It happened again. Your partner’s well-meaning aunt has just asked you when you’re going to have kids. Torn between having an awkward conversation about not being able to procreate, and just smiling and nodding to wriggle your way out of the conversation, you’re trapped. Either way, you’re screwed.
Explaining the status of your body day in and day out is exhausting, and for the most part, people don’t understand the nuances of why you can’t have children. People either ask prying questions or, more likely, start apologizing until you’re the one consoling them about your own infertility. Regardless of the reason for having a body that can’t produce your own bio kids – and even if you don’t want kids anyway – the conversation still smarts.
There are a million articles out there about the pain and suffering of childlessness, of the ways that your life is over when you learn you can’t have your own. We love to pick apart the ways you battle to give birth, the stress it puts on your relationship as you try to start a family, the struggles of adopting
I’m not going to talk about any of that.
Instead, I’m going to boldly go where no barren person has gone before: I’m going to take all those pesky myths we tell ourselves about infertility and kick ‘em to the curb, one negative and limiting belief at a time. It’s an unpopular take (after all, we love to get our heart strings tugged), but hey. This is a used panty site. What’s an article without a little controversy?
Growing up, I thought I wanted children. Having two toddler brothers as a teenager, helping raise them was a joy. Sporting events, swim lessons, homework, and bathtime were strange beacons of happiness in my high school years.
Until endometriosis came in and complicated that sentiment. From the get-go, my very southern doctor told me I had two options: get pregnant young or never have children. Dating someone who was a garbage heap, only sixteen years old, and questioning my sexuality and the very fabric of my identity anyway, I started picturing life without having my own kids. At first, it was torture, and I did everything I could to keep my disease a bay. The guilt of my daily decision-making was astronomical. Each choice I made that could further my endometriosis was an opportunity to punish myself. By eighteen, I was weighing questions like, how badly did I want children if I chose to eat a cupcake I knew would make my endo worse?
Still unraveling whether I wanted kids at all, and starting to imagine a future without them, I fell in love with a new person, one who happened to be a man. Way too early in our relationship to even know if we were going to be dating for the rest of the semester, I knew I had to address the elephant crowding my room. While I didn’t know where our relationship was headed, I didn’t want him falling madly in love only to realize he couldn’t hack it with someone who didn’t give him bio babies.
So I went for it. Awkward as it was, I explained my situation from right out the gate – and that’s when I dismantled the first myth of infertility.
Myth #1: No partner will ever want to be with you if you’re “infertile.”
To call it an awkward conversation for me to broach with a guy I’d only been dating for a month or two is an understatement. But I had to lay it out there. Half-prepared for that to end things, the opposite happened: he stuck around. Eventually, we got married. When he had the choice to go into it knowing that there was probably no baby in his future sharing his curls and tan and my blue eyes, he was still game.
Back then, I still kind of thought I wanted children – adopted or otherwise. As we both grew together, we realized we didn’t want them anyway. But the whole journey, I had the safety of a partner by my side. When we talked about it, it was never that I couldn’t have kids – it was that we couldn’t.
That shared lack of culpability for the way the cookie crumbled made my eventual permanent surgeries that much easier. When I first started dating my partner, I figured that he was the exception. Now I know better. His response ought to be the rule.
Not being able to have children is a shared loss with your partner – not your own guilt or weird hairshirt to wear alone. And the second a partner blames you for the situation, or in any way makes you feel less than for the way your body is, just know that you deserve better. Whatever the cause, infertility is never your fault.
If you keep coming against this point of contention about your relationship, then you might be dating Henry VIII, desperate for an heir, or are with someone who just doesn’t value you the way you are enough to work through it and find another solution. Because when you’re with the right partner, you can kick down this next myth in a snap.
Myth #2: Life loses flavor when you can’t have children.
We’re all taught that there’s a relationship escalator, a certain order our lives must go in to be complete: fall in love, get married, buy a house, have some kids, retire in Fort Myers, and die. But life doesn’t unfold that way for everyone – and honestly, most people who are on that conveyor belt would be a whole lot happier if they weren’t so busy stressing over how to reach the next societally-imposed milestone for success.
Regardless, when one of those stepping stones is removed, we can feel marooned. Who are we when we can’t complete the list that we’ve been told we must check off since we were old enough to grip a pencil? Being unable to finish one of those steps can be terrifying at first. But after a while, you’ll start to notice that life keeps truckin’. It has to. And eventually, you’ll discover something surprising: having bio children – or any children at all – isn’t a step you have to take to feel complete.
Life is brimming with possibility. When you have no children in your life, try surrendering to the other things that drive and motivate you, that fill you up to bursting. With a slate of hobbies and career goals and favorite ways to while away the hours, your life will feel whole with or without kids. If you can’t think of those things, then learn something new. Keep exploring until you find something you cherish. It’s out there.
I won’t lie and say it’s easy, or pretend I have all the answers. Regardless of who you are, you’ve been taught that children are the most important part of a romantic relationship journey. But getting to know your partner is a blessing. Some couples find they’re living with someone they barely know after having raised a child together. When you’re so focused on the next step, neither of you have freedom to open yourself up, explore as a sexual being, be fluid in your gender identity, or even just take up that flamenco class you’ve been curious about.
And even if you do want children to fill that space inside, in the long run, the kids you have (bio, adopted, or otherwise) will be so much better off when you’ve spent years focusing on building a thriving relationship strong enough to withstand the battering ram of parenthood.
It does suck to not be able to do something you’ve been told is so essential. But life starts when you say so, and you and your partner can have a fulfilling life bursting with intimacy and joys that have nothing to do with whether or not you can have kids of your own.
Myth #3: You are your disease.
There are a million reasons you may not be able to have bio children with your partner. You may have a chromosomal difference, or have had an accident that left you unable to reproduce. One or both of you may have transitioned and chosen gender-affirming surgery (which is the only happy reason to not be able to have biological children I can think of).
But millions of us worldwide can’t have kids because of a disease like endometriosis. Being stuck with a chronic illness is kind of like having a terrible roommate for life. Every plan you have is somehow thwarted, and no matter often you keep tidy and do your best to stay organized, the disease is going to come and muck it all up. It’s claustrophobic. No exit from your suffering, it’s easy to start to see yourself as your disease. Your body and all its disappointments weigh your self worth down like a pocketful of stones. But no matter how frustrating it may feel, you are not your body. You are not your disease.
So much more than that, you’re a healthy, vibrant, and open human being with a diverse tapestry of history behind you. You’re that button collection you’ve kept since childhood, the community volleyball team you’re on, that favorite book you have a tattoo off. You’re your favorite karaoke songs and your habit of picking the soft part from the center of a slice of homemade bread.
Pain days, infertility, migraines, inflammation, menopause and whatever else your disease totes around with it isn’t you. It’s just an issue with the house your identity lives in. When you step beyond seeing yourself as a walking manifestation of your disease, you will start to uncover a whole host of beautiful things to love about yourself, and grind the next myth to dust under your heel.
Myth #4: You are, in fact, barren.
In grad school, I spent a ton of time musing over the word “barren.” I had good reason. Between teaching English as a Second Language and studying creative writing, I was constantly reflecting on words and language, searching for the juiciest phrases and pulling them apart with my fingers, dissecting the meaning. I was stuck on the word when, three months into my graduate program, I had a total hysterectomy and oophorectomy, rendering me (in the words of classic European literature) barren.
But as I thought about the freedom and lack of disease my childlessness brought with it, something in me changed. For once, I was in control of my body. I didn’t have to worry about how my every move might impact my endometriosis.
Life was suddenly possible. Far from feeling barren, in the years since my hysterectomy, I have never felt more lush than I do now. The things that make us “barren” in the first place do more than just hinder us in the baby department. Before my surgery I was married to my heating pad and was unable to work full-time. On my twenty-six birthday, the last one before my hysto, I spent thirty-six hours in pain. Dizzy from it, the birthday brunch at my favorite spot in town, which I’d been so excited about, felt far away and fuzzy, and the conversations bursting from folks who I loved who loved me flew over my head and past me.
Instead, a raw ache peppered bursts of laughter and I answered questions a half beat off. Only my husband squeezing my hand beneath the table helped me wade my way through that miserable day. Now, I’m lucky. Living my dreams, I’d say my biggest issue is that I have too many hobbies, and too much energy to stuff into one day. Everything that had once been unattainable is in my grasp.
I wish I’d realized this sooner. When there was the potential of having children, I was so focused on my body’s wellness that I couldn’t enjoy my life for what it was. None of us are truly barren, children or no. We have a whole ecosystem of possibilities and opportunities just waiting for us, and they don’t need to involve offspring in order to be worth pursuing.
Without kids, my life has so much meaning. And when I chose to become “barren,” I became fertile for the first time ever.
But even with a brimming personal life, fulfilling career, and amazing relationship, after my hysterectomy, I still stumbled across the first harsh reality of not being able to have children:
Reality #1: People’s comments still have barbs.
One of the cruelest things in recent memory that someone said to me came from my grandmother’s mouth at my grandpa’s eightieth birthday party earlier this year. Notorious in our family for her remarkable cruelty, my grandmother looked me in the eyes and told me that any children I adopted would never be as special as my second cousin’s, because he was having biological children that were his own blood, and that was what really mattered.
Even though the closest thing I want to a child is a pit bull, and even though I knew my grandmother was just saying it to hurt my feelings, hearing something that was both so blunt and so untrue stung.
It’s inevitable that you’ll come across a moment like that yourself. Reminders that you’re less capable than others somehow persist, time and again. Most of them won’t be as cruel as my grandmother’s comment (I hope), but that sting is still there. Usually, it comes from people who mean well and just don’t know what to say. Typically they settle on something like, “You can always adopt.” But if you don’t want children, what good does that do?
For me, I find the adoption comments a little belittling. It depends on my mood. Mostly, I feel like it implies I hadn’t thought of it before, or that their only concern about endometriosis is that I can’t have kids. The pain, missed opportunities, and seven surgeries I went through all pale in comparison to the horror of being childless.
But as time passes, the barbs or hints or questions hurt less. You still feel them, of course you do, but like you have with everything else your body has thrown your way, you’ll adapt. The next time someone says something hurtful, it’ll wash over your body a little easier, and you’ll get better at doing whatever you need to do to blow off steam later.
It helps to confide in the people you’re closest to. Tell them what phrases hurt you, so they know when to listen for it in conversations with others. Even a shared glance with a close friend can go miles in helping you weather the storm of another comment from another stranger offering another piece of advice on your own fertility. And hey, as you feel less alone in your journey, you’ll develop the tools to crack a joke, carve out a barb to throw back, or just brush it off and keep moving.
Reality #2: You may very well still have children.
I know I just ragged on those people who always say you could always adopt, but their unwarranted advice is true. If you have the means and the persistence, you can, in fact, adopt. There are so many kids out there waiting for someone to give them a good home – and if you can clear all the hurdles, you can start a family without worrying about fertility.
There’s no shortage of kids looking for families like yours. In England, there are twice as many of them waiting for homes as there are families on adoption lists. And in the United States, over 100,000 children are currently waiting for someone to adopt them.
For a different experience with parenting, fostering is another rewarding option. As a parent figure, you can be a positive influence in a young person’s life at a time when they need it desperately. Helping raise someone doesn’t have to be biological to be meaningful.
And honestly? Having a biological child probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When I look at the genetic lottery of my family, it’s no surprise I can’t have children: we are so riddled with chronic conditions, mental health issues, cancer, and body pains. Of course my genetic line decided to end with me. Survival of the fittest. Knowing I can’t pass on endometriosis to another human life, to me, is a strange little gift.
Not being able to have bio children may turn out to be a blessing for you, too, and if you are called to be a parent, you can find that same fulfillment through adoption and fostering.
Reality #3: You will find a way to fill those hours of your long, rich life.
You have to. There’s no choice. When you’re infertile, you will never feel as rich or lush or joyful as you can if you’re too busy thinking about all the ways having no children has made the world empty and meaningless.
Life is made for the living, so think up all your wildest dreams. The ones that stretch beyond having bio babies. What else have you dreamt of? That trip to Iceland? Take it. Learning to sew so you can create your ultimate Jareth costume in time for the Labyrinth sequel? Get on it.
Each day is ripe and ready for you to pluck it – but it’s on you to reach for it. Nobody else can do it for you.
The more you live your life fully, the more you’ll realize that there just aren’t hours and minutes in the day to do all the things you love. The richer your experiences, the more fulfilled you’ll be. Eventually, if a child is thrown into that mix through IVF or adoption, they’ll only be better off from all the time you spent living life to the fullest without them.
Wouldn’t you rather have a parent who studied bachata, knew how to crochet, could make gourmet sushi, and spoke a third language, than a parent who only had you and their social media obsession?
A parent with life experience is one with perspectives to offer. And with or without kids, those perspectives you gain will make your life a precious gift you’re thankful for day after day.
We don’t always get what we hoped for – and nobody can plan on being infertile. What we can do is tape into our power, and forge a kinder life for ourselves. So see the world out there, experience things, and remember the ways you’re still fertile – even without children.