Dealing with Infertility and Childlessness

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One in every six couples will never be able to conceive a child. This can be a very painful realization for a couple who has dreamed of having offspring. The Family: A Proclamation to the World says, "We declare that God's commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force."

Although some couples are not biologically able to become parents, they can become parents in every other sense of the word.

The Hurt of Childlessness

Couples who are not able to have children may experience a wide spectrum of feelings—jealousy, despair, envy, isolation, and bitterness. They may feel singled out for an ordeal few others seem to experience, and they might find it difficult to fit into social circles where everyone else has children. The anguish can go so deep that seeing a baby can feel like a knife in their hearts.

Men and women tend to react somewhat differently to infertility. Women often experience profound grief and sadness. They tend to cry a lot and to reduce their anxiety by talking about what they're experiencing. Men, on the other hand, express fewer anguished feelings and seem to be less affected by being childless. They generally don't feel as free to talk about their feelings and tend to have less opportunity to discuss them with friends.

Childlessness can cause stress on a couple's personal, social, and sex lives. The anger and disappointment that often accompanies childlessness can rub off on the marital companionship, and cause couples to blame one another. Many couples suffer with depression which in turn can lead them to withdraw themselves from friends and family. Going to a party or family gathering where children are present can cause the pain of childlessness to surface. As a result couples avoid these types of situations. When couples place procreation as the focus of their intimacy for an extended period of time, sexual intercourse becomes solely a way to create children; it no longer has the element of love, affection, or spontaneity.

What Can Family Members Do to Help?

Couples struggling with childlessness need support from family members and friends. However, it's important not to be intrusive into this very private dimension of a marriage. Here are a few tips to help the ones you love.

  • Show understanding and acceptance.
  • Listen without giving advice.
  • Let the couple know you are there for them.
  • Don't ask a woman if she is pregnant.
  • Give the couple respect and privacy.
  • Don't offer false hope.
  • Don't joke about infertility.
  • Don't suggest solutions, such as infertility treatments, adoption, or foster parenting. These are options that should be privately discussed between a couple.
  • Don't offer the commonly repeated misinformation that a woman who adopts often gets pregnant soon after.
  • Learn about infertility so you can be an informed listener.

What Options Do Couples Have?

Couples can parent children in many ways. Some of the options include the following:

  • Adopt an infant.
  • Adopt a child with special needs.
  • Adopt a child internationally.
  • Become a foster parent (and possibly adopt the child later on).
  • Nurture the children of extended family members, friends, and neighbors.

Infant Adoption

For many couples, adopting an infant is their first choice. This option can take years, and most adoption agencies have criteria that are very restrictive. Agencies can discuss their eligibility requirements and placement options with you. Infant adoption also can be very costly. It's important to talk to an adoption professional and make sure you're aware of all costs.

Adopting Children with Special Needs

The definition of "special needs" varies from agency to agency and state to state. Generally, it means a child with one or more health or emotional problems, a history of neglect or abuse, prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, other conditions that may lead to problems, or siblings that need to be adopted as a group.

Generally, it's easier and less expensive to adopt a child with special needs because fewer couples are interested.

International Adoption

The international adoption process can be complex and expensive. There are two basic ways to adopt internationally. The first is through a licensed U.S. adoption agency. The second is through a private attorney. Couples using an attorney often have a particular child in mind.

If you choose to use an agency, find one that is reputable and has experience with international programs. If you want to adopt a child from a specific country, be sure you choose an agency that works with that country.

However you proceed, be patient with the process. It often takes several years and many thousands of dollars.

Below are suggestions for choosing an agency or an attorney:

  • Contact several agencies.
  • Investigate the agency or attorney by contacting the Better Business Bureau, state licensing specialists, and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.
  • Read all of the material you receive.
  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Contact references.
  • Talk to other couples who have adopted internationally.

Foster Parenting

Foster parents share their home, time, energy, and love, with a child, youth, or sibling group in need of a temporary home. To be approved as foster parents, you'll go through background checks, home studies, training, and paperwork.

State and private agencies try to return a foster child to his or her parents if possible, but foster parents sometimes have the option to adopt a foster child. Foster adoption is the least expensive type of adoption, usually involving little or no cost. States often provide subsidies to couples who adopt after being foster parents.

Living without Children

There are many ways to influence the lives of children without becoming full-time parents. Below are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer to coach for a girls' or boys' sports team.
  • Volunteer to teach youth for a local religious group.
  • Take a special interest in nieces, nephews, or the children of friends,
  • Volunteer for a Boy Scout or Girl Scout program in your area.
  • Become a Big Brother or Big Sister (see
  • Volunteer for a Learn-to-read program.
  • Volunteer in an orphanage in your area or in another country.
  • Volunteer as a tutor at your local school.
  • Volunteer to help during activities at a local school.
  • Teach youth about your career.
  • Volunteer to help with children at a family crisis center.

Written by Jeremy S. Boyle, Research Assistant, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Suggested Websites


Suggested Books

Buckley, B. (2001). The Greatest Gift: Reflections on International and Domestic Adoption. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts Book Co.

Wolff, J. (2000). Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother. Kansas City, KS: Midpoint Trade Books.

Johnston, P. I. (1994). Adopting After Infertility. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.

Nelson-Erichsen, J., & Erichsen, H. R. (2000). How to Adopt Internationally: A Guide to Agency-Directed and Independent Adoptions. Fort Worth, TX: Mesa House.

Adamec C. A. (1998). Is Adoption for You?: The Information You Need to Make the Right Choice. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Schalesky, M. M. (2001). Empty Womb, Aching Heart: Hope and Help for Those Struggling With Infertility. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House.


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