World Childless Week has been created by a British childless woman, Stephanie Phillips as a way to highlight the experience, individually and globally, of women and men who are childless not by choice. Each day of World Childless Week has a theme, and the theme for today, Monday 11th September 2017 is is Childless in…
Please find out more, share your thoughts, images, experiences and stories of being childless-not-by choices either below in the comments, on the World Childless Week Facebook page (where most of the activity is taking place this first year), on Twitter at @ChildlessWeek (using the #hashtag #WorldChildlessWeek) or at www.WorldChildlessWeek.com
Childless in London: my journey from isolation to connection
For me, perhaps one of the hardest aspects of my childlessness was the sense of isolation that I felt. As I came out of denial about my situation in my mid-forties, I knew no-one, as far as I knew, amongst my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances or even in the public eye who had wanted to become a mother and it hadn’t happened for them. Either it had happened naturally or fertility issues had been successfully treated. But no one like me, for whom unchosen childlessness was to be my lifelong condition. It didn’t help that no one would let me talk about it either!
If I tried to speak to my friends who were mothers, with one notable exception, they told me how exhausting motherhood was, how ‘lucky’ I was to have dodged that bullet, how much they missed their freedom to sleep in and travel.
If I tried to speak to younger, single friends who were crossing over into ‘last chance’ territory in their mid-to-late thirties, they would shrink back from me with horror, as if not only was I speaking the unspeakable, but as if there was something untouchable about me… I remember saying to one friend, as she yet again closed me down as I tried to talk of my pain, My childlessness isn’t contagious you know?!
And almost everyone I spoke to wanted to tell me about a miracle baby story they’d heard of or read about, about some amazing new fertility procedure, about a woman who’d got pregnant ‘naturally’ and only found out about it when she went to the doctors what she thought were menopause symptoms… Not forgetting, of course, the way that everyone wanted to share with me their brainwave that what I needed to do was to ‘just’ adopt. (Don’t you just love the ‘just’!)
But what nobody would let me talk about was the pain I was in. The soul-shaking, life-draining, terrifying pain of my childlessness that hit me like a truck once I’d realised that my fifteen years of hoping, planning, trying and dreaming to be a mother were over. The pain that no matter what I did to distract myself from it, and no matter how many times I considered all the potentially positive aspects to life without children, felt like a ten-ton weight on my chest that was crushing the life out of me.
It would have helped if I’d known that what I was experiencing was grief. But neither doctors, therapists, mental health professionals or Dr Google had anything to say on the matter.
I wondered if perhaps I was having a nervous breakdown? Or that maybe this was just my new middle-aged personality? Even though I’d survived a lot of trauma already in my life, from childhood onwards, I wondered if perhaps I’d reached my limit, and that childlessness was the one that I’d never recover from.
I felt like I’d totalled my life and had no idea how I was going to live in the wreck that was left.
I knew I needed to be able to talk about what was going on for me and I kept trying, I really did, and I kept being shut down, shamed or given unhelpful (and totally unoriginal) advice. In fact, so unoriginal are they, we call them ‘bingos’ because, on a really bad day, you can get a full house! Eventually, desperate for some kind of connection, I started this blog in April 2011. As I wrote that first blog I thought to myself that if just one other childless woman reads this and ‘gets it’ that’d be something wonderful. The day after that the blog got its first piece of PR, and women from all over the world starting leaving comments such as, How do you know the exact words that are in my head? and, I thought it was just me.
And perhaps two of the most healing words in the English language when you are suffering and isolated: ‘Me too’…
Soon I was meeting these ‘Gateway Women’ face to face and I discovered that we are everywoman and we are everywhere but, being hidden in plain sight, without distinguishing marks or features, we can be hard to spot. And of course we have no natural gathering places, no ‘school gates’. Most of us have learned to either hide our pain around our childlessness, or do our best to avoid social situations where our pain might be triggered. Nearly all of us have learned to keep our mouths shut about how we are overlooked, ridiculed, ignored, disenfranchised and sidelined as those conversations rarely go anywhere towards making us feel heard, or understood and often leave us feeling crushed, angry and ashamed. As Brene Brown explained to me when I asked her about shame around childlessness (watch her answer in the video clip below), her research had shown that childlessness and infertility are one of the ‘top issues of empathic failures’ and how even she struggled with what to say to an infertile friend until she asked her friend what she needed from her. (So, it’s really not just your friends and family, honest!)
Six years on from that first blog, Gateway Women has grown into a global friendship and support network for childless women. I’ve met thousands of childless women individually at workshops and events, and interacted with many thousands more online, particularly in our private online community over on G+ (because Facebook can often be a form of self harm for childless women!). I’ve written a bestselling book based on my personal experience of recovering from childlessness and the programme I’ve developed to share that with others in my workshops Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful Future Without Children (Bluebird/PanMac 2016) and regularly speak at conferences and events around the world. (I’ll be at the NotMom Summit in Cleveland, USA on 7th October). Gateway Women has 100+ free social Meetup groups in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Astonishingly, at the last count, the ‘social reach’ of Gateway Women can be estimated at over 2-million women globally.
For me, finding my tribe and loving them hard has been an absolutely crucial part of my recovery from childlessness. I encourage you to find YOUR local tribe and together you can find a way to come out of the shadows again, to take up space in the world again.
You haven’t done anything wrong; you are nothing wrong. You’re childless. You’re one of a huge, powerful, growing tribe of empathic and aware women. You know heartbreak and loss and it has given you a priceless tenderness that our world needs. Wherever you are in the world, dear childless sister, you are not alone. Reach out. Connect. Heal. Your tribe is here, waiting for you.