When I first asked for volunteers with stories of childlessness, I had no idea that so many people would respond. I also had no idea how many of those people would suffer from medical conditions. It seems that there is a high correlation between illness and childlessness.
This was encouraging for me, given that I am also childless with chronic illness. For me, the one led to the other. I have discovered that when you are sick for a long time, you can start to feel isolated. You can believe that you are the only one who is enduring ongoing illness. This, I learned, is simply not so.
There are lots of childless people out there with chronic conditions. The most common medical condition I encountered in the childlessness interviews was infertility. Yep, infertility counts as a medical condition. It can be caused by other medical conditions, such as endometriosis, or it can occur alongside them.
Infertility is a direct cause of childlessness for many people. Some people with infertility issues still manage to have children; they are the fortunate ones. But others cannot have children naturally and they are faced with decisions about pursuing other means of having kids, whether through IVF, adoption or surrogacy.
Hormonal imbalance is another medical factor that can impact on the ability to conceive. General health difficulties, chronic pain, fatigue and stress can make it harder to fall pregnant and can lower the sex drive. It’s pretty hard to have kids if you’re not interested in sex.
Women with chromosome deficiencies or malformations may not be able to get pregnant or, if they do, may not be able to carry the baby to term. People with autoimmune conditions can struggle to conceive and can be at risk of having high-needs babies. Those with blood clotting issues are reportedly at higher risk of miscarriage.
Some medical conditions are fatal. This can pose practical and ethical questions. If you knew that you were going to die from your illness, would that affect your decision whether or not to have children? Personally, I am not sure what I would do in that situation.
Then there is the arena of mental health. While some people may be physically able to conceive, they may be reluctant to have children if they are experiencing significant mental health issues. They may worry about passing on those issues to their children. They might be concerned about their capacity to cope with the stressors of parenthood. They may require ongoing care themselves.
For those with ongoing illness, the decision to have children is often a difficult and deliberate one. There are many potential benefits and risks to weigh up. It is more complicated than simply wanting children.
The good news – or the bad, depending on your point of view – is that there is no right or wrong choice. One size does not fit all. Rather, chronically ill people need to be given the freedom to choose what will work for them. No-one can tell them whether or not they should have kids.
Illness can be difficult at best. Medical science cannot always explain our symptoms and it can be hard to understand our own bodies. We can wind up feeling alone. But we are not alone. If you feel like you’re the only one, there’s a bunch of us out there just like you. Try to find us; or find people who will support you, no matter your illness or decisions about having children. Because the truth is, it’s not just you.
Do you have a story about illness and childlessness? Do you know someone who has not been able to have children because of a medical condition? What helps you, and them, get through the rough days?