Not having children can be a quiet sadness that is always there in the background. Because it is so much bigger than becoming or being a mother. It hits in different phases of life. When your friends have children, or grandchildren, when their children graduate or get married, or when your own mother dies. These are the moments, when you can feel isolated and lonely. Childlessness might be more or less accepted in Western cultures, but in a lot of countries it is not and in some it is still a taboo. What is the impact of (unwanted) childlessness while living abroad?

I live in California and always envisioned my life with children. Due to a series of unpredictable events, this never happened. This is my story.

My California Framily

A conscious but unconscious decision

Did I experience difficult and emotional moments? Absolutely! Will there be more in the future? Without a doubt. But even though I am not a mom I still have a rich life with children. Not my own children, but my friends’ children. I never feel I am being judged or threated differently because I don’t have children, and live a life that is not normal in the eyes of some people.

I was 30 when my boyfriend and I moved to California for Philips. We had been together for more than 7 years and owned a house back in the Netherlands. The next steps in our life were pretty clear. Moving to California for 3 years felt like the perfect opportunity and the perfect timing before starting a family and settling back home.

However, life does not always go according to plan. Our American adventure ended up not being what I had envisioned and planned. Moving to a different country is challenging. You leave behind all family and friends, everything that is familiar and the support infrastructure you have taken for granted. It is a big jump into the unknown. The only thing familiar is the partner you are moving with. So this means you are more than ever relying on each other. During that first year, when we were so dependent on each other, I realized we didn’t have the same dreams and ideas. It took a lot of deep soul searching before I finally made the decision. It was better to break up now, then some time in the future with kids in the mix.

I still hear my mother say “but you are 31, what if you do not find somebody new soon? You might never have kids.”

Although I had always wanted kids and still wanted to be a mom, I realized this was a risk I had to take. Staying for that reason, was not the right decision. So leaving my boyfriend was a conscious decision. However, it was not a conscious decision at that time not to have children.

A new life, alone, in a new country

Here I was, alone in a new country with hardly any friends. Should I stay or should I go, that was the first question. That summer, I had just started a new, fun and challenging project in Philips. So I decided I would give it a year. A year to give myself a chance to proof myself in the tech world of Silicon Valley. Also a year to build a new life in California.

Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was destiny. I still wonder what would have happened to my life if not for that first Thursday night in an Irish pub in Sunnyvale. A colleague told me he and several other expats, were meeting there every Thursday night. What better place to meet new people.

Full of doubts and second thoughts, I walked into Fibbar MaGees in Sunnyvale on that Thursday night in October.

My colleague Ronald immediately introduced me to his coworkers, mostly Irish. At that moment, there is no way I could have predicted that some of these people would be my California family more than 20 years later. Nor that I would become an auntie, surrogate mom and big sis to their children.

Life offers many choices

I do not believe in perfect lives, perfect people and perfect families, who have everything they always wanted. Happiness is not something magical that just shows up like in fairytales. We all have choices, some are big life changing choices, some a series of smaller choices. In the end they determine our path and our happiness.

After leaving my boyfriend and starting over, I realized that I am the only one responsible for my own happiness. Life isn’t fair and you don’t always get what you want or think you deserve. And when life gets hard and you are down, you have two choices. You can feel sorry for yourself and blame the whole world, or you can pull yourself up and consider what options you have to be happy again and create a life that is worth living.

When l left my boyfriend and after the pain and sadness started to ease, I still thought and hoped that I would find somebody new and my dream of having kids would still come true.

My next relationship ended after a couple of years, which made me realize that the chances of becoming a mom were getting slimmer. I was in my early forties by then and was living a wonderful life. Several years earlier I had left Philips and started working for a couple of Silicon Valley start-ups. A consequence of that was that I was working dog hours for a couple of years with not a lot of time for dating. That was a conscious choice. I wanted to proof I could be successful in the Silicon Valley Tech world.

But despite the hard work and long hours, I was also living a great life: financially independent and traveling a lot, I met a lot of interesting people all over the world. I still had my fantastic group of friends in California. Most of them were married by then and had kids. Although interested in finding a new partner, it was only if it would add something to my life, not just to be in a relationship and maybe a chance to have children.

No children became a conscious decision

At some point I started considering all options that would make it possible to have children. I did not want to wake up some day in the future, realizing I had missed the boat without having consciously evaluated all my options. Initial discussions with my doctor about getting pregnant via a sperm donor. But already having high blood pressure, the potential of a long period of bedrest during pregnancy and with no direct family here to support me, made me decide against that.

I then started the adoption route. Pretty far in the process of adopting a child from South America, the agency realized I was not a US citizen. Apparently, that is a requirement to adopt foreign children. So, another door closed. When doing research on adoption within the US, I found out that in the US, a mother has up to 6 months after giving up her child for adoption, to change her mind. This is great for the birth mom, but not so great for the adoptive mom, who has maybe waited for a child for years and then has to return the baby to the birth mom.

I have seen what a drama this can be. A friend of a friend had been going through the adoption process for years. She finally got her child just before Christmas. It was the best present and the most wonderful Christmas for her. However, right after Christmas the birth mother decided she wanted her child back. It was incredibly sad to see what my friends friend had to go through. I realized if this would happen to me, how hard it would be emotionally and I wondered if I would be able to get over it. This was the moment I realized that the decision not to pursue a domestic adoption, was also the conscious decision that I would never have children. It was a very emotional and difficult moment.

You realize that this big dream will never come true and a door is closed forever

Auntie, surrogate mom and big sister

Most of my California framily has kids. I have known them since they were born. For some, I was one of the first ones to hold them after the parents. That’s creates a very special bond. And although I don’t have kids myself, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to be part of my friend’s kid’s life. On the contrary. Although I had to make sure people knew. In the early days, some friends would only invite friends that also had kids to kid’s birthday parties. Maybe because they thought it would be too painful or maybe an obligation they would rather not have. And for some people that is true and that is fine. Not for me though.

I truly enjoy my time with the kids, celebrating birthdays and communions, attending school events, sport games and theater performances. We go hiking, camping and skiing.

One of my friend’s kids calls me her “big sis” and one Mother’s Day, she sent me txt that said “happy Mother’s Day. I know you are not my mom, but you almost are”. Another daughter introduces me to her friends as “sort of my mom’s sister and my auntie”. I never for a moment feel excluded or different and I am happy I am part of their life and can be a role model and a person they can talk to if they need, especially for my friends’ daughters.

What is normal? What defines happiness?

Of course, I have been lucky in my journey through life and where I am today. What if I had not gone to the Irish pub on that Thursday night? I might not have gone to Yosemite that weekend with that group of people and might not have found my Californian family. You have to be open and believe you can force your own happiness by believing in it and yourself. Somebody ones told me “if happiness knocks on your door you better open that door and let it in”.

I have accepted the fact that I do not have children of my own and I have also learned not to apologize for it. The norms and expectations in our society are still very traditional in a lot of places: women are expected to get married and have children. But that is not necessarily the path for every woman. Somebody ones asked me “when are you going to live a normal life”?. My question back was  “what is abnormal about my life?”.

And that is exactly the point: what is normal? We still live by old values of what we believe is normal and creates a happy life, but why can we not add new lifestyles to those values? The world evolves and so should we.



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