One of the most surprising issues that comes out of the woodwork when dealing with unchosen childlessness (and often when chosen too), is the nature, health and continuation of our female friendships.
As someone who spent 15-years expecting to become a mother, but for whom it didn’t work out, I was in such denial about my ongoing infertility that I actually didn’t find keeping up my friendships with mothers all that hard. After all, I was convinced it would be ‘my turn’ one day. But since that day several years ago when I knew for sure that I would never be a mother, things have shifted.
You see, if you don’t have children, not only are you living different lives from those friends whose lives have run parallel to yours for so many years, but somehow you’re now also embroiled in some weird competition against each other… About whose life is ‘better’ or ‘worse’?!
A hypothetical mother looking at my life as a childless woman, might notice that I have a clean and tidy home with lots of sharp edges, no primary coloured toys and an awful lot of books. That I’m studying for yet another Masters and have a wide range of intellectual interests. That I do meaningful and fulfilling work and don’t have to feel guilty about working evenings and weekends when that’s what’s called for. That I plan my life around my own needs, and don’t get woken up at 5.30am every morning. If you’re someone for whom even the idea of cleaning your teeth undisturbed has become a fantasy, that must look amazing!
However, some of the things that might be invisible to her might be my existential loneliness, my alienation from mainstream culture, my frequent boredom with my own needs and a sense, sometimes, despite working extremely hard and giving a lot to others, of not giving ‘enough’, not sharing ‘enough’ of not being ‘enough’. Of what it’s like to live a life as a woman with no status or identity in our culture right now. She also might not realise that because living as a single person is so expensive, I don’t actually get to spend all that ‘free time’ she envies travelling and attending cultural events because it’s simply not affordable. She may not realise how much time I spend alone, and what kind of internal resources I’ve had to develop to be okay with that.
As a single, childless woman looking at a hypothetical mother’s life, I might notice that every area of wall space in her home is covered with photos from family holidays and events and milestones, or drawings brought home from school. I might fantasize about how comforting it must be to have the security of knowing what’s mapped out for her, how her life has a fixed orbit, with her children at the centre of it. That she doesn’t have to wonder ‘what she’s for’ because she doesn’t have the time for that kind of navel-gazing existential angst. That by the time she’s sorted out the packed lunches and sleepovers, as well as keeping a foot-hold in her professional life (or worrying that she’s let it all go and she’ll never get it back), all she has time to do is spent a few moments on the sofa with a child’s head in her lap, stroking their hair.
And might I not see? Well, it’s hard for me to know, because mothers rarely ‘tell’ women who aren’t mothers what it’s really like – but from those who have breached the barricades, I’ve learned about the sense of feeling ‘used up’ by her children, of not always ‘liking them’, of feeling like she and her partner have become servants and co-workers rather than friends and lovers, that she feels intellectually numbed and sometimes finds the philosophical and intellectual discussions of her childless and childfree friends exhausting, pretentious and scary. That she sometimes wonders, knowing what she knows now, whether she’d do it again. That sometimes she has to lock herself in the bathroom with her kids screaming and thumping on the door because she’s ‘so close’ to shaking them that it scares her. But then she pushes those thoughts aside because she LOVES her children, couldn’t imagine her life without them.
We need to find a way to open a dialogue between mothers and nomos (not-mothers, my term). To name, describe and domesticate the elephant in the room. If intimacy and honesty are really the same thing, without being honest with each other, friendships become a performance. And then they wither away and die.
This is all very well, but it’s hard.
If you’re still grieving the children you never had, the family life that will never be yours, time around your friends who’ve ‘got it all’ can be so hard that you’re almost unable to speak, let alone have an honest dialogue And our friends know that, and often feel guilty because of it. (As I understand it from the mothers who’ve opened up to me, the over-riding feeling of being a mother is guilt!) And because they often don’t know how to talk to us about our childlessness, sometimes they might not seem to care. Frankly, it’s easier to just let things slide… and spend more and more time with their new ‘school gate’ friends. And we may find it harder and harder to sit there through the only ‘safe’ conversation topic: ‘the children’, until it become relentless, alienating and, let’s be honest, dull. Really dull. What we’re hungry for, starving for, is a proper conversation with our friend, but she seems to have moved to another country called ‘motherhood’ – the one place we’re never going to go to, a language we’re never going to speak. So what can we do?
As childless women, we have to accept that this is our problem, not theirs.
Our reality, uncomfortable and unchosen as it is – is ours to deal with. Being childless sucks, but that’s life. We have to deal with it, but we don’t have to do it alone (in fact, we can’t do it alone – we’ve tried). We need to lick our wounds and heal our grief with the support of our own tribe (other childless women), not with our friends who are mothers. They’ve got their hands full, and a tearful, tricky, erratic and resentful old friend is more than they’ve got time to deal with. And it’s not unusual for their kids to pick up on what’s not being said too, and start to feel uneasy around us…
Finding our new tribe is more difficult for us than our mother-friends realise, because we don’t have ‘the school gates’ to find each other. There are no natural social gathering spots for childless women, and we’re harder to spot in the wild, as we don’t have distinctive markings or accessories of mothers… But we are around, if you look for us, and if you have the nerve to self-identify and see who says, “me too.”
Part of coming to terms with our childlessness is also about coming to terms with the fact that our friendships are going through a seismic shift. But that doesn’t mean we have to write them off. However, what it does mean is that we need some new friendships who ‘get’ us in order to bridge the motherhood gap. And once we feel heard and understood in those new friendships, we may find that we are able to open our hearts wider to our friends who are mothers, and begin to see that their life isn’t quite what they expected either. Deeply satisfying, long-lasting female friendships are based on honesty: the kind of vulnerable, whistle-blowing “I’m having an affair”, “Can you take a look at this funny lump?” kind of honesty. The kind of honesty you’d feel most comfortable sharing with the woman you’ve known since you both wore braces.
They don’t want to lose us either.
Empathy is rare, because to be empathetic, we have to be able to be present with our own pain, our own losses. And yet to heal the wound of our childlessness, we need company. If we want our old friendships to survive this new reality, we have to give birth to our new selves. Our wholehearted and healed selves.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a tribe to heal a childless woman. And Gateway Women is that tribe.
Welcome to your tribe.