Fewer Americans are choosing to have babies these days. Birthrates are down significantly, declining 20% from a rate of 69.3 per 1,000 women in 2007 to just 55.8 in 2020. While sociologists say the Great Recession of 2008 played a role in prompting some to put off starting a family, statistics indicate women born between 1983 and 1987 had fewer children during their prime childbearing years (20s and 30s) than previous generations.
Perhaps more tellingly, even after the economy recovered, this trend didn’t subside. In fact, women born between 1988 and 1997 are having even fewer children than their cohorts of a decade earlier.
While some cite the oft-claimed self-centeredness of the GenY and Millennial personality as a possible cause for the downward curve, there’s more to this trend than meets the eye, says Dr. Gail Miller, a Maternal Fetal Medicine physician and advocate for childless women and men. She points out that while falling birthrates are often characterized as being driven by personal choice, a surprisingly large percentage of childless couples and singles wanted children but did not have them for a variety of reasons.
As a demographic they’re referred to as childless not by choice, or CNBC. Although not widely known, Dr. Miller says that the involuntarily childless often suffer emotional fallout from being denied parenthood. Over the past decade she has turned the life lessons gained through her own experience with involuntary childlessness into a coaching practice and speaks at support events and conferences.
“Wanting children, for some, is a natural instinct that often begins in childhood when the young, particularly girls, become attached to baby dolls and ‘play house’,” she states. “Understandably, having this desire slip away often triggers feelings of loss, guilt, depression, and a gnawing sense of lack of fulfillment.”
The percentage of the population which fall into this category is far greater than previously thought, Miller adds. She points to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey which found that, among non-parents between the age of 18 to 49 who said it was “not too likely or not likely at all” they would have children, fully 43% percent admitted it was not by choice but for “some other reason.”
Of these stated circumstances, 19% said the reason was medical, 17% cited finances, 15% said they didn’t have a partner, and 10% mentioned age. Only 2% said they had a partner not interested in having kids. Many couples and single women struggle with the issue throughout their childbearing years and, when the realization hits home that their hopes for procreation will never transpire, must cope with the fallout.
“In the case of infertility, many choose to take action and explore options such as invitro fertilization (IVF),” she says. “However, regardless of whether one is childless after going through fertility treatments or not, the feelings of loss, grief, and sadness are equally valid.”
The wide range of emotions Miller witnesses in her coaching practice and from her own personal experience has informed her view that it’s long past time for a broader acknowledgment and acceptance of childlessness within the news media and society at large.
“No one knew how commonplace the emotional turmoil caused by involuntary childlessness was, so it’s understandable that it wasn’t discussed,” Miller declares. “However, as the CNBC population becomes visible, more than ever people should reject the idea that they should suffer in silence.”
Miller’s conviction that the issue is finally poised for wider exposure is underpinned by data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021. In the first-ever report on involuntarily childless adults, it was discovered that the number of childless has grown from 10.9% to 15.9% among those 75 and older and 19.6% among those 55 to 64.
“The stark reality is that nearly 1 in 6 adults aged 55 and older are childless,” she states. “Whether society is prepared or not, an increasing percentage of adults will be childless, which will include those who wanted children but did not realize that dream.”
In the interest of helping educate those unfamiliar with the emotional toll which often accompanies unwanted childlessness, Dr. Miller channels much of her energy to advocating for those directly affected and educating friends and loved ones how they can be more supportive.
“It’s very common for even well-meaning people to tell an involuntarily childless person to ‘get over it,’ often without any malice whatsoever,” Miller says. “To anyone who knows someone experiencing this kind of loss and sadness – please know what you’re doing doesn’t help. It makes it worse.”
The underlying message is telling this person to ignore their feelings, which is precisely sending the wrong message, she advises.
“The way this is interpreted, and understandably so, is that you’re not in control of your feelings, that you’re weak, and that your feelings aren’t valid. It’s the equivalent of being told ‘get control of your feelings already.’ You can imagine how hurtful that is.”
When working with clients in her coaching sessions Miller says its crucial people don’t blame those trying to be mindful of their emotions, no matter how off base it appears.
“Most people are truly well intentioned,” she adds. “Allowing what they’re saying to you to impact you as condescending and disrespectful is not useful. It only makes one feel worse.”
Instead, she suggests gently but firmly making clear why what just transpired is unacceptable.
“Make it clear why childlessness is both a part of who you are but also a challenge that you are coping with as best you can,” she states. “Tell them that you cannot suppress your emotions and pain, even if it will make friends and loved ones less uncomfortable.”
A quote Miller often refers to is “what you resist persists.”
“Resisting feelings won’t make them go away, in fact, they don’t go away. It makes them worsen and multiply. Because this can lead to physical stress and other maladies, being open to one’s emotional state is actually a health issue.”
She says it’s also helpful to explain to people in your life that you cannot view yourself through the eyes of others. Dr. Miller admits one of her most vital breakthroughs was that the very fact of being misunderstood was germane to not having children and mourning over the unborn. She says she often returns to select passages in ‘Spoken From The Heart,’ the highly personal memoir of First Lady Laura Bush published in 2010.
Quoting directly from the book, Miller reads aloud the following:
“The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence. For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, or friend, we have all manner of words and phrases, some helpful, some not. Still, we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and have denied them, those missing babies hover like silent ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?”
In many of her talks at CNBC gatherings Miller sums up her journey and those she counsels with these thoughts:
“No one else is walking your path. What’s meaningful or painful to you may not be to someone else and vice versa. Don’t minimize or invalidate your pain. Others may try, inadvertently or not, but that doesn’t mean you have to internalize what they think.”
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