As dawn was breaking over London on UK Mother’s Day morning, I was on my way to one of London’s most iconic churches: St Martin in the Fields on Trafalgar Square to take part in their Mothering Sunday service being broadcast live on BBC Radio4. As my black cab passed under the shadow of the iconic lions, a big lump came up in my throat. I remember the young woman I was who, aged 19, stood in a then rather grubby Trafalgar Square and protested against apartheid in South Africa, or who slumped exhausted against those same lions as dawn broke after a long night of revelry. In all the futures I imagined from myself, none was to be chosen as a representative of the millions of childless women in Britain on Mothering Sunday, and at the age of 51 to speak my own words in one of its most hauntingly beautiful churches.
The life unexpected? You bet!
The service was simple and moving and we heard from a foster mother who has taken care of many children over the years, some staying for three days, some for three years, and in particular, her experience of giving shelter to refugee children. The Revd. Dr. Anna Poulson spoke movingly of her now-deceased three year old daughter Lydia, born with a rare life-limiting condition. And I spoke of the pain of being childless on this day. After the service, a man came up to me from the congregation: ‘I’m a childless Dad’, he said, ‘that meant a lot to me too’. Women, mothers or not I don’t know, shook me warmly by the hand and looked me more deeply in the eyes than I expected.
We had a rehearsal at 6.30am and the piercing high-notes of the pure sopranos pierced my heart. Do listen to the broadcast if only to hear St Martin’s Voices. I was glad to have a chance to get my tears over with early!
Thank you too to the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells for inviting me, for thinking of us. After the service he said to me, ‘So many people have told me that this a day when they can’t bear to come to Church’. I was very moved by his compassion for those of us who stand outside the norm, and who struggle with Mother’s Day. Thank you to the BBC Producer Katherine Longworth whose confidence and support helped my nerves. It was a big deal doing this: for me, but most of all, for us.
Here is the text of my ‘testimony’. I had wanted to include a mention of all those who struggle with Mother’s Day because of family difficulties, estrangements or because their Mother has died. But there wasn’t enough time for that. But I know it’s a big issue for many of, whether we are mothers ourselves or not, and it’s not one that Hallmark are planning a card for anytime soon…
Mothers in Our Hearts by Jody Day
Besides Christmas, Mother’s Day can be the most difficult day in the calendar for women who aren’t mothers, or aren’t yet mothers and doubt that they ever will be. Whether you are a couple struggling with infertility, or one of the many women who have been unable to find a suitable partner before your childbearing years draw to a close, or if you haven’t had children for one of many other reasons, Mother’s Day can be very raw indeed.
Perhaps it would help if we could extend the idea of ‘mothering’ to include all those women who are mothers in their hearts, but aren’t biological mothers. To think of ‘Mother’ as a verb, not a noun, as something you do rather than something that you are.
Women without children are twenty percent of the female population aged 45 and over, but our stories aren’t often told, our experience isn’t honoured and our contribution to the lives of others is often underappreciated. We listen patiently to mothers’ delighted talk of their children, and grieve privately that we will never know that joy: first days at school, graduation, perhaps marriage and even grandchildren; a lifetime of photos we will never add to our albums.
We non-mothers hide in plain sight, often hungry for empathy, fielding questions of the most intimate and personal nature which seem to come from all angles. But if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that we are those good women around you who make up that ‘village’ it takes to raise a child, to create a community, to sustain a safe and civil society for other people’s children to inhabit. And we do so gladly, willingly.
So, perhaps next time you meet a couple without children, hold back your natural curiosity about when they’re going to start a family. Or when meeting a single, middle-aged woman who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have children herself, try to see past the social caricatures and instead see the individual woman in front of you, one doing her best to live a life she, perhaps, didn’t expect, and doing so with dignity. If she has a cat, so what? Plenty of mothers do too…!
This Mothering Sunday, let compassion open your heart just a little wider to include all of those who long or longed for motherhood. Although we grieve in private, we are all around you.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children’ (2016, Bluebird/PanMacmillan). She set up the Gateway Women in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women (like herself) as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. Jody runs private sessions, workshops and retreats for women coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them as well as free private meetup groups in the UK & Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. She speaks and writes regularly about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today and is becoming known as ‘the voice of the childless generation’. For more about Jody and Gateway Women, click here.