10 Tips for Healing from the Heartbreak of Childlessness

Reflections on my childless birthday

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.

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.

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…

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.

I really hope this has blog has helped you and that you don’t feel so alone and scared today as I did a decade ago. And I hope that a decade from now, you’ll feel as connected and empowered as I do today on my 54th birthday.

Rock on, my childless sister!

11 Comments on 10 Tips for Healing from the Heartbreak of Childlessness

  1. Dear Jody, thank you so much for this excellent post! I can relate to every single sentence. My healing process only started once I saw your 2017 TEDx Talk and understood I was grieving. Nobody before had been able to put a word on what I was feeling.
    I just watched your keynote speech at the 2017 NotMom Summit and I want to thank you for the way you present your powerful ideas, always respectful to the diversity of people and minds. I am very grateful for all your work to change society’s attitude towards childless women. I’ll be sure to often share your posts and videos on my blog hoping that by doing this I can help others just like you helped me. xxx

    • Dear Lea – thank you for your comment. Writing and learning my TED talk (by heart! 3000 words!) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done so I’m SO glad it was helpful to you! Hugs, Jody x

  2. Hi VB – thank you for commenting and I’m so glad it resonated with you. It was a monster of a post to think and write, so thank you for appreciating the work that went into it, as well as the passion behind it. Hugs, Jody x

  3. This blog is it. It really is. The exact thing I needed to read and know at this precise moment in my life. It’s really given me something (maybe something like hope?). I was feeling pretty low and pretty beaten and I was really starting to worry about myself and what might be happening to me. But now I’ve got this new feeling like I wanna take this ball and really run with it. It could be one of those fleeting optimisms that don’t amount to much, or it could be just the thing that’s going to make all the difference to me. Either way, I don’t know how to thank you for walking that fucked up and dangerous path ahead of us and still being brave enough to come back and get us. Thank you. X

    • Dear Andreanna – thank you for your comment. Quite likely that rather than being an either/or moment, this will be one of many fluctuations on the path to healing. As I write in Chapter 4 of my book, grief isn’t a linear process, it’s more of a spiral. It’s messy, organic and confusing and there were many times when I thought I was going backwards (or sideways or god-knows-which-ways!). I’m honoured to be able to shine a light on your path and offer some guidance – your journey will be different to mine, because each of us experiences love in a different way, therefore each of our experiences of grief is unique and precious. Keep on keeping on, you will find YOUR way. Hugs, Jody x

  4. Happy Birthday Jody! Wow, what a ten years. I completely resonate with your 10 tips and the depth, compassion, humanity and fierceness you show within them.

    Thank you so much for all your pioneering work, resources, insights, humour and love within Gateway Women and beyond – you continue to change so many lives. I’m personally so grateful to you.

    You’re right this grief is an identity transformation – it strips away all the artifice and distraction and veneer of cultural conditioning, I realised many people don’t/ can’t support me in my time of need and it really, really hurt. Then slowly (with help with of GW) I started to rebuild myself, making friends with myself (which sounds weird), nuture myself, building amazing new friendships connections, experiment, play and re-discover my core self.

    Like you say the butterfly transformation image from the point of view of the caterpillar is very different!
    “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!” YES!

    I’m 49 years old and 5 years on from the final realisation I would be childless. Thanks to GW, I look forward to next 5 years and more as I’m confident they will be adventurous, authentic, connected and loving. I never, ever thought that was possible 5 years ago.

    It was sheer blind faith that kept me going early on. I had to believe that what Jody was saying was true even if I didn’t believe hope was possible at the time. There is hope. I no longer feel I’m making the best of a bad lot. I’ve become so much more than I was before. I feel I’m “living the life unexpected” and it’s awesome.

    Thank you Jody. Happy Birthday and wishing you a wonderful day, year, next 10 years and beyond! Xxxxx

    • Dearest Ali – I’m so happy that you took the plunge to commit to yourself and your healing as you have, and that you are reaping such rich rewards as a result. I love that you now longer see your life as some kind of second best, but as a different kind of adventure. I am excited to see how the next 5 years unfold for you! Hugs, Jody x

  5. This blog makes so much sense and hope it helps so many others of you out there suffering in silence. Having not realised my experience was grief (as I saw it an invisible loss that no-one understood) I’m so pleased I took the courage to tackle this head-on and join one of your groups Jody. I now realise it is the starting point that helped me move forwards. Hard work and very emotional but feel great that I achieved something when in such a low place that kept on spiralling downwards. Although scary when first meeting others, I now know doing this in a group was beneficial and with the help of the other ladies it certainly was empowering. Re-ignite weekends, the 12-month plan and my local meet-ups gave me a base where empathy was flowing – which I missed from friends and family who just didn’t get it. I hope this blog allows others to take their first step forwards to being at peace with their circumstances and feel stronger in our Mum-ster mad society. Many happy returns Jody. Xxx

    • Thank you Sam – so good to know that the work we did together continues to unfold in positive ways in your life. It’s amazing how many of us don’t know what we’re experiencing is grief – makes me SO sad. Thank you for your birthday wishes and much love back atcha! x

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