Grieving our childlessness whilst embracing our maternal nature: a guest blog by Caroline Thurling

'Guardians by Ann Altman'
‘Guardians by Ann Altman’

Caroline Thurling is a counsellor, coach and consultant living in Australia. At the heart of all her work is helping people to be brave in thought, spirit and love – for themselves and others.

After a number of years coming to terms with involuntary childlessness, Caroline developed a tailored therapy that responds to emotional, psychological and social experiences unique to women who have become childless without choice.

For Australian women, Caroline is about to launch and roadshow her retreat program around the country in late 2016/2017. In an exclusive blog for Gateway Women, Caroline shares her story about her therapeutic model for helping women process the pain of childlessness: Involuntary Childlessness Therapy (ICT)

As Caroline writes:

Like so many of us, I was a ‘high functioning’ griever. I maintained a successful career, was reliably present at gatherings with friends and family, actively supported loved ones in need and, (ironically in hindsight), progressed my studies in counselling.

While a chosen few knew I was ‘sad’ coming to terms with childlessness, no-one knew the depths my grief was taking me or indeed where it nearly took me.  I began to question my sanity:  why do I feel “this” upset? I know women without children, they seem fine? Why is it just me that feels this way? Have I lost my mind – I shouldn’t be feeling “this” bad. Why am I here?

As a proud advocate of counselling it may be surprising to know that I resisted seeking help for over a year. I didn’t want to say out loud: I am childless.  That, to me, would be the end of who I believed I was – a mother. I desperately wanted to hold on to that and the idea of facing that well-worn term of ‘letting go’ struck a fear in me like no other. What would be left of me if I did?

Eventually when I did seek help – it didn’t work.   The therapeutic relationship is a two-way street and I tried as much as my two counsellors and one psychologist did, to explore and connect my sense of loss to a meaning so I could begin to heal.  The problem was not in the quality of therapy but in psychological and sociological theory – or put simply, my loss didn’t ‘exist’.  My therapists were left to borrow from a number of approaches that simply didn’t fit the complex experience of our sense of loss and grief.

Frustrated, lonely, angry, and deeply sad, a glimmer of my former self, my fighting spirit, muscled its way through. It sparked an unfamiliar belief in myself that I could help solve the missing link in therapy for involuntary childlessness.

With ninja-like commitment, I searched, examined and questioned it all – associated theory, the media, philosophy, research, counselling peers, friends, family, workmates, government….then I discovered Gateway Women.  Meeting my tribe was the focus and inspiration I was looking for.  All the research I had done began to crystalise from our shared experiences.

The epiphany

Our loss is real. What confuses and complicates it and in turn, exacerbates grief into psychological anguish, is the loss of our self-concept as mothers.  We are women ‘wired’ for motherhood whether actively conscious or unconscious. Our inherent maternal qualities are the DNA of our personality and behaviours.  That’s not to say we would all parent the same way, but rather we have a shared foundation to our identity – our reason to be.

The challenge for therapy is to carefully unpack and distinguish the loss of children while protecting and embracing maternal qualities.  Therapy needs these unique qualities to assist in healing and in the discovery of who we are without children.

Involuntary Childlessness Therapy (ICT)

At the heart of ICT is a belief that  engaging with individual maternal identity is crucial to recovery and self-discovery.  The therapeutic goal is to evolve a version of ourselves that unites existing maternal strengths within a new self-concept.   I like to call it: YOU version 2.0

It is an integrated process that draws on theoretical themes of loss and grief, identity, and social belonging. For my clients it means time, vulnerability, commitment and openness to self-exploration.

Marking and honouring loss

For many women, grief from involuntary childlessness is complicated by a sense of emptiness or inability to grasp a tangible meaning for their loss; a meaning they can articulate and share to be understood. In ICT, clients are guided to their loss and encouraged to visualise what they see and feel.  While the experience can be painful, under the guidance of therapy it is very safe and helpful to healing.

One of the most poignant experiences to be had in therapy is the marking of loss. This is a time to bring your loss into the open – whether privately or with others.  Clients are encouraged to explore ideas on how to mark their loss in ways that are unique to them.  This may be as simple as choosing to share the story of their loss with loved ones, or perhaps the creation of something symbolic of the loss such as planting a tree or creating a piece of art or jewelry.  Being creative with marking and honouring loss brings to life an authentic expression that is unique to each person and brings great comfort.

Creating You Version 2.0

Everyone has a default, dominant identity. It’s the driver behind our dreams, decisions, relationships – it’s how we interpret and react to the world around us.  However, what we’re less consciously aware of is that we can pick and choose a version of ourselves that can experience life differently. It’s one of the perks of being… a human being.

In this stage of ICT therapy, I encourage my clients to explore the qualities and attributes of their maternal identity and to openly share how that is experienced in their relationship with others and how it shapes their beliefs and perspectives of the world around them.  Here, we focus on qualities that provide them with resilience, strength of character and meaningful connections to others.

And then we set off on a journey of self-discovery. With our maternal strength and qualities to guide and protect us, we aim to find, an indeed be surprised by, other traits (potential or existing) we can nurture to become part of our version 2.0

Dealing with the ‘real’ world – better, brighter, braver.

Well, we all know it’s not that ‘real’…  Society and culture have a significant influence on the perspectives and experience we each have of the world we live in.  For the involuntary childless, navigating these worlds can be particularly difficult and painful.

We still live in a time in which woman means womb and with that, comes the expectation and guarantee that all women will have children.  This presents us with almost daily reminders of our loss and with it, a lack of empathy and understanding of how that makes us feel.

In the final stage of ICT therapy, the focus is on helping clients to become brave. It does this by engaging them in a number of perspectives about their relationship to the world around them.  Part educational, part therapeutic, it’s about gaining a deeper understanding of other motherhood beliefs, why they exist and how we can navigate them or challenge them, and in a manner that is true and authentic to our version 2.0

Caroline Thurling
Caroline Thurling

Caroline Thurling is a counsellor, coach and consultant living in Australia. She is childless-not-by-choice. For Australian women, Caroline is about to launch and roadshow her retreat program around the country in late 2016/2017.  If you would like to make an enquiry about the ICT retreat programs or individual counselling you can contact Caroline directly at




About Jody 82 Articles
Jody Day is a British author, trainee integrative psychotherapist and the founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women. She’s a founding member at (Ageing without Children) and a former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School. She's the author of 2016’s 'Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children' (Bluebird/PanMacmillan). Gateway Women hosts online communities, workshops, retreats, courses, social events and private sessions for childless-not-by-choice women. Jody lives alone in London with her cat, a stereotype that she warmly and humorously subverts.
Contact: Website

7 Comments on Grieving our childlessness whilst embracing our maternal nature: a guest blog by Caroline Thurling

  1. I’m literally drenched with tears after finding your website. To read everything I have felt and held in for so long, is overwhelming. Living your life avoiding people because you cannot bear the pain it causes is difficult. Especially when no one around you understands and tells you are ridiculous. They cannot understand, nor do they try to see how deeply sad and heartbroken that you are. Never being pregnant or holding the baby you have dreamed about is a lonely place. However I take comfort in knowing that I’m really not alone afterall. God bless you all.

    • My dear Lesley – I’m so glad you’ve found us. I remember that feeling of relief so well when the very first woman responded to the very first blog I wrote here back in 2011 – and the tears of relief too. Hugs, Jody x

  2. Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking, supportive and timely post. Interestingly I have just felt inspired (this evening!) to start a piece of writing about myself but in the 3rd person about my childlessness. It feels easier to write without judgement about someone else, and it feels lighter to do somehow than writing directly about myself.
    Thanks Jody for all that you do!
    Very best wishes

  3. This weekend my daughter who was “born sleeping” at 37 weeks of pregnancy would have been 18. I don’t have any other children (not my choice, but how it has happened for a number of reasons.) As I plan how to mark her anniversary, I am also reflecting on how hard the last 18 years have been and how much has had to be buried in order to continue with life.
    I agree with Caroline, that childlessness (and pregnancy loss) is so often borne in silence, while we present a competent and “all ok” image to the outside world. It can be very hard to find people who understand.
    I like the idea of connecting with my maternal energy and finding ways to celebrate it, even if I don’t have a child of my own. It allows me to be complete, instead of having to deny part of myself. The idea that I can still nurture, even without my own child is comforting and validating.
    I agree with Caroline, that it can be hard to find the right therapist. It’s complicated by the fact that, despite many commonalities , we don’t all experience our childlessness in the same way.
    It can also be hard because there isn’t necessarily a definitive end (hope can linger on for a long time despite the damning statistics).
    I hope this weekend to fully acknowledge my loss(and the idea of honouring the loss in this article has been very helpful), without the carrot dangling in front of me, of the redemption of a subsequent live birth to “make it all ok”. That carrot has dangled for many years. All the support at the time from SANDS took for granted that there would be another pregnancy and another baby and I have clung doggedly to that and I think it has prevented me from fully acknowledging the loss of my daughter and how hard it has been.
    Starting to make my way out of the tunnel, as Jody has called it, I find myself realising that life is bittersweet and I hope that by fully tasting the bitter bits, I can also allow myself to taste the sweet bits that are still there to enjoy. We don’t always get to choose what happens to us.
    I am really grateful for this group and the opportunity to write and have what I’ve written be read by some-one so thank you for anyone who is still reading. For me reading other womens’ stories has by far and a way been the best therapy. Realising that you aren’t walking alone. Thank you to Jody and to Caroline x

  4. Thank you Jody, Gateway and Caroline! Jody I swear we are sisters from another mother.
    You know by now I hope how much I, and apprecation you! And Caroline, KUDOS on a such a well expressed article. I personally relate to your experience, and the approach you describe in working with your clients around this issue so resonates with how I work with clients in my Holistic Psychotherapy practice in California. I hope we all stay connected and join forces! Only question is … which country and fabulous retreat center?

  5. Dear Jody,
    I am a 40-year-old brazilian woman, childless by circumstance. Forgive my mistakes. My English is not so good. I just want to tell you how enlightening your book and the articles here were/are for me. Thanks for sharing all the experiences. I can say that I am very happy to be nowadays a woman without children. In the end, not having children showed up as the best thing in my life. I hope other women who are suffering now can see that life can bring beautiful and pleasant things and moments, even if they don’t have their babies. I wish you all the best! Raquel Lima (from São Paulo)

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