To celebrate the US publication of Donna Ward's brilliant memoir, 'She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster's Meditations on Life' we hope you enjoy this GW Masterclass on 'Celebrating the Spinster'. To join us at future GW Masterclasses sign up at www.bit.ly/gw-masterclass
As I wrote in my 2020 interview with Donna Ward about her book:
She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life energised me in a way that few books still have the capacity to do, so eloquently and accurately does it portray not only ‘the life unexpected’ (to paraphrase my own book’s title!) but also, the life ‘invisible’ which is that of the unpartnered, childless woman in our society. In a world focused and built on the needs, attitudes, prejudices and ‘stories’ of those who couple and have children, to be a ‘Spinster’ (a term which Donna reclaims and explains in our interview) is still one of the most stigmatized, problematized and ridiculed identities for a 21st Century western woman to occupy; to do so with dignity, candour, grace and humour as Donna does shows a grittiness of character few of us possess.
Even writing those words together ‘Celebrating’ and ‘Spinster’ feels shockingly counter-cultural. And that’s something that fascinates me and which we’ll be exploring in this chat. But first of all, let me introduce you to my three amazing guests.
DONNA WARD (AUS) is a writer, editor, and publisher. She holds two degrees from the University of Western Australia: a Bachelor of Arts in Classics, Ancient History and Economics, and a Bachelor of Social Work. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s she worked in social policy development, welfare program design, implementation and management before she changed careers and set up a psychotherapy practice and management consultancy. In the late 1990s she turned her talents to creative writing, editing and publishing when she established and edited the literary journal, indigo, the journal of Western Australian creative writing, and later the online poetry magazine, Sotto. Moving to Melbourne in 2011, where she now lives, she founded the nationally respected micro-publishing house Inkerman & Blunt. Her fiction and personal essays have been awarded internationally, and appeared in literary journals nationally and internationally such as Southerly and Island magazines, as well as the Huffington Post, and The Big Issue. Her memoir “She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life” was published by Allen & Unwin Australia in March 2020 and on June 1st publishes in the US as both an ebook and in paperback. (Available on Kindle now, and pre-order the paperback on Amazon or ask your local independent bookshop or library to stock it.) You can read the first chapter of her book on the Allen & Unwin website here and connect with Donna on Instagram and Twitter. Donna’s website is www.donna-ward.com.au
CIVILLA MORGAN (US) has a passion for words, writing and speaking and communicates this as an author, blogger, and podcaster including her long-running podcast Childless Not By Choice. She loves to help others and feels truly in her element when encouraging others to be all they can be. She believes that communication is key in every relationship and that we must find our best form of communication and then practice it. In her previous life Civilla worked in healthcare, hospitality, and financial services – in fact, she was once a stockbroker. Civilla loves the financial services industry and can talk for hours about the markets and global finance. In her spare time, which she says hardly exists, she spends time reading, cooking and traveling. Civilla also loves the beach and says any moment she can spend at any beach is a moment of relaxation, renewal, and therapy! She is single and childless not by choice. You can find Civilla Morgan on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and You Tube (where you can also listen to her podcast interview with Donna Ward) and LinkedIn. Civilla’s website is www.childlessnotbychoice.net
SHANI SILVER (US) is a writer and podcaster originally from Texas and living happily without the need for a car in Brooklyn. She’s the host of A Single Serving Podcast and a humor essayist focused on changing the negative narratives around being single. Shani’s work helps singles reframe the limiting societal messages they take in that are almost exclusively focused on dating, as if singles aren’t allowed to care about anything else. Single people are whole, valid beings capable of living infinitely amazing lives. Relationships are fantastic, and we deserve to have them, but Shani knows we don’t deserve to be miserable in the meantime. You can connect with Shani on Twitter & Instagram and support her writing on Medium. Shani is childfree by choice and very empathic to those for whom childlessness was not a choice, as you can hear when she interviewed Jody on the single & childless experience for her Single Serving Podcast. Shani’s website (pronounced Shay-nee) is www.shanisilver.com
As well as a live reading from Donna’s book (if you haven’t heard/read it, you’re in for a BIG TREAT), some of the things we discussed included:
- What does the word ‘Spinster’ mean and how is it different from the general term ‘single’ which may include being a single-parent and is assumed to be a transient state?
- What are the key implications of being a Spinster?
- How does one learn to live with extended solitude, and what has that been like in the pandemic?
- If you are hopeful of a future partnership, what are the consequences of repeated rejections on the heart and soul?
- If you are not interested in a relationship, what does society make of that?
- How do we deal with the stigma and prejudice against Spinsters?
- What are the implications for female friendship with childed and/or partnered friends?
- What sort of financial considerations have to be taken into account for life alone, and why might this be so difficult for women?
- How does the experience of Spinsterhood vary between those who are born to it, those achieve it and those who have it foist upon them?
- How do we encourage the de-centering of dating and the pursuit of partnership as a route to fully living as a single person so that we can create more of a balance and allow us to live the life we’re actually living?
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
JODY: Welcome to ‘Celebrating the Spinster’, the Gateway Women masterclass, also in honour of Donna Ward’s book, published this week in the United States, it came out last year in Australia. Thank you so much to my amazing panelists for being part of this today. My name is Jody Day, I’m the founder of Gateway Women, and the author of Living the Life Unexpected available at a bookshop near you. I’d love for my amazing panelists to introduce themselves because they will do a much better job than me and then we’re going to have a reading from Donna’s book. Civilla, will you introduce yourself and your work and perhaps tell us a little bit, if you’re comfortable to do so, about how you came to be a single woman, a spinster, whatever terminology you use to describe your life.
CIVILLA: Thanks, first of all, for having me here. Jody, I appreciate it. Hi Shani and Donna, nice to meet you all, and see you again, Donna. And thanks to everyone joining in the chat. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. My name is Civilla Morgan, I am a podcaster. July will be six years ago that I started podcasting. My podcast is ‘Childless Not by Choice’ and it’s about the childless not by choice experience. However, I niche down to the woman who will never have a child. A lot of times when people think of childlessness, they think of infertility. And I felt that was not good enough for me because I was never going to have children. So I knew that we would fall through the cracks, and so I took it upon myself to podcast about us, because everybody else was talking about infertility. And of course, that’s okay, infertility is a thing as we all know, but there’s a niche within the niche of those who will never have children. I tried for about 10 years to hang on to meet Mr. Right, I didn’t want to have a child by myself. I suffered from fibroids and the biological clock, I guess you would call it. After 10 years of accidents every single month, like a child, I was having accidents and just the horrible fibroids, the Lupron shots that sent me into what I call manmade menopause and made me feel like I could commit murder. I just said, ‘Stop’, just ‘The End.’ I told my doctor, ‘If you don’t want to come visit me in the loony bin, stop the shots now.’ So I stopped the shots. A few months to a year later, I had a really bad accident at work. It was horrible. That was November 2011. I called my OB-GYN and I scheduled my hysterectomy for December. I had a hysterectomy in December 2011. From there, I just was lost. I was trying to find some help, find somebody that understood, really understood what I was dealing with, and I couldn’t. In 2014/15, I started the platform and then a few months later I started the podcast. And so that’s what I’ve been doing in the childless not by choice space ever since.
JODY: Thank you so much Civilla. Shani would you like to introduce your work, or you and your work and your story? And anything you want to say?
SHANI: Hi everyone! My name is Shani Silver. I am a writer and a podcaster. And much like Civilla, I noticed a void in content for single women. Essentially everything that I could find, that I could Google, that I could listen to, that I could consume on social media, everything was about dating. If it was about being single, it was about dating. In fact, nothing was actually about being single, it was all about dating. There was just this inherent assumption that if you are a single woman, the thing you care about is dating, and I didn’t like that structure because it’s an inherent negative. If the only thing made for us is about changing what we are, that’s not cool, it isn’t addressing the full spectrum of single life. It’s reinforcing a negative narrative that singlehood is a bad thing. It’s looking at a very, very narrow window of singlehood. I didn’t appreciate that. I wanted to create content for single women that was not about dating. A very common misconception is that I am an advocate for singlehood – I’m not. I am an advocate for single women feeling good while they’re single. And there’s a big difference there, it’s a really important one because it feels so good to stop chasing partnership as hard, or at all, however you want to do it. But just really settle into a calmness and a confidence and a comfort level with being single, that just gives you the ability to enjoy every day of your life, instead of searching for something that you don’t have, no matter what you have to go through along the way. It just feels wonderful. And it also creates a space where single women change their mindset from, ‘I just have to find someone’ into ‘I value my singlehood.’ And ‘I’m not giving this up for anything less than the right relationships for me.’ And that’s really important to me to communicate and to create content around. I am child free by choice, so a little bit different, but I know that my audience, many of whom are here, I’m so excited about that, are either mothers or single mothers or child free, not by choice, child free by circumstance. It’s everyone in one place. And there’s so many different facets of singlehood that we’re able to discuss and explore. My podcast is called ‘A Single Serving Podcast.’ That’s where I do a lot of my work. I’m also an essayist, and I write a lot about singlehood on media.
JODY: Thank you very much Shani and you have a book coming out soon, I hope. Yes?
SHANI: You know, from your lips to a publisher here, Jody! I’m not sure about that. But, someday, it’s a lifelong dream of mine. And I really hope to make that a reality someday.
JODY: Well, anything I can do to help. Definitely. I love your writing and I love your work. I’m a big fan. Donna?
DONNA: Hi. I’d like to do what we do here in Australia, which is to say, Hello, I’m with you on Wiradjuri land from the Kulin nation. And we are having a moment of transformation here. It’s slow but you can really feel it. There’s a great acknowledgment that Australia was never ceded by the indigenous, or now we say First Australians, to us white Wadula settlers. I’m from the state of Victoria, I’m very proud to be part of that transformation in that country. And I get a little emotional when I think about it. So about me, I grew up in Western Australia. I’ve sort of sauntered between Western Australia and Victoria during my life. I’ve lived here and I’ve lived there. I went through the rugged lockdown, which I’m sure many of you are still experiencing, wherever you are. We in Australia, here in Victoria, had the longest lockdown in response to Covid-19. But I have to say going through that has changed me at a cellular level, and my identity at the cellular level. I feel now much more a Melbournian and much more a Victorian than I have ever felt before. Although Western Australia still lingers in me and you will read a lot about both places in the book. I think it’s very important when you don’t have a circle of family around you to locate very strongly to the land in which you live. And that’s saved me on so many occasions, I have to say.
DONNA: So I’ve had a life as a social worker to start off with, my first jobs were in welfare. I have a couple of degrees from university, one of which is social work. That was what brought me to Victoria. And from there, I became a psychotherapist and psychotherapy practice for a while. And then I went back to Western Australia where I started this writing thing or I guess this writing thing started me and that’s where I actually began this book. The first version was a pretty technical, kind of sociological, terribly boring, awful, awful book. There were some beginnings of something creative in there, but I think I was trying to be a sociologist/psychologist, psychosocial kind of thing. At the time I was writing that book, I have to say, I really related to what you were saying, Shani, I couldn’t find very much material that wasn’t about dating. At that time, we didn’t have the internet. We had telephone dating, we had dating agencies which were all the rage at that time. All the books were about being happy and single. You either had to be happy and single, and that meant being out there following a hobby that would lead you to your happiness ever after, or it was a kind of anti-marriage, happiness, you’re single and proud. It was at that point where I just thought, you know, I can’t be any prouder of my life than my married sister, motherly, mothering sisters, because I’m challenged on kicking some goals, if you like in this as well. It’s a hard and challenging life. I just don’t have anywhere to talk about it. Because the women that I was engaging with were either proud and single, so they thought that I was whinging, and the other women were either in de facto, or because in Australia we got rid of marriage pretty quickly when we could or we’re getting back to it now. But in those days, people were like, why do you want to get married? Why do you want the burden of all of this? So it was very hard to just have a respectful, dignified conversation about the challenges that life was presenting me because it was always seen through the single lens, and I should be happy, just happy. I should somehow be just happy about it, or shut up. So I relate to that in your work. And I think it’s really valuable.
DONNA: What’s surprising me is that I was having all these thoughts just in the minutes when you too Civilla, were having your experiences. I started to write this book at that time when you were starting the podcast. My book came about because I moved back to Melbourne and became a publisher and essayist, and I was getting some little hits. But I didn’t think of myself as a writer as much as a publisher. I visited a friend of mine in Sydney, who was at the time the literary editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. I had a plan that I was pitching to her. I hadn’t got to it, and she must have known I was going to pitch her something and she just said, apropos of nothing, ‘Donna, I think you should write a book.’ So Shani here, we are telling you to do that. So this is your moment, you’ve got to write that book! She said, ‘I love your writing.’ So you’ve had that little Jody loves your writing. So do I, you have to write the book. That’s what Susan said to me. And I said, ‘Oh my God, don’t curse me with the curse of writing a book!’ Sorry, about that Shani. And then she said, ‘Oh, well, if you wrote a book, what would it be about?’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s problem, no one would read it because it would be about a single woman who never had children, who experienced misguided messages from feminist friends. It would be about prejudice and depression and despair and loneliness and overcoming that. Who would read that?’ She just leaned forward and said, ‘I would read that!’
DONNA: So there it was, I’d got the instruction, as we crones are giving you Shani, the instruction to write the book, and I wrote it. I have to say, it broke me in many ways to write it. I wanted it to be a really honest, a no-holds-barred, clear-eyed look at my life’s experience of this, because I hadn’t found anything that was an equivalent to it, and felt that the space was there to put it into. And indeed it was. So I am just joyous now to find, through Jody, that there’s an incredible number of women and men going through this experience and speaking about it and thinking about it, not just about dating, although that is a conversation to be had. I think it’s very important to talk about the dating thing, but with a measured sense of reflection.
JODY: And that it’s not the only conversation.
DONNA: Yes, and that it’s not something everybody has to do or achieve in life, that life is much more complex and interesting than getting married and settled down, or coupled and settled.
JODY: Can you show us the cover of your book She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditation on Life?
DONNA: Yes, so here it is, my rather disheveled copy of the book. It’s been to every event that I’ve been to. And it’s got lots of little things from those events in it. So it’s changing its size as books do when you carry them around.
JODY: And you’re going to read a bit for us.
DONNA: So it’s from an essay called ‘The long history of the rat’ in which I discover I’m talking about the literature that I have read and the discovering that I’ve come across. So it’s a section where I’m reading:
‘Five years later, Autumn 2007. Glorious. The way you might imagine heaven. The sky Ming blue, the Chinese tallow carnelian, the air moist with the promise of winter. Into all this perfection came more news on prejudice. I was on the veranda trying to read Germaine Greer’s, The Whole Woman, because I thought I should, and there it was, from the fierce feminist herself.’ And I’ll just read you what she writes. Because it’s groundbreaking. Dammit. She’s always groundbreaking even though she’s an uncomfortable woman.
“Among the consequences of loosening sexual mores is that the single state is now less respectable than it has ever been. When people can cohabit informally by mutual agreement, singleness signifies, not a lack of opportunity to pair up, but a failure to pair up. There was always a sickly cast of rejectedness about spinsterhood, which was seen not so much as a woman’s own choice as the result of not having been chosen… Though the free expression of contempt for ‘old maids’ is now anathema, fundamental contempt for the unattached female is still in place. Nowadays her miserable condition is explained as a result, not of her lack of appeal, but of her inability to commit herself through narcissism or frigidity or disrupted pair-bonding in childhood. Any explanation of her singleness as the willed consequence of the utter resistibility of the offers she has received, simply will not do.” (Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, 1999).
‘I read the paragraph three times. I wrote down “fundamental contempt for the unattached female is still in place.” And, in the fickle way real life unfolds, a courier shoved open the swollen wooden gate and delivered the first two books I ever ordered from Amazon.com – The Age of the Bachelor by Howard P. Chudacoff and Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After by Bella DePaulo.
Chudacoff’s introduction screams outrage. His book is about a time in America (the 1880s to 1930s) when large numbers of bachelors lived in major cities. Unlike their Australian counterparts, these men were branded degenerates, socially or sexually repugnant, or physically unacceptable to women. They were openly blamed for race suicide. Even an historian writing at that time, warned that excess bachelors led to societies like Nazi Germany. Chudacoff discovered that bachelors have been excluded from family and social history, and when mentioned at all they are considered deviants. “No one,” he wrote, “has fully examined bachelor lifestyles and institutions in a comprehensive, objective way.” His outrage matched my dismay. I found only two books devoted to the lives of never-coupled, childless, heterosexual men and, with no overriding framework such as feminism to guide them, their lives were not happy ones.
Bella dePaulo’s tone, on the other hand, was not outrage. That’s the way it is for women, we are not permitted outrage, especially if we are spinsters. DePaulo, like me, was a spinster in her 50s. Unlike me, she was happy about it. Just like me she was passionate about the research bias and prejudice against the unmarried. Her work in the field is substantial, remarkable and invaluable, even for Australians. She wrote of “the dark aura of singlehood” and identified the omission of yet another basic principle in social research – the blind study. “If you really wanted to know, using the scientific gold standard, whether marrying makes people happier, you would have to randomly assign people to get married or stay single and see what happens. Of course, it is not possible to do that.”
On reading Greer, Chudacoff and DePaulo, I surrendered my nascent manuscript to a dark corner of a cupboard. Outside, on the wall behind the tallow, the Tolkien Monster [that’s the image I’ve invented for one’s inner critic] wrote: Weak and feeble spinster finds her Queen. No need to write the book.’
(extract from She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life, by Donna Ward).
JODY: Thank you, Donna. That passage in the book really speaks to you doing the research and finding there was a semi-sociological and feminist framework around it, and then you backing off from your project. Then moving forward later with, in a way, integrating all that information. And marrying it with your lived experience. One of the things I love about your book is the way you also have this sense of history, but also mythological history. It’s about you, but it’s also about woman and about the archetype of woman, and about the archetype of what it means to be an unpartnered woman in our societies. I love the fact that you put the word ‘spinster’ in the title, because it’s a really fascinating lean-out kind of word. When you use it, people are like ‘Whoa…’, it really reminds me of using a word like childless or childfree, that sense when people can be really uncomfortable with naming it as such. I’d love to know what you, Civilla and Shani feel about the word spinster? What does it bring up for you?
DONNA: I went into the book, calling myself single. And when I stumbled across this research and found the problems in it, I read more than those books about it, I realized that my story isn’t being told. And that’s when I realized that if my story isn’t being told, there’s going to be a whole bundle of people across the universe whose stories aren’t being told. So that was one reason I thought, I’m going to have to use a word to describe it. I’ve been thinking recently I could have probably used the word ‘virgin’ as well that would match with the idea of the Virgin goddesses who are goddesses that are not beholden to a partner in Greek culture, that will be a man. I stuck with spinster because it does alert people to much more than virgin I think. Recently here in Australia, there’s been a new research report that’s come out that’s been looking at older women, socially and economically…
JODY: That’s an amazing piece of research.
DONNA: Yes. We’ve known that older women as a group -older, single women, so that’s divorced and separated women – they are at greater risk of poverty than anyone else in our country. And now this research has found out that older single women without children -because their focus groups don’t like the word spinster they use this convoluted tag ‘older single women without children’ – well, I’ve said to them, Look, I’m using the word spinster. I don’t like it either. But I tell you what everybody, prick up and listen, when you use that word, it’s a powerful word. And I think we need to use the power that’s innate in it to deal with this issue now that we’re finding that women without children in their old age are at risk. So it’s got me exercised and I’m glad that I went with the word spinster because now I’m working with a politician who’s going to give a speech about this in Parliament, very proud of myself at the moment about bringing this issue forward. So I think the word spinster was well chosen even though it probably would have been more graceful if I had used the word virgin.
JODY: I’m so glad you chose the word spinster. It’s in my book, you probably remember there’s a section which I called ‘liberating ourselves from the opinions of others’ where I unpack the archetype of spinster and what exists on the bright side of it. The freedom, the independence the creativity, the single-mindedness, the many, many qualities, brilliant qualities that we also have, which gets shadowed by this one thing that we’re not. Civilla, how does the word spinster sit with you?
CIVILLA: Well, it’s always sat with me as a little negative, and it probably still will but maybe not as much, because of what Donna just said. I think I just got a lightbulb moment, when Donna said that there’s going to be a lot, like childlessness, there’s going to be a lot to dig through and uncover. And it’s going to take years, and that’s okay. I think the fact that the conversation has started is awesome. And I think the right word is spinster, I think what was, for lack of a better term, I guess turning me off a little bit is I feel like I’m still young. And I feel like spinster is attributed to ‘older woman’. And so that’s where I guess I was having a difficult time attributing that word to me. But at this point, I think I really don’t care. I will put single on the applications that they asked me, you know, if you’re married, single, whatever, I’ll put single, but spinster is just fine, because I am over 50. And I just told people how old I am, which I cannot believe I just did. But the facts are the facts. I think part of life and maturity and growth is accepting who you are, where you are, when you are. And so I’ll continue to use the word single when referring to myself, but spinster, I get it now. Donna I have your book, I’ve interviewed you. We’ve discussed this, and I’m just getting the lightbulb moment!
DONNA: You got the light bulb moment. That’s all that counts!
CIVILLA: Because it’s really important now for us to really dig through this because especially as you’re saying, as we get older if we have no one to care for us, childless and older and single, and ending up in a nursing home, as we call it here in the US, with no one to be your advocate. I was an advocate for my mom before she passed in 2019. I’m now the advocate for my dad, and I’m his sole caregiver. I battle with his doctors, I fight with them. They think I’m a monster. I just want good care for him. Who’s going to do that for me?
DONNA: Exactly. Read this report. It’s called ‘Security in old age for older, single women without children. And it comes out of a coalition of universities Sydney University, Curtin University and New South Wales University. These things don’t matter. I’m just saying it because I’m quoting the book in a way. It’s an easy read, it was funded by the CPA, that’s the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia. So it’s the accountants that are starting to look at this. I do wonder what the difference would be for America, I think that in America there are a whole lot of things that happen through life that favour families and couples, in terms of taxation and income, over single women.
JODY: I quoted it in my book, it’s a million dollars over the lifetime, $1 million more expensive to be a single woman.
DONNA: It will be interesting to know how that goes with men as well, whether their incomes are higher, certainly there’s a gender wage gap here of 31% between men and women, I don’t know what it is in other countries. So I think now we’ve got a real conversation to have around the word spinster and a moment to use it.
JODY: Shani, talk to me about spinster.
SHANI: I’ve never had a good answer for this. I don’t like the word like, I would never call someone a spinster. But that got me thinking about how I’m not a big fan of labelling other people. I think the only labels we use should be the ones that we give ourselves and ones that we’re comfortable with. If we want any of them. We don’t have to have any labels at all, ‘human’ is enough for me. I don’t even really like the word single, if I’m honest with you, I don’t think I need it. I don’t think I have to define my relationship status to the world. I feel like spinster is a word that came about in society, it’s not necessarily one that we would choose for ourselves. As far as women who are not partnered goes, society has always had a terrible opinion of us and a terrible way of talking about us, to us, depicting us, all of it. So I’m not about to use any of society’s descriptions for singlehood because I don’t trust it. I never have. But if the individual identifies with the word spinster, if it’s a word that that feels right to the individual, use it, absolutely. But I don’t like assigning labels or buckets to people that they don’t identify with for themselves.
SHANI: I am always really uncomfortable when the world needs a label for a woman alone, because it makes them uncomfortable for some reason. There’s a level of comfort, respect, and honour that comes with wife and mother, or even just wife. But for some reason, a single woman or a childless woman, or anything other than that creates feelings of discomfort. And I don’t like that. I don’t think that that’s really fair, I think it’s also very limited. There are so many ways for a woman to exist, so many ways for every gender to exist and be. And the word spinster, for me, is putting, just speaking for myself, it’s putting me in a place that I don’t want to be because I don’t like the word. So I don’t use it. But I think if it’s a word that other people identify with for themselves – absolutely, and I certainly hope that this moment develops the word into a more positive place than what we’ve known it as.
JODY: Thank you. We have some questions I’d love to jump to. I’m seeing a lot of chat about how hard dating is in the chat that’s going by, and some asking for some recommendations of books and resources. The books and resources are on this call right now. It’s called Shani Silver. It’s called ‘A Single Serving Podcast.’ Please go and check out her work. Shani recently interviewed Nancy Jo Sales, who’s just written a book about how toxic online dating is. Anyone who wants to understand why online dating is so tough read this book: Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno. Nancy Jo Sales does have a grown-up daughter. She’s not a childless woman. But she has a lot of very, very interesting, and incredibly well-researched stuff to say about why online dating is so hard, and how it’s stuck, how it’s basically set up to fail.
JODY: We have some questions that were sent in beforehand. This is a really, really crucial one, I’m not going to use the person’s name. ‘Being unintentionally partner-less and childless means it’s become much harder to find and keep dear friends, not just friends to go grab a drink with, but dear close friends. I’ve had different friends step into this role as time has passed, and as close friends have partnered and become parents and slid into a different life. But there are fewer women in my situation after 40 and I dearly miss the close connection of someone who lives a similar life and gets it. I find myself holding back with potential new friends for fear that they will also leave me behind. I don’t even try to develop friendships with women in their 30s because too often, after you’ve been friends for a while they find someone and get pregnant. How do you bolster yourself against anticipated disappointment when meeting potential new friends? How do you open your heart to the possibility of new friendships, I find I can grieve the loss of a partner the loss of children, and I can connect with other women who share my experience over long distance. But a dear close friend nearby who understands is something I feel lost without.’ Donna, you speak very movingly of friendships in your book. Would you like to take that question?
DONNA: I think that friendship is… it’s the relationship that we deal with in single life, in our lives. I think friendship is unwritten about and un-reflected on, so we don’t have lots of rules and regulations and senses of obligation or responsibility around it, the way we understand romantic relationships or even social relationships like coupling. I think it’s not just the moment of childbirth that severs the relationship, but it’s the moment of coupling that starts to evaporate your own friendship. To me that that is never going to change the, that elasticity is never going to change. For me the moment of healing around this was realizing that this is what friendship is, and that friendship is my primary relationship. And, and I’m not going to get that opportunity for deep intimacy to face challenges of equality within a relationship or managing different moods or anything like that, that is not available to me in friendships. If you have that in a friendship, value it, cherish it, know that it’s rare and think yourself lucky with just one. Because, really, it’s just not the nature, friendship is elastic. What happens as you increasingly live this life, you’ll be finding yourself living around the edges of those people who were once your intimates, you’ll be living around the edges of their lives, because the obligations and responsibilities have moved away from that intimacy that you had, towards another person. And rightly so that should be it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell your friends that this is how your life goes. That was the growing-up moment for me. I had to bite the bullet and challenge the friendship and say, my life is different. What do you think I’m doing when you’re not visiting me and catching up? What do you think I’m doing? I tried to, have conversations where they understood that when they’re not in my space, it doesn’t mean that I’m out there partying and dating and having that life they used to have, or that we used to have, I’m actually at home these days, writing, reading, getting on with the things that I do. But I don’t have the kind of contact human contact that they have, as frequently. I am making friends with solitude and solitude, a whole other kettle of fish, a wondrous thing and a threatening thing. And just as challenging and as empowering as focusing on bringing up children and making a family and doing that successfully. Having those intimate connections successfully. Solitude is as big and as wonderful and as awful as that.
JODY: Shani? I noticed you nodding along. I’m sure that this is a topic that probably comes up a lot in your community and in your work.
SHANI: As someone whose friends are very actively partnering and reproducing at quite an alarming rate these days, I think the best piece of advice I can give is that acceptance will serve you well, in this space. It is okay if friendships evolve, it is okay if friendships end. I think a lot of times we have a problem or a difficulty, we’re human right, so we want to find a solution for it. We want to find a fix for it. How do we fix this? How do we make more friends? How do we keep our friends in our lives and never lose them? It is entirely possible for something we don’t want to happen to happen. And we can still be okay at the same time. And I’ve found that in accepting that I just have fewer friends than I used to because everybody partnered up and had kids. That’s okay. And I think accepting it, coming to a place in your single life where you feel good about who and what you are, you start to learn how to give yourself a lot of what you were looking for in other people. And there’s a power that comes with that. Being able to give yourself what you need and not have to give that responsibility or that power away to other people. It feels really good. I’m not saying get to a place where you don’t need anybody that’s not human either. We’re allowed to need other people. But accepting that things will change and evolve, it’s been very helpful to me. And then also there are countless ways to make new friends and we’re never done. We’re never going to be done. You might meet your best friend in the world in your care home or in your nursing home someday in the future. We never stop making new friends. We never stop falling in love. We never stop. We never have to stop doing any of that. So I think acceptance, and a bit of a roll with it, is going to serve us well. And knowing that we can put effort into making new friends, and sometimes it will be rewarded. Sometimes it won’t. But every time I believe it’s worth the effort.
JODY: Thank you Shani.
CIVILLA: I think Shani just said everything – you have to like yourself. And I think that sometimes comes with age, but you have to get to lik, who you are warts and all. Get to know who you are, like who you are. Some people are afraid of that, like Donna said, in your solitude you start to get to think more and you get afraid of the thoughts and the thinking. But I think we get to a point where we care. And I understand as an introvert, that some of us are just fine with our own company. And I know there are others who crave company and there are social butterflies, but so maybe a little easier for those of us who are introverts. I believe, either way, we have to get to the point where we like ourselves before anybody else will be drawn to us.
JODY: I think for me one of the hardest parts of going through my childlessness was once I had woken up to the fact I was definitely never going to be a mum, all my friendships changed. I kept the hope going for so long, that my friends’ kids would one day be my kids’ friends. And so I kept investing in those relationships. Then when I realized that wasn’t going to be, it was too painful for me to continue doing that investment. And I stopped. Basically, it was like I was ghosted by my entire friendship group, they just sort of forgot about my existence. And it was incredibly painful to realize that it was me that had been putting the energy into keeping these relationships going. Not because they didn’t like me, although I did think that perhaps I was just a really bad friend, because I kind of lost my whole group.
Every single person I knew had children. I had two childfree friends. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t get what they wanted. But I think they had this idea that I had sort of this other group of friends I was hanging out with, when I wasn’t with them – like I had this sort of spare secret set of friends – I didn’t! They all went on to get new friends through their connections through their families and partners and children. I just lost all my friends. And that really knocked my confidence about do I actually have what it takes to have friends. I really lost my friendship mojo. And it wasn’t until I started Gateway Women and I started writing about this and I discovered how common it is. I actually call it the #FriendshipApocalypse of childlessness, I began to normalize it. Now I have close friends, some very close friends. But that experience did scar me. I guess I lost my confidence about female friends. In many ways, I lost my sense of safety in a group of women.
DONNA: I’m so glad you said that. I certainly speak about it in the book, but I don’t think I really underscored it. That’s the journey, that’s the relationship journey. It’s finding that you’re not a bad person because your friends aren’t ringing you. It’s getting to that discovery that if they’re not ringing you, this is probably the sore point in my soul if you like, is that they wouldn’t ring me and I thought they didn’t like me anymore. And that in itself is a grief, it’s unacknowledged, you call it disenfranchised grief Jody, it’s a really good word for it because you can’t talk about it. If you dare to talk about wanting to spend time with your friends and having a close intimate relationship with them, there’s a myth, feminism I think has really perpetrated/perpetuated the myth, that friendship will stand in when intimate relationships don’t work. That’s simply not true for a spinster. It may well be true for mothers and divorces and separated people. But it is not true for us. We lose our friendships, we go through a personal crisis around that. It’s all really really hard. It’s the grief that we have to travel through in our lives to become the biggest best person that we can be.
DONNA: Then I came to the realization after many years and many, many tears, I have to say tears I thought would split me apart, I came to the realization that if they weren’t ringing me, they were busy and didn’t have time for catch-up. That’s just how it is. And that it was wrong of me, for myself, to ring them and try and find a catch-up. Because they would say, I’m too busy, I can’t see you for six weeks or eight weeks, so I don’t know, sometime next year. And that will make me feel worse. So it’s better if I didn’t do that to myself. So it’s a self-protective thing. As I’ve grown older though, and their children have grown older, they come back, they return. So there’s something to say for that. And it’s then that I could have the conversation with them. Look, all these years, I haven’t been out partying, I’ve been living around the edge of your life, trying to keep this relationship which I treasure afloat so that we could be friends now. It’s the hard yaka of single life, living this life without being part of the normal mainstream. That’s what it is.
JODY: I wonder if there is a certain intensity to the friendships of single childless women. Because when women get together who have partners or have children, there are these other things you can talk about, there are these sort of social buffers and conventions and things that you’re doing together. So there is a sense of side-by-side companionship, which can make for quite easy-going conversations because you’re not talking necessarily deeply intimately, you’re kind of hanging out. And that’s harder sometimes to stumble across when you’re single and childless. It’s not that it’s impossible, it’s just not quite as straightforward. The friendships that I do have with single childless women that work are the most precious, the most intimate, the most uproariously delightful friendships in my life as well.
I just think this is something that is not talked about, there is this idea that female friendship lasts a lifetime, it’s unbreakable, it’s always fixable. But there’s so much that we don’t talk about, and it’s the things that we don’t talk about that derail the friendships.
JODY: Another question for you: ‘I would like to ask the panel, [big question, deep breath!] I’d like to ask the panel if they think purpose comes more from the act of doing or from what we are believing. What do you think is more powerful for the grieving, childless, single woman who often feels like they have no purpose without children? What should they lean on first?’ And I think the leaning there is on the act of doing or what we are believing. It’s quite a sort of metaphysical question. But these are the kinds of things that that we think about. And I think at the heart of that is kind of ‘what do I do with my life?’ And what questions do I ask of myself, to work out what to do with my life? Whether you are a childless single woman or a childfree single woman, I think this is a big topic, you know, what is my life about? Because society tells us that it’s about partnership and children. Civilla?
CIVILLA: Well, I do talk about purpose quite a bit in the podcast. For anyone who’s listened to the episodes, I talk about it a lot, because at one point in my life, I told my brother, that I was nothing but filler, you know the peanuts that you pack packaging with? And he was like, ‘What are you talking? Why would you say something like that?!’ But that’s where I was. I was like, What am I here for? Why? Why was I born? What is my reason for being on this planet? Because I am husbandless and childless. So what am I supposed to be doing here? That was a really low point of my life. And sometimes, you know, your mind tries to go there, even now, all these years later, what am I here for? I created the podcast, because I knew I couldn’t be the only person going through all of this, and dealing with all of this, these mind games that we play and that society plays on us. And so that’s one of the reasons I created the podcast. I really talk about purpose quite a bit in the podcast because I know how the women and the men out there listening are trying to deal with ‘What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do?’ After one episode called ‘What about the children’, someone wrote me and said, ‘You know, when I listened to that episode, I realized every Christmas thereafter that I was going to buy a toy for an underprivileged child,’ that’s a purpose. Somebody else, ‘I thought that I would go…/create…/work…’ And sometimes with children, a lot of my listeners work with children, believe it or not, they work with kindergarteners and small children or they’re teachers. So my key point is we all have a purpose for being here. I know it sometimes does not feel like it because society says that we’re supposed to be married with children. But the fact is, it can never happen for every single person on this planet. It’s not going to. And so I think once we let that get into our psyche, that it’s not going to happen for everybody. And you know, we like to say, ‘Why me?’ But the question really is, ‘Why not me?’ And then what you do from there with the ‘why not me,’ that’s where you find your purpose, because we all have a reason and a purpose for being here. And that I can really get on my soapbox about!
JODY: Thank you. I just want to say that kind of, that’s what my book is about. So that the person who’s asked that question, I really take you through many of the thought processes and exercises to help you think about those things as well. And I agree that we all have a purpose. When we’re in grief, we don’t feel like it. But grief is a process of identity transformation that really helps us engage with those deep questions, and come up with new answers that no one else can give you. It will come from your soul, from your healing.
JODY: I have one last big question: ‘The threat that single women pose may be because we are outside of the direct power of the patriarchy, not controlled by a father, husband, or children. We are thought to threaten other women because we are thought to be at risk of seducing their husbands. We are thought to threaten men because we compete with them in the workplace, or there is envy of us because we are free to do what we want. Just wondering what your thoughts are about the source of the fear of us in society?’ I’m going to pass that one, first of all, to Shani.
SHANI: This question’s awesome. Thank you. You answered it for yourself all of the reasons that you gave are all of the reasons people fear single women, but that doesn’t mean that single women have to agree. One of the greatest gifts that I think I’ve given myself, and certainly I tell my audience that we can give ourselves, is to stop caring about what other people think. And please don’t think I mean that overnight. It is a process. It takes practice. It takes self-kindness and forgiveness, for sure. But no one else is living your life. I like to say that no one else has a dog in your fight. This is your world. So why does anyone else care how you live? It doesn’t affect them. There’s such freedom in not caring what other people think, the time alone that you get back to do whatever you want. And speaking of purpose, I think it’s really important to understand that we get to have more than one, we can have as many purposes as we want. Every gender, particularly women, are raised and groomed and reiterated to that partnership and motherhood are it absolutely. So of course, there is a mourning when that doesn’t happen. There are feelings of loss and failure when that doesn’t happen. This was the plan, there’s going to be a huge sense of loss and perhaps a lack of purpose there as well. But we’re allowed to have more than one purpose, we’re allowed to identify more than one purpose, we’re allowed to explore whatever we want, and find that purpose. We’ve got that kind of time, the amount of freedom that comes with being a woman who does not have a partner or children.
SHANI: I see it as opportunity and possibility. It didn’t start out that way. For a really long time, I didn’t see it that way. It took practice and time and self-kindness. When you invest in what other people think they become in charge of your life, but they’re not living it. So that doesn’t feel fair to me. So my thoughts are yeah, they fear single women. They’re probably always going to despite work like all four of us are doing. I think they’re probably going to continue to fear single women but that doesn’t mean we have to agree. That doesn’t mean we have to buy into it. And that doesn’t mean that we have to live our lives the way that they think would make them more comfortable. I’m not interested in making other people more comfortable because Heaven knows they’re never interested in making me more comfortable. So I’m interested in feeling more comfortable in myself and in my life and my purpose. And if that causes fear that’s on them, not me.
JODY: Fantastic. As we’ve come to the end of our hour, please read Donna’s book for a brilliant answer to that question through and through. She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditation on Life by Donna Ward is available in Australia on Booktopia, it’s published by Allen and Unwin in Australia. And it’s now published in the United States on the first of June. You can get it from online booksellers, you can also ask your library and your local independent bookshop to stock it. So you will find all the details on Donna’s website, https://donna-ward.com.au
JODY: There are a few questions that came up about the experiences of older childless women. Donna and I are both ‘Nomo Crones,’ older women without children, and we are part of something called the Fireside Wisdom sessions run by Gateway Women. The next one is in two weeks’ time. We talk about the issues really around what it means to be an older childless woman. So we’ll be touching on some of the issues that are coming up in the questions. I will be sending out details on email for you to join that free webinar if you want. They are awesome! Getting a bunch of older, childless women together, it’s pretty raucous, I recommend it. So thank you. Let’s just go round. A few final words Civilla?
CIVILLA: Well, thanks again for having me, Jody, and thanks for everyone that came in and joined in the conversation. And it was a pleasure to meet you, Shani. And Donna, once again, just happy to be here and to put my little two cents. And I just want to encourage everyone (I feel like I’m a professional encourager!), no matter where you are on this journey, whether it’s childless or single, or a spinster, whatever it is, wherever you are, just be encouraged that you’re worthy. And you’re supposed to be here because you are here. Just find out what your purpose is and do that thing. And don’t be afraid about the people that are pulling their husbands closer when you show up or whatever it is that they do. They’re the ones with issues, be you.
JODY: Thank you. Shani?
SHANI: Just to echo that, thank you to everyone who attended. Thank you to Jody, for inviting me. And thank you to all four of us just for hanging out, this was an absolute pleasure. To everyone who was here, I would say all of the women who are here with me are incredibly powerful and inspiring resources. We’re not the only ones though. Do research on your own and find groups online, find books, find podcasts, there’s so much out there. And because there’s so many different ways that we’re all living and creating, and I think there’s a lot of it out there. So I hope that you seek out what you can support you with.
JODY: Thank you, Shani. Donna?
DONNA: I want to speak to purpose. Indigenous Australians, our First Nations people, make the statement that they are meant to be here, they’ve always known they were meant to be here, that this is about just living life in this land. Now I would like to extend that to every human on the face of the planet and say, our purpose is that we are alive, that we are consciousness in flesh, and this is the most exciting adventure of all, so do not let your marital status stand in the way of you living this moment that you have embodied in flesh to the best because it will be over in a flash. Thank you for everyone for coming. It’s so exciting.
JODY: Thank you for getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning on Monday morning in Melbourne. Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute delight. I can’t bear to end this but we have to go. Thank you so much. Civilla and Donna and Shani, it’s been emosh. Thank you.
YOUR HOST: JODY DAY (UK/IE) is the British founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women with a social reach of c.2-million. It started as a blog in 2011 and celebrates its 10th Anniversary in 2021. Jody is the author of ‘Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children’ (Bluebird/Pan Mac UK). Chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2013, she’s a global thought leader on female involuntary childlessness, an integrative psychotherapist, a TEDx speaker, a social entrepreneur, a founding and former board member at Ageing Well Without Children and a former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School. In 2021, was chosen as one of Digital Women’s 40 Women to Watch and is also a finalist in their ‘Digital Role Models’ category. Often referred to as the ‘voice of the childless generation’ and less often but more memorably as ‘The Beyonce of Childlessness’, Jody’s a proud World Childless Week Champion and PLICA Ambassador. She lives in rural Ireland where she is working on a novel featuring an accidentally kickass, middle-aged, single, childless heroine and her new ‘Conscious Childless Elderwomen’ project. You can find Jody most days in the Gateway Women Online Community (on Mighty Networks) and @gatewaywomen on both Twitter and Instagram.