Elegy in an English Country Churchyard

English Country ChurchyardJust recently I was on a residential training as part of my psychotherapy studies. I arrived at the venue, a gorgeous tumbledown old Abbey in the English countryside without having given the days ahead much thought – after all, I’ve been training with some of my fellow students for three years now. I had no real anxiety apart from whether the beds would be OK and whether I’d be able to sleep.

Turned out I was right to worry about the beds, but what did come as a great surprise to me was to feel my scar of childlessness touched anew.

There were no children present, but their absence was felt so keenly by the mothers and fathers in the room that the training room felt ‘full’ of children. At break times, parents would squirrel themselves in corners, or rush off in a pantomime of arm waving around the gardens looking for a mobile signal, eager to get the news from home, or to talk to their children before they went to sleep.

My sense of loss, as a childless, divorced woman felt vast. Once again, I felt shut out of the community – of women, of parents. I had a sense of a vast web of connections tethering everyone else to the earth, and of me, floating free, unconnected, un-missed, un-needed, unwanted. My early sense of being an outsider in this world came back to me forcefully.

Sometime, I wonder, will this sense of difference ever sit easy with me? I’ve acknowledged my loss, my grief, my difference, but here it is again… I just want to be ordinary, the same, like I did when I was a child and I wanted to be like the ‘other’ kids. For a moment, I let myself fantasize what it would be like to be a mother and to let that identity engulf me, erase me, consume me. It felt like a guilty pleasure, even as I knew it was a fantasy.

I’m bored with my internal world. I grow weary of the luxury of time and internal space to reflect on my life, on the meaning of existence. I just want to teach my child to ride a bike, or have them snuggle up to me as I read them a story. I want to nurture and grow something other than my resilience, my wisdom, my capacity to cope with the bald fact of my existence, unsoftened by a sticky hand offering me a drawing made at school.

The poet, the seer is always an outsider. You have to be outside in order to look in. You have to step away from the bright glow of the hearth and into the darkness in order for your eyes to adjust and see the context of this bright point of existence. Who keeps my home fire burning whilst I am away? No-one. I am mother, father, daughter, son, wife and husband to myself.

The Little Match GirlI know, I know… I’m wildly romanticising family life – but as a more or less only child (it’s a long story, and not really mine to tell) and having never met or known my birth father, I can easily let myself feel like the ‘Little Match Girl’ from the Hans Christen Anderson story, my nose pressed against the cold window of life, longing to be by the fire with the family, but knowing there’s no place for me. It’s an old feeling, and probably a fairly universal one, which is why the tale resonates with so many children.

And Dickens too understood loss. Exclusion. What it can do to you, if you let it fester and don’t integrate that loss into your being. Two words of warning for you: Miss Haversham.

So, one afternoon, feeling the need for some space to sort out my feelings, I went for a walk and found myself in that most quintessentially English place, an old country churchyard. The tombstones, shaded by yew trees older than the church, marked the spot as being sacred to the pagans before the Christians. In the churchyard, there were flowers on many of the graves, and I found myself wondering who, if anyone, would put flowers on my grave? Who would mourn a childless woman?

As I looked around the churchyard, it seemed that every tombstone marked the important relationships of each person – wife, husband, mother, father. My tears joined the grey drizzle running down my face – where would I be buried?  I thought, mournfully. Who would attend my funeral? What connected me to place, to the earth? Why was I still here, after all…

And then I found her. Under a yew tree. It was the crispness and modernity of her tombstone that first caught my eye. A different shape and material to those around it. On it, simply her name. Her dates. And one word: Sculptor. Unlike all the others around her. But in death, amongst them.

There have been others that have gone before us. And they have found their reason for being. For going on being. They have found their place under the sacred yew trees amongst all the all the mothers and fathers.

You have to look for us, but we have always been there.

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Next workshops in Brighton on 28th October, London 4th November, London 8/9 December & Dublin 19/20 January.

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Photo of Jody Day, Founder of Gateway Women (UK)Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women: an organisation she founded to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women to live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. She works with women who are still hopeful of becoming mothers as well as those for whom that time has passed.  She holds a certificate in integrative counselling and is training to qualify as an integrative psychotherapist. Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, and also offers one-to-ones for women looking to explore issues around identity, maternity & fertility. A Godmother & Aunt many times over, but never a mother, she speaks regularly at events and is always looking to share her empowering message with new audiences. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her at jody@gateway-women.com

For priority booking for all future Gateway Women events including further dates/locations for UK and international workshops and online groups, please add your name or update your details on the mailing list.

About Jody 93 Articles
JODY DAY is the British founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women, and the author of 2016’s 'Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children'. A founding and board member at AWOC.org (Ageing Without Children), she’s a former Cambridge Judge Business School Fellow in Social Innovation, a TEDx speaker and a trainee integrative psychotherapist. Jody takes great pleasure in helping childless women get their groove back and find their tribe via the Gateway Women workshops, social media communities and live social meetups across the world. www.gateway-women.com
Contact: Website

27 Comments on Elegy in an English Country Churchyard

  1. Thank you, this writing has brought me some comfort that I am not alone. How you describe it is just how it feels. Like looking through a window. I also often feel like I’m being held back while everyone else is moving forward in life’s journey. Every time a friend or family member announces a pregnancy, it quietly makes me feel like a freak of nature. Something that comes so easily for other woman is not possible for me. And it always feels much worse at Christmas. But I’m still hoping for the day when it will be easier to cope with.

    • Hi Lynn
      Feeling like a freak, an outsider is something all of us childless-by-circumstance women can relate to. I feel lucky that most of my friends have had their children now, although there are few ‘still hopefuls’ in their early 40s who I hope it works out for. I’m bracing myself for when the next generation gets going – my nephews and neices and godchildren – I’m sure the first one of those will take my breath away. But I’m not too scared, anymore. Having grieved my losses, I am a different, more tender-hearted, but stronger woman than I was before, and I know that I’ll cope, whatever life throws my way!
      Keep coming back and sharing your thoughts and feelings with us – it’s only by knowing that others ‘get it’ that we finally get a chance to do our ‘grief work’ and be healed, ready for what’s next.
      It is much harder at Christmas – it’s a perfect storm for us, it seems. I ran a webinar last night called ‘Coping with Christmas’ and I’ll be posting a blog soon with some thoughts to help us all cope till the New Year and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that another year’s celebrations of birth, motherhood, families and togetherness is over!
      I’ll be around over Christmas and New Year keeping an eye on the site and answering comments when I can.
      You’re not alone anymore
      Welcome to Gateway Women
      Hugs, Jody x

      • Thanks so much Jody. I didn’t take part in the web thingie cos I wasn’t organised enough.
        But it really helps me knowing that I am not alone in facing Christmas and all that means to those of us who haven’t been able to have children. For years I have felt that nose-pressed-against-the-sweet-shop-window feeling of missing out and it is great to discover you and your website. I spent an hour today talking to a friend who has just managed to have a child at 40 after many miscarriages, much pain and IVF. I am glad for her, but also really sad for me. All the royal baby stuff in the news is hard too. So good to know I’m not the only one. Why do people always assume not having kids has been a choice? And I loved your article about adoption – like you say, it’s the word ‘just’ that has driven me crazy for years! Thanks buddy, keep up the good work, love Claire

  2. Jody, I wanted to go into the screen and give you a big hug because so many of us have felt like this.
    No matter how hard we try to be brave and positive I think there are times for all of us when we really feel it and in that moment we struggle to be ok.
    Like many other readers of this blog I am always so gratefully to read your posts and it’s always a comfort to know that we aren’t really alone, even if we sometimes feel like it.
    I remember visiting my daughter’s grave ( she was still born at 37 weeks ) and finding another grave – of a little boy who died at 3 years old many years before. I suspect his parents never thought that years later some-one else would lay flowers on their son’s grave and feel less alone

    • Thanks Emily.

      I’m glad my blogs are a comfort to you, and to others. I felt very alone in that graveyard, until I found her. And it’s been a great comfort to me to find out that so many of us have had the experience of being in a graveyard and feeling the rawness of our childlessness. I was touched deeply by the image of you putting flowers on another child’s grave…

      The comfort of being understood, by all of you, keeps me going on those days when it feels hard, and on the days that life feels good too.

      Thank you xx

  3. Dear Jody –

    I love your writing, and your ability to share your feelings and ‘connect’ with so many of us struggling to find our place in this life. This post in particular is stunning, and has stirred up a whole host of questions in me…

    Why do women need to find a role which somehow will be respected even if it is without the usual accompaniments of children and husband? Is it really society that demands this, or is it our internal struggle as human beings to find meaning in life? Why is it that we tend to use this need for a title, for some way to fit ourselves neatly into a box labelled “mother”, “artist”, “career woman”, etc to justify why we are alive. Why do we do this? Why do we have the urge to be labelled, to be categorised? And why too do we fantasize about being artists? Is it because these strangely creative, ethereal people seem able to live outside the norms of society, and subsequently be forgiven for not being mothers?

    Don’t we have the same rights as everyone else, as men, as mothers, as children, to just live and ‘be’ who we are? I believe that it is our very differences that make our world so much more interesting and challenging, and it is in sharing and understanding those differences that make us better people, and equip us with the skills and the strength necessary to keep going. If only we could just stop comparing ourselves to our neighbours, because the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence….

    I don’t have any titles – I’m not a mother, a writer, an artist or a career woman – and I love the freedom that gives me, and the uniqueness of my situation. Yes, I find it hard without my own family, and I too feel the sense of loss and incompleteness at times. I have questioned myself on many occasions throughout my teenage and adult life – why am I here? what is my purpose? what is the meaning of life? For me, the answer does not lie in titles or roles or categorisation, but in strength, hope and desire, the knowledge and confidence to use them wisely, and the compassion to share them with those in need.

    • Hi Susie

      Thanks for commenting. I think you raise a point to which there isn’t a clear answer! I think to try and separate our ‘internal world’ from ‘society’ is not possible. We are products of our culture, and the ideology of that culture has (for good and bad) formed our values, along with those we learned from our earliest carers.

      One of the striking things about not having children in a culture that is so aggressively pronatalist as the UK is at the moment is that it causes us to stop and think about the values we have absorbed and take as being ‘natural’ or ‘right’ – and then start to realise that these are not ‘facts’ they are ‘opinions’, and that we therefore have the choice to discard them and choose other beliefs if they cause us pain.

      I love the idea that we can just ‘live’ and ‘be’ separate from all this, but we cannot. Even rejecting the culture creates an identity within is as someone who is ‘counter-cultural’. The culture we live in is like water to a fish. It’s just “there”. Can a fish live out of water? Or ignore it? No.

      The common desire amongst childless women to be an artist, sculptor etc is about the desire to leave a mark on the world, to show that we were here. It’s about what WE need to do in order to feel we exist, not just to satisfy the culture’s idea of our ‘value’.

      The search for meaning, which many people who have children never have to do, is something WE have to do in order to feel we have a foothold in this world. Some of us have that foothold through our work, some through our relationships. But we all need to create that foothold somehow. Or the title we end up with is ‘that depressed/angry/sad/lonely woman who never got over not having children’.

      And you may feel you don’t have a title, but you sound like a ‘free spirit’ and a ‘seeker’ to me 🙂

      We are given a title by others whether we like it or not. How do you think your friends describe you to a third party? Are you happy with that? The freedom we have as childless women is to choose what that title is.

      With love, Jody x

  4. Thank you yet again Jody. Thank you for opening your heart to us, for helping us feel ‘seen & heard’ & validated, for keeping it ‘real’ & for helping me not feel so alone on any given day that I look up your website, even though I’m miles away in Australia! often your psots help me in prcoessing my own childlessness & the assoc. grief. Thanks too ladies for your comments, these all help a lot too. Katie Beth, your writing here really touched me. With love & light to you all.

  5. Your style of storytelling, while the subject matter in painful, agonizing (for me, too), is so beautiful. I hope I get to arrange a similar tombstone, with “Writer” or “Poet” or “Artist” above, beneath or beside my name. Whether I will lie in bones or ashes underground is not as important as having someone — whether a relative, friend, acquaintance or a stranger — place fresh flowers, even if only one bloom, at my gravesite. Now, arranging to be buried beneath a yew tree might be impossible. Maybe I’ll get a plane tree or an oak. …

    Thank you for opening your heart to us, other women who are childless by circumstance. And thank you for inspiring me with each post.

  6. Jody,
    Even though I look forward to all of your posts as though they were Springtime, this one is particularly powerful, and I am moved to thank you for it. Like others leaving comments, your writing puts into words what I often feel and am only beginning to learn (in large part through you) how to recognize. But one thing has stuck with me from one of your earlier posts, and has troubled me since: you wrote that we have to live big lives internally, even if externally our lives are simple. That without children as our raison d’etre, we have to find peace but also interest in the life within. And when I read that months ago, I rebelled, thinking, But Jody, I’m bored with all the space and time, and frustrated by the internal pressure that I, too, should be a great sculptor or writer or cook or something because, as friends with children constantly lament, I have so much *time.” Somehow that space isn’t liberating when all one craves is to be tethered to place and needed by others. And that without children, and especially for those of us who are single, society just doesn’t give a care about what we do or don’t do. It no longer matters, so long as we don’t commit a crime. I’m spending the year in a research institute in France where the other fellows are with their partners and about half also with children. The men (there are no women fellows here with children, they all had theirs decades ago) say to me, “At least you have your evenings free to write, and we have to be with the children.” And I just die a little more each time inside, because I can’t tell them that what they find a burden is what I crave and will never have. It’s so hard to be excluded from so much of humanity. I’ve had my fill of contemplating life and meaning, and unfortunately find the sadness increasingly pushes me to try to numb the pain in unhealthy ways in the evenings. But reading you reminds me that this response is not the only once, and that there has got to be another path. Thank you, thank you for all you write and do for all of us in your situation.

  7. Thank you, I cannot tell you how much your article has struck a chord with me, you have basically covered all my fears and emotions that have been brewing up inside me of late. I have always felt an outsider looking in, right from childhood, all I ever wanted to be was ‘normal’ fit in, belong to some ‘club’, I thought that that would change as I became an adult, but of course never did. Thank you for making me realise that there are people out there in this same ‘place’…even if it is a lonely one.

  8. Beautiful blog, Jody. Mesmerising to read. I was writing something very similar in my diary the other night – that I was bored and tired of all the peace and the space. Enough peace. Enough space for myself. Give me some noise, some confusion! And I have exactly the same feelings in graveyards. They always move me. You’re not alone. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people, grown-up people and little people, who’ll lay the flowers the down.
    xx

  9. That was so beautifully expressed. I just wanted to thank you. I’m now 56 and think that I have pretty much come to terms with childlessness (gave up after IVF over 20 years ago and divorced some years later) but every now and again something penetrates the armour and I feel a sadness from something I feel I have lost but never actually had.

  10. It’s just such a relief to read your writing and remember I’m not alone in these feelings.
    It reminds me to breathe through it, and just hang on in there!

  11. You write so beautifully, Jody, I enjoy reading everything you share, but when it comes so deeply from the heart, it is extraordinary how much it reaches into the hearts of so many of us ‘out here’. This dropped into my inbox on a morning when I was struggling to feel the sense of my life, and shamefully envying friends of mine about to move to a ‘house in the country’, who seem to have everything; the story-book couple.

    Thank you for having the courage to share what’s happening in your soul, on good days and bad, and for your beautiful way of expressing it. x

  12. Jody, you have described exactly the images and feelings I have about not being a mother and feeling like an outsider looking in. On good days that can feel like an empowering and creative position, but on other days, it’s just plain lonely.
    I’m interested in the gravestone and the inscription ‘sculptor’ – how powerful. It brought to mind something I think you have written elsewhere, about the notion that if one is not a mother, there’s an expectation that one will have/should have done something else spectacular with one’s life instead…? (I might be imagining that and am certainly putting it into my own words.) I wonder what it would be like to have ‘woman’ underneath one’s name? How about ‘A good friend’?

  13. Jody, (and Carol) … thank you again for your wonderful words and opening your heart, and speaking from ours. I know it’s a cliche and yet I do feel like you are speaking for me, my own thoughts and appreciate seeing them coming from someone else. Seeing them on the page makes me feel a little less alone because this part of life does feel like such an isolating experience. Your timing is magic yet again as these feelings have been with me quite intensely this week for some reason…

    … and as you said, I often looking in through the window of a fantasy life, even when I am alone, and feel sad at that loss and seeming unattainability of a such a life. While I have friends who are mothers and grandmothers and know that their life is by no means a bed of roses and they also feel alone with some things, they do have those precious simple moments and even the everyday interactions with their families that bring that connectedness, that feeling of being part of something, which is such an important part of life.

    You explain so well that feeling of un-rootedness, that feeling that I may just float away, that really affects me the most I think. I realise I very much grew up with that feeling and it somehow is the deeper “source” of my childlessness and now curiously reflected by it.

    And I so get that feeling of being sick of living within my own head, it gets pretty boring in there and yet thankfully I notice I am spending less time in that room. Thank you for giving us hope and knowing that even in our aloneness we share that which makes it slightly less so.

    From this ray of hope I have reached out to other younger women, who still may have time to become mothers … and shared my experiences and feelings, prompting one at least to get help looking at her deeper issues while she has time.

    As well as all of us women (and men) who are in our situation, I have also been thinking more of all those children who are probably growing up right now with all those same thoughts and feelings and experiences and thinking how I and we can help them, how to offer love and support that will give them different experiences in life, and maybe even in doing so heal a part of ourselves that may have needed that.

    Thank you again Jody for being that brave a loving beacon and voice for so many, I know that life can surprise us all, we just need to be open to it. Finding Gateway Women, attending your workshops and meeting you and the other women has made such a difference!!

    • Dear Stella

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment – and such a beautiful and heartfelt comment too.

      Knowing that for you I am “a loving beacon and voice for so many” touches, helps and moves me. I’m not sure why the universe has chosen ‘me’ to express the painful experiences that so many childless by circumstance women share, but it is an honour.

      With love, sisterhood and a big hug

      Jody x

  14. Oh Jody, you describe everything that often worries, bothers, festers away inside my head, why am I still here, what’s my purpose, feeling shut out and isolated. The Little Match Girl was my favourite book as a child, I still have the copy of it from my childhood and admit to having read it on and off over the years and crying every time. Miss Haversham scared the life out of me! I have often wandered in graveyards reading the various inscriptions conjuring up imaginary families, where everything is absolutely perfect, as it is in real life…..not! Just to say I think one of the reasons you’re here on this earth is to shine a light into the lives of those of us, who whilst not mothers, are equally important in this world, we matter and whilst it’s a lonelier road to travel, many of us will find a path we would never have travelled if we had become parents, for me I cling to the hope that that path might just be to somewhere very special, I have to find it yet! Will keep the cyber-home fires burning for you because I for one (of many I’m sure) really look forward to your posts.

  15. Jody, thank you for this beautiful story. That simple image of the gravestone of the sculptor gives me so much hope. I hope whoever buries me has the sense to have writer/musician inscribed on it.

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