Very soon it will be the UK’s third National Fertility Awareness week which is being organised by Infertility Network UK, the British charity which supports those undergoing infertility treatment. Cue lots of ‘miracle baby stories’ in the press about couples that despaired of ever having a child but who managed thanks to the help of this amazing science. The week even ends with the annual hopefest that is The Fertility Show at London’s Olympia, an entire exhibition hall filled with stands from fertility clinics and associated industries looking to ‘educate’ (sell to) potential new ‘parents’ (customers).
But what I bet we won’t hear about during the week will be about the many women suffering in silence with a type of infertility so shameful they can hardly bear to talk about it. It’s called ‘social infertility’ and it’s affecting a huge number of women in their 30s and 40s in the UK.
‘Social infertility’ refers to those women who are single, childless and unable to find a partner to have children with whilst it is still possible.
1 in 5 women in the UK born in the 1960s has turned 45 without having had a child – some by choice but many by circumstance, this is double what it was a generation ago. Although not having a partner features in many of the stories of those of us born in the 1960s (like myself), it doesn’t compare to the frequency with which those born in the 1970s seem to be experiencing it. The UK Office for National Statistics has a fairly blunt recording tool – live births by the last day of a woman’s 45th year – so it won’t be for another decade that we’ll have the full data. However, amongst those women joining the private online GW Community born in the 1970s, it seems that social infertility is increasingly prevalent.
The private and personal pain of being both single and childless is so extreme that within the GW Online Community we have a special name for it – ‘DoubleWhammy’. The fact of having never been married or in the kind of long-term partnership in which the opportunity to try for a baby arose, seems to be a double discounting of femininity.
Often women in this situation don’t even want to share their stories because they don’t feel ‘entitled’ to their pain, grief and despair compared to those women who’ve suffered miscarriages, failed to conceive or who have experienced unsuccessful IVF. There is sometimes a sense of deep unworthiness, of being right at the bottom of some invisible pecking order of childless women and not quite ‘full members’ of the childless club, and so therefore not quite due their share of understanding, support and empathy.
DoubleWhammy seems to be a black hole of shame, sucking women into a silent vacuum of excruciating grief and self-condemnation. It’s as if all the promises of equality and feminism are vanquished by the impending event horizon of being both single and childless. Of not being ‘chosen’ for either partnership or motherhood.
In my book, Living the Life Unexpected, I explore the new ‘spinster’ stereotype:
Whereas just a generation ago, being an unmarried mother was to be the social outcast, now it’s the single, childless woman over 40 who carries the weight of shame. Yet, for some women this is not a situation they chose, but rather one that they’ve ended up in because they’ve made intelligent, honourable choices and behaved with decency and morality towards others. Many of them have cared for vulnerable family members through their fertile years, have refrained from getting pregnant ‘accidentally’ without a partner’s consent and have worked hard as members of their families, workplaces and communities and have contributed to society as taxpayers.
I know some of these ‘spinsters’ personally and have met many others through Gateway Women, and a wonderfully kind, funny, attractive and diverse bunch they are. But having been made the scapegoat for some of the unexpected consequences of the huge social changes of the last 45 years, many of them seem to bear their situation as a mark of personal failure – and until they join GW, nobody seems to have ever helped them out by explaining that it’s not their fault. Just as with medical infertility, everyone is free with advice, but there’s very little genuine empathy:
- Have you tried internet dating? (Erm, I’ve been on three different sites for five years and have been ‘dating’ weekly… of course I’ve tried it!)
- You can’t give up now! It’s a numbers game… you’re bound to meet someone soon! (Do you have any idea how soul destroying it is to be treated like a number? You met your partner at work, got to know each other, fell in love and have been together ever since. Don’t tell me about ‘giving up’. You couldn’t last a week of the humiliation I’ve been dealing with for the last five years!)
- But I don’t understand why you’re single? You’re lovely! (I know you think you’re helping, but you’re just making me feel helpless. I have a job, my own home, my own teeth, speak 3 languages including emotional intelligence and have worked so hard on my ‘issues’ that I’m the most ‘developed’ person you’re ever likely to meet. But none it makes me 33 again and I’ve now found out that it’s the only number that really matters in the dating game at this stage.)
- Don’t worry – you’ve got plenty of time. I read about this woman the other day who had a baby in her fifties! (Why the f*** do you think that’s what I’m hoping for? Another ten or fifteen years of hell followed by having a baby on my own when you’ll be having grandchildren!)
- Well, I guess you always were more of a career woman… (No I’m not! I’m a woman with a job, not a career woman! We used to work together, remember? And just because you got married and I didn’t suddenly I’m a ‘career woman’ like it was some kind of choice?!)
- But there’s no rush… why are you so worried? Just chill out. You mustn’t get bitter. You’re not going to find anyone if you’re bitter. It’s not that bad anyway… you’ve got so much freedom! Enjoy it! (How would you have ANY IDEA what it’s like to be the joke of the century, the misfit, the problem daughter, the maiden aunt, the spinster? To sit at home weekend after weekend watching all your ‘old’ friends on Facebook meet up for family holidays together? To dread Christmas, birthdays and New Year as yet another year marking your failure to progress to the next stage of life? You have no idea what it takes to cope with all my ‘freedom’ – which 75% of the time is actually crushing loneliness and alienation. You’ve just been added to my list of friends that it’s impossible for me to spend time with right now!)
It can be hard too, for concerned parents and coupled-up friends to understand that the dating scene around the age of 40 is not ‘fun’. It’s a brutal, Darwinian fight for the right to reproduce and once a woman is over 35, the numbers are stacked against her both by biology and social selection.
Think about it, if you were a single man in your forties looking to ‘settle down’, would you choose to date women your own age who may already be unable to conceive naturally (or at all) or would you set your ‘age criteria’ box on your dating selection to meet women several years younger than that? Friends and family tell their single friends to just ‘get out there’ and suggest ever more and more bizarre (and undignified) suggestions of how to meet a partner (things that they would never dream of doing) without realising that they’ve tried it all.
And frankly there’s only so many knocks a normal, healthy ego can take before it needs to call time-out for a while to regroup. And time is the one thing that’s in short supply.
For me, once I accepted that I was never going to be a mother, I lost interest in dating for a few years. I realised how babymania had been what sustained me through the endless hope/despair cycle of internet dating and once that was gone, so was my appetite for internet dating. I dipped my toe back in the water early this year for a few months but I was relieved when my ‘three month trial’ was up. I did meet a couple of interesting men but one was too ready and one not ready enough and well, that was that. As someone who works for herself and runs a women’s organisation, my life is pretty testosterone free and very nice that is too! The great thing about being out the other side of my grief and rocking my Plan B is that there’s no hurry anymore. Because even if I remain single till the day I die, life looks wonderfully rich and full from here. I’ve found my mojo, and she’s very good company!
If I had known that it were possible to feel like this, that not becoming a mother were something that I could get through and recover from, it would have made a huge difference. But there were no role models in the culture – only stories of women so desperate that they were still trying to have babies in their 50’s and beyond. A full and meaningful life as a woman who wanted children and it didn’t work out? Non-existent. Which is one of the reasons that I now curate a Gallery of Childless & Childfree Role Models on Pinterest.
The ticking clock of babymania feels more like a bomb when you’re living through it as a DoubleWhammy. You’ve heard every piece of advice, countless times. You’ve even tried some of the stuff you thought you’d never do. Now, astonishingly people are suggesting you ‘do it on your own’ as if it were an ambitious DIY project that you just need to pluck up the nerve for. Single-motherhood, unless you’re very well set up with a home, an income and solid support from friends and family can be one-way ticket to depression, isolation and poverty. And without those things in place, you’re also ineligible to adopt or foster, although that doesn’t stop everyone suggesting it, like it’s never occurred to us!
To be 40, broody, single and childless is to be in a great deal of pain and be faced with a series of rock-and-a-hard-place choices. Alone. DoubleWhammy doesn’t show up in fertility statistics except as a negative space. Spare a thought this week during #NIAWUK for what it’s like to live in that negative space.
And whatever piece of brilliant advice it is that you think you’ve got for your single friend, your daughter, your sister or your colleague – just don’t. Only for this week if that’s all you can manage, but preferably never again. We know you’re only trying to help, we know you mean well. But please stop and actually start treating us like grown-up women again, not an embarrassing problem to be fixed.
If you are someone who wants or wanted to be a mother and it isn’t or didn’t work out (for whatever reason) please come and join us in the our private, global, Gateway Women Online Community. It’s a fatuous-advice free zone.
Jody Day is a writer, social entrepreneur, training integrative psychotherapist and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfiling Future Without Children’ (Bluebird/PanMacmillan). She set up the Gateway Women friendship and support network in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless women as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. Jody runs private sessions and workshops and retreats for women coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them. She speaks regularly in public, in the media and online about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today and is becoming known as ‘the voice of the childless generation’. Neither a bitter spinster nor a dried up old hag, Jody puts her heart, mind, and soul into lovingly and mischievously subverting the stereotype of the ‘childless woman’. She is living proof that your Plan B can rock too! Watch her talk at the Women of the World Festival on “Creating a Meaningful & Fulfilling Life Without Children” in under 10-mins, with jokes!