Reading for pleasure is one of those things that can take a B-I-G hit during grief and, even though I am no longer grieving, it’s taken me several years to really get my reading mojo back. That, combined with my reduced attention span (thank you screens) means it can take a lot more to get me to stay with a book these days! I found my way back into my love of reading through listening to audiobooks at night, when I couldn’t sleep (thank you menopause and hello working on this blog at 4am!) thus, where audiobooks are available, I’ve mentioned that. (Audible usually offer at least one free audiobook when you sign up.)
I do hope you find something in this list of 12 books that I’ve found nourishing and comforting as a childless woman. They are not in any order other than what looked pretty when I made the image above! You might like to share this list with someone who might not be sure what to get you for Christmas, and/or you could choose something for yourself.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019) *Also available as an audiobook.
Although Gilbert’s peppy public presence gets on my nerves sometimes, she’s a fabulous writer and brilliant at taking you into the heart of unusual women’s lives. In 2013’s The Signature of All Things (another favourite of mine) it was a rich, spinster botanist from early 19th century Philadelphia in love and out of her depth in the tropics; in City of Girls it’s an elderly woman looking back over her life in the showgirl revue theatre of 1940s and 50’s New York, her discovery of sex, love independence and all the costs thereof. Gilbert herself is childfree-by-choice and her female characters are rarely focused on becoming, being or not being mothers, which is a welcome relief from so much female-focused fiction! City of Girls takes a while to get going but once it did, I read the second half in one greedy, delighted gulp!
21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood by Jessica Hepburn (2018). *Also available as an audiobook.
Jessica Hepburn endured 11-rounds of IVF but didn’t become a mother. (You can read her brilliant memoir of that in her first book, The Pursuit Of Motherhood). Like many of us facing down a life that we hadn’t planned, she came up with some crazy ideas about what to do next – the difference is that Jessica actually did it and, as an unfit middle-aged woman who didn’t enjoy exercise she decided to rewaken a childhood fantasy and swim the English Channel. The only benefit she could find was that this meant that she had to eat a lot to survive the cold and so, during her year of training, she invited 21 ‘inspirational’ women (some mothers, some not, one of which is me) to have lunch with her, one each for the 21 miles of the English Channel. Of each woman she asked the same question: “Does motherhood make you happy?” As well as being a record of those diverse and illuminating conversations and the extraordinary process of training (and swimming) the English Channel (and its eerie parallels with Jessica’s infertility journey), this book is also a poignant love story about the impact of infertility and its aftermath on Jessica and her partner. You can watch my interview with Jessica here.
Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine (2018) *Also available as an audiobook
Do not be fooled by the slimness of this volume of personal essays by Irish academic, Emilie Pine – it packs a punch way bigger than you’d expect! It first came to my attention after a November 2019 essay by the author in, of all places, British Vogue titled ‘A Childless Woman is a Not a Tragic Figure‘ which I adored both for the quality of the prose and her unsentimental yet emotionally honest voice. The essay in the collection about her thwarted journey to motherhood is gripping and utterly relatable, as are the others. I read the whole thing in one go and felt like someone had taken a brillo pad to my consciousness, scrubbing patches clean ready for entirely new thoughts.
If Women Rose Rooted: A Life-Changing Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (2016) by Sharon Blackie.*Also available as an audiobook.
This book blew me away when it came out in 2016 and I’m on my third reading of it as I write, getting new insights out of it each time. Sharon Blackie takes you deep into the mythical and historical Celtic past to show us that once upon a time, women were valued more deeply than we are in our current times. And that by re-knowing those myths, those stories, we can find strength to ‘rise’ again, knowing that we are ‘rooted’ in a lineage of powerful women. As a childfree woman herself (only touched upon lightly) I was grateful to see her push back gently on the over-reliance on ‘mother earth’ and ‘womb’ metaphors in a lot of contemporary female mysticism/spirituality – a lazy metaphor that excludes so many of us. As someone who moved to rural Ireland a couple of years ago and is in the process of connecting with my indigenous Irish roots and culture, this book has been of huge importance to me. Roots, traditions – very complex things for those of us without children…
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston (2019).*Also available as an audiobook.
Recommended to me by Suzan Muir, who runs wilderness retreats for childless women in Australia, I was not too surprised that her this book turned out to be about how living, surviving and thriving on an isolated ranch high in the Colorado Rockies for the last 25 years has, and this isn’t a euphemism, saved the author’s life. I haven’t read any Pam Houston since her hilariously brilliant ‘Cowboys are My Weakness’ (1992) the success of which enabled her to overstretch herself financially to buy the ranch that she now writes about and I feel glad that in someway my reading purchases helped her create the life she shares in this book. Childfree by choice (but only mentioned lightly and for traumatic reasons) Houston meditates deeply on her relationship with the land and with the animals in her life (all of which she trusts more than humans after a gothically bad childhood). Descriptions of life on the ranch, her relationship with her generous mountain-town neighbours, the run-ins with the necessary ranch-sitters over the years whilst she travels to promote her writing and teach are amusingly told, her trademark leavening of shocking reflections from her past leavened with quirky animal and human stories. A theme that also comes through is her own growing awareness of the changes in the environment due to climate breakdown and her heartbreak over that. At turns educational, amusing and meditative, this is a book that transports you to another life; you know, the one where you’re a gutsy, outdoorsy, animal-loving and (mostly) single childless woman who chooses to spend her life living (and working her arse off to pay for) a ranch high in the mountains. That one.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2019) *also available as an audiobook
I listened to this as an audiobook at the beginning of the year and both the imagery and the character of Circe has not left me since. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful and seeing Greek mythology through the eyes of Circe, the first ‘witch’ and travelling through the centuries with her as she transforms her eternal banishment into an extraordinary journey of feminine empowerment… Well, I can’t say more without spoiling the plot! There is some exploration of motherhood in the novel, but it is handled in such a way that I did not find it challenging to deal with. I look forward to reading it again as prose so that I can linger on the luscious sentences and a book version of it is definitely on my Christmas list!
Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home (2017) by Toko-pa Turner. *Also available as an audiobook
Toko-pa is a Canadian mystic and Jungian-informed dreamworker who writes lyrically about the wound of non-belonging, and how our dreams and yearnings for connection can guide us towards new awarenesses. Whilst this may sound a bit woo-woo, her writing is grounded in her tough life experience and estrangement from her own chaotic family of origin and is insightful, intelligent and deeply comforting. Not feeling like we ‘belong’, that there is no place, no ‘home’ for us as childless women, is a wound that many of us carry, particularly (but not only) if we also have strained or non-existent family ties, and have no easy access to a sense of place or community. This is a book that I return to again and again for comfort, inspiration, and deep soul-nourishment.
Mum’s Not the Word: Childless/Childfree by Denise Felkin (2019).
I was proud to be able to support this important photo essay project by Denise Felkin and to spread the word to help her find subjects willing to be photographed naked, in the foetal position, on their own bedlinen. Each portrait is tender, vulnerable and raw, and the accompanying participant commentary is by turns shocking, illumination, refreshing and heartbreaking. These women are literally laid bare, and this somehow gives them a greater right for their truths to be heard. Whether the women are childless due to infant loss, through motherhood ambivalence leading to a happy (or regretful) life without children, failed infertility treatments, clear-sighted self-awareness, unchosen singleness or other complex factors, they lie here and challenge us to appreciate for a moment what like might be like in their skin. A large-format, beautifully produced book, I have no doubt it’s going to win a slew of awards. You can read my blog about it here.
How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day (2019).*Also available as an audiobook
Part memoir, part manifesto for vulnerability and honesty, novelist Elizabeth Day’s book of personal essays (and her hugely successful ‘How to Fail’ podcast where she interviews celebs on their failures) lifts the lid on all the many ways she’s ‘failed’ at life including those described in the chapters on ‘Relationships’ and ‘Babies’ (she is divorced and childless after failed IVF), although there are gems to be found in many chapters, including the (for me) excellent ‘Work’ and ‘Anger’ chapters. An ex newspaper celebrity-interviewer she brings an acutely observant eye and ear to bear on the subject that most people spend their time only discussing with themselves or their therapists – what went wrong. The result is by turns poignant, funny, sad and above all, deeply relatable. If you’ve arrived at mid-life without a child when that wasn’t the plan, you’ll have your own ‘failures’ to nurse, I know I do. But I also know that I have learned more from them than I’ve ever learned from things going well. And that without them, I probably wouldn’t be the happy and (reasonably) well-adjusted childless woman I am today.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018) *Also available as an audiobook
Recommended to me by another childless woman, this is not a title (Motherhood!) I would have picked up, and nor is it one I would have expected to enjoy, as Sheila Heti is childfree-by-choice and, even though I am at peace with my childlessness, sometimes the celebratory and self-congratulatory tone of some childfree writing can rub me up the wrong way! However, I am so glad I did as this book charts Heti’s journey as she wrestles with her ambivalence about becoming a mother or remaining childfree, and the longing and fears she has for both. Her writing is scorchingly honest and this memoir/novel also explores her relationship with her mother, her partner and the unglamorous realities of living a writer’s life. This is a book about the longing for clarity, the frailty of consequences and what level of willingness it takes to really know ourselves as women outside the stereotypes offered to us by pronatalism. I highly recommend it as an exploration of 21st-century womanhood.
This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story by Jackie Shannon Hollis (2019). *Also available as an audiobook
When Jackie approached me to read this book before it was published, I squeezed it into my schedule and, my goodness, was I glad I managed to do so! I loved it so much that this came through in the blurb that I wrote and that has become the forward to her book. This is a beautiful memoir of growing up in a large, traditional, rural American family and Jackie’s difference from those around her, first due to her ambition and then her later ambivalence about having children. When she marries a man who definitely doesn’t want kids, she’s OK with that at first but suddenly she is struck by babymania. But he doesn’t change his mind. And she loves him. This is a memoir of a marriage where the question of motherhood is the unwelcome third in the relationship, how they navigate this as a couple over the decades, and how the tension of this potential source of resentment leads them to connect and explore themselves, and their marriage, in deeply meaningful ways. Beautifully written, painfully honest and inspiring, this book would be a wonderful read for all who want to understand the experience of circumstantial childlessness, both from within and without and the impact it has too on family and female friendships. You can watch my interview with Jackie Shannon Hollis here too.
Mary Oliver, the American poet and, up until her death in January 2019, my favourite living female poet, had a way of looking at nature and seeing the human through the lens of the non-human that consistently left me winded with admiration. In this collection of essays, many of which were published elsewhere, it is possible to see how words, and specifically poetry, wove a protection around her from her earliest days and through a life of difference as a lesbian woman, and in those days, as part of a necessarily childless female couple. As someone who shares Oliver’s sense of being partially parented by the natural world and with a life-long love affair with language and writing, her work has always touched me at levels deeper than I have been able to articulate. Although I haven’t had a chance to read all of these essays yet, her work has never let me down yet, and I feel confident that if you too are a woman who stands outside the mainstream, who worships most naturally in a forest alter and who swoons at beautiful language, you’ll love her work too.