Before I became a statistic, by reaching my mid-forties without having children, I thought, as many of us do, that there were two ways to become a childless woman: you either didn’t want them (“child-free”) or you were infertile. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of women who don’t have children are “childless by circumstance”, a phrase coined by the Australian academic Dr Leslie Cannold in her 2005 book, What, No Baby?
The figure comes from the work of Dr Renske Keizer, a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who in a 2010 meta-analysis of data from the Netherlands and the US estimated that 10 per cent of women without children are childless by choice, 10 per cent for medical reasons, and 80 per cent by circumstance. Applied to statistics about UK women, it can be estimated that there are (or shortly will be) almost 1.5 million women in their forties and fifties here who won’t have children, with only 10 per cent of those being unambiguously by choice.
But choice is a complicated word, and such things can look very different in hindsight. I know this from experience. As a teenager and young woman, I was against the idea of having children, shaped by the experience of my mother, who had me “out of wedlock” at 18. Thus, when I got pregnant at 20, terrified and totally unready for motherhood, I had an abortion. I don’t regret it.
At 26, I got married. I told my husband I didn’t want children. It was a conversation that we should have been encouraged to have in greater depth. I was fortunate that, when I changed my mind at 29, he was happy to go along with that, too. Other couples don’t always have the same experience, and this can be another way not to become a mother: your partner doesn’t want children (or more children), even if they once said differently. It turned out that I was unable to conceive. I was one of the many women diagnosed with “unexplained infertility”.
My thirties ticked on in a haze of hope, pain and bizarre alternative treatments. I was against the idea of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) because I didn’t think I could keep the wheels on the road in both our marriage and the business we ran together if I also had to cope with the mood swings associated with the hormonal treatments. Well, that was what I told myself… In hindsight, I wonder if some of my earlier ambivalence about having children had crept in. By the time I was 37, and having had a rocky start in life myself, I knew that I couldn’t bring a child into the chaotic environment that my delightful but emotionally unsteady husband was wrapped up in.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/22 New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
2/22 Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment 'helps patients walk again'
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
3/22 Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
4/22 Cancer risk 'increased' by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
5/22 Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
6/22 Rat-bite fever
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
7/22 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
8/22 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
9/22 Fat loss from pancreas 'can reverse' effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
10/22 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
11/22 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
12/22 Sugar tax
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
13/22 Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
14/22 Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
15/22 Health apps approved by NHS 'may put users at risk of identity theft'
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
16/22 A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
17/22 Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
18/22 Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications. Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug. Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
19/22 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
20/22 The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
21/22 Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
22/22 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
Perhaps not surprisingly, that realisation was the beginning of the end for our marriage and the beginning of my next adventure in babymania – a foray, at the age of 40, into the then-new world of internet dating to find a partner to “do IVF” with. Two failed relationships later, I threw in the towel.
Perhaps the most difficult-to-digest reason for childlessness is that of never having been in a suitable relationship. (And, in our patriarchal society, to be past your childbearing years having never been “chosen” evokes antiquated images of being “left on the shelf”. If you think I’m exaggerating, think of how, in just one generation, the most shamed female stereotype has shifted from being an “unmarried mother” to being a single, childless woman over 40. It’s open season on her, as all the “crazy cat-lady” jokes show.)
In case you were wondering, adoption wasn’t an option for me as a single, childless, self-employed woman. It’s really not the “obvious” solution many imagine; some of us have even tried it and have been turned down.
If I had my time over, I’d still like to experience motherhood. But had I known that a life without it was acceptable, something the child-free-by-choice women of my generation knew in a way that I did not, that would have been incredibly useful information. We need to be more open about the many ways there are to experience a meaningful and fulfilling life when motherhood doesn’t happen. We need role models, which is one of the reasons I curate a Pinterest online gallery of more than 500 childless women, from Debbie Harry to Angela Merkel, each with a photo and mini-biography.
Seven years on from the final realisation that I was not to be a mother, I have emerged from the fire of grief a wiser, more compassionate person. I have learnt that most of us are scared of our own and others’ grief, and that childlessness can stir unconscious fears in those around us, leading them to offer “fixes” rather than empathy. That is why I set up the free Gateway Women meet-up groups across the UK (and now globally): to create a space where childless women can talk freely without someone proffering a “miracle baby story”.
Supporting other women has proved deeply fulfilling. One woman said to me: “If you’d been a mum, you could never have helped as many people as you have.” I took a moment to take that in. “You saved my life,” she said.
Jody Day is the author of ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children’ (Bluebird, £12.99)