When author Lorna Gibb found herself childless because of infertility, she began to seek out other people's stories. What she discovered was that nowhere in the world makes it easy for those without children

THE journey towards Lorna Gibb’s realisation that she was never going to bear her own child was a long, physically excruciating one. The kind of pain she experienced was of the type that, she says, in India, where it is attributed to ghosts and spirits, might be described as a “buffalo churning the uterus”. That was how it felt.

At the start of her book, Childless Voices, she tells one of the key stories in that journey. There she is, coming round after surgery for endometriosis, and she happens to eavesdrop on a young woman who is in the same ward. A surgeon enters and tells her and her husband, “It’s not good news, I’m afraid. It’s probably one of the worst cases of endometriosis I’ve seen in 20-odd years of surgery. The damage is extensive. There are multiple chocolate cysts and fibroids. I’m not surprised you’ve had so much pain. I’ve done my best, but I don’t think it will be enough.”

The book she has written is not just about her own experience of infertility, but of childlessness in its many different forms – from the voluntarily child-free through to those who miss out because they don’t meet the right person at the right time. It’s also about attitudes across the world towards those without children. For, as she points out, across the world, all societies are “pro-natalist”.

Why are so many successful women childless? None of your business

Childlessness, she says, was not something she saw coming – at least not until it became quite apparent what damage her endometriosis had done. The condition is a notoriously painful one, in which womb lining tissue grows in parts of the abdomen other than the uterus. “I think,” she recalls, “we thought it would be difficult to have a child but we thought it would happen eventually. Even through the first sets of operations, I thought we might have children. But then because endometriosis had done so much damage I had to keep having operations which was more depressing. You keep having them and there’s no possible good outcome from them. The only other turn of events was getting into menopause and the endometriosis just stopped – what a relief. Fabulous.”

Gibb, a senior lecturer in media and creative writing at Middlesex university, who grew up in Bellshill, the daughter of a factory worker and a cleaner, started writing about her experience of childlessness and infertility as a way of vocalising her own experiences. It helped her, she says, to write it down. But then, because she also found, as she visited and lived in numerous places across the world – India, Qatar, China, Sri Lanka, the United States – she “kept meeting people in similar circumstances” and started to gather their stories.

She was shocked to find that in the 21st century, in some parts of the world, there were women who “are completely cast out of their own society and not allowed to speak to anybody because they can’t have children. And nobody’s saying much about it.” In many countries people, particularly women, who don’t have children are not even considered proper adults – the arrival of the first child being considered the true passage to maturity.

“I think there’s a general lack of awareness,” she says. “There is an awful lot of talk in western society about how difficult it is if you’ve chosen not to have kids, and how discrimination works, but compared to everywhere else it’s not that bad. Yet the focus is always on that. It seems that they’re very loud voices shouting – and quiet voices are not being heard at all.”

What is striking is that for all Gibb is telling a story of personal pain, she is also someone attentive to her own good fortune, grateful for the fact that she does not live in a society where her entire personhood is dependent on her fertility. Hers is a story of adventure, as well as grief for a child not had, of books published, biographies of Rebecca West and the intrepid Victorian traveller Lady Hester Stanhope, cats loved, and countries lived in. “I had my infertility to deal with,” she says, “but I didn’t have all the other stuff that you might have in India or Bangladesh. So by luck of birth I end up feeling quite fortunate.”

One aspect of that good fortune is her relationship with her husband, Alan, which comes across as a tight glue, forged over years, from an early date where she passed out from pain from what would later be identified as endometriosis to him running around Budapest one evening trying to find sanitary towels during a big bleed. This is a journey she made with someone else – someone supportive. “My husband,” she writes at the beginning of one chapter, “is childless because I am”. She describes how amidst it all they found camaraderie. “It was us against it, whatever the outcome.”

They do, she says fight. Both have fiery tempers. There were hard times. But somehow they got through it.

Writing the book has, for her, been “a very positive journey” though much of that had already happened before she started to write. “The physical and emotional journey had taken place before I wrote it and I wanted to write something that maybe would help other people see that journeys could have good resolutions even in adversity. It sounds a bit glib because I’m not sure what that good resolution might be for someone in Bangladesh. But for western women in our very privileged position there can be a resolution of kind.”

Among those stories that most affected her was that of Sur, a young Indian woman whom she never met, but whose story she learned through her mother and brother. Sur had married a young man from a neighbouring village, through a love-match, and all had been happy but when she did not get pregnant, the pressure from her in-laws and husband, and her own expectations, became unbearable. She was sent to doctors, clinics, even a fertility shrine – and was increasingly abused and beaten by her in-laws, and regarded as being cursed. Finally, as her mother described to Gibb, “Sur climbed up a Neem tree on the edge of the woods with a length of rope. In the morning, as the village came to life, they found her hanging there, dressed in a pale blue sari, her body fluids already dried on the ground beneath her.”

Stories like Sur’s put in perspective the struggle of the childless or child-free person in western society, but also the degree of superstition that surrounds it. Gibb also relates tales of how the childless are excluded from society, almost treated as non-persons. Among these is the story of a “witches camp” in Ghana which is home to infertile women. Gibb, though she has not visited the camp, has read the extensive transcripts of interviews done by Yaba Badoe, for a documentary The Witches of Gambaga. In them, one of the interviewees says, “When a woman cannot have children, she is either a witch or victim of witchcraft.” The witch camp is, effectively, both a refuge and place of exile for the women, who are not allowed to leave without consent, but at least, there, are not subjected to the public humiliations, beatings, and threats on their lives that they experience outside.

It is not, however, easy for the woman or man who cannot, or chooses not, to have children in the west. Often, Gibb says, people would assume that she had chosen not to have children. Yet, in fact, according to one US study, only 14% of childless women have chosen that life path. “It’s tiny,” she says. “Voluntary childlessness is tiny.” The vast majority arrive at childlessness because of medical infertility, because they didn’t meet the right person at the right time, or because their fertility had declined.

There is an assumption, Gibb says, “that nowadays medical developments are such that infertility is not that common now, can be sorted. It’s not true. There are loads of women who want children and can’t have them. And because of the way society tends to edge towards favouring people who have kids in lots of small ways it’s quite difficult if you’re somebody who didn’t make that choice at all.”

This assumption that fertility is available to all of us, and it is simply a matter of choice, she says, is prevalent. Recently, she saw a post on social media, part of the transgender debate, in which someone said, “Rather than call us women, why don’t you call us people with ovaries?” “I thought,” she says, "That’s so bloody insulting. I’ve met lots of women who don’t have ovaries because they have ovectomies because of endometriosis or cancer and couldn’t have children. They’re suddenly not women. There’s this casual assumption of health.”

Over the years, she’s experienced many an intrusive question, many an inquiry about her childlessness that has stopped her in her tracks. The most shocking, she says, was asked by a woman who had just taken up the position, at the time, of her boss. “Bear in mind this was a university, quite an educated environment. She came to meet everyone in the department and one of the first things she asked me, ‘Oh so you don’t have children, is that by choice then?’ I thought that was incredible. It was a woman not a man and I didn’t know her at all. And it’s one of the first things she asked me. I was appalled.”

Now that she is in her fifties, she says, people have stopped asking her about her childlessness. “I’m clearly middle-aged and I think people sometimes think I probably have kids but they’ve grown up and gone away.” She would never ask a question like that herself. “It’s none of my business why they don’t have them. With someone I don’t really know I’d never asked.”

She also criticises media attitudes towards women who haven’t had children, citing a cover of the New Statesman which featured Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May and Liz Kendall, and asked, “Why are so many successful women childless?” She approves of Nicola Sturgeon’s response to that. On the day of that publication she tweeted with the line, ‘Jeezo… we appear to have woken up in 1965 this morning.’”

Gibb also slams a pervading attitude that people without children have less interest or less investment in the future of their society – and “that only people with biological or adopted offspring care about what happens after their life has ended”.

Gibb clearly thinks a lot about the future for today’s younger generation. She has godchildren, whom she describes with gratitude. “It doesn’t bother me now to hear about people’s children,” she says. “It’s interesting because I talk endlessly about my godchildren. I love my godchildren and I quite enjoy being around other people’s children now. In fact, I actually mind the reverse… if I’m excluded from things because I don’t have children. If people think, ‘Oh, that’s not for her, she doesn’t have kids.’”

She also talks a lot about caring. She comes up regularly to visit her mother, who lives on her own since her father died. The support she gives to her mum makes her reflect on what her own old age might be like. “I have my own fears of ageing without having a son or daughter. I think of how we try to support my mum. In more than five decades, I have only missed one Christmas with her, and that because I was working in the Middle East and didn’t have a holiday. We speak every day, many times a day. Without a child, if I should outlive my husband, what would my contact with the outside world be?

One of the things she also, through her book, hopes to encourage is what she describes as “an important conversation” around endometriosis, which affects one in seven women.

Often women have been living with the intense pain of this harrowing condition for many years by the time they have it diagnosed. Such was the case for Gibb, who says, “It was clear from the amount of damage when they discovered it that I’d probably had it from very young, probably my early twenties, maybe even younger, but nobody’s really sure. It wasn’t until I was about 27-28 that I started being very ill with periods.”

There is a misconception that endometriosis tends to be a disease of older women, she says, but in fact teenagers can have it. “Teenagers who are staying off school because they are ill with their periods can actually be suffering from endometriosis. But it’s incredibly often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed or ignored or dismissed. So one of the big conversations we need to have is how to make more people aware of this and that young people are being tested properly and being able to make decisions in a more informed way. If you have severe endometriosis your fertility window is possibly much much smaller than somebody else.”

Such was the pain that Gibb used to pass out during her periods every month, but, she points out, because of the low awareness levels, she had not heard of endometriosis till she was diagnosed.

But Gibb is not only interested in childlessness in women – she also examines the way that men, too, are subjected to sometimes extreme pressures, or in some way excluded.

For her, the book is about the state – of childlessness – not the gender. “It’s an issue for men too – especially because of the whole macho thing. You have your kids to prove you’re a real man. I quite strongly wanted men in it because it was about the issue rather than about a gender. Gender things are difficult now anyway.”

Childless Voices is published by Granta