Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with not being a mother when you wanted to be one is the sheer intractability of the issue.
After a life of solving problems, making plans and being proactive you find yourself up against something that will-power, a peppy new outfit and a positive attitude just can’t solve. Dammit.
Our consumer culture is built on the idea of choice. Of personal freedom. Of planning. Of security. So when all your freedom, planning and choices end up with you as a single childless women, it also comes with a hefty dose of shame. In the darker recesses of your mind you think: I did this to myself. I screwed up. I really screwed up. And it’s not something I can undo.
But this is only part of the picture. Although our culture tells us that everything in our life is under our control (and therefore is our responsiblity, hence the shame) the fact is that we are subject to larger social and economic forces too.
The philosopher Renata Salecl, in her book Choice (2010), writes that:
“When a woman finally decides to have a child but is then unable to conceive, she suffers another trauma. She loses the feeling that everything is possible. In today’s ideology, which promotes the notion of ‘having it all’, that loss leads directly to a feeling of powerlessness.”
Women who face involuntary childlessness experience the same trauma. A hidden grief for the life unlived: both that of their unborn child, as well as their own hoped-for future identity as a ‘mother’.
Coming to terms with the fact that you can’t control the path of your relationships, or whether you’ll meet a partner ‘in time’ is a very uncomfortable awakening. It turns out you are not as ‘in charge’ of your life as those women’s magazines would have you believe. Surely there would be no need for ‘dating coaches’ and ‘relationship gurus’ if so? However, instead of recognising that this ideology masks our vulnerability and powerlessness, you find yourself signing up for email dating tips or, heaven forbid, give in and buy a copy of The Rules. (Reader, I did. And it was scary, manipulative gobbledegook).
The fact is that you can’t magic a partner who’s ready to have children out of thin air. You can internet date till the cows come home, but it’s a numbers game, and once you’re over 35, it’s stacked against you. Of course, there are always the ‘miracle’ stories that get stuffed in your face to gag you, but they’re called ‘miracle’ stories for a reason… they are not the norm.
There are so many ways a woman can find herself involuntarily childless:
- You spend a huge chunk of your 20s and 30’s with the man that you expect to have children with one day, only to have the relationship break up because it turns out he’s ‘not ready yet’. (And then watch him have kids with his next girlfriend who’s five years younger than you).
- You and your partner struggle for years with fertility issues, only to have it break up your relationship, trash your health and empty your bank account.
- You’re so so busy building your career to the point where you can ‘take a break’ that you don’t realise that all the guys at work have got married and now you’re now the ‘spinster’ because you don’t have time to meet men outside work.
- The person you’re in love with doesn’t want to have children, or already has children from a previous relationship
- You choose not to conceive because of a hereditary condition, insufficient financial support, unresolved childhood trauma or any number of personal issues.
- You discover too late that you know less about your fertility than your iPhone and were only vaguely aware of how rapidly the quality of your eggs declines after 35, making successful IVF cycles much less of a slam-dunk that you realised.
- Etc, etc, etc…
We are currently experiencing the highest proportion of childless women since the ‘man drought’ after the First World War. And although there are women (and men) actively choosing to remain ‘childfree’, there are also a great many who find themselves childless through circumstance. Yet our attitudes towards these 1:5 women without children seem similarly stuck in the past. You’re a spinster, an old maid, not a ‘real’ woman, a weirdo…
So why aren’t we we willing to face up to this as a society? Why instead are there four main avoidant conversations which skirt this ‘unpleasant’ (ie: scary / painful) subject as the years advance:
- The 35+ Conversation: “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll meet a great guy… I know this woman at work who met this man at the bus stop / internet dating / in the supermarket / at church / at an AA meeting / in casualty / in remand and now they’ve got a lovely little baby!”
- The 40+ Conversation: “Why don’t you have a baby on your own. Lots of women are doing that these days.” This is an extraordinary thing to say to a single woman, as if somehow wanting a partner AND a family is somehow greedy? And when did being a single mum go from being a social pariah to a positive lifestyle choice?
- The 44+ Conversation: “I’m surprised you haven’t thought of adoption!” Duh… that never occurred to us. But if you were to casually suggest to the same friend that you were thinking of getting a dog, their first response would probably be “but who’s going to look after it in the daytime?” And notwithstanding the fact that as many couples struggle to ‘qualify’ as adoptive parents, what chance does a single working woman really have?
- The 45+ Conversation: …… Silence. Taboo. Unmentionable.
It’s bad enough grieving for the life unlived, without being shunned for your loss too. A critical part of the mourning process is for our grief to be witnessed lovingly by another. For it to be shared, held and worked through, together. Grief is the price we pay for love, but being forced to suppress it because it’s ‘invisible’ (parents of stillborn and miscarried children suffer this too) just makes it linger and fester.
Not becoming a mother is a huge loss for those women who imagined it was a natural part of their destiny. It’s a loss that more and more women around the age of 40 are experiencing. However, like all of life’s losses, it can be got through with love and support.
The good news is that a new identity awaits the other side of that grief: an exciting, adventurous, loving, nurturing and meaningful identity that requires creating and shaping. And celebrating. Not shaming.
We are the #nomos.
Gateway Women is running two workshops in July 2012: 40, Single & Childless, Dammit! (8 July) is for women who are still hopeful of having a family but are freaking out about it not happening; the Reignite! Weekend (28/29 July) is for NoMos who are no longer able to have a child and are ready to explore their Plan B for a happy and fulfilling life. Please click on the workshop title for more details. And book quickly – places are filling up fast!
As far as we know, these are the first workshops of their kind in the world.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women(UK): an organization to support, inspire and empower childless by circumstance women (the #nomos) to live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. A qualified counsellor and training psychotherapist, Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, and also offers one-to-ones for women looking to explore issues around identity, maternity & fertility. She often hosts free evening talks & mini-workshops and is always willing to offer her support in any way she can. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org To be kept up to date with new events as they are announced, please join the mailing list by using the box at the top right of the page.