Birthdays can be very hard work when you’re childless not by choice – reminding you of yet another year passed without the family you longed for and also socially excluded from the milestones and rituals that others around you get to experience and you don’t. That’s something that m/others often fail to grasp about our situation, that it’s not just that we didn’t get to have a baby, but that for the rest of our lives we’re either excluded or on the far reaches of the socializing and shared conversations that parenthood involves.
Well, some good news for you… Today I’ve turned fifty-four years old (now that sounds very grown up!) and birthdays are no longer difficult for me. In fact, I started celebrating them again when I turned fifty (mid forties, not so much). I no longer see myself as a lesser woman because I’m not a mother, and my life feels no less deserving of celebration. I was born worthy and I remain worthy; my childlessness does not change that, no matter what bullshit society had me believing.
But fifty-four has got me thinking about how different it was for me a decade ago when I turned forty-four. That was a pivotal year for me because it was the year that I realised that my childlessness was not some bad dream that I was going to wake up from on day; it was my permanent reality and I was going to be childless for the rest of my life.
It was a shocking realisation, and after an afternoon of whimsical thoughts about all the things I was going to do with the rest of my life (you can read about more about that in my book), the following day I fell into a pit of grief so deep, I had no idea if I would ever get out of it again. Nothing in my life had prepared me for pain this extreme, and it’s not that I’d had a particularly easy life. None of my usual coping strategies for ‘what to do when the shit hit the fan’ worked. And none of the professionals I consulted had any idea why I felt like I was being eaten alive by my reality.
Many women have said to me, that they ‘don’t know what they would have done’ without my book, without my workshops, without the Gateway Women private community or Meetups. So I’d like to reach back in time to me a decade ago, alone in her agony with no clue as to what was going on, and no ‘Gateway Women’ to guide and support her. I want to tell her what I’ve learned.
If this is where you are today: in deep pain, your personal and work life in shreds, your self-esteem in the toilet, your friends and family becoming alien to you, unable to sleep (or sleeping too much), unable to eat (or eating too much), unable to read, watch films or sometimes even cope with going outside, let alone to some fucking baby shower – hello, I think I know you.
Here are ten things I’ve learned in a decade of recovery from childlessness. One a year, to be neat. Which of course it absolutely isn’t. This is life at its messiest and most raw.
1. You’re not crazy, you’re grieving.
I didn’t find out until I’d been in hell for two years that what I was experiencing was grief. It was the most enormous relief to have a name to put to this overwhelming, terrifying experience. It meant two things to me immediately: firstly, I vaguely understand that grief was some kind of ‘process’ and that therefore, somehow, one day I’d come out the other side; and secondly, that I wasn’t going mad. Grief is illogical and confusing and there were days when I was really concerned for my sanity.
- Read Chapter 4 in my book, Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children, which is all about childless grief (whether you’re single or coupled) and find out more about ‘doing your grief work’. You can download the intro & first chapter for free here
- Watch this webinar I led about Embracing the Grief of Childlessness for More to Life which includes conversations with two other Gateway Women about what’s helped them come through their grief.
- Check out my list of other books and blogs about grief – there was practically nothing a decade ago so this is wonderful to see.
2. Your grief needs company.
Grief isn’t something you can do in your head, on your own, in your room. Because if it was, we’d all be fine by now, right? Grief is a social emotion and it needs the company of others who get it. I started by reading everything I could about grief but it wasn’t until I had others to talk to about it (who didn’t shut me down with miracle baby stories) that things started to shift for me. Find your tribe via the Gateway Women Private Online Community (everyone is ID-checked upon joining and it isn’t on Facebook); at our Gateway Women Meetups around the world and by coming to one of our Reignite Weekends in the UK, Europe or North America (we hope to be able to offer these in Australia and New Zealand in another couple of years).
None of this existed for me when I first started looking for support, so my first contact with other childless women was by commenting on blogs and the conversations that arose there, and then by starting this blog and the women who commented here. I was so desperate for connection that I would cry with relief when those comments came in.
Please don’t deny yourself the opportunity to connect with others using the three ways I’ve listed above – it will not only bring some awesome women into your life (no, we’re not a bunch of ‘weeping weirdos’, that’s pronatalism talking, see point 6 below), it will also help you move through the grief process with more ease.
- Join the Gateway Women Private online community
- Find a Gateway Women Meetup in your area (or how to start one)
- Come to one of our Reignite Weekends
3. Give up trying to explain yourself to those who don’t get it.
Sadly, many of the conversations I’ve had with childless women in the online community, at meetups, at workshops or in person are often about being misunderstood, disrespected or shamed by others – and often those ‘others’ are close friends and family, including our mothers. The thing is, with the exception of a few exceptional people, you are unlikely to find understanding from those who haven’t walked in our shoes. And you can really end up alienating them if you keep trying to get them to understand.
I’ve found that the best way to manage things is to STOP asking them to understand and instead get you need to be understood met through your Gateway Women allies. In time, and when you are no longer grieving (and thus much less likely to be triggered by their lack of empathy, miracle baby stories, tough love, etc) you will be in a much better position to educate them. But not now. Give yourself a break. If someone in your life really wants to try to understand, ask them to watch my TED talk and if they’re still open, to read my book.
Sadly, some of the people who might not get it may also be professionals involved in your physical and emotional well-being, such as doctors, consultants and therapists. Our experience lives in a huge cultural blind spot, and professionals aren’t immune to it either…
- Watch my seminar (with guests) on Coping with other People for the We Are Worthy Summit
- Watch my 2017 TEDx talk, The Lost Tribe of Childless Women
- Read Chapter 5 in my book on ‘Liberating Yourself from the Opinions of Others’
4. Childlessness in the workplace sucks.
If your friends, family and helping professionals don’t get it, and don’t know how to behave around you, you can probably multiply that by a hundred for your experience in the workplace. It seems that the pronatalism of our times (see Point 6 below) goes completely unchecked in the workplace, with sonograms being sent round by email, breastfeeding at desks, company social events being entirely ‘family friendly’ etc. If you have an HR department, get them to watch my TED talk – I mention specifically how “Women without children are the biggest diversity issue HR hasn’t heard of”. If we were any other minority group, the way our experience is ignored and invalidated would be illegal. I do hope that when I write a blog for my sixty-fourth birthday in a decade’s time, this has started to shift. You might also like to watch my keynote speech at the 2017 NotMom Summit when I speak about being a woman without children at work, and outline what an inclusive workplace might look like.
- Watch my TEDx talk and share it with your HR department too.
- Watch my keynote address to the 2017 NotMom Summit – the part about childlessness in the workplace starts 35 minutes into my talk.
- Read Chapter 3 of my book: “Motherhood with a Capital ‘M'” and begin to learn about pronatalism, the ideological engine that drives the fetishisation of motherhood, and how that’s a big part of what’s going on around us.
5. You are allowed to say NO.
- You are allowed to decline invitations to baby showers.
- You are allowed not to contribute to baby shower or maternity gift collections at work.
- You are allowed to say ‘no thank you’ to children’s birthday parties.
- You are allowed to say ‘not this year’ to the work social event which is suddenly a ‘family picnic’.
- You are allowed not to be delighted about your friend/sister/colleague’s pregnancy.
- You are allowed to order in, Netflix and wear your pyjamas for a year if you need to.
- You are allowed to grieve.
And if anyone tells you you’re being selfish, agree with them. You are allowed to be selfish! You are grieving a momentous, life long loss. If they still think you ‘should’ do something that you don’t want to do, ask them to watch my TED talk!
6. You’ve been brainwashed and it’s called ‘Pronatalism’.
Pronatalism is derived from the Latin word for birth, ‘natal’ – it’s about being pro-birth. So what could possibly be wrong with that? Who would be anti-birth? Well, some people do indeed choose not to become parents, those who are ‘childfree by choice’, but they struggle equally with the pronatalist ideology that underpins every aspect of our society and which, at its most basic, tells us that parents are more important than non-parents. It shows up in the workplace, when ‘female friendly’ policies are conflated with ‘family friendly’ ones; in families when siblings with children are given preferential treatment at celebrations and in inheritances; and everyday in the way that women without children are seen as ‘less than’ and the way that the phrase ‘As a mother’ confers status.
Learning to recognise pronatalism as a social construct is KEY to releasing yourself from many of the shame-based internal narratives you persecute yourself with. So what can you do to start deprogramming yourself?
- My 2018 FertilityFest.com ‘Fertility Fight Club’ talk Calling Time on Pronatalist Privilege, (go to 09:40 in the video for my 10 minute talk) which starts to unpack some of the reasons how the prejudices against women without children operate, and why raising it can sometimes provoke a hostile reaction. If you then jump to the end of the talk, you will see #PronatalistPrivilege in action as a parent challenges me on my views.
- You can also read the text of my talk, ‘Calling Time on Pronatalist Privilege’ here (just my speaker’s notes so forgive any typos!)
- Read The Baby Matrix by Laura Carroll. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a life-changing one.
7. A ‘Plan B’ isn’t really a plan…
A Plan B sounds like a big deal, doesn’t it. Something else you have to ‘do’ because you don’t have kids. You resent it, even the idea of it. You’re out of ideas for your life right now and you’re pretty sure you’re going to feel this way forever. A ‘Plan B’ is for other women… like Oprah.
Well, yes and no. First of all, you don’t have to ‘have’ a Plan B, it’ll happen anyway – it’s just a name for your life without children. From the outside, it might look exactly the same as the one that you’re living today – but you’ll need to make some major upgrades on the inside if you want to inhabit that life with joy, passion and purpose. Or maybe you have a fantasy that if you moved countries, changed your job, went blonde and lost twenty pounds you’d somehow be able to dodge all this sadness and reinvent yourself? Wouldn’t that be great? Sadly, it doesn’t work. I tried most of them for you and I can report back with certainty that grief follows you wherever you go, so until you sit down with it as your friend, no ‘plan’ of any kind is really going to take off.
Your Plan B doesn’t have to be a big deal and, as Rainbow Rowell says: “So what, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things. One at a time. Just let your pile of good things grow.”
- Read ‘Debunking Some Plan B Fairy Stories’ in Chapter 11 of my book
- Watch this webinar Creating Your Plan B with me and other Gateway Women recorded live as part of the We Are Worthy Summit
- Come to a Gateway Women Reignite Weekend and explore with like-minded women some possible shapes for your future ‘Plan B’ (it’s just a way of beginning to allow yourself to imagine a future you’d actually look forward to…)
8. Find your role models and become one too.
Ten years ago, I didn’t know anyone in my extended family, amongst my friends, colleagues, acquaintances or in public life who was childless not by choice (apart from Oprah). Everyone I knew who had wanted to become a mother had made it happen, somehow. When I first found out that 1 in 5 UK women of my cohort (born in the 1960s) had turned forty-five without having had kids, my first thought was, ‘Well, where the hell are they all then?!’ But we are there, hidden in plain sight, but it does take a bit of work to find us. And we need each other – both as role models from afar, and as role models in our private lives – and we need to accept that we are role models ourselves. Every childless woman who unapologetically, unashamedly inhabits her childless life is a role model to others, even if you don’t realise it. And the more of us there are, the harder it’s going to be to keep us invisible!
- Explore the lives of the more than 600 women without children I’ve gathered in my Childless & Childfree Role Model Gallery. Choose one who inspires you and find out more about her life (and by the way, don’t make the false correlation from this gallery that because you’re childless you have to do something remarkable with your life. Nope. It’s just because these women have done so, their story is on public record and thus searchable on Google! A quiet, happy and unremarkable childless life is just as impressive when you consider the forces arrayed against us!)
- Work out if there are any childless women in your circle or extended circle (like at work), including those ones you think ‘might be’ but you’re not sure. Find a way to start a conversation with them – offering up a little of your own story to open the channel is a good way to test the water. As an estimated 90% of women without children are childless NOT by choice, there’s a good chance that she will be too, and that people have ‘presumed’ her childlessness was a choice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I have some wonderful childfree friends, but whilst I was struggling with my childlessness I was hungry to meet women like myself that I could identify with more fully.)
- Have a think about the kinds of conversations you wish you’d heard as you were growing up, or as a young woman about becoming/not becoming a mother. Consider how you can have those kinds of conversations with any young people in your life. Let’s inspire and inform the next generation about the many different ways to be an adult woman.
9. Start facing up to the issues involved in ageing without children.
It was my experience, and that of many of the women I’ve met through this work, that once we’ve really, truly accepted that we’re not going to be mothers, the issue of what’s going to happen to us in our old age rises up with full force. In 2014 in the UK, I was approached by Kirsty Woodard for her support in creating something to address this issue, and I was one of the original founding members (and until recently a Board member) at AWOC.org (AWOC stands for Ageing W/O Children). To date, it is still the ONLY organisation in the world researching, campaigning, organising and advocating for the 1 in 4 that won’t have adult children in their lives when they’re elderly. This is not an issue you can afford to bury your head in the sand about any longer! The good news is that there’s lots you can do, and some great initiatives and projects getting off the ground.
- Read Chapter 12 in my book: “Taking Off the Invisibility Cloak” which is all about the issues and benefits of ageing as a childless woman. Really, there’s good stuff too!
- Join AWOC.org and contribute a small monthly amount to support its work. It receives no governmental funding and all board members and consultants (like me) are unpaid volunteers. If you’re on Facebook, join the AWOC Ageing Without Children group and you can both offer and receive support and information from other members.
- Get to know some older childless women, either from afar, such as the those public figures in our Role Model Gallery or privately through our online community, or our Meetups (you can set up one for older women only if you wish). You’ll find that they’re a lot more interesting, intriguing and powerful than you may have realised. Sexism + pronatalism + ageism dictate that older childless women have nothing to offer… I wonder why it suits the status quo for us to believe that?
10. Recovering from childlessness changes everything.
At its core, grief is a process of identity transformation, which means that there’s no part of your life that won’t be touched by this. No relationship that won’t be affected. No ideas or beliefs about yourself, other people, the world or your philosophy that won’t come up for questioning. We tend to think that grief is ‘about’ being sad, but it’s far more radical than that, and once we’ve been through the fire and floods of grief, we’re not the same person as we were before. We can never go back to being ‘her’ – she’s gone. Whilst transformation at this level sounds great on a motivational quote, in truth it’s a complete shit-storm. As I write in my book (Chapter 11, p.280):
The metaphor of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is often used when talking of transformational change and the story usually focuses on the moment that the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis: this beautiful, elegant creature born from a caterpillar. But this gets on my nerves. What about the caterpillar? How do you think the caterpillar felt when one day it found itself being entombed in a chrysalis and its entire body started turning to mush? To become a butterfly, the caterpillar has to completely dissolve, right down to the cellular level, and reform. I bet that hurts!
Change hurts, even the good stuff. Transformation doesn’t feel like transformation – it feels like everything in life has gone to hell and nothing makes sense any more.
It’s only afterwards, when we’re out of the chrysalis, that we can look back and say: ‘I’m really glad I’m not a caterpillar anymore; that was worth it’. But until then, we have to have a lot of faith that at some point, things will make more sense
- So take good care of yourself during this transformation and, if possible, try not to make any irrevocable decisions whilst you’re grieving. Because the person you are making those decisions for is a version of yourself you haven’t yet met.
- Consider finding a sympathetic therapist or counsellor to support you. I’ve written a guide with some tips on how to find one which you can download here.
- Read books on change and transformation. One of my favourites is an oldie and a goodie: Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. It’s not about childlessness, it’s about going through change of any kind. You’ll also find many more books that I’ve read and found helpful in the Resources section of this website.