Gateway Women was 5 years old yesterday.
It was on 5th April 2011 that I published my first blog here, reaching out blindly to the world in the hope that someone (even just one person) would have some kind of clue as to what I was going through as a divorced, single, infertile, childless women in her mid-forties, wondering what the hell had happened to my life! I was almost 46 and had been trying to get my head around my childlessness since I was 44 (yes, I held onto to toxic hope that long) without much success. I’d been blogging on other topics for a couple of years and had found that addressing my words to an invisible audience ‘out there’ had helped me to clarify my thinking in a way that journalling never had, so I decided to start a new blog called Gateway Women specifically to write about childlessness. I actually had very few expectations that anyone would read it, as so far trying to engage people on the topic had been met with disdain, disinterest, disbelief and a collection of bonkers ‘miracle baby stories’ that would defy even the authors of the hideously unhelpful book ‘The Secret’ to top.
As I’ve learned SO MUCH in the last 5 years myself and from you, I thought I’d have a go at distilling it down to the five most important things. Here goes:
1. You are not alone
Although 5 years ago I was, as far I as I knew at the time, the only involuntarily childless woman amongst all my friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, complete strangers, etc, through my blog I discovered that although we were mostly silent on the internet, there were a great many of us.
To put childlessness into a global context, the 2013 United Nations Fertility Report states that since the UN’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the number of low-fertility countries (with 2.0 children per woman or fewer) has increased from 51 to 70. Within those countries, childlessness amongst women aged 40–44 has increased across Europe and Eastern Asia, with five countries now having 1 in 5 women remaining childless, a statistic unknown in 1994.
In the UK and Ireland, 1 in 5 women have turned 45 without children, and it ranges across the developed world for example from 1 in 3 (Japan, Germany), to 1 in 4 (Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Singapore) and 1 in 5 (Spain, The Netherlands, Canada, until recently USA). The countries with the lowest rate of childlessness (at around 12 percent) are France and Sweden, due to hefty financial and structural state support for fertility treatments and childcare. As childlessness data includes both childless-not-by-choice and childfree-by-choice women it’s hard to get an exact picture of our numbers, and this important distinction has yet to be recognised in census data. However, a recent meta-analysis of international data by Professor Renske Keizer estimates that childfree-by-choice women make up only 10% of the number of women without children, although other estimates vary. (For more detailed analysis of these figures, see chapter 2 of my book).
When I found out it that 1 in 5 women in the UK were childless, my first thought was, well where the hell are they all then?! I had never come across any (although I knew a couple of happily childfree friends) neither in person, nor in the media. In novels and films, childless women were portrayed as neurotic or evil; call to mind Glenn Close’s ‘bunny boiler’ character in Fatal Attraction, Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians or even the still culturally present ‘Miss Havisham’, portraying single childless women as unhinged, selfish and not safe to be around children (included her adopted daughter) since Dickens dreamt her up in 1861’s Great Expectations.
Five years on, and Gateway Women has a ‘reach’ of almost 2-million women around the world and my personal and professional life is full to busting with wonderful, wise, funny, creative, soulful, courageous, compassionate, kind childless women. We have a vibrant private online community and meetup groups around the world in the UK & Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I’ve just calculated that I’ve worked with almost a thousand women personally in my workshops and private sessions alone!
Meeting other childless women first online in the comments and conversations on our blogs, and then in person, and being able to have the kinds of conversations that no-one else would let me have without interrupting me with bingos such as: You’re lucky – children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or, What are you worried about? You’ve still got time!, or any variety hereof that we all know so well, was a lifesaver. And I don’t use the word ‘lifesaver’ lightly – the pain I was in over my childlessness was the most intense I had ever experienced in my life, and I’d already dealt with a great deal of life trauma, from infancy onwards…
2. You absolutely can and need to grieve for the children you’ll never have
I started training to become an Integrative psychotherapist in 2010 (I’m still going, such things take a very long time!) It was during my second year, on a course about grief, that I understood, for the very first time that what I was experiencing was grief. Neither doctors, therapists nor anything that I’d found on the internet had suggested that being childless involved grieving for my longed-for children. It was a huge relief to me immediately for two reasons: (a) I knew that this meant that I wasn’t going crazy, which had been a serious worry as I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t ‘pull myself together’, and (b) although I had no idea how it would happen, grief was finite, it would eventually came to an end and somehow I would recover from this. I didn’t have a clue how yet, but for the first time I had an idea what I was dealing with…
When I started writing about grief on my blog, my realisation also helped other women name and own their pain, confusion, anger, envy, jealousy, withdrawal, depression and despair as grief. And so I started reading and studying as much as I could about grief, and how to tackle it. I didn’t yet realise that grief doesn’t really respond to being ‘tackled’ but it was a good place to start! In time I came to understand that grief is an emotional, physiological and psychological process that some days doesn’t make much sense to a left-brained, list-making way of dealing with life. In fact, befriending my grief with self-compassion (and befriending my wounded heart) opened up a whole new way of being in the world for me, one of tenderness and vulnerability that I didn’t really know I possessed. And in doing so, others wanted to know how I’d done it, and so the first Gateway Women groups and workshops were born, just to see if it were possible for me to share my experience in a way that would be useful for others. My first groups were in the Autumn of 2011 and I then translated that into the Reignite Weekend workshop which began in July 2012 and has been running quarterly ever since. Sharing my experience of ongoing healing with others, and then supporting them as they used it as a guide to their own healing has been, and continues to be, one of the most beautiful and profound experiences of my life.
3. Shame is the thing that keeps us from healing
One of the things that I didn’t realise when I started this blog was that childlessness is a social taboo. In our culture, it’s currently shameful to be childless, and shame functions as a social ‘silencer’ making it shameful to talk about and shameful to experience, and in effect can leave us with the feeling that the ‘reason’ we are childless is that not that things didn’t work out for us, but that there’s something fundamentally ‘wrong’ about us. It also makes it difficult for people who might otherwise want to support us to talk to us about our childlessness, as they fear ’embarrassing’ us by discussing it.
Perhaps because I’d already been part of Al-Anon (the 12-step programme for friends and families of alcoholics) and had seen the power of opening up about things that we’re conditioned ‘not’ to talk about, I’d already seen the power of shame-busting, and so felt able to be open about my childlessness? I genuinely didn’t think it was my fault, or that there was something wrong with me as a human being because of how it’d worked out for me. I had a vicious Inner Bitch at the time who used give me hell about every other aspect of my life, but somehow in this one area, although I was desperately heartbroken, I still felt that a lot of it had been down to bad-luck, bad-timing and bad choices in relationships, as well as unexplained infertility. If I’d have felt shame around it, it’s unlikely I wouldn’t have persisted in trying to talk about with people who really didn’t want to hear it, eventually choosing to take it online instead! And by not being ashamed of my childlessness, it’s given other women permission not to feel ashamed of theirs. It’s a virtuous circle of liberation with each women who stops being ashamed liberating those she then comes into contact with…
Shame is different from guilt, because guilt tells us that we’ve done something wrong but shame tells us we are something wrong. Working with childless women over the last five years, and trying to encourage women to meet in person, I’ve come to understand that toxic shame is the #1 thing holding most women back from recovery, as without the open-hearted vulnerability and connection that comes from sharing our story and seeing that someone doesn’t freak out when we do, it’s hard to move forward, and the shame-based stories get bigger and nastier in our heads. The trouble with toxic shame is that it sounds like some kind of ‘truth’ when we tell it to ourselves – it’s not until we hear or read another woman’s story and can see elements of our own in it, and realise that we feel compassion rather than disgust or condemnation for her that we begin to realise how unnecessarily hard we’re being on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with shame, there’s nothing wrong with any of our emotions; it’s what we make them mean that causes the trouble…
4. Finding your community, your ‘Tribe’ is crucial: online and in-person
My first experience of community was getting to know other women in the blogosphere online. Although I only knew one other person writing about childlessness due to any other reason that failed infertility treatments (Katherine Baldwin’s From Forty With Love, which started at the same time as my blog), the compassion and friendship I found amongst ‘the infertiles’ was a huge balm to my isolated and wounded heart. I would like to say a particular thank you to Pamela Tsigdinos of Silent Sorority, who sent a copy of her book across the Atlantic to me, the generosity of which made a huge impact on me during a time when it seemed that the world had turned mean on me. And also to Lisa Manterfield, a transplanted Brit in California who welcomed me and interviewed me for her Life Without Baby blog. For the first time, I felt I was able to express myself and be completely understood without any weird comebacks, put-downs or ‘advice’.
The second community I met, and which I’m now proud to call my Tribe was other childless not by choice women like myself. Of all different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and stories we had this defining life experience in common: we’d wanted (or still did want) to be mothers and it hadn’t worked out. I discovered that there were many more ways to be childless than I had ever imagined and that yet, no matter how different another woman’s story was to mine, we had so much more in common than not. It created an amazing bond. I discovered that having other women to talk to was THE missing ingredient in ‘doing my grief work’ and, over time, I came to formulate that grief is a ‘social emotion’ and simply cannot be processed alone, in our heads. We absolutely have to have someone else who totally gets it to talk to (and online works too). And as it seemed that no-one except other childless women seemed to ‘get it’, this made a massive difference. And oh, the chance to laugh again (dark humour is another of the gifts of grief) and to have women to feel close to again! One of the many losses of childlessness can be a partial (or total) loss of our female peer group – it was for me and for many others I know. Finding my tribe, my community, gave me back my sense of connection to the human race that I feared my singleness and childlessness had robbed me of forever.
The third community I’d love to share with you is the private Gateway Women online community which I created in December 2012. Like many of the things I’ve created for GW, I thought I’d just give it a go and see how it went (not everything I’ve tried has taken off!) Google had just introduced Google Plus (its social media platform) and I liked the idea of creating a private community that wasn’t on Facebook, as Facebook seemed to be a form of self-harm for most childless women. Different to other online communities, I decided to instigate an application form and an ID-check for everyone joining, so that we could all feel as secure as possible that it was a safe place to open up. Although the admin for this proved so onerous that at one point I nearly had to close the community down, eventually I chose to weather the storms of outrage at introducing a very modest membership fee (even though we also offer free memberships to anyone who needs one) and the community now has a paid community manager (the wonderful Helen Burke), leaving me to actively participate and interact with members on a daily basis, and it continues to thrive and grow. We now also have sister communities for those through their grief work (a testament to the healing that the main community can provide) called ‘Nomo Tribe’, a reading group community for those working through my book, ‘Grief Bacon’ for those healing their relationship with emotional eating and also a support community for those members considering or going through the adoption process. We have about 1000 members from all over the world and it’s the wisest, most compassionate, intelligent and creative group of women I’ve ever found online. It pretty well much ruins you for any other social media, but that’s not a huge loss I’ve found!
5. Recovery from childlessness is possible
Perhaps the single most important thing that it would have been helpful for me to know when I began to face the rest of my life without children is that it is possible to recover from childlessness. From the way that others treated me as some kind of damaged social leper, to the complete lack of literature on the subject and a total lack of role models talking about how they had done so themselves, I had no way of knowing this. Even if I hadn’t been able to fully believe it myself at the time, it would have been a HUGE help to have known this was even a possibility. To have had something to work towards. Some kind of guideline. So here it is:
I now consider myself to be in my seventh year of recovery from childlessness, dating it from the day that I accepted (cognitively that is!) that I would definitely not be having children of my own (nor adopting) in this lifetime. It’s coming up for four years now since I came through my grief and into a calm and peaceful total acceptance that childlessness is something that happened to me rather than it being my whole identity. I thought that this would be as good as it could get, but one of the most surprising ‘gifts’ of grief has been that not only did it heal my heartbreak over childlessness, but it seemed that it also healed many other losses, including my divorce, childhood losses, my health and the passing of youth with my menopause. It seems to have burnt away everything not needed for the onward voyage of my life, and I feel clear-headed, courageous and excited about the future again. Considering that during the worst days of my grief, I felt that my life was just something to be survived, one day at a time, until the blissful release of death, this is one hell of a turnaround!
My book, Living the Life Unexpected, self-published with the crowd-funded support of the Gateway Women tribe in 2013, was republished in fully revised and massively expanded edition (including extracts from case studies of your stories too) by Bluebird/PanMamillan in 2016. My book contains everything I’ve learned so far about how to recover from childlessness. You can also find a lot of free material here on the blog and in the resources section. As I continue to heal and recover, I continue to share what works for me, and for others, and it’s my life’s mission to help as many childless women as possible, and to change society’s antiquated and hurtful ideas about childlessness so that the next generation don’t have to endure what we have.
And as for the next five years of Gateway Women? Well, there are plans for my book to be published in other languages (Czech is the first apparently!) and I hope that once my psychotherapy masters is totally complete I aim to hit the road, coming to meet you all around the world and sharing the liberating and healing experience of the Reignite Weekend. Oh, and writing more books and continuing to speak out in the media about the many challenges and stigmas that pronatalism heaps on childless (and childfree) women. And continuing to work with my colleagues at AWOC.org (Ageing Without Children) to improve that aspect of our experience. So, pretty exciting and busy really. The cat and I couldn’t be happier or more fulfilled, and no one is more surprised about that than me…
I couldn’t have done it without you, dear Reader. Thank you, from the bottom of my scarred and grateful heart. With love and thanks, Jody x