01 July, 2015

The next big thing

“My life is over.”
“What’s the point of living?”
“My life has no purpose.” "
"It’s all downhill from here."

These thoughts, or a variation, are common in those of us who come to face life without children. They are what I will call the first, transitional thoughts. It’s what we think when we are closing in on a final diagnosis or decision, it’s what we dread when we are in the midst of infertility, and it’s the view of the No Kidding door from Infertility's Waiting Room, and those first steps through it. So many of us really can’t see any joy in the life that is ahead of us. Maybe we don’t want to, because we’re still grieving, and feel that looking forward would be a betrayal of ourselves, and our losses.

But of course, time passes, and we walk through the door, and eventually into the light. Because there’s no other choice. Because human nature says that we adjust to our realities. Even if we don’t believe we’re going to get past this phase, we do.

The second line of thought  looks for the next big thing. “Well …” we say, wiping our hands of our lost dreams of parenthood, “what’s next?” I have seen this in many people. They feel that if they’re not going to make their mark on the world by producing children, then they need to do something else. Something big. Or that they have a big hole in their lives, and they need to fill it with something important.

I have thought this myself. I wanted to do something big, something different. I felt that our future was a blank slate, and that we should actively choose what we write on it. Part of this was fear. Fear that life as it had been would be too miserable without children. Fear that those initial, transitional thoughts would be proved right. I wanted to escape. Escape for me meant skipping the country, and going somewhere far far away. I looked at international language programmes, and imagined going somewhere where no-one knew me, and my non-parent state would be irrelevant. I was keen to plan a different life with my husband. I didn't know what we would do.  I just wanted to do something different, somewhere else.

You see, I think I thought I could escape the grief, escape the fear, escape the hard work of healing that I was going through. But if there's one thing I know now, is that all of that will come with you, wherever you are. I knew though, that I couldn't force my husband to do something he wasn't ready to do. I'd begged him to move to Bangkok in the early 1990s, and I couldn't do it again. Anything we would do needed to be a joint decision.

As it turned out, in that first year or two after my diagnosis, my husband had a new job, and I took on a new role as the Chair of the Board of Directors of a state company. Though I would have dropped the role like a hot potato if my husband had said, "let's move to <insert exotic location here> and let's go tomorrow." I got work as an independent consultant, and in due course I found enormous satisfaction from working as a volunteer online. I got my fix of travelling by trips to places I'd always wanted to visit, and managed to meet some of my closest online friends. It was a compromise, undoubtedly, but it worked for both of us. I'm sure my life looked as if it hadn't changed since before we'd tried to have children. But it wasn't the same. It felt different. Initially, as I was grieving, it was of course worse; but eventually, it felt better. Much better. The difference, I think, was in my attitude, my approach to life, my acceptance and understanding. Maybe that was wisdom that comes with age, or maybe it was wisdom that comes after infertility.

What I’ve learned, eleven years down the line, is that maybe we’ll find our next big thing. Or not. Maybe we’ll find our purpose and not even realise it for a while. Or not. Maybe we’ll find the next big thing and realise that it doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, momentous in impact or scale, to be important and of value. Maybe we’ll realise that living a good life is enough of a purpose. Maybe we’ll realise that there doesn’t have to be a next big thing. 

The interesting thing I find is that this is not necessarily the easy option. We might have to fight that yearning for the next big thing, and justify our lifestyle to ourselves. Or, we may have to justify our lifestyles to others. I’ve often heard bloggers and others complain that people think they should be doing something big, or travelling the world, or going out every night to the latest restaurants or clubs, or driving that red convertible or skydiving, to take advantage of that no kids lifestyle. They feel pressured to be doing more, to be doing something bigger or better. But why? Living a fulfilling, normal life – isn’t that enough? It should be.

Sure, maybe we are able to do things we wouldn't have done if we'd had children. My husband and I have travelled a lot, and we love that. But that was always going to be our thing, children or not. It's simply been easier without children. I wanted to be dramatic, and get a bright red convertible (convertibles are extremely uncommon in New Zealand), something that I absolutely couldn't have done with children. But you know what? I still don't have a bright red convertible. And frankly, I don't want one any more. I've never been skydiving either. (And I never will!) I'd still love to live overseas for a few years (I've always wanted to do it again), but no longer need to do it as an escape. Sadly, in recent years, elderly parents have made that impossible too. So I haven't found my next big thing, but I've found lots of satisfaction doing a lot of next small things. I believe that part of the fun of life is looking for that next big thing. For me it's the fun of the chase; the journey is more important than the goal.

If we find our next big thing that is great. But there doesn’t have to be a next big thing to replace having children. Life will fill up that hole, often to overflowing, with love and fun and new experiences and knowledge and people. Eventually, for me at least, it brought a sense of deep contentment. We don't have that gaping wound for the rest of our lives, we have rich, satisfying lives. Even if at first we couldn't have begun to contemplate that this would be possible, let alone achievable.

Update: See the next post for one last thought on this.


  1. This is a great post. I agree that somehow people think of raising children as the biggest thing they've ever done, and so if you're not going to be raising children, then perhaps you need to do something amazing yourself. Which is a lot of pressure and not fair. A life doesn't have to be bigger just because it's not shared with little humans. I am not a no kidder, or at least I am a temporary no kidder, but I get this. And now people keep telling us "what a wonderful thing" we're doing with pursuing adoption. Which is kind of untrue, because while it's wonderful, sure, we are not in it for the saving of children and the glory of being selfless saints. Far from it. People's expectations are weird. Live that life, it's a beautiful one, and as big as you want it to be. With or without kids.

  2. I absolutely agree with you and Jess. Too often, people assume that having kids = life satisfaction. And yet there is so much data that shows this is far from the case. Having kids doesn't make one more complete in life just as not parenting doesn't make one's life any less. It's all about the person and how they chose to live.

    Looking forward to hearing about your next big/small thing.

  3. Ohhhh, with your description of escape , to far away, i immediately remember my own 'plans': my big thing was going to an orphanage in Africa and cuddle babies. And I was going alone. I was so Angry that I did not even feel my relationship had any value(!) The existence of stepchildren had everything to do with that, I could not face a future where he had kids and I was on the side line.

  4. Yes, yes, and yes...I felt pressured to find the next big thing at first, but then I realized my world was so grey at that time and I was bleeding so much inside that I just didn't have the energy to do so. So what I did was try to find small things that brought me joy and that's helped a lot, especially over time as they've started to accumulate.

  5. I felt the same pressure to do something big. I also felt the same desire to run away. I did both by leaving my last job and putting all my focus on my current job. When I didn't get a promotion this year, I went into a level of despair that I've never experienced before and I know it's because I was dealing with double grief (no baby and no career at the level I wanted). I thought about running away from my current job and reinventing myself but like you say in your blog, you can't run away from yourself. Or as I say, "no matter where you go, there you are." Like you said in your blog, I'm trying to find joy in the little things. My niece shared with me her favorite quote is from Mother Theresa to help me: "We all cannot do great things, but we can all small things with great love." That has been my focus the past year. I will be 50 next year, and doing better, recovering. Your blog was comforting to read that I am, once again, not alone in this. Love your writing, please don't stop.

  6. Life being the next big thing is such a profound thing after infertility.

    I enjoyed reading your post about this and everything you say here is very true. I think I would be the type that says, "What's next?". I'm still in the trenches but I've been thinking a lot about this very thing as the time draws closer to closing that door once and for all at some point in the near future.

    There are a lot of things I never explored (but dabbled in a little) in my pursuit for a child and I know those things, whilst not big as such, are things I would very much like to explore further and deeper should it turn out that parenthood is not on the cards for us.

  7. This is so timely! I think I'm largely through the survival phase and I'm itching for the next big thing. I don't know what though. I've spent the bulk of the free time in my adult life focused on schooling and/or too broke to have hobbies. So now that I have both the time and the money I don't know what to do with myself.

  8. Beautiful ideas here, Mali, and in the comments as well (loved the Mother Theresa quote). I am reminded of a few eulogies I've heard recently here in the U.S. about high profile men taken too young. What stood out the most was the emphasis on their caring natures. Both were referred to as being a "good man" ... A seemingly simple concept but a very powerful one.

  9. Thank you for this. The idea that we must do something "big" with our childless lives -- whether that idea is self-inflicted or suggested by others -- has long been a bit of a pet peeve of mine. What's wrong with living a happy, ordinary life (if there is such a thing, lol -- but you know what I mean). The idea that we need to do something grand to 'compensate' for our lack of children really bugs me. If you want to, fine, but nobody should feel obligated.

  10. I really like this post. It comes at a good time. Thank you!

  11. I saw in myself the pursuit of the big, as I was contemplating the loss of something so huge to me as being a parent.

    So I love this: "I haven't found my next big thing, but I've found lots of satisfaction doing a lot of next small things." So wise.

  12. This was helpful, Mali. Though it's great and much needed on a level to hear that people come out of this well, it's not an easy concept to connect with while immersed in grief (as you pointed out). I often find myself in a tug of war between wanting a "next big thing" to fill my void and the common sense that nothing, at least at this time, will. And I grapple with my ego thinking it needs a next big thing to justify myself and the wiser part of me knowing I'm enough no matter what. For me it has been a bunch of untimely self inflicted pressure coupled with a lack of energy and caring - not doing much good for myself with that! This post really enforces the wiser and more realistic side of things as I continue to put one foot in front of the other.

    I love your amendment also. Surviving has become so normal to me I forget it is a big thing. And so is grieving well.

  13. So I just wrote a post about this very topic and BentNotBroken recommended I read this again. Yes yes yes! I'm glad I'm not alone in this, the pressure is certainly real. For me, it is a mixture of internal and external pressure, but mostly internal if I'm honest. I do try to take a lesson from my hubs, who has always known that he would be OK without kids and doesn't feel any need to fill up the void from our loss, but it feels like such a big loss to me. It is also, however, exhausting to always wonder what's next. For the first time in my life I'd like to give myself permission to just enjoy what is, but it's hard.

  14. Mali - It has taken me two months to come to this post after you commented on my blog. I just wasn't ready. Your insight is incredible! It has only been 3 years since we stopped trying to become parents, so I know I'm still in the healing process. I think I'm doing ok, then something happens that brings emotions back to the surface. The next big thing is grieving well.

  15. Hi Mali, sorry I'm commenting on an old post but this is brilliant writing. So interesting to read this after just finishing 21 Miles...
    You mention the key thing that I want to master, which is my attitude and my approach to life. I'm struggling slightly with this right now as a promotion application I made at work was just rejected. Generally status doesn't really matter to me and my job is by no means my life (it's ok-ish, that's all - I fell into it by accident) but I felt very demoralized this weekend. The old feelings of 'does having children console you in times of failure like this? What am I without a great job and without a family?' started to raise their heads. Common sense quickly quashed these thoughts, but they did try to invade my head. I remind myself that contentment is my goal: it's ok to not be a huge success (I don't want the stress that comes with that anyway!) and children are not a consolation prize (very selfish thoughts!!) - it's the way you look at your life that makes all the difference. So am currently counting all the good things and scaling back the workload considerably, which suits me at this stage, to concentrate on creative pursuits - there's the first advantage of not being promoted right there! Thanks for the piece - beautifully written.

    1. I'm sorry you didn't get the promotion. That hurts at the best of times. I think you're doing amazing. And I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.