Unfulfilled desire to have children – A danger for mental health

It hits many people completely unexpectedly! The fervent desire to have children just won’t come true and the despair increases with every unwanted menstrual period. This is not a rare phenomenon – in Germany, almost every tenth couple between the ages of 25 and 59 is involuntarily childless. This gives an idea of the number of people affected, who are enormously burdened by stress, frustration and sadness. It is obvious that depression is also not uncommon in the course. Women in particular receive the advice again and again not to put too much pressure on themselves – then things will work out more easily. However, this plunges many into even greater distress, because the desire can hardly be dropped at the push of a button.

Does stress make you infertile or does infertility make you stressed?

This is precisely the question that is also gaining increasing importance in research. Basically, a wide variety of factors, such as a heavy workload or stress in the social environment, can make pregnancy difficult. Also the stress, which arises from a prolonged unfulfilled desire to have children in the first place, can negatively affect other, for the desire to have children significant, factors:

The hormone balance: Hormones regulate the monthly cycle of the woman and decide when ovulation occurs. Stress can upset this and prevent the development of a mature egg. In men, both the number and the concentration or motility of sperm can deteriorate.

The relationship: The disappointment and pressure of unfulfilled desire to have children in a partnership can put quite a strain on it. The feeling of being the cause can build fear of failure and guilt. Often the topic of infertility takes up an inordinate amount of space and the partnership suffers. Due to the mental burden, sexual desire may also decrease, which makes pregnancy even more distant.

The diet: Lack of appetite can lead to a less balanced and vitamin-poor diet. Also overeating and, in the worst case, obesity, especially in men, are not conducive to fertility.

The psyche: The feeling of no longer having the own life planning under control can quickly lead to self-doubt, feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. In the worst case, the psychological stress leads to a serious illness.

Importantly, the most current research does attribute significance to stressors as a cause of infertility, but not as seriously as might be expected. Extreme situations such as war are an exception. Stress resulting from an unfulfilled desire to have children, on the other hand, is considered much more far-reaching.

Effects on perception

The dimension of psychological stress factors in unfulfilled desire to have children is also evident in the changing everyday perception. Many affected individuals report that it suddenly seems as if all their friends around them are having children without any problems and that the streets are just full of families with small children and pregnant women. Every conversation and every remark about pregnancy and children is not infrequently experienced as a slight.

Family celebrations and meetings with acquaintances now become a threat because those affected experience themselves as outsiders and are afraid of conversations about their own childlessness. It is precisely this specific distortion of perception that often leads to a feeling of isolation. In some cases, a physical separation actually takes place in order to no longer be at the mercy of helplessness in various situations. All these thoughts and factors show how the initially joyful topic of wanting a child can at some point turn into pure despair and the lives of those affected become a burden on all levels.

Can an unfulfilled desire to have children lead to depression?

With the far-reaching stressors of an unfulfilled desire to have children, it is not surprising that mental illnesses such as depression can also develop. Women in particular are the ones who suffer here, as when they fail to conceive, it is more often assumed that the cause lies with them and they are subjected to more pressure. Likewise, some medical causes that lead to a lack of pregnancy, such as the PCO syndrome, favor the onset of depression.

Infertility treatments are also linked to them precisely because of their frequent side effects, according to a large number of studies. The culprits are the induced hormones, which have been shown to worsen mood. Especially with lengthy treatments, the fear usually becomes more and more real that one may never have biological children and that the life plan one has imagined all these years will thus never come true. Following symptoms may occur in depression triggered by unfulfilled desire to have children:

  • Severe decrease in zest for life
  • Permanent circling thoughts about the desire to have children
  • Small tasks are suddenly incredibly draining
  • Lessness of interest and loss of interest dominate daily life
  • Diminished self-esteem, feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  • Very low ability to concentrate and pay attention

The importance of one’s own childhood

The question “Why?” is also raised at some point by those affected. Many counselors advocate a connection between deficits of one’s own childhood and the unfulfilled desire to have children. “Unconsciously, people refuse to get pregnant because they themselves were never accepted by their own parents” or “Feelings of inferiority from childhood prevent pregnancy. I am worth less and not good enough as a parent”. Those affected also often hear that they are not yet ready for parenthood.

These are precisely the assumptions that lack education, as only a small percentage of fertility disorders are truly purely psychological. There is also no evidence that people with an unfulfilled desire to have children have poorer relationships with their own family. In the desperate search for explanations, blaming and psychological self-justification can tend to make people depressed and angry. The following questions, however, can shed light on whether family psychological difficulties influence the way people deal with childlessness:

What does family mean to me? What image of pregnancy and birth have I been taught? What is the importance of a child for my self-confidence? Is childlessness so bad for me because I hope to be able to heal with a child mental injuries of my own childhood? What changes are possible even without a child?

The answer to the questions is not always easy. But by addressing them, there is hope to better know their own desires and needs. If there is the impression that previous experiences negatively affect the handling of childlessness, professional help can be sought. Little esteem for or a lack of caregivers cause an unstable self-esteem and perhaps the worry of not being perceived as an adult person without a child.

There may also have been an imprinting that one’s identity and destiny is largely seen only as a mother, rarely as a father, or affected persons may expect that children will improve their relationship with parents or in-laws. However, one should not begin to consider whether the unfulfilled desire to have children is triggered by negative childhood memories, as this is not the case for the vast majority of those affected.

Relief through psychotherapy

Not only in terms of accepting  one’s own childhood, but also in the case of depression and other mental illnesses that have arisen due to the unfulfilled desire to have children, professional help in the form of psychotherapy can be useful. Especially if affected persons have increased problems to cope with their everyday life and the quality of life is strongly limited, this support should be considered.

Psychotherapy offers a protected setting where feelings and thoughts are given space by an independent person and ways out can be found together. Likewise, a stressed couple can receive support through therapy and strengthen the relationship together with the therapist. The goal is, among other things, to try out new ventures and to set goals again outside the desire to have children in order to find joy in life again. What psychological support can also do:

  • Decision support regarding individual medical treatment steps
  • Processing sexual dysfunction
  • Supporting acceptance of a physical disorder that may not be treatable, as well as assistance with lifestyle changes that may be necessary
  • Learning relaxation techniques

Even if the mental burden seems unmanageable and despair as well as hopelessness determine everyday life, there are many therapeutic offers to support those affected. Also the visit of a self-help group can give support in addition to the classic individual or couples therapy.

    • Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth: https://www.bmfsfj.de/bmfsfj/themen/familie/schwangerschaft-und-kinderwunsch/ungewollte-kinderlosigkeit#:~:text=In%20Germany%20is%20almost%20every,couple%20required%20to%20receive%20medical%20assistance,

accessed on 04/22/2022

  • Wischmann, Tewes; Stammer, Heike: The dream of having your own child. Psychological help with unfulfilled desire to have a child. Stuttgart, 2017.

Categories: Depression Therapy

Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether
Ärztlicher Direktor und Chefarzt Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether
Dr. med. Kjell R. Brolund-Spaether ist renommierter Facharzt für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, bei dem stets der Mensch im Mittelpunkt steht: Dank seiner individuell abgestimmten, ganzheitlichen Behandlungspläne verbessert und personalisiert er die psychiatrische Versorgung kontinuierlich. Seine umfassende Expertise in der psychotherapeutischen und medikamentengestützten Behandlung erlangte er durch sein Studium der Humanmedizin an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel, spezialisierte Weiterbildungen sowie seine langjährige Erfahrung in führenden Positionen. Seit 2019 ist Dr. med. Brolund-Spaether als Chefarzt und seit 2023 als Ärztlicher Direktor der LIMES Schlosskliniken AG tätig. 2024 trat er unserem Vorstand bei.

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