There are two sides to the question “Do you ever get over not having children?” And it really depends on who’s doing the asking.
One is incredibly insulting, as in, “Aren’t you over that yet?!”
Whilst the other is “Will I ever feel good about my life again?”
The fact is that if you were to have had children, and by some tragic event, they had died, nobody would ever expect you to be ‘over it’. Indeed, if you ever were, you’d be considered heartless – that terrible fairytale nasty: a bad mother. Every Christmas or Mother’s Day, people would be sensitive towards how hard those celebrations must be for you. And if they forgot your loss, they’d feel terrible about it. Your loss would be considered life-changing.
Yet if you’ve spent years (decades even!) of your life longing and planning to become a mother, and for a wide variety of reasons, some of them mundane, some of them tragic, you ended up without a family, you’re expected to just ‘get over it.’ But it’s not the flu; it’s not something you ‘get over’. You lost your family! You lost the chance to be a mother, to be a grandmother, to give birth to another life, to be the person that brought your partner’s children into the world, to be a grandmother. To have a hand and say in shaping the next generation. To have the respect of others, a place in the community of mothers and a say in how things are done. So, no biggie, really. We really must all be making a fuss about nothing…
Now, I am not for a moment trying to downplay how awful it must be to lose a child, a family. It must be like having your heart torn out of your body. But the grief of the childless-not-by-choice, whether through infertility or any of the other many reasons it didn’t happen, can be just as disabling, as life-changing.
We cannot grieve what we have not loved because grief, in my view, is part of love. And whether you held your children in your arms or not, if you grieve for them, you loved them. The children that childless women loved were real to them. And the loss of those children is real too. And without mourning those lost children, we will never ‘get over it’.
Not having children broke my heart. Why didn’t I have them? Well, it was a 15-year journey through infertility, denial, codependency and bad luck. (That’s the short version!) But grief healed my heart bigger. I am not the same person as I was before I grieved that loss. Because grief, like love, transforms us. We are never the same person again. What once was an open wound in my heart is now a scar – a tender spot – and it has changed me.
I have not ‘got over’ not having children, but rather my heart has healed around that loss. It is a part of me, a precious, tender part of me that gives me a depth of compassion for others who suffer that was always in me, but which now has fully blossomed in my character.
Loss like ours doesn’t have to ruin our lives – it can transform it:
- I have more courage now, because having healed this wound, I trust my resilience.
- I have more empathy now for all disenfranchised groups, because I understand what it is to be stigmatised.
- I have more patience and tolerance now for awkward and difficult people, because I know that each of us is carrying around invisible wounds, leaking pain from so many ungrieved losses.
- I have more faith in my own process (and life) now, because I have understood that grief is the gift of love, not a cruel kicking when I was at my most vulnerable.
But I couldn’t have done this alone. Grief, like love, cannot exist in a vacuum; it needs to be held in the tender heart and understanding of another.
In my experience, the only people who ever understood, really understood what it felt like to not be a mother, were women like us – the childless-not-by-choice. No one else ever understood the depth and breadth of my loss, my future, my identity as a woman, my place in society and amongst my peers. And in that understanding, my grief finally felt heard, held, understood. And so it did what it longed to do – it healed my heart so that I was ready to love life again.
Will you ever feel good about your life again? Yes, once you have done your grief work. But you cannot do it alone. Grief that is not actively grieved is a form of unrequited love, and just as painful. We need to stop demonising grief as some kind of poison trying to deform our lives and instead see it as a form of love that wishes to heal your heart so that you are able to love yourself, your life and others again. You cannot wait grief out, and you cannot repress it (well, you can, but it comes up somewhere else instead…) Grief is patient and strong, like all love, and it will out-wait you. And you will grow ill and weary from the effort of trying to avoid it, out-run it, out-think it.
How to do your grief work? Seek the company of your fellow Gateway Women. Comment on the blogs. Join one of our many Gateway Women Meetup groups around the world (and ask to start one in your area if there isn’t one!) Join the GW+ Private Online Community. Read my book and work through the suggestions at the end of Chapter 4 (on doing your grief work). Read through some of the other blogs I’ve written her about grief. Come to a Gateway Women workshop. Just get out of your head and preferably out of the house!
Not being a mother has left a scar on my heart that will always be there. Always be tender. And can be touched and bring me to tears for surprising reasons.
But I can live with a scar, grow with a scar.
Grief heals. Life goes on. And I am part of the flow again.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women and the author ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children’ (Bluebird, Feb 2016). She set up the Gateway Women in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless-not-by-choice 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 private meetup groups in the UK & Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, NZ and South Africa, as well as a thriving private online community. For more about Jody and Gateway Women, click here.