Sometimes childless women tell me that they fear that they’re not capable of finding a Plan B; that without Plan A they are bereft not only of children but of any hopes, dreams, plans or even capacity to find an alternative life path. I hear you. That’s grief talking. That’s heartbreak talking. That’s exhaustion and fear talking. You’ve been to hell and maybe even discovered that it’s got a basement and all of this ‘Plan B’ talk feels frankly alienating.
That’s why I feel it’s so important to hear from other childless women who are walking the path ahead and to learn from them. It’s all very well looking at the photos of famous inspirational role models, but sometimes they can feel like a slap in the chops too. ‘So now I have to do something AMAZING with my life? Are you joking? I can’t even open my mail half the time!’
So today I am interviewing Meriel Whale, counsellor, teacher and writer from Lewes, on the south coast of England in the UK. Meriel first got involved with Gateway Women in 2012 when she joined my ‘Coping with Christmas’ webinar – my very first webinar – I remember it well as I was staying in a friend’s cottage in the country working on the original, self-published edition of my book and how bizarre it was to be sitting talking to my computer on my own! I’m a bit more used to it now, and if you’d like to watch some of my more recent webinars you can see them here (the one I led on the difficult feelings that can arise during the liminal times between Christmas and New Year has been very popular) and do register for my monthly email updates so that you’ll be the first to know when the next one is scheduled – I’m planning to do one each month. Meriel then went on to attend one of my very early Reignite Weekends, and seminars I used to lead on Creative Writing and Self Compassion for childless women, and then my year-long Plan B Mentorship Programme (which will be back in 2020). So Meriel and I have very much walked the path of healing from the grief of childlessness together.
Meriel has very recently launched a counselling service specifically for people who are childless not by choice (www.merielwhalecounselling.co.uk) and can offer sessions in person, on the telephone or online via webcam. We talked a little more about how this aspect (one of many) of her Plan B has come about.
Meriel, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be a childless woman?
I was single and planning to adopt on my own when I met my now ex-partner in 2010. We tried fertility treatment but it was unsuccessful and so we planned to adopt together but the relationship broke down in 2012 when my partner decided that adoption was no longer part of their plan. I was devastated, especially as my best friend had conceived and had a baby during that time. I waited a year and then re-applied to adopt in 2013 but was turned down the following year due to reasons that felt very random and unfair. A year of appeals followed but I finally reached the end of my adoption journey in October 2015. I’d been part of Gateway Women since the end of 2012 and had done a lot of work around grieving biological motherhood but when my opportunity to adopt was taken away from me, the full force of grief came down upon and everything seemed very bleak. The online and local connections and friends I’ve made through Gateway Women gave me a community of women who understood what I was going through, tools to help me out of the darkest days and a pathway to much happier future. My life as it was had ended, and I am proud of the way I have built a new life, step by step and piece by piece, with compassion and love.
Have you learned anything useful from your childless journey?
That bad things happen to good people and that life is unfair – which has been liberating as it has helped me to stop blaming myself for how things worked out! That there are some things you can’t get by working hard. That I am a good enough person and would have been a good enough mother. And, more importantly, to be compassionate and loving to myself, to other childless people and to people with children. Life is hard, whatever version of it you’ve got, whatever you have or don’t have, and what we see on social media is often very far from being the true story.
What are the good things for you now about being childless?
The people I have met and the kindness I’ve been shown, often from unexpected sources. The way I’ve grown and developed and become a better and stronger person. It’s not just becoming a mother that makes us grow into our best self; it’s not becoming one too. The fact that I can use my experiences to support other people in the same situation as me. The relief I felt when things started to get better and I could enjoy being around children again, even if it is sometimes bittersweet.
How have you prepared yourself for a career supporting other childless women?
Well, I’ve graduated from every Gateway Women course except one so I think I’ve learned a lot from you, Jody! I’ve also had personal counselling to explore both the loss of both potential motherhood and the loss of my mother, who died in 2015. We had a complex relationship, and I have experienced considerable amounts of complex grief. I think meeting Jody first through newspaper articles and online calls and then face to face helped me to realise that what I was feeling was grief and that grief was a normal response to what I had experienced. Also, I am so grateful for the friends I have made and the support I have received from the private Gateway Women online community. Knowing that there is always someone there has made a huge difference. Of course, I am a qualified person-centred counsellor and I’ve also done additional courses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Online Counselling, plus lots of short courses in the ten years since I graduated.
How can counselling sessions with you help childless people?
Counselling with childlessness as the focus can be really helpful in resolving the very strong and complex feelings associated with being involuntarily childless – whether it’s due to infertility or circumstances. Feelings of anxiety and depression are extremely common and having those met with warmth, insight and compassion rather than the usual ‘helpful advice’ can be such a relief – I know it was for me in my work with you, Jody. I also think that our particular kind of grief – the disenfranchised grief of childlessness – is very misunderstood and stigmatized and has so many components – feeling lost, angry, depressed, despairing, lonely, ashamed, disappointed, jealous or a combination of all of those feelings as well as others too. However, that said, every person is different and every childless person is different too, and so it’s about meeting the client where they’re at and helping them find their own way. Much like Jody’s work around finding your Plan B – it’s a unique journey for each of us and so I don’t assume that my client’s feelings and journey are the same as mine, or anyone else’s.
What do you wish you’d known when you first started your healing journey with Gateway Women?
- I wish I had known that it’s OK to grieve and that grieving is a necessary part of the journey, grief moves you through to better happier times. It’s OK to cry and mourn and it’s OK to talk to people about how you are feeling.
- I wish I had known ‘not to go to the hardware store for milk’ (a great expression from the 12-Step movement I learned from Jody) and therefore not to feel resentful if some of my friends couldn’t understand what was happening to me or made unhelpful comments.
- I wish I’d known how important it is to find people and places where your needs for understanding around your childlessness can be met, rather than always expecting friends and family to understand. The Gateway Women online community, courses and local meetups have been life-changing.
- I wish I had known that life would get better and that I would feel that I had a purpose again and that, once more, life would feel worth living, and living to the full.
- I wish I’d known that I’d meet amazing women doing amazing things, for example, Jody, Berenice and Steph from World Childless Week and Kelly from the Dovecote Community, as well as all the Gateway Women Sisters who are now running the Gateway Women Reignite Weekends.
What else does your Plan B include these days?
My Plan B includes studying creative writing and I’ve started writing a novel, which I’m loving and I’m also learning to play the piano. It’s very important for me to socialise with other childless women, so I regularly meet up with my Gateway Women friends. I am also planning to travel more in 2019 and beyond. But mainly, it’s just about reminding myself that I am good enough exactly as I am and that it’s OK for me to enjoy my life exactly as it is, even if that includes tricky moments, and to be kind and compassionate to myself if they occur. Plan B can be an inside, as well as an outside job.
Meriel Whale is a person-centred counsellor based in Lewes, on the south coast of England, who specialises in (amongst other things) offering counselling for childlessness. A warm, creative and supportive counsellor, she offers traditional ‘talking therapy’ as well as working with creative writing and the visual arts if that works for clients. She works with both men and women (but not couples) either face-to-face, online via webcam or over the phone. She’s also a beautiful writer so do explore her blogs, some of my favourites are: I’m childless and lonely, where do I belong? and Oh, The Places You’ll Go! There’s loads more on her website too at www.merielwhalecounselling.co.uk