The Many Faces of Love - Sarah Chamberlin

You’ll never know true love until you have a child

An involuntarily childless infertility survivor’s rebuttal

During the first two years out of multiple failed fertility treatments, I felt gripped by something massive.  Amid grief’s lethargy and radiating pain I also felt yanked in new directions I didn’t, at the time, understand.  

My written experiences shared on my blog seemed to validate people, making them feel less alone. In early grief’s purgatory, this was often times the only flicker of satisfaction I felt in life at all.  

As time dragged on, I found myself, flaws and all, more compelled than ever before to listen to people while walking out in the world and make them feel heard, especially in situations that involved pain, loss and social disenfranchisement. 

I became concerned with how to leave this experience of infertility and involuntary childlessness more humane for those that follow, speaking out in any realm I could whenever I was able to summon the energy.

In addition to writing, which I had never really done before, I found myself gardening up a storm.  Since society offers people like me nothing, I created my own plant and flower laden shrines and rituals honoring the loss of my children. 

In each of these actions I felt the presence of my unborn children.  These are all entirely normal and healthy ways to grieve and mourn.  And grief and love are of the same coin.

I knew that I loved our embryos and I loved what they should have become.  And I still do.  What my experiences on this path were revealing to me though, was that although my children didn’t get to live, that love I have for them wasn’t going to die either.  It was going to continue on one way or another.

As you can imagine this was quite confusing and hard to name, as although it has never been said to me in so many words, the inference that you don’t know true love until you have a living child breathes heavily and constantly on all of us.

It is displayed in the bigoted assumptions that childless world leaders have less concern for the future of our planet than their parenting counterparts.  It creeps out in the way parents tend to talk at non parents as they explain the obvious regarding what they want for their children.  It is in the “at least you didn’t have kids” dismissal pelted at childless widows - an inference they didn’t actually know “real” love, so their loss is naturally not as big of a deal.  And it is in every “I’m a parent so I understand….” assertion that habitually precedes commentary on the latest worldly disaster involving children.

In spite of all this, I let my process lead me, my love for my children serving as a quintessential Black Stallion, glacially but surely beaming me into my next life.  Now nearing five years out of my final failed treatment, those precarious threads I clung to in the early days (writing, blogging, gardening, listening, speaking out) have become ropes in their own right.  They are in the process of morphing into more definable, concrete forms.  They all have the power to feed and help me, or others, or both. 

This is my love story.  And I didn’t even get to the heaps of love it took my husband and I  - for ourselves, one another and especially for any potential children involved - to abandon our pursuit of parenthood.  

It is entirely common that those in the childless not by choice demographic - a demographic that makes up 20% of the world’s population over age 45 - have similar stories.  The bullet points and time frames may be different, but the love we feel for the children conceived in our hearts reshapes us and drives the contributions we make to ourselves, our loved ones and the world.  

There are many who have likely experienced their deepest love through parenthood and that’s ok.  It’s the inferred hierarchy of this experience, currently an acceptable part of the human conversation, that is the problem.  

In addition, love  - “real” and “true” love - does not necessarily need to involve parenting living children or embryos or even dreams of children.  Many express the love inside of them in ways not related to parenting at all. I just so happen to experience an incredibly profound love as the result of non parenthood.  We are all part of the village it supposedly takes to raise a child.  Does the village not know “real” love??  Well that would sure be too bad.

Love happens through joy and pain, as the result of both effortlessly achieved and unrequited dreams.  None of this, I believe, is “meant to” or “supposed to” happen, my experiences have long since eroded such cushy illusions.  Love happening is simply what is.  The last thing we all need is to be involuntarily embroiled in the Love Olympics. 

My experiences have left me with a world view and a developmental trajectory that is markedly different from that of my average peer.  I often struggle with this.  “You’ll never know real love until you’ve LOST your children” - I’ll admit I’ve felt tempted to sarcastically grumble this on more than one occasion.   

When your experience unjustly doesn’t count in this world, life does get rather tiring.  And loving that which will never exist really takes a person, I can definitely attest to that.

But then I catch myself.  Why put my experiences on a pedestal above everyone else’s?  Just because it’s unequivocally real and it’s mine does not make it superior.

Does parenting a living child entail a different kind of love than the one I’m experiencing?  Sure.  Is it more “real” and “true”?  I doubt so.

Love comes in many forms.  Activism.  Art.  Sacrificing for the greater good.  Environmentalism.  Companioning a fellow human through and out of the depths of despair.  Teaching.  Self compassion.  Just to name a few off the top of my head.

Imagine a world where the only love that existed was through parenting.  You know, since according to some it’s the REAL true love and all.  Pretty bleak notion, don’t you think?  Perhaps some of the above could still exist, but it all wouldn’t be any where near as potent without love. 

As humans we love individuals and we love the world within a wide spectrum of ratios.  So during this World Childless Week, consider taking some time to acknowledge the many faces of love.  Perhaps re-evaluate some of the words you speak, and beliefs you hold regarding parenthood, non parenthood and “real”, “true” love.


Sarah Chamberlin