had Diminished Ovarian Reserve (the ovaries of a 45 year old) and wouldn’t respond to IVF. Double whammy. He can’t have kids without IVF, I can’t get pregnant with it. We did it anyway. It failed drastically.
We don’t want double donor. I have my own very clear feelings about that, and it feels good to actively make a decision together against it. I would adopt, but my partner won’t, and I have chosen a life with him.
LWB: Where are you on your journey now? (for example: still in denial, angry, hoping for a miracle, depressed, crawling toward acceptance, embracing Plan B)
Zoe: Never in denial, as I always thought we’d have a problem and have been pretty realistic the whole way through. I moved from anger (at my ex-partner, who I now realize took the only fertile years of my life) into depression. Currently trying to convince myself of Plan B. Every day I take a huge amount of physical and emotional effort, convincing myself that this is okay, I am okay, a life without children will be okay. Every morning all the hard work I did the day before, getting to a place of acceptance, has vanished, and I have to start convincing myself all over again.
LWB: What’s the hardest part about not having children?
Zoe: The constant exclusion from life’s milestones. I never wanted to live like a 20-something forever. I wanted a family life and all that entailed.
Also I’m particularly upset about the fact there will be no one there to bother about what I leave behind. My legacy, I suppose. I have hundreds of recordings of me singing and playing songs, scrapbooks of band tours I’ve been on, photos of achievements I’ve made, venues I’ve played, and no one to listen to them or read them or look at them when I’m gone. I was looking forward to the exciting “this is what mummy used to do before she had you” conversations.
LWB: What’s one thing you want other people (moms, younger women, men, grandmothers, teachers, strangers) to know about your being childfree?
Zoe: That it wasn’t planned. That it wasn’t my fault. That it’s not a normal thing to go through at 36, and that I am broken with grief and would be grateful for their understanding on that.
Rather than what I want other women to know though, I want to speak to men in their 30s. I want them to know that their decisions to love their girlfriends/wives, but yet dismiss their requests to start a family because they are not ready, until they are 40 in some cases, is not something women should have to bear. We are not being mental or unnecessarily naggy. We are legitimately worried that it will be too late. Men should bear some of this responsibility, they should meet us half way.
LWB: What’s your Plan B?
Zoe: Being an aunt to my one and only niece/nephew, who was conceived at the point I found out I couldn’t have children naturally and was born a few weeks after I found out I can never have children at all.
Getting married, with the knowledge I have already been through one of the hardest things you can go through with a partner, and starting off with the understanding that it will be a marriage without kids. But I am so glad I know this from the outset and am still choosing to do it. That feels empowering to me.
What is your Plan B? Or are your wounds so raw that you can’t even imagine a happy future? We can all benefit from hearing about your experiences, plus we’d like to support you. Please visit the Our Stories page to get more information and the questionnaire, and consider sharing your story with women who truly understand what you’re going through.
Did you know Kathleen Guthrie Woods is getting ready to tell her own story? The Mother of All Dilemmas follows her journey of pursuing being a single mother then embracing a life without children, and explores the reasons our society still presumes to calculate a woman’s worth based on whether or not she’s a mother. Keep an eye on LifeWithoutBaby.com for announcements about the book’s release.