The number one question I get asked by other childless women is this: ‘Have you really got through your grief? Really?!’ The next one is often ‘So, how long does it take?’
And yes, I am through my grief over not having children. I am absolutely, definitely on the other side of it now and have been for about 3 years. However, what I’m discovering is that my experience of being in this new state continues to evolve and the gifts of grief keep getting delivered.
For example, the ‘freedom’ that felt like a life-sentence of misery 5 years ago today feels like, er, freedom again. Really expansive, open-road, let’s-go-do-it freedom.
And that pervasive, bodily, awkward-as-hell feeling of something vital ‘missing’ in my life has recently shifted to a feeling of being complete-as-I-am, and absolutely no less of a person because I don’t have children! I didn’t feel ‘incomplete’ as a child or as a young woman and it seems that this earlier sense of ‘wholeness’ has returned. And it feels very, very, good thank you very much!
‘How long does it take’ is harder to answer. Because it depends on how much support you’ve got (both internally and externally) and whether you’re ready to grieve and to do your grief work. Grief isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one, and unless you’re actively grieving rather that living in limbo waiting to ‘feel better’ it’s not going to shift any time soon. It’ll just sit there like a heavy fog, obscuring your life and getting in the way of all your relationships, including the one with yourself. It might seem as if your life is lived black-and-white whilst everyone else’s is in colour. You can get so used to this (calling it depression perhaps, which is a part of grief, but not the whole story) that you can stay there for decades. Yes, decades.
If pushed on the ‘how long’ question, and drawing on my own experience and that of being a guide to other childless women who’ve attended my groups and workshops, read my book and done their grief work, I’d say you’re likely to see a huge difference in your life in two years. And yet, if I say ‘two years’ women look horrified, thinking it seems too long. Which is ironic as some of them have been feeling like shit for 5, 10, 15, 20 years… But it’s not two more years of the same old feelings – it’s two years of progress, of ups and downs, of realisations and changes, of finding your tribe. It’s two years of laughter and tears, of discoveries and rediscoveries, of finding your mojo again. It’s not all doom-and-gloom, honest!
And yet, despite the fact that I’m definitely ‘through my grief’, I can still have what I call ‘griefy days’. Or even ‘griefy’ mornings, afternoons, evenings, weekends or just moments.
I had one last night, a Friday night at the end of a manically busy work week spend mostly in the company of others. I was so happy to get home and was looking forward to a quiet evening alone and yet… something felt ‘off’. I cooked myself supper yet almost let it burn in the oven due to a lack of enthusiasm for putting it on the plate; I watched a TV documentary about ancient pre-Columbian civilizations (just my thing!) yet found myself unable to concentrate and kept checking my Twitter account; I had been looking forward to having a bath and reading a novel but found that I couldn’t get myself into the mood to run the bath. It was as if whatever I did, I felt I should be doing something else and nothing felt quite ‘right’. It was a physically restless, uneasy feeling as if I’d forgotten something really important and was aware of it yet unable to remember it. Just writing this down brings up the bodily memory of the sensations – it’s a unique signature…
I was having a griefy evening.
For me, ‘griefy’ times are something that no longer freak me out and I’ve come to recognise that they are my body and psyche’s ways of telling me that something has been irretrievably lost and that I need to pay attention to its passing. In the last two weeks, I’ve had several pieces of news that have impacted my financial arrangements negatively and all of which were unforeseen. And of course, they all came at once! In order to respond to these situations, I’m having to accept that certain plans that I had both personally and professionally will need to be put on hold. My sense of feeling ‘safe’ and ‘in control’ in the world has been knocked a bit. And that’s what’s been ‘lost’ and is bringing up the griefy feelings. I didn’t want to feel them, hence trying to distract myself with food, TV or a bath… but my grief, always smarter than me, wasn’t having it.
I went to bed early instead, and once I was in bed and lying quietly in the dark with my cat, the feelings began to surface and I recognised the presence of grief, my old friend.
Grief is an old friend to me now not just because of our long acquaintance, but because I also know that it is a loving, healing force that transforms my perspective, heals my heart and makes it possible to go on. It is wiser than me, kinder than me and has my best interests at heart. Once I’d allowed it to blossom in my consciousness, the uneasy, restless feeling I’d had all evening left me. I listened to a comedy podcast and went to sleep accepting that grief would do the rest and help me to adjust to this unforseen change in my circumstances.
By the time I woke up this morning, I’d let go of my old sense of what my ‘security’ looked like and accepted that something new was arising, ahead of when I would have chosen it, but that I’d adapt and thrive in the new situation, just as I have always done. I realised I needed to do some grief work to help myself through this transition. For me, grief work involves self-care and creativity so I was out on my bicycle this morning (exercise, fresh air) to buy some delicious food to try some new recipes (creativity, cooking, self-care), have written this blog (expressing my grief creatively) and I’m getting stuck into that novel I was avoiding last night. I fully intend to read it in the bath this evening, if I haven’t finished it by then! All the books I’m ‘meant’ to be reading for my studies or work can wait – my grief work is more important.
Grief work is different for each of us, but here are some suggestions adapted from Chapter 4 of my book:
- Seeing a grief counsellor or therapist – you might want to ask if they have experience with childlessness-related grief as many of us have found that therapists are not immune to the same unconscious prejudices as the rest of society. If you’re in the UK, you can find a therapist near you via the UKCP or BACP. In the USA and Canada you can search using the Psychology Today listings. I can offer private sessions in person or via Skype and also have a very small list of counsellors and psychotherapists that I feel comfortable referring to in the UK and USA. If you are a counsellor or therapist with personal experience of coming to terms with childlessness, do get in touch with me as I’d love to get to know you!
- Doing some form of creative practice to produce work inspired by your loss and in a nurturing collective way where you can share that with others. It might be creative writing, blogging, music, singing, sculpture, painting, etc. If such a group doesn’t exist in your area, you might like to think about approaching a grief counsellor and asking them to start one, or starting your own with a group of other childless women (you can meet them via the online community or meetups, see below).
- Attending a workshop or group for childless women (see list of Gateway Women workshops here). As far as I know, there isn’t anything else like my workshops outside the UK but I hope to create an online version soon and I’ll be in the US in 2016 to lead some. (Make sure you’re on my update list for when those get announced)
- Taking part in an online community for childless women such as the private and ID-checked Gateway Women Online Community, Lisa Manterfield’s Life Without Baby community or Marcy Cole’s Childless Mothers Adopt (which is about a lot more than adoption).
- Setting up a Gateway Women Group or Meetup in your area using one of our existing meetup groups. You need to be a member of meetup.com first, then apply to join one of our free, private country groups:
UK & Ireland http://www.meetup.com/gateway-women
NEW ZEALAND http:// www.meetup.com/gateway-women-nz
SOUTH AFRICA: http://www.meetup.com/gateway-women-sa
- Writing a blog about your grief, or commenting on other grief-related blogs in order to get a dialogue going. This can be anonymous – whatever makes it possible for you to share your experience with others who understand and respond. If you type ‘grief’ into the search box at the top of this website, you’ll find that I’ve written a lot about it over the last 5 years… I’d also really recommend the following blogs written by childless women, which are listed in alphabetical order:
- The Pursuit of Motherhood (UK) www.thepursuitofmotherhood.com A blog by Jessica Hepburn, author of the bestselling infertility memoir ‘The Pursuit of Motherhood’. Jessica and her partner are childless after taking their IVF attempts almost into double-figures. Her writing is funny, candid and moving without being sentimental.
- Femme Sans Enfant (French Canada) http://www.femmesansenfant.com Blogs, articles and video interviews with childless and childfree women (and men) across the Francophone world. Started by Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle, who is childless due to early menopause (age fourteen). It won in the 2014 ‘Activism and Social Justice’ category in Canada’s ‘Schmutzie’ Weblog Awards.
- From Forty With Love (UK) www.fromfortywithlove.com A blog by British journalist Katherine Baldwin following her journey from being 40 single & still hopeful of having a family to working through her ambivalence, finding love and coming to terms with her childlessness at 45.
- Childless by Marriage (US) www.childlessbymarriage.blogspot.com.au Writer and musician Sue Fagalde Lick’s book and blog about life as a childless stepmother and now as a childless widow living on her own. One of the very few 60+ voices writing publicly about childlessness.
- Infertility Honesty (US) http://infertilityhonesty.com/ Sarah Chamberlain’s funny, wry, honest and powerful blog about her life after infertility.
- Life Without Baby (US) www.lifewithoutbaby.com Lisa Manterfield’s blog, online community, online courses & resources for women coming to terms with life as a childless woman. Lisa is the author of ‘I’m Taking my Eggs and Going Home’.
- No Kidding in NZ (NZ) http://nokiddinginnz.blogspot.it/ An excellent infertility survivor blog which has been active since 2010.
- Not About Kids (France) http://notaboutkids.com About men and women both childless and childfree. A rare voice in France, one of the the countries with the lowest rate of childlessness in the developed world.
- Savvy Auntie (US) www.huffingtonpost.com/melanie-notkin Melanie Notkin writes movingly for Huffington Post on being a single, childless woman in her mid-40s.
- Silent Sorority (US) http://blog.silentsorority.com/ A pioneering blog in the infertilty survivor field, Pamela Tsigdinos was the first blog that I found that I could relate to, and her writing continue’s to inspire me.
- The Bitter Babe (US) www.thebitterbabe.wordpress.com An anonymous blog charting the outer and inner life of a forty-something single childless woman. Frank, insightful and culturally astute, this is the very best writing I’ve seen on the issue from a personal, sociological and cultural viewpoint. I hope she writes a book soon!
- The Mother Within (US) http://www.themotherwithin.com/ created by Christine Erickson, author of the award winning book, The Mother Within.
- The NotMom (US) http://www.thenotmom.com A website for women childless by choice or by chance, with regular blogs from both points of view. Also the organisers of the FABULOUS ‘NotMom Summit’, the first conference for women without children each October in Cleveland, OH, USA.
- The Road Less Travelled (Canada): http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.it/ Loribeth’s blog on ‘living childless/childfree after infertility and loss’ has been going since 2007. Excellent for couples, and also for those who are beginning to get their heads around the issues of ageing without children.
- Buddying-up with another childless woman to work through my book together – you can connect through online communities at first and then progress to meeting up face-to-face. Gateway Women has a free private online reading group for my book which you are welcome to join – click here to email me and I’ll send you details.
- Reading books and blogs about grief and discussing them with other childless women either online or face-to-face. Here are some that I’ve included in the resources section at the back of my book (and a ever growing selection is listed on the ‘Resources‘ page of my website). Please feel free to comment below about books that have helped you with your grief:
- Beattie, M. (1990) The Language of Letting Go. USA: Hazelden. This is a little book of daily readings on ‘letting go’. It was written for co-dependents, but I find it incredibly useful for dealing with loss, change and grief. I’ve been referring to it regularly for over ten years. bit.ly/137MrfA www.melodybeattie.net
- Beattie, M. (2006) The Grief Club: The Secret for Getting Through All Kinds of Change. Minnesota, USA: Hazelden. Apart from the (to me) astonishing omission of childlessness except due to abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility or bereavement from a list of more than 500 ‘losses’ in her ‘Master Loss Checklist,’ this is an excellent book from a woman whose writing has taught me so much about grief work and self-compassion. The website that accompanies the book has a grief forum which is free to join. bit.ly/16x94wq www.melodybeattie.net
- Chodron, P. (1997) When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. USA: Shambala Publications. The best book to turn to when you don’t know where to turn. The first ‘spiritual’ book I ever read and still the best. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to find great comfort in Pema’s wise, funny and compassionate writing. I also recommend audio book versions read by her – she has a wonderfully warm and self-deprecating style and yet conveys great compassion towards her own, and all, our frailties as human beings. bit.ly/15mmmMU www.pemachodronfoundation.org
- Kübler-Ross, E. and Kessler, D. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. London: Simon & Schuster. This book is an excellent, humane and moving guide to the experience of grief. Although it doesn’t address childless-related grief directly, it helped me to understand Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief model. bit.ly/134DyrB www.ekrfoundation.org
- Becoming familiar with Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief as they show up in all areas of life. Learning to name what you are experiencing with increasing precision will really help you process your grief. (See chapter 4 of my book for more on how the model specifically related to childlessness).
- Talking, talking, talking about your situation with other women who ‘get it’ until you’re bored of talking about it. Boredom with talking about our story is a good sign that we’ve processed that part of our grief. Usually, our story ‘shifts’ at this point and we start to look at it in a different way. This is what’s called ‘processing’ our grief. It’s an ongoing process though… each layer needs to be processed. I’m not sure it ever stops, but it certainly gets less painful the more we process it.
- Listening, listening, listening to other childless women and being that reflective, non-judgemental, advice-free and empathetic ear that we all need to do our grief work.
- Learning to be kind to yourself during grief – it can be exhausting. Self care often is one of the casualties of unprocessed grief and it can be hard to pick it up again, but it’s super important.
All change, even good change, includes loss. Although I’d like to think that I’m a bit of an emotional warrior when it comes to grief and loss these days, my ego still would rather block it out for a bit. And that’s fine and normal too. I really don’t mind the occasional griefy evening, weekend or week these days. After all, I used to have griefy years!
Making friends with grief and seeing it as a loving energy that exists to heal my broken heart and put me back together so that I can live/love my life again has been, of the many gifts, perhaps the most important. I won’t kid you though, this realisation was a LONG time coming and during the darkest days nowhere near my conscious awareness. I thought grief was trying to take me out for good, but I realise now that it’s because I was so isolated and felt that nobody understood what I was experiencing, or accepted that I had the right to grieve the loss of the family I never had. That’s why I started blogging about it, and that’s how Gateway Women began…