Welcome everyone! It’s week nineteen of the “On Being Childfree” blog series and I wanted to say a HUGE thank you for your continued support. Every week the post is the most read on my blog and I receive emails from people wanting to take part and DMs on Instagram that people are finding this so helpful. This week I’m delighted to welcome our eighteenth guest story, Danielle. Danielle is American, married to German, both serving in the military. She has very unique perspective on cultural responses when life throws a curve ball. Please do read, leave a comment and share as much as you can, I’m really willing this to grow and grow so that we can help as many people as possible who may be going through something similar.
We Are: Danielle, 44 and Markus, 39
Home Is: Saarland, Germany
We Do: I’m an emergency medicine physician and Markus is in the German military
“Du hast Wert ohne Kinder” – You have worth without children
Life can be strange sometimes with all of its twists and turns. The life I have built with my husband has certainly had its fair share of winding paths and roads diverged. When you are young, the way ahead seems so clear. But then life gets complicated and choices must be made. And then come the “what-ifs” and regrets. I find it fascinating how different cultures handle these choices and consequences. Walking down the infertility path as an American married to a German living in Germany has provided its own set of unique challenges. How we respond based on our cultural identity may be different, but the struggle and pain is universal.
Since my 20s, I always wanted to adopt. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have my own kids at that time. I got married in my early 30s and we talked about kids. Both of us were in the military and we spent little time living in the same location during our 4 years of marriage. I’m sure there are many reasons the marriage didn’t last, but by the time we divorced there weren’t any kids (biologic or adopted).
I met my current husband on my 3rd deployment. After we met in Afghanistan, he went back to Germany and I went back to Washington DC. Everyone thought we were crazy, but we stayed in touch and visited each often over the next 2 years. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. After I completed my obligated time in the military, I moved to Germany. Things were definitely complicated, but I had no idea how complicated it would get after the move.
My soon-to-be husband also had a previous marriage, but the split wasn’t nearly as amicable. I guess it never is easy when children are involved, but it turned out to be more than that. I walked with him and we cried countless tears, frustrated at the complete ineptitude of the family courts. The children’s lawyer and government child services completely support my husband seeing his children. It’s even documented in court records so that he can show his kids one day how hard he fought. But that is cold comfort, when there are no consequences when one parent violates court custody agreements. It seems surreal that this could happen, but we soon found out my husband’s story was all too familiar in the area where we live. I could write an entire book about the tragic path that led to my husband not seeing his kids, but the rest is his story to tell.
During this struggle, we finally decided to start trying to have kids on our own. We wanted to wait until a better time, but I was nearing 40 and, as often is the case, time was not on our side. We started looking into adoption in Germany, but also started trying on our own. We had no luck and consulted a gynecologist. Nothing wrong on his end and nothing wrong on my end – the dreaded unexplained infertility. We quickly went down the IVF route. We were happy to get 8 eggs, 7 fertilized, and total of 6 that would be transferred in the end. But no positive pregnancy tests.
We were heartbroken with each negative test, but not completely devastated. We still had adoption and we just assumed that was the path we were meant to take all along. We were registered through the German Foster Care/Adoption system. We met all the requirements and we were told that it would take about a year to be introduced to a child. Last December we got a call during the holiday season from our case worker. We were going to be introduced to a child!! There was a bit of confusion on the timing, but we would get another phone call mid-January when everyone was back to work. The call never came. We called our case worker and no response. After multiple attempts, we finally reached her supervisor and were told what we already knew. The phone call was a mistake. We were still cleared to receive a child and there was nothing preventing us from adopting, but as the months have dragged on without any phone calls from our case worker the reality is setting in.
The last 6 months have been devastating for both of us. We have spent countless hours searching other possible ways to adopt: going through an American agency (complicated living in Germany and very expensive), international adoption (less children being adopted internationally every year), private adoption (doesn’t exist in Germany). So many of us hate the phrase “why don’t you just adopt?” and this is one of the reasons why. For some of us, it isn’t the right choice. For others, it is just another gut punch that you have again failed to bring a child into your family.
My American friends have been supportive and amazing. I have a group of girlfriends back in the US who have carried me through so many struggles, even if it is a simple encouraging Whatsapp message. My mother and sister have held my hand from a distance. Nonetheless, I think we have all experienced the less than helpful responses and unsolicited advice. I have learned to be less upset over certain comments, because I know my friends have good intentions and it is really difficult to find the right thing to say. For me, the phrase “don’t give up” is the one that hits my soul the hardest. I’m tired and broken. My husband has suffered more than I can possibly imagine, yet continues to support me as I struggle to carry on some days. Our marriage has somehow grown stronger, but the disappointments continue to grow. And what happens when we stop trying? Does that mean we aren’t strong enough and have “given up”?
In the midst of this struggle, I took on the additional challenge of learning German as I knew that would be necessary to have any real connection to having German friends here. As my German continued to improve, my mother-in-law set up sessions so that I could practice speaking German with her. When I showed up for my practice session, we wondered what we should talk about. She showed me an article about how being in nature improves your health. That led into my own challenges with staying mentally healthy during this struggle. I don’t know why, but I told her I was sad because we didn’t have a child. She didn’t ask about the status of adopting. She didn’t tell me to keep trying. She didn’t tell me I could be a mother in other ways. She simply said “Du hast Wert ohne Kinder”. Those words I understood clearly. You have worth without children.
I’m not defined by having children alone. I have lived a remarkable life. I have served my country in the military, saved lives in the Emergency Department, and immigrated to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I have strength and courage that only has grown through this battle. This is how my German mother-in-law saw me. I’m not saying my American family and friends aren’t supportive of me and what I have accomplished. In fact, I think it is something that is almost expected in my circle, that we can at times forget to praise each other for simply being the great women we are every day. But there is definitely a different attitude towards women and having children (or not having children) between the two cultures.
In 6 years of living in Germany, I have been asked exactly twice by Germans if we are going to have kids. One of those couples who asked was also struggling with infertility. I think they already had some idea we were in the same boat when it came up. On the other hand, I have been asked by Americans living in Germany nearly every month about whether I have kids. I think it is often assumed that I have kids. And Americans like to talk about their kids quite a bit. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but I’ve noticed Germans don’t talk about their kids much in comparison. Now there are definitely the exceptions and I want to be careful not to stereotype. But one of my struggles is how will people react when they know we don’t have kids. In America, it can be difficult explaining why you don’t have kids. So I asked my husband repeatedly about how German women would react and he looked at me strangely. He didn’t seem to understand what I meant until he simply replied, “German women don’t care if you have kids”. He explained that they would care if you felt sad about not having kids, but they really don’t care if you made the choice, for whatever reason, not to have kids. I didn’t really believe him, but I’ve noticed that the fact that I don’t have kids very rarely comes up in my conversations with Germans. The few times I offer that I don’t have kids, there are never follow-up questions about why I don’t have kids. It is simply accepted that is what we chose.
Both my American and German friends have been supportive of me and I love them all dearly. Some know my story and some have no idea. I simply don’t have the words to explain this struggle to most of my German friends. But I’m now less inhibited in telling my story. I feel if we tell our stories, the stigma will eventually decrease. My sister doesn’t have children and she constantly receives horrible comments about being selfish for deciding not to have children. I find this so ridiculous, since not having children has allowed her to do many amazing, wonderful things (like starting an NGO for women cyclists in Africa). We will take different roads to our childfree life, but none of us should be defined by this or endure social pressures because our path looks different from everyone else. Eventually my husband and I will likely do what some see as “giving up”. But I see it as choosing a road less traveled. I like how Lins described it in her story: we are all childfree by choice. In today’s world, trying to have a kid through IVF, surrogacy, or adoption could continue forever. What can’t continue for us is the pain and disappointment. We will live a childfree life redefined. Yes, I will continue to hope that my husband’s children walk through our door someday. I might wonder if a child will come into our lives through adoption or another way. But right now, my husband and I will find our own happiness. We will have a happy home with our dachshund, friends, and family. We will soon become godparents and influence a young life. We will serve our countries and I may even save another life. The road will never be straight. And because of that we will never know what lies at the end. But the path we take is our choice – and I choose a path that serves others, brings happiness, and redefines what it means to have a fulfilled life!
Thank you so so much to Danielle for sharing her honest story as a guest poster and sharing her thoughts and views in this piece. As I’ve stressed from the very beginning, this is a warm, empathic platform for people to share their stories, hopes, dreams, fears. Please do read Danielle’s story, leave a comment if you’d like to and share this series if you know anyone it could help. Together we are making changes.