How do I cope with finding out that I can’t have children?

A couple of years ago I found out that I cannot have children. This is devastating to me as I always wanted to start a family. It’s very difficult to come to terms with. Some days are better than others, but lately it seems like all of my friends are having babies or getting pregnant. I want to be happy and supportive of them, but every time I hear them talk about it, or see a photo on facebook it reminds me of what I cannot have. How do I cope with this thing that I had no say in?

Well-behaved women seldom make history. – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
13-14-15-19-46 / 28

Hello Diner. Society literally owes existence largely to its ability to have children. Even the Baker Himself was a child at some point–despite being eons old in Fortune-Cookie-years. Because of that, it’s hard not to feel defective and rejected from being part of Humanity Itself. We discussed in other Fortunes how damaging feeling left out is. It’s no wonder it hurts.

What’s great about you, Diner, is that you don’t take out this hurt and unfairness on your friends. You even feel like you want to celebrate with them when you’re not as lucky. Maybe that’s just the privilege your culture affords those fortunate parents; maybe you’re just an incredibly gracious person. Maybe both. Either way, you spend a lot of your limited energy repeating, “just grin and bear it.”

Sucking it up takes its toll. You’re human, Diner; you’re not an effervescent perpetual motion machine of cheer and enthusiasm–however much you may want to be. Be whoever you feel like you need to be around your friends and family, but give yourself permission to be angry and to feel cheated when you need to. I won’t tell or judge. In fact, I encourage it.

That can be as simple and private as not clicking “Like” or leaving a comment on Facebook. Or it can be as direct as asking your friend not to talk about babies when you’re with them, and everything in between. The point is, sometimes you don’t need to be happy for them. Do whatever you feel right and and comfortable doing to enforce those boundaries.

The reminders themselves–the stream of pictures, the pinging notifications of other people adding to the congratulations, and the pervasiveness of that conversation topic–add to how hard it is to cope with your pain. Wish them well and unfollow. You can always add them back into your feed later on.

Discovering that you can’t have your own biological children is a sudden loss that must be grieved. But like losses you have already faced in your life, you know life will, and must, go on–and will get better. You can’t bring back lost loved ones from your past or from a future that cannot be, but you can mourn, pass on what you’ve learned from them, and live life fully.

Spend some time and really think about why you want children. Is it society telling you you’re deficient otherwise? Do you want to nurture and teach someone? Do you want to provide for and protect someone? In each case, there are other ways to fulfill that need: educate, volunteer, adopt. I’m not saying any of those will ever take the place of giving birth and raising your own child, but they are means of getting closer to your life goals with what you have now.

We Fortune Cookies don’t make more of ourselves. We simply explore one problem. Your problem. And we try to do it the best we can. We create. These Fortunes are our life’s work. That’s how we leave our legacy. Show everyone how you’ll leave yours. Good luck, Diner.

Is this it for grandma?

You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,

Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men. – W. Shakespeare

13-28-37-41-51 / 18

Hello Diner. I hope this Fortune finds you with this question still unanswered. But the time of transition from life to death is just arbitrary–a string of numbers that can never represent the life its digits terminate. So I’m wondering whether this is indeed the question you want to ask. Because you’re at the point of asking when the end will come, I’m guessing that the person you’re asking about today bears little resemblance to the vibrant individual you knew. I’m sorry. But whether her body still lives, the spark that was your grandmother ended. All that her loved ones could do for her has been done.

What’s left is for the survivors: mourn, heal, live. I think your question lies here: How do I survive? How do I deal with that loss?

You may have heard the advice to let yourself mourn. And while well meaning, this advice is at best confusing, and at worst prolonging your unhappiness.

The intent of that advice is to do a long, self-indulgent purge of emotion to reach an eventual catharsis–that sigh at the end of tense dramatic movies. There are two problems with that approach:

1) Your life dealing with this tragedy isn’t a neatly contained movie with a two hour runtime and definitive end. There isn’t a set amount of “total sadness” that you can just get rid of. It comes and goes for a long, indeterminate time.

2) Scientist found that putting yourself through this constant flow of sadness (aptly named “catharsis theory”) just doesn’t work. Ruminating–meaning, constantly thinking about the tragedy–just keeps you in a state of mourning [1].

When tragedy hits, you have no choice but to react emotionally–you’re human after all. This will come naturally, so don’t worry about “letting” yourself do it.

Instead, say your goodbyes in whatever way you need to: say “goodbye” outloud, visit, tie loose ends, zero emotional balances, make offerings, pray, apologize, or give thanks. If circumstances don’t allow you to do something, do as much as you can. This process–like life and death–is not perfect, nor does it have to be. It may not seem like much, or it may seem silly and useless, but give yourself the benefit of going through this ritual.

For all of recorded history, humans as civilizations conducted rituals as metaphors to life’s transformations. But more than metaphors, the rituals are crucial components in the transformations themselves by making that process concrete. Rituals are things that you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and most importantly remember, which anchor those changes in your mind.

Next, with this life’s transformation, actually change. What was it about your grandmother that brought out the best in you? Remember and act on that. If your grandmother had skills you appreciated, adopt, practice, and master them. Your community–and by inclusion, the world itself–will benefit from another master carpenter, chef, tailor, or unicyclist.

“But I can never be as good as her, Cookie,” you’d say.

To that I have two thoughts: 1) It’s your skill now; just do the best you can with it. You’re definitely not competing with her–you’re carrying a legacy of knowledge. 2) Your grandmother took the same path from novice to master. With practice, you might even be better.

Remember who your grandmother was and how she affected you. Be that to someone else. The way she made you smile and the magic she created are the things you miss most. If you make someone else smile, wield her kind of magic, and then teach someone those things, she can live forever. Remember that, Diner.


[1] Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.