The Menstruality Podcast – Episode 54: Finding Hope and Meaning When You’re Childless-not-by-choice (Jody Day) 15 September 2022. Sophie Jane Hardy from RedSchool.net interviews Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women. Click here to listen to episode or search ‘Menstruality’ wherever you get your podcasts. Full written transcript below.
- Jody’s personal journey through grief, denial, hopelessness to real acceptance of her life as a childless woman.
- The creation of Gateway Women and Jody’s mission to make the world understand childless women, and help women who are childless-not-by-choice to understand themselves.
- The ‘bingos’ that childless women hear all the time.
- Preparing yourself to answer the ‘why don’t you have children?’ questions
- The impact of childlessness on your friendships and family relationships.
- How single childless women get the brunt of ‘acceptable’ misogynistic abuse in our society.
- The need to see infertility and childlessness through an intersectional lens.
- About ‘infertility amnesia’ and how that can lead to hostility towards those women who do not have a baby after IVF
- How the pattern of the professional working environment is set up around male fertility.
- Reframing ‘childless’ and ‘childfree’ as a spectrum, not a binary
- Why the childless menopause can be ‘a death you survive’
- The truth of tough transformational periods and how they might look nice on an Instagram meme but in real life…!
- The gifts of post-menopause as a childless woman
- About how pronatalism impacts us right across the life course and how it invisibles post-menopausal women without children.
- Why elders need youngers, and youngers need elders too…
- Jody’s emerging Gateway Elderwomen project, exploring the uncharted path to becoming a conscious childless elder woman.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
INTRO: Sophie Jane Hardy 00:09
Welcome to the Menstruality Podcast where we share inspiring conversations about the power of menstrual cycle awareness and conscious menopause. This podcast is brought to you by Red School, where we’re training the menstruality leaders of the future. I’m your host Sophie Jane Hardy and I’ll be joined often by Red Schools’ founders, Alexandra and Shani, as well as an inspiring group of pioneers, activists, changemakers and creatives to explore how you can unashamedly claim the power of the menstrual cycle to activate your unique form of leadership for yourself your community and the world.
Sophie Jane Hardy 00:54
Hi, welcome back to the Menstruality Podcast. It’s so good to have you here. Today’s episode is a deep one. It’s a rich one. I hope it’s really supportive for people who are childless, not by choice, or if you have someone in your life who’s experiencing this and they need support. So, this is the Menstruality Podcast and the menstruality journey begins with our first bleed, it ends as we go through menopause. For some people in our menstruating years, pregnancy, birth and motherhood are a key part of that part of life. For many, for one in five people at the moment, parenting doesn’t happen. Around 10% of those people choose not to be parents, but for the other 90% it’s either due to infertility or circumstance and people who are childless, not by choice can experience such a profound othering in our world, and we don’t speak about it enough. But our guest today is devoting her life to changing that. Jody Day is the founder of Gateway Women, the support and advocacy network for childless women. She’s a psychotherapist, she’s a global thought leader on female involuntary childlessness and she’s the author of what many professionals considered to be the go-to book on the topic, Living The Life Unexpected: how to find hope, meaning and a fulfilling future without children.
Sophie Jane Hardy 02:30
Jody, it’s such a delight to have you with us today on the Menstruality Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. We often start with a cycle check-in and I know that you’re post menopause now so you don’t have a menstrual cycle. But I’d love to hear about how you experience cycles in your life and this phase of your life.
Jody Day 02:53
Thank you and thank you for inviting me onto the podcast. It’s a great honour to be here and to be in the company of such amazing women and also the other interviewees so thank you for including me. Yes, I’m 58 now and I had my last period at 48 so technically postmenopausal now for coming on 10 years and my cycle was always an interesting one because I wasn’t able to conceive, yet I was still dealing with having a cycle. I think that since my periods ended I’ve had a rough menopause and it’s not finished with me yet. . . .
…Interestingly thinking about cycles I notice I’ve got much more interested in the cycles of the moon. I think that deep feminine wisdom has really been emerging for about 15 years, but I think postmenopausal, and also now living in the countryside (I’ve lived in the countryside now for coming on for five years in rural Ireland) I notice I’m really interested in the moon; I always used to be fascinated by it, like when I travelled in India with a group of friends – you know – the way our cycles started to synchronise and things like that. So, this sense of being connected to the moon feels very powerful, but also as a childless woman I felt that my participation in the cycle of birth and death had been denied me. I felt that nature itself had rejected me. It was a very, very deep mourning. And I remember once I was walking in the mountains in the south of France in a place I used to go to regularly, really in deep mourning for my childlessness. And for this sense of not being welcomed by nature. anymore.
And I realised that I was part of the cycles but it’s a much bigger cycle – I needed to expand my perspective. And I realised that I am still part of the cycle of life and death and transformation and rebirth, that my body will die and it will return to the earth and it will be food and fertiliser for new growth. So I’m still part of it just part of it in a different way. And that also helped me when I was writing my will and my funeral sort of arrangements is that, you know, which facing that has been a really important part of also if you know menopause, is you know, I want to be buried in a bluebell wood and I don’t want a headstone – I want an eco coffin and I want to be food for bluebells and the fairies that live in them. I have to say because I spent my childhood reading stories to the fairies that live inside bluebell flowers. So when I go, I’m going back to them.
Sophie Jane Hardy 05:53
I can feel the mythic imagination of the Irish entering you here.
Jody Day 05:59
Yes, I am genetically half Irish. And I’ve been living in Ireland permanently now for four years. And there is, in deep rural Ireland, and there is a real sense actually of something very precious here, which is that those myths and legends and stories are not so far away. And Ireland never had an industrial revolution. It has a very different flavour to the UK. And also here the land – when I when I came here the land spoke to me. I didn’t speak to the land, the land basically reached up through my feet and went, ‘there you are’. I felt known by the land in a way I have never felt anywhere else in the world. So that is something and actually, even if I’d come here 20 years ago when I was, you know still bleeding, I don’t think I would have felt it then because… menopause has gifted me with access to deeper parts of myself.
Sophie Jane Hardy 07:06
I really look forward to exploring that with you a little later on in the conversation because there’s . . you teach very powerfully about what it is to be childless, not by choice, through menopause and post-menopause. So we’ll get there, I wanted to ask, for those who haven’t read your book, where you very generously share your story and what inspired the creation of this incredible organisation and body of work Gateway Women, could you share a bit of your story?
Jody Day 07:37
Yeah, absolutely. The interesting thing is whenever I’m asked to tell my story, a different story comes out every time. It’s never fixed. You know, the events are fixed, but what I choose to share or the lens through which I see it shifts, and that’s that’s also one of the fascinating things about getting older is that biography is always moving. And the meaning that we assigned to different events changes over time.
So I was I was born in London. I was actually born rather dramatically in the ‘Catholic Home for Fallen Women’ in West London, which later became the DVLA centre which somehow feels appropriate! So my mum was rebellious Catholic teenager in West London and I was an unplanned teenage pregnancy, and she was very much shamed by her family and her community for that. After I was born, she changed her mind about me being adopted and so she thrown out of the nursing home by the nuns with nowhere to go and a newborn baby. So there’s definitely a rebellious streak that runs in my blood! My Mum did go home to her parents when I was six weeks old and they did take her back in and I was the first grandchild and I was much beloved by a sort of large rumbustious, dysfunctional Catholic working class family who loved me dearly.
My Mum unfortunately was pretty much forced to get married, when I was about three, to a really very unpleasant man, in order ‘to provide a respectable home’ for me, as it was called then. It’s interesting, I mean this was 1964 when I was born, but the most shameful female stereotype then was to be an ‘unwed mother’. And to be born out of wedlock, it was still really, really shocking. Which, really interestingly shows how much things have changed in 40-50 years because now the most shamed female stereotype is to be a single, childless woman over 40. You know, ‘Why didn’t you have one on your own? It’s, you know, it’s the idea is like, ‘How did you screw this up that you don’t have a baby?’ So that’s, you know, that’s what the Daily Mail shouts about that now, rather than about ‘unwed mothers’ – it’s now childless women who are going to destroy the fabric of society as opposed to unwed mothers – but best not get me started on that one!
And so, I really grew up in a very unhappy, often violent, abusive home. My mum was very unhappy. She had been a very unmothered child herself and so didn’t really have the skills to be a mum, because she hadn’t been mothered. So things were not great at home. And growing up, all I knew was that I needed to get out, I needed to survive and get out. And the idea of having children was just absolutely not on my mind; if anything, it was more that, ‘I never want to bring a child into a world like this’.
So I was quite a radical teenager and quite a politicised one and I arrived in London, knowing no one age 19, to launch myself on the world, which I did. I was originally in the fashion business, which was my dream at that time. And then I was with a really lovely man who was actually really stable, really kind – I didn’t understand him at all because I wasn’t ready for a man that nice! I accidentally got pregnant but, at 20-21, I was terrified, absolutely terrified of repeating my maternal story, which was having children young and to quote my mum and many school teachers of the time, “ruining your life” – that having children ruined your life as a woman. So, my boyfriend was, you know, was fine with us having the baby or not, but I chose to have an abortion and my mum completely supported me with that; she was even with me when I had the abortion, so there was no sense that this could possibly be the biggest blessing of your life – it was not there at all. But I was very unconscious, and I was very young and I had no emotional or psychological language to try and explain how much trauma I was carrying. And I was terrified of being a bad mum, you know? And now I’m a big grown-up psychotherapist, I know that probably I wouldn’t have been a great mum at that point. But also, because I was scared of being a bad mum, because I already had the beginnings of that awareness that I didn’t want to repeat my family’s pattern, I probably might have been able to do something different anyway. So I don’t regret that decision. But it would have been nice if there had been some elders around me with some different perspectives to share. And so, that relationship broke down.
And a couple of years later, I met the man who became my first husband. I said to him, ‘I don’t think I want to have kids,’ and he was like, “okay” – no big discussion – that was it – that was all we discussed. Then we got married when I was 26, which felt incredibly grown up. And now looking back I’m like “26!” and a few years later, being part of his big rumbustious, loving, dysfunctional, English, upper class, bohemian family (he was one of six), and his parents adored each other – it was a very, very different idea of family life. And I thought, okay, maybe family doesn’t just mean what I’ve had, what my mind knows as family. And so I changed my mind and I said, ‘I think I do want to have children’, and he was like, “Okay”. Once again, these conversations that can derail relationships, especially if they’re not had…
And so I started trying to conceive and I wasn’t able to conceive. Three years after I started trying, I had an operation called a laparoscopy, which is where they put a camera through your navel and they have a look around. And when I came out, you know the very avuncular gynaecologist said “Oh well, finest property I’ve seen all week. You lovely young people just go off and have lots more sex”. That was it, that was all the advice we got, so we were both checked out. There was absolutely nothing wrong. And but I never managed to conceive again. No damage from the abortion. Everything was checked out. You know, everything was fine, but something wasn’t fine. So then I went through. So by this time, I’m 33 I just disappear into what I call in my book ‘babymania’. I just became obsessed with getting pregnant. Tried every pill, every potion, went to see every alternative practitioner, started eating this, started not eating that. Taking these vitamins, not taking those, standing on my head. You name it, and including my poor then-husband was also put through all these things too – and he worked a lot with paints, he’s an artist, so I made him stop using these toxic brands. And we did everything, to no avail.
Meanwhile, other things were brewing in our life. Unbeknownst to me, unconsciously, I had sort of married my mother again. So I’d married a charming person, but actually fragile and vulnerable underneath and with lots of trauma and mental health issues, which started to show up in addictions. We had a business together by that time, an interior design business, which was going really well and, but behind the scenes things were going horribly wrong with drinking and drugs and me holding everything together, which is what I’ve done all my life to that point. So holding together the business, holding together how our marriage looked from the outside, dealing with the terror of loving an addict and then him disappearing for days at a time until . . I had a nervous breakdown at 37. But thanks to Brene Brown, her amazing expression, I had a ‘nervous breakdown slash spiritual awakening.’
So it was like being very painfully reborn in my life. And I had an opportunity to see my life, really see it. And literally, it was like looking around the room of my life and going, “Who the heck made all these decisions?” It was like a reset. And that was very powerful and very terrifying. And my marriage didn’t survive it. And I think what catalysed it was probably what we would now call burnout. and also I lost my temper. So I had a physical collapse and I lost my temper, all at the same time. It was a very, very physical thing. And as I lost my temper, I found it carried on, I couldn’t stop it. And it was literally like…
Within some spiritual traditions and Eastern traditions, they would describe what happened to me as a ‘spontaneous kundalini awakening.’
It was a white-hot energy which started in my buttocks, basically my buttocks got hot, and I was losing my temper and I could feel this energy rising up through my body, and it rose up through my body right up through the central column of my body. And it came out the top of my head. So I felt that the top of my head had come off like a boiled egg. It just wasn’t there. And I felt that this white energy, like a column of it, going a billion miles an hour, was just going straight up to infinity. It was . . and I, at that point, I was on my own because I’d left the office and gone home because I felt so not myself. And I heard myself thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, you know, I’ve actually lost my mind. It’s gone.’ But then, I could feel that in the centre of this incredibly powerful vortex of energy (I visualised it as a walnut) that I was inside. But the I that was inside this walnut was the I that I’d been when I was born and the I was now – it was ageless. . . I mean, Jung would call it the Self… that I was in pure contact with the Self. And the Self was saying, ‘But I’m fine, I’m fine in here.’ But my fear was that no one else would be able to find this bit – that they were all going to think I’d gone insane. And that was the last thought I remember because then I blacked out and, you know, I don’t know how long I woke up later. Could have been 15 minutes could have been an hour. But I obviously lost consciousness and woke up on the floor of my house. But it was a before and after moment in my life.
Sophie Jane Hardy 19:25
Wow, I want to carry on with your story but I just feel moved to ask you this because at Red School and on this podcast, we’re always talking about callings, core to our work is how the process of the menstrual cycle and the process of menopause can bring us home to ourselves and to what we’re here to do or to bring or to offer. Clearly, you have a huge calling. One of my friend’s lives was totally transformed by Gateway Women. She’s a different person on the other side. And it’s just so fascinating to hear about that key moment in your calling, calling.
Jody Day 20:05
It was very lonely afterwards, because the life that I had built around me, didn’t fit and didn’t suit. And it was not long after that, that I found myself divorced, single, and childless in my early 40s. At first still hopeful that I would and I’ll put this in air quotes for the podcast, “meet someone and do IVF,” but I knew nothing. Interestingly, I had avoided doing any research around IVF and actually, one of the reasons the marriage broke down when it did was actually my then-husband said, ‘Maybe we should do IVF?’ and I remember I was lying in the bath and I thought, ‘I don’t want to bring a child into this’ – and that was about six weeks before the breakdown. I just suddenly saw what a mess our marriage and our life were and having grown up in chaos I was like, ‘I don’t want to bring a child into this.’ So there was a moment before that moment. I see it like releasing the vacuum on the top of the jam jar – it sort of loosened the lid and then six weeks later the lid blew off!
So I spent the first couple of years of my 40s still hopeful that I would I would, you know, I would still manage to become a mother.
I didn’t know that at that age, my chances of IVF working were about 2% because, like most people, we get our information about IVF and success rates from the proliferation of miracle baby stories in the media. And we don’t understand that the most likely outcome of IVF treatment is childlessness.
You know that is the shadow, the very big shadow that is never talked about. So it wasn’t till I was 44 that I accepted, and accepted is the wrong word, realised that my childlessness was not an inconvenient stopping point on the way to motherhood but that it was my final destination. And I completely fell apart when I found that out, but I didn’t know it was grief. I was in despair.
And I’d had I’d pulled myself up before – I’d had a lot of troubles in my life and I’d found my way through all of them and so I trusted in my ability to find my way through this and I couldn’t. And I would speak to doctors, therapists, Dr. Google but nobody had any insight into what I was going through because nobody knew it was grief. And it wasn’t until I was in the second year of my psychotherapy training, and we were doing a weekend training course on bereavement and working with bereaved clients. And we were exploring the Kubler Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model and I was thinking ‘this feels very familiar’… And so I went home that evening and I mapped out each stage against my experience of childlessness and I was like,
‘Oh my goodness, I’m grieving! That’s what this is. It’s not depression, I’m grieving.’ And I was relieved, so relieved for two reasons. Number one, I knew I wasn’t going mad, because anyone who has experienced deep grief and loss (and if you haven’t yet, you will, it’s part of being alive) is that the internal cognitive reality of grief is very bizarre. It is not like your normal functioning mind. And I thought is this just the new me, is this the middle-aged me?
And I thought no, no, this is a process I’m going through. And that was the other thing that I was relieved about. I don’t understand how but one day, this is a process which means one day I’m going to be on the other side of it. So actually what it gave me for the first time in many years was hope.
Jody Day 24:20
And not being able to have a child is the most heartbreaking thing. Maybe it’s one of the most heartbreaking things. I mean, unfortunately, there are many heartbreaking things in this world.
But you have to lose hope, because that’s actually the first part of grief. You have to come out of denial that somehow this is fixable, and you have to lose hope. And losing hope is basically coming out of denial but living a life without any hope is very hard. It’s very bleak. We like to have a sweetie to look forward to. It’s just part of being human. You know, we just need something that links us to this imaginary place in the future. This lighthouse on the horizon that maybe we can swim towards. It just helps us get through those dark nights of the soul and that really, really helped me.
And so I gradually started writing about grief. I’d started my blog, Gateway Women, probably about two weeks before that extraordinary moment when I discovered it was grief. So then I started writing about grief. Six weeks later, I gave my first talk, and a journalist came to that and who wrote an article about me for The Guardian and my work, which went viral, and which is still being read today which is actually about the impact of childlessness on your friendships, which is huge.
Infertility, and childlessness, really take your friendship group apart, and they do a bit of a number on your family relationships too.
So that’s me and here we are Gateway Women is 11 years old this year. I published my book, Living The Life Unexpected nine years ago as a self-published book, and then in 2016, it was picked up by Bluebird Pan Macmillan. It’s now in its second edition with them. I started an online community, started workshops, have given 2 TEDx talks, got another one coming up and have made it my mission I think, to make the world understand childless women but also to help childless women understand themselves and to have compassion for themselves, for what they’re going through, because the world treats childless women (and this is women who are childless, not by choice, rather than women who’ve chosen not to have children, not that they get a free pass either, by the way) but treats us like failed women. You know, incomplete projects, failed women, not proper grownups. And when you’re also grieving, your children, your grandchildren, being, you know, being the mother of your, you know, your partner’s children, not having you know, children when your siblings do, not being part of the community of mothers, not being considered a real woman by society, then not seeing your children grow up, not having grandchildren, dying without children.
This is a life-long loss. It’s a living loss. It’s not about just not having a baby – it is your whole feminine identity that you thought you would have being ripped away from you. It is such a profound psychological wound. And people trivialise it and think, oh, “She just didn’t have a baby, really. Aren’t you over that yet?”
Sophie Jane Hardy 27:46
Yeah. Well, you’ve shared so much there and there are several threads that I’d like to pull on. The first one being just the concept of being childless, not by choice, which I think is really not understood in the world. As you pointed to this, there’s this well, why don’t you just adopt or a million throwaway things that people say and at the start of your book, you’ve named 50 ways to not be a mother, which is very helpful because you give voice to the nuance and the complexities of the situations that people find themselves in.
Jody Day 28:24
Yeah, and that list could be 100. I mean, I had to stop somewhere. I mean, it started that 50 ways not to be a mother started in 2012 as a blog, and then gradually, people were this (by the way, for those who are not in their late 50s, blogs used to be a very big thing before Instagram and all of those things!) and so people would leave a lot of comments on them, and you would get a conversation going in the comments. And so more and more people were sharing their stories, and I was learning more and more ways not to be a mother. So in each edition of my book, that section, you know, 50 ways not to be a mother, has expanded to include more and more.
Because there are so many but I think the main thing is, is that the idea is that childlessness is . . well she didn’t want them or she couldn’t have them . . you know, these two, this binary idea, when in actual fact I would say there is a there is a spectrum, definitely between childless and childfree between choice and not choice. But I think there’s also a spectrum between motherhood, childless and childfree – in academic terms, it is part of your “reproductive identity,” whether you have children or not, whatever your gender, or how you like to express that gender, you have a ‘reproductive identity’, and it is core to how you show up in the world and how you think about yourself.
And many, certainly, infertility is usually around 10% of those women who don’t have children by midlife, childfree by choice is 10% but definitely going up, definitely going up for the younger generation.
But the biggest reason that women reach midlife without having their children when they wanted to is circumstance and probably the biggest reason amongst circumstance, and this is really on the rise as well, is not having a willing or suitable partner during your potentially fertile years.
And that is to be doubly shamed as a woman in our society, in our heteronormative society because it’s tied to the idea you haven’t been chosen as a man by a man to be the mother is his children. There really must be something wrong with you. It is sickening.
I would say that single childless women bear the brunt of what is the acceptable face of misogyny in our society.
You’ve only got to look at the crazy cat lady like that’s a joke. It’s not a joke. When people used to say you know you’re a crazy cat lady, I’d say well, if I was a mum, and I had a cat, it’d be a family pet. So the fact that I’m not a mum and I have a cat and I’m a crazy cat lady. It’s not really about the cat is it, it’s about my childlessness.
Sophie Jane Hardy 31:08
If you or someone you know is looking for support through this journey of being childless, not by choice, we want to share some of Jody’s resources with you. So firstly, there’s her website, which is gateway-women.com, Gateway dash Women dot com. That’s where you can find her community. You can also find a link to her book, Living the Life Unexpected and also a link to her brilliant TED Talk. The Lost Tribe of Childless Women and you can find all of that at gateway-women.com.
Sophie Jane Hardy 31:56
Some of the other reasons that you name in the 50 ways are, for example, that realising because of your sexuality, your journey was going to involve IVF and you tried IVF and it didn’t work.
Jody Day 32:22
You know, for people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community there are extra layers of complication here in terms of how the world stigmatises and marginalise them, and also presumes that because they aren’t heterosexual, they’re not “real women” (in inverted commas) and that therefore, they’re not going to want children. And so they get left out of the childlessness narrative almost totally. I mean, in our online community (now called Lighthouse Women), we have the world’s only group for LGBTQ+ childless women. We also have a group for women of colour because childlessness is an intersectional issue, as is fertility, but unfortunately, if you look around you at literature, you would think that only white, middle-class women suffer from either infertility or childlessness.
Sophie Jane Hardy 33:16
Yeah, so true. Something that you speak about so powerfully, and I feel the fire in me rising up my spine, every time I hear you speak about it, is the impact of the career or work expectations and how they don’t fit necessarily with the potentially fertile years. Could you speak to this because it’s, it blew my mind when I first heard it and it continues to.
Jody Day 33:45
Thank you. Well, yes, because the world that, I mean let’s just say when, in the last 50 years, women have had access to the pill, to legal and safe abortion in most, but not all countries, all developed countries, access to higher education and access to the professions so it has . . women’s lives have been absolutely radically transformed in the last 50 years, in terms of their opportunities. However, the universities that we’ve gone to, and the professional working places we’ve become part of, many of us, were set up by men. It is a male, a male patterned, working world and educational world that women have joined. And that pattern has been set up around male fertility, ie: work your ass off in your 20s, you know, with studies and getting onto the career ladder, solidify your career in your 30s and then maybe have a family in your late 30s or 40s. That works for men.
And we’ve joined that pattern and it doesn’t work for female fertility. It also increasingly is not working for male fertility because what, you know, and this is a truth bomb here for people, male fertility declines as well. It declines, it starts declining at 35 dramatically, just as many women’s does. And it gets much worse in the 40s as many women’s does.
One of the reasons, unfortunately, those couples who perhaps are successful in conceiving in their late 30s and early 40s but experience so many miscarriages is due to the quality of the sperm. A sperm bank will not take sperm from a man over the age of 35 because of the number of chromosomal abnormalities in it. So it is, you know, there is we see kind of people like Charlie Chaplin and Rod Stewart and it’s like, and the people, but they are the outliers. There will be many, many, you know, men and couples who wanted to have children who experience heartbreaking amounts of miscarriage and end up childless when that hadn’t been the plan because they didn’t have the right information, which is that male fertility declines too. If a man of that age is with a woman much younger than him then the robust strength of her younger eggs will perhaps counteract his older sperm. But you know if he’s, if he’s with a partner around about the same age as him, they might struggle. They might be able to get pregnant but it might be really hard for them to have a live birth. This information is not out there.
We need to be educating young people in schools, boys and girls. Not just about how not to get pregnant, but actually more information about the reproductive cycle, all of it including periods and menstruality. And boys need to know about periods and menstruality too. But there’s not just ignorance, there’s actually disinformation out there too.
Sophie Jane Hardy 36:56
Yes, yes. One of the things that I’ve really rarely seen talk about maybe I’ve never heard it at all, is the impact of infertility on a career path and I experienced this personally because I had to make various decisions about my career based on the fact that I didn’t know if I was gonna have, be able to have a child or not. I didn’t know what fertility procedures I was going to need to do. And I needed to reduce stress levels to enable optimal facility la la la, it goes on. And I never hear anyone speak about this. It’s a real thing for so so so many people, that as they’re negotiating infertility, or childlessness, that impacts life decisions and derails careers.
Jody Day 37:43
I call it psychological nesting. It’s like, if you are as a woman, it would appear that, and maybe this is the case for men, but I don’t have that experience to speak to – I always held in mind that the life I was living and the life I was creating was the life my children were going to be born into which kind of spoke to why, when I suddenly realised it wasn’t going to be with my then husband, I was out of that marriage very quickly, in a way… But also it would be well, I can’t take that job because it doesn’t have maternity leave. I mean, I left a job that was by a really busy road because of the pollution. You know, and I can’t commit to this course of study or I can’t do this, because then in three years’ time, I’ll be there and that might not fit in with when I’m having children. And this sort of internal negotiation is going on all the time. It’s like a lens through which you’re viewing your life and your opportunities. And you’re trying to create the most optimal landing you can, within what’s under your control, for this potential child that already exists in your mind and your heart and your soul. You’re kind of preparing to receive them into your life and you can’t not view every aspect of your life through it. And you may not even be aware that you’re doing so. And trying to explain that to someone might sound quite potty. You know, well, what do you mean you know, you’re not even trying for a baby, you know, or something like that and it’s like, but we’re planning to.
Sophie Jane Hardy 39:19
Yeh, it really does feel like a symptom of patriarchy, because this isn’t, from what I can see happening as much in the male psyche at all. It’s a different trajectory.
Jody Day 39:32
It would be fascinating to understand more about that. I mean, my colleague, Dr. Robin Hadley, who’s at Manchester Metropolitan University, he’s the UK academic specialist in male childlessness. And he’s just written an amazing book called How Is A Man Meant To Be A Man? Male Childlessness – a Life-Course Disrupted which is all about the impact of childlessness on the male psyche. And he did an extraordinary piece of research which debunks you know, a lot of the patriarchal ideas that you know that it’s women who think about children – i think this was in his masters rather than his doctorate – around broodiness in men. And his research shows that men are just as, if not more broody than women. It’s just they’re not allowed to talk about it.
Sophie Jane Hardy 40:19
Jody Day 40:20
because it’s culturally, you know, not, it’s culturally disenfranchised to be a broody man.
Sophie Jane Hardy 40:25
Yes. Let’s I’d like to speak about some of the other challenges of being a childless woman not by choice in our world. And I think that the way that you explore pronatalism is really important here. So could you define what that is and share some of the impacts. But actually, before you do that, I just want to say that there’s so much charge in my system, still leftover from my infertility process, even though I’ve had a child, that I can, I’m sort of managing a lot of emotion as we’re talking and I’m watching it scramble my brain, which I expected but it’s very, it’s one of the weirdest things for me is how even having a child hasn’t changed the experience of five years of infertility.
Jody Day 41:16
And I think I think that’s really important because you know, a lot of women who do go on to conceive have something called infertility amnesia, it can even show up with women that they were in infertility groups with, or they did treatments with, or things like that, that haven’t had a child.
It’s like they become as insensitive to them as once upon a time they used to talk about how insensitive people were being towards them. They can become, you know, completely just as if they knew nothing about infertility. We call it ‘infertility amnesia’.
But for those women who don’t forget or those women who for some reason, never really quite drank the pronatalist Kool-Aid, to be allies, to non-mothers to non-parents, is hugely important because once you understand and you can see pronatalism, you know, once you take that red pill, like in the film, The Matrix (and Laura Carroll’s book uses that metaphor) – you can’t unsee it, and it is everywhere.
And pronatalism is not something which stops impacting your life once you’ve had a child because pronatalism is the ideology, the valuation system that says people with children are more valuable than people without children, particularly women. But it also says that mothering, childbirth and mothering, is easy, natural, glorious, no problem at all, the most fulfilling thing you’ll ever do in your entire life, you’ll never want for anything else. Which of course, for those women who are longing for it, makes it just the promised land. But for those women who experience it, and it’s like holy crap, this is so not what I was expecting! Because pronatalism is very pro-birth but it’s not that interested in supporting mothers – I mean, a pronatalist society would really offer free childcare as basic, maternity leave as basic,
But pronatalism makes childless women out to be failures. And old, older childless women and old childless women as a complete waste of space. Postmenopausal childless women, postmenopausal single, childless women… you’ve got no protection under the patriarchy: you are no one’s mother, no one’s partner, no one’s potential Hot Mama either. As far as the patriarchal project is concerned,.you’re nothing.
Jody Day 43:57
But one of the things that it does do is, once you get through the grief, and I’m thinking I was listening to your recent interview with Sharon Blackie, once you get the rage, or as Heather Corinna (an American author who wrote an amazing book about the perimenopause – if you haven’t had them on the podcast you have to!) the IDGAF energy of post menopause – (I Don’t Give A Fuck!) – start to get angry and go, ‘So, okay, society thinks I’m invisible. Could be handy because I’m planning to actually be really quite disruptive. And it’s going to be ages before they catch on what I’m up to!’
Jody Day 44:41
But it’s pronatalism, it’s there in the fairy tales. It’s there, also in every modern film and story you will watch: Hansel and Gretel, the witch; Rapunzel, the lady that lives next door to the sweet childless couple that end up getting this child and then . .. They’re all women without children. If there’s an evil or suspect woman, she’s childless, that is what the patriarchy thinks of childless women.
Sophie Jane Hardy 45:09
And let’s talk about the bingos. The bingos.
Jody Day 45:14
Sophie Jane Hardy 45:15
Cause of all this stigma that you’ve named, what happens when someone who is childless meets the world and what? People can, unconsciously hopefully, but just often splurge out the kinds of questions and things that people say and why you call them bingos.
Jody Day 45:34
I include a lot of this in my first TEDx talk, The Lost Tribe of Childless Women. I got the term bingo from the childfree community because they have their own set of sort of knee jerk responses that, of questions and comments about why they’ve chosen not to have children. And we call it bingos because on a really bad day, you can get a “full house”! Now, these comments, they are mostly unconscious because they are social conditioning that comes from pronatalism, and they can come from the nicest people. These can come from, these can come from therapists, they can come from, you know, your mum, your sister, your friends, your boss. They can come from a complete stranger at the bus stop, and they are consistent. And their languaging is all, it’s kind of almost quite similar. You know, maybe therapists and stuff they might be slightly more nuanced, but it’s still the same message.
I mean, just I’ll just rattle a few off the top of my head. Oh, “Do you have kids?” No. Follow-up question. “Why not?” I mean, I’m sorry… number one, why is my uterus and what I’m doing with it and have done with it of interest?! That’s already very interesting. You don’t say to someone if they say ‘Yes’ to having children, ‘Why did you choose to have children?!’
So, “Why not?” And then you might feel forced to explain an extremely, extremely traumatic reproductive story. You don’t know what someone is going through. And then they might say, “Well you’re so lucky. You get to sleep in and travel.” Really? Not the last time I looked! You know, as a menopausal woman who’s self-employed. I don’t get a lot of holidays or sleep. And, “You dodged a bullet” (That’s often one men hear). Or “Children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be” or “Have one of mine” or “Don’t you think you’re a bit selfish?” (That’s more around choice). “Don’t you think you’ll regret it when you’re old?” “What will your parents think?” “Who’s going to look after you when you’re old?”
Jody Day 47:54
Not just “Why don’t you adopt”, or “Have you explored adoption? or “considered it”. For a lot of women, it’s number one bingo. And the thing is, every childless woman has either, has thought about adoption, and many of them have looked into it, many of them have tried to adopt and have been turned down. You know, for really, really strange reasons often. Some of them have been through adoption and the adoptions have broken down. And it’s not news.
Every single person has thought about adoption, and also, children who are looking for homes. . .they are not just a little bit of a cookie to throw at a childless person. These are complex human beings who’ve had a really difficult start in life. They’re not there just to plug a hole in the conversation or plug a hole in a childless person’s life.
Sophie Jane Hardy 47:55
Jody Day 48:20
And in a way wanting to adopt, many people who want to adopt have always wanted to adopt. It is part of their calling. And something I would say back to someone who says “Why don’t you just adopt” is Why don’t you?
Sophie Jane Hardy 49:00
Jody Day 49:03
Because, and they’ll say, “Oh, well, you know, because I’ve got biological children”. Well haybe childless people feel exactly the same? What they really really wanted to experience was being the parents of their own biological children, just like you did. But if you say I don’t want to adopt, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, she didn’t really want kids.’ Someone actually said that to me once. ‘Well you obviously didn’t really want children then.’ Yeah, you know, and if you are, as I was in my 40s, single, childless, self-employed, not owning a property, not having any savings no way did I meet any of the criteria
Jody Day 49:39
I mean, in my psychotherapy training, I specialised in child and adolescent psychotherapy, as well, as you know, I work with adults as well. But I came to understand so much more about the likely needs of those children who are looking for homes with adoptive families and the stresses and strains that will be placed on the adoptive parents – and once again, pronatalism, not really much help once you’ve adopted children. Adoptive parents, parents of adopted children get absolutely strung out to dry compared to the amount of support they actually need to parent these often traumatised kids. I understand now why adoption is so hard, because it’s a lot of the children need so much additional support that unless the couple (and they prefer a couple and I understand why because what they’re asking of, of adoptive parents quite often is a lot). They need you to be really set up and really well resourced, emotionally, financially, within your family systems within your workplace, within your living situation. That’s, I mean, it’s a calling. It’s not for everyone. And it’s not there to fix childlessness.
Sophie Jane Hardy 51:01
Could you share some advice about how someone who is childless can respond when these kinds of questions are asked? Because it can be easy to think that we just have to have to give a response
Jody Day 51:17
And as women we are really conditioned to answer for ourselves. You know, and for those, you know, for those women who have experienced pregnancy, there is an extraordinary sense of public ownership over a woman’s uterus, in that you know, people will will touch your bump and ask you very personal questions once you’re pregnant. It’s the same thing around a, sort of a childless uterus. There will be real questions about what you’re doing with it.
But I think first of all, when you get asked those questions, you will need a variety of answers. I used to have, I used to think of it’s like, I had like a selection, like watches. Do you know what I mean? With about 10 or 20 different answers depending on how I was feeling and the situation and where I wanted to go with it. So I had like a range of answers because I think, about bingos, you can guarantee you’ll be asked them at some point by someone, so it’s great to have your answers ready.
But first of all, when you get asked those questions, take a breath. Just take a breath. Take that moment to assess the situation. As Brene Brown says “people have to earn the right to your story”. And also you are not gynaecological Google! You do not have to explain what’s going on.
They probably don’t really want to know that level of information anyway. But when someone says, you know, well, ‘I’ve just had a miscarriage’ and they’ll respond with something like, “Oh, but that’s good. At least you know, you can get pregnant” that’s a bingo. Or, “At least it wasn’t very far on”, bingo.
So before you answer, you need to work out the nature of this interaction? What is this person trying to do? Are they just trying to connect with me socially? Are they just trying to find out, you know, whether we’re in the same club or whether I’m one among “those weird childfree or childless women”, and choose your answer accordingly, and have a range of answers including some humourous ones. Sometimes someone would say to me, you know, “Do you have children” and I’d go, ‘I’m not sure’. And I’d say it with a kind of a funny face and then they would laugh and it would break the moment.
But it really depends where you’re at in your healing, in your grief. Because some days you might be on the floor with grief when someone asks you an impertinent and detailed question about your childlessness and you can be so panicked and in the headlights, you don’t know what to do, and it’s okay to say, ‘I’m not really up to answering that right now’ or ‘That’s actually a bit more personal than I can deal with right now.’
And switch it around and say something, you know, often, nearly always when someone asks you if you have children, it means they do. So you can just turn it back on them and go, ‘No,but I’m guessing you do, how old are they?’ You can deflect.
Also it can be a teaching moment. If you’re feeling a little bit older and you’re a little bit more at peace with your grief. When someone asks me about my childlessness, sometimes I might say, ‘No, I don’t, I’m part of the one in five women in our generation that reaches midlife without children, most of us not by choice, you probably know lots of women impacted by this issue.’ And when I say, ‘You probably know someone impacted by involuntary childlessness?’ You see that special thing when their eyes go up or to the left, that they move into their thinking brain. Every single person I’ve ever said that to has said, ‘Oh, actually, that friend of my daughter in law, or that woman at work, actually my daughter is really struggling, or yes, my best friend is.’ And they start to realise that you’re not some freak representative. But you’re actually part of a very big part of the human story that is unfolding around us right now. I mean, there are so many of us and we are so hidden in the shadow of pronatalism, and we are doing ordinary and extraordinary things with our lives, and both are completely okay.
Sophie Jane Hardy 55:27
Can you speak to what we can do, or what someone who is experiencing childlessness not by choice can do with their grief. I was really struck by a sentence I heard you say recently, you said “grief is a process of identity transformation”
Jody Day 55:47
Sophie Jane Hardy 55:48
That this process of childlessness, or what I experienced, which was infertility, just turns us into something that we just don’t recognise and how to be with that as part of the process also.
Well, I have no tips for enjoying transformation. It feels like crap! It looks great on a little Instagram meme. But what transformation feels like is everything in your life has gone to crap, you have no idea who you are, nothing you used to be suits you anymore, and you have no idea what’s happening.
Jody Day 56:02
And the idea that this is turning you into a new version of yourself. Well, you haven’t met her yet. You don’t know her. I like to refer to the caterpillar inside. Okay, the caterpillar crawling along one day munching on the leaves and suddenly it starts to spin this prison and in a couple of days, it’s completely cocooned inside this dark, hot prison. And then its body starts to turn to mush. And its DNA turns into a suit. Don’t tell me that doesn’t hurt. Now it doesn’t know it’s gonna be a butterfly one day. It just knows that it’s in prison and its body is melting. And it has no idea why. And then one day, the DNA is transformed. The new body is built. The chrysalis opens and the butterfly comes out.
And everyone talks about the butterfly as the process of transformation. But no, it’s what happens to the caterpillar. That’s what transformation feels like: in the dark, turning to shit, no idea what’s going on, everything is terrifying and you don’t know what’s happening. That is transformation.
So I think we need to be a lot kinder to ourselves. We are meaning making machines, human beings are always trying to understand what this means, what’s happening. I think one of those really scary things about transformation is you don’t know. You actually don’t know who you’re going to be at the end of it.
So also I think it’s really important to try not to make any irrevocable decisions. This is probably my number one piece of advice about grief. Try not to make any irrevocable decisions because the person you will be later in this process is someone you haven’t met yet. And she may, the decisions, irrevocable decisions, may not suit her, they may not fit with her. So you know, by all means cut your hair off and go blonde, you can grow it back. But, you know, try not to move to another country. Try not to leave your partner. If you have one. Try, you know, various things.
It’s a very creative, can be a very creative time. But the ego can have such a strong desire to take control of the process because it’s terrifying, that it can start going, equating any action with progress, and it can get fixated on “okay, I’m going to do this this this this and this”. So you can start making decisions but you don’t actually know who you’re making those decisions for but it’s a lot scarier to actually sit in the mush in the liminal state of transformation.
Probably one of the liminal states that nearly all of us will remember is adolescence. That’s probably the last time we went through an identity transformation as profound as the grief process. You know, we didn’t know what kind of adults we were going to be…
Or even what an adult is.
No, you just think it’s a person who has kind of you know, well more money and a car. (Both laugh) Not much more than that. You have no idea of the responsibilities of adulthood or anything, you know, they can go to bed when they won’t get up when they want. They’ve got money, they can eat what they want. They can watch what they want on the TV, must be great. And then you get there and go, oh shit, I’m here now.
Sophie Jane Hardy 59:45
Adulting is not fun.
Jody Day 59:48
It is overrated. Yes.
Sophie Jane Hardy 59:50
Jody Day 59:51
It doesn’t have to, to anyone listening though who is not yet postmenopausal and you are a woman and you have a uterus is, it does get better. It does get better. I mean, my 50s were so much better than my 40s and I’m on the cusp of my 60s now. And yeah, I’m just getting going.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:00:13
So speaking of life post menopause, it’s a particular part of this journey to go through the menopause process as a childless woman.
Jody Day 1:00:24
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:00:25
You’ve talked about it as being a death that you survive.
Jody Day 1:00:30
Yes, it is a dark night of the soul, the menopause when you’re childless not by choice. I have met women for whom they have held out some hope right up until that moment. Not necessarily logical hope because hope isn’t always logical, because hope is a form of denial, often, and you know, it has crashed down on them like an avalanche of darkness. You know, because they have to face the end of their potentially reproductive life, the end of the possibility of having children, the end of their youth and the beginning of their elder years, all in one go.
I think the existential nature of menopause for women who are childless not by choice and have not had any support to help them process their grief through that, is absolutely woefully under-studied and under-written about because it is actually the end of your line.
You know, when you age and die, you age and die more profoundly than someone who has children for whom they sense that they go on in the world. You’re also facing old age and possible dependency needs without children, either to provide that or to advocate for you or to arrange it. There’s an intense vulnerability to look forward to. And an unknown vulnerability because you don’t know what you’ll need.
And also, there is no, there’s a new project I’m working on called Gateway Elderwomen, which is very much an emerging project is that there is also no sense of any role for you to inhabit. The only role you’ve had to inhabit is that of being a potentially fertile woman and then coming to terms with that not being the case. But once you are an older, postmenopausal childless woman, there is no word in the English language to describe you that isn’t an insult. The only word that is a compliment is grandmother. (Which is why you’ll notice that quite often that term is used as a generic description of all women over 60, regardless of whether they have grandchildren or not, because that’s the nice word to use, a group of grannies, no, it’s a group of women). All the other words, many of them need reclaiming: hag, crone, witch, I call myself an apprentice crone . ..
Jody Day 1:02:59
You know these words used to be powerful words, because being an older woman used to be a powerful thing to be because there weren’t very many of them. You know childbirth didn’t leave many of us left to be older, wise women. We’ve been through a lot by them. We were valued and respected. We were the keepers of wisdom and stories in our societies. And I do think there is a special kind of wisdom that comes with menopause.
Jody Day 1:03:29
And I think also the distinctions between those who’ve had children and haven’t had children, if they’re conscious women, ie not just unconscious women who are still in thrall to patriarchy and pronatalism and totally over-invested in their role as grandmothers to the exclusion of other parts of their identity that could flower, you know. Those sort of conscious, older women and actually conscious women who are mothers who are older, that’s what I mean.
And conscious women who are childless or childfree and older have a lot more in common, sort of post parenting and post childlessness I think there is a space post patriarchy for us to connect. Because patriarchy and pronatalism wants to keep older, powerful women separated and silent. And I think together and noisy, actually, the younger people need us.
I think there’s a role for powerful older women, for younger people. We, you know, we have an explosion of old people and actually we need an explosion of elders.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:04:36
They do. I’m nodding my head here and have been for the whole of the conversation
Jody Day 1:04:37
And I think that’s, you know, as a childless woman, it feels very powerful to me that because I don’t have any biological skin in the game. I don’t have any children or grandchildren, so my care for the future, and my care for the planet and my care for the generations coming up behind me, is kind of, it’s for all of them. I don’t have to separate out that, that care as an ancestor in a way that is natural for someone, you know, who has to make sure that their children are okay.
And I really think that it is possible and powerful to be a good ancestor, regardless of whether you have children or not. And I really want to help, you know, to embody that and to get that message out there.
I’ve always felt, and I ended my TEDx talk, like five years ago talking about something like that. And a few people said to me, ‘It’s really weird that bit at the end, when you talk about maybe there’s a reason there are so many childless women around now, what did you mean?’ I said, well I think the planet and the future, I don’t think it’s an accident, I think, actually, we’re needed. And then more and more five years later, I can see that coming into focus, as we face you know, ecological and economic collapse.
We’re going to need some feisty old women, you know, to help the young people break down and recreate the world into something which actually supports life, is not anti-life, whether that’s human life or more than human life.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:06:13
Jody, how can people connect with you perhaps people who are interested in the Elderwomen project or could you speak a bit about the Reignite Weekends that you offer for childless women?
Jody Day 1:06:25
Okay, so you’ll find everything on my website, which is gateway-women.com (Gateway hyphen Women dot Com). You’ll find all the links there to the Gateway Elderwomen project. Also to Lighthouse Women, which is the new name for the Gateway Women online community which is an amazing community of childless women from all over the world. And also the Reignite Weekends – I created those in 2012. It’s a healing and transformational weekend for women who are childless. It’s to help you process your grief, really think about who you are as a childless woman, break through the patriarchal and pronatalist identity and, her own, create a new dream for your life as a childless woman – all in two days. You will be shattered at the end of it! – they run all over the world, both online and in-person in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and UK, and EU. Yeah.
And I will be creating over the next couple of years a new sort of retreat for childless elderwomen. It’s very much emerging. I don’t know quite what it is yet, but I’m working on a novel at the moment and when that’s finished, then the next thing after that, which of course features actually a single, childless heroine at the centre of it. And after that, I’m really going to start thinking about my next book, which I’ve actually been researching for the last five years, which will be in a way the book that I need to read, which hasn’t been written yet. Which is also what Living The Life Unexpected was; it was the book I needed that didn’t exist and now as a childless older woman, I’m discovering that the book I need to guide me doesn’t exist.
Almost every single book about getting older as a childless woman and almost every single book about the menopause, with a few notable exceptions, presumes that every woman reading it has been or is a mother. It’s the default female identity.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:08:26
Yeah. Jody thank you. I’m very moved and inspired by how close you live to the edge of your being. You’re there walking your edges, and then you’re sharing with us, you know, and I’m seeing it now in the way you speak about the elderwomen project. It’s a very generous act to be in that place of emergence and sharing in the way
Jody Day 1:08:26
Oh, thank you.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:08:26
that you do and that you have done and I know it has supported so many 1000s of people. I hope this conversation has helped create, yeah, belonging and kindness in a place where people might be feeling lonely.
Jody Day 1:09:04
Yeah, you’re not alone. You know, there are women around you. There are women you don’t know yet. There are women online. There are women in person. You know, we are one in five women. In my cohort, 1964, we are one in four women didn’t have children. The current generation it’s one in five. I think it’s going to go up a lot for the younger millennials and the generation coming up behind them. Then we’re going to see many more people choosing not to have children, and also many more people choosing or choosing not to have children for systemic reasons, that aren’t really a free choice, around housing and economics and safety and environment.
So I think we need to start normalising the idea that parenthood is an if, not a when and that women without children have powerful gifts to offer themselves in their lives, they are not just walking wombs. No, we are very, very powerful beings, and the world needs us.
Sophie Jane Hardy 1:10:09
I want to extend such a warm thank you to Jody for everything she shared in this conversation. So powerful. I hope it’s been supportive for you. And again, I want to point you to gateway-women.com if you’re looking for support in this area, or if you know someone that is. Okay, that’s it for today. Thank you for listening, and I look forward to being with you again in future on the Menstruality Podcast. And until then keep living life according to your own brilliant rhythm.