Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb

People end up not having children for any number of reasons: medical issues, bereavement, a lack of finances, not having a partner at the right time, or the simple decision not to become a parent. The subtitle of Lorna Gibb’s Childless Voices acknowledges these various routes: “Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice.”

For Gibb, a university lecturer, biographer and novelist, the childless state was involuntary, a result of severe endometriosis that led to infertility and early menopause. Although this has been a source of sadness for her and her husband, she knows that she has it easy compared to women in other parts of the world. Through her research and Skype interviews, she hears horrific stories about infertile women who meet with domestic violence and social ostracism and are sometimes driven to suicide. In Ghana childless women can be branded as witches and exiled. Meanwhile, some are never given the chance to have the children they might long for: Gibb cites China’s one-child policy, female genital mutilation, and enforced sterilization programs like those of the Roma in Yugoslavia and the Quechua in Peru.

Gibb is admirably comprehensive here, considering every possible aspect of childlessness. Particularly interesting are the different cultural adaptations childless women make. Certain countries allow polygamy, giving a second wife a chance to bear children on behalf of an infertile one; Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa recognize ‘marriages’ between childless women so they can create a family and support system. In Albania being a “sworn virgin” is an old and venerable custom. And, of course, there are any number of support groups and online communities. The situation of those who were once parents but are no longer is especially wrenching. Stillbirth only started to be talked about in the 1980s, Gibb notes, but even today is seen as a lesser loss than that of a child who dies later in life.

The author believes there is societal injustice in terms of who has access to fertility treatment and how the state deals with childless people. In the UK, she characterizes IVF as a “postcode lottery”: where you live often determines how many free cycles you’re entitled to on the NHS. In the USA, meanwhile, fertility treatment is so expensive that only those with a certain level of wealth can consider it. The childless may also feel ‘punished’ by tax breaks that favor parents and workplaces that expect non-parents to work unsociable hours. In a sense, then, the childless contribute more but benefit less.

Chosen childlessness is perhaps given short shrift at just 32 pages out of 239. However, it’s still a very thorough treatment of the reasons why couples decide not to become parents, including cultural norms, career goals, self-knowledge and environmental concerns. No surprise that this was the chapter that resonated with me the most. I also especially enjoyed the personal interludes (all titled “A Short Note on…”) in which Gibb celebrates her feminist, childless heroes like Frida Kahlo and Anaïs Nin and writes about how much becoming a godmother meant to her but also of the sadness of seeing a good friend’s teenage son die of a brain tumor.

By coincidence, I’ve recently read another book on the same topic: Do You Have Kids? Life when the Answer Is No, by Kate Kaufmann (coming out in America next month). Gibb primarily traces the many different reasons for childlessness; Kaufmann mostly addresses the question of “now what?” – how women without children approach careers, wider family life, housing options, spirituality and the notion of leaving a legacy. Gibb’s approach is international and comparative, while Kaufmann’s is largely specific to the USA. Though the two authors are childless due to endometriosis and infertility, they feel sisterhood with women who never became mothers for whatever reason. I’d say these two books are complementary rather than rivals, and reveal valuable perspectives that can sometimes be overlooked.

My rating:


Childless Voices was published by Granta on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

12 responses

  1. The Gibb sounds good – I like the fact that she examines the cultural contexts within which childless women live, rather than assuming a Western family paradigm, as these kinds of factors will surely affect how women feel about even involuntary childlessness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you can tell there was a determination here to not be stuck within her Western mindset — her interest in other women’s experience of childlessness really began when she taught for a time in Qatar.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Laura. The cultural background to some of these issues sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How interesting, I agree, too: the cultural background sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like the look of the Kaufmann. Childlessness for reasons other than choice is obviously a huge topic but the real resonance with me, emotionally, is childlessness by choice, and then how your life can be shaped by that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m flabbergasted that in the UK you can get infertility treatments for free! Our health care system in America is so screwed up. It’s important that we explore and honor voices and lives of childless women no matter how they become so. I’m glad these books exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The National Health Service is wonderful! I’ve been benefitting from it ever since I was just a study abroad student here. Some Americans are scared of the term ‘socialism’, but when you experience an instance of it for yourself you realize that actually it’s no bad thing.

      I was really pleased to discover these books. They will be reassuring for a lot of people.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s easy to forget how easy most of us have it, even when we don’t think we have it easy. Imagine being ostracized for infertility!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely got the feeling that I’m lucky to be living in the West at this time and to have freedom and options.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds fascinating! I’m interested in part because I’m childless by choice and that does still feel like an unusual decision, but I’m also just interested in all the cultural norms tied up in whether or not people have kids for any reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d really enjoy having a look at this book. The Kaufmann will likely be easier for you to find.


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