No marriage, no kids. What thoughts, feelings and images do these words evoke for you regarding a woman of this status? Do your thoughts go to negative labels such as spinster, old maid, or barren? Do you assume unmarried, childless women must be lonely, unfulfilled, and miserable? Do you believe these women are selfish narcissists pursuing career and other interests? Do you think there is something wrong with a woman who doesn’t want children, isn’t married, or doesn’t want to remarry?
Although there has been dramatic social change over the last half century, and divorce and childlessness has become more commonplace, there is still a stigma attached to women who are single and without children. It may not be as overt as it once was, but the legacy of shame and guilt still is very present psychologically for many women.
I discussed all of this with Dr. Debra Castaldo. Dr. Castaldo is the author of Divorced without Children and the upcoming book: Relationship Reboot. She is a relationship expert, psychotherapist and professor.
S&LF: Is divorce easier when children are not involved?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Divorce at midlife without children can be a triple whammy of stressors: divorce adjustment, childlessness, and aging. It often places women out of sync in a women’s world that is still primarily a married, mothering one.
Divorce without children is certainly less complicated because there is no child custody or co-parenting agreement to sort out. However, I wouldn’t say that it is easier emotionally, since there is a different set of complex emotional and practical issues for women to negotiate. After divorce, they may face unanticipated issues of declining financial status, loss of family members, or their own declining health.
S&LF: Is divorce difficult for women who walk away with no children if they want children?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Many women still feel other lifestyles and options are not “good enough” and do not match up to their original dreams for motherhood.
The desire for children is actually one of the top reasons why some women stay in unhappy marriages. It can be difficult to leave a marriage when your clock is ticking. You feel your options are limited, and you’re concerned about whether you will be able to meet an appropriate partner if you do leave your marriage. These days we have so many more options to parent: single parent adoption and fostering, using a donor bank, or surrogacy.
S&LF: Did you have feelings of failure when you divorced without children?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Even though the majority of women now are not married, and many are choosing to forego having children, marriage and motherhood is still the gold standard that many of us hold ourselves up to.
Although I was sure I wanted to divorce and was the initiator, there were still many complex feelings of shame, guilt, failure and inadequacy that took time to work through. I spent years after my divorce grieving and trying to recreate the dream I had lost. I ran to singles events, pursued online dating, and tried to reinvent myself to be “good enough.” I would say it took me a decade to be comfortable with my single, child-free status and come into my own and be able to celebrate the new life I was creating. I was certainly raised with the belief that the worth of a woman was attached to her ability to “catch” and keep a man. It was also a foregone conclusion that you should want children, and something was wrong with you if you didn’t. It takes a quantum psychological shift in beliefs to embrace the fact that a single, child-free lifestyle has many advantages, and is not better or worse than a “traditional” lifestyle. It just is different.
S&LF: How did you cope?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: I had to shift my thinking and started putting my energy into finding my life purpose and pushing myself forward towards my dreams.
After ten years of struggling with emotional discomfort, depression, and anxiety, I finally had my “Aha” moment. I decided I was going to stop putting all my energy into remarrying. I allowed myself to dream big and redesigned my goals and went back to school for a Ph.D., started my own business, wrote my first book, traveled on my own, and expanded my “family of choice”: my friendship network.
S&LF: If women enter a marriage they know will be unstable because they want children, can this backfire?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Having children doesn’t fix bad relationships, it only adds more stress!
This can absolutely backfire. Entering a marriage for the purpose of having children works for some people who want to be co–parents only, but it can be a set up for failure if you enter a marriage you already know does not have a good foundation. Women need to consider all the consequences of entering a marriage they know is not right. I think all women should ask themselves: “Am I prepared to be a single parent if this marriage doesn’t work out?”
What I found in my research study was that most of the women had married their partner, knowing it was not right, because they felt societal pressure to do so. However, most of them had unconsciously delayed and avoided having children because on some level they knew that would have connected them permanently to their partner.
S&LF: What advice would you give to women who are running out of time to have children, but want to wait to be married?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Have a plan B, C, and D! I encourage women to look at all parts of their life and define themselves in many ways, not just as potential wives and mothers.
None of us are guaranteed to have our lives go exactly the way we hope and plan. Despite our best efforts, there is no guarantee for anyone that a relationship will last, that you will be able to have children, or that you will retain your health and well-being. Being single and child-free is not a tragedy, it’s just different.
S&LF: How do you comfort a woman who is struggling with the fact she may never give birth?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: You don’t have to be defined by your ability to be a mother by giving birth.
It is normal and important to allow yourself to grieve what you may feel you have lost. There are many ways to be a mother if you still wish to. Or you can use the advantage of being child-free to create other meaningful ways to use your gifts and talents as a single, child-free woman.
S&LF: What was your “Aha” moment when you realized your no marriage, no kid life was amazing?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: I finally decided to shift my thinking and get my life on purpose. It was time for me to advance my life in different directions without fear.
After ten years of spending all my energy trying to recreate married life and figure out how I could still be a mother, I was exhausted. I couldn’t go on one more blind date, singles event, or join one more summer beach house. I realized I had the freedom, independence and energy to go for my dreams and revved myself up to redesign my life in a way that would enable me to use my best talents and create meaning for me.
S&LF: How did ballroom dancing help you come to that “Aha” moment and change your life?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: Ballroom dancing has taught me how to depend on my own strength, not depend on the strength of a partner to hold me up, and to have confidence and keep on, even if you stumble and fall.
I literally “bumped into” a ballroom dance studio and rediscovered a childhood passion that taught me many new lessons for thriving as a Single woman without children at midlife. It has been a metaphorical life lesson and has reawakened joy, creativity, and passion that I had been missing.
S&LF: Why should women re-evaluate the “fairytale” myths about their worth being connected to their ability to be a wife and mother?
Dr. Debra Castaldo: We must continue to detach from ideas that women who lead a “different” life in any way are “not as good as”.
Women can create meaningful identities and fulfilling lives apart from the roles of wife and mother.
The ideas about women’s worth being connected to being wives and mothers are just that: beliefs and ideas created in our society over generations. They are not “true or false”, “right or wrong”. We must ask ourselves can we truly support all choices for women and leave behind blame and stigmatization? Can we champion true freedom of choice and support all women as complete human beings, regardless of whether or not they are wives or mothers?