Honouring Your Childlessness on Mother’s Day

mother's day ecard

In the UK, we celebrate Mother’s Day as “Mothering Sunday”, three Sundays before Easter and so this coming Sunday. It was originally a day when all domestic servants were given a coordinated day off so that they could visit their families and together attend a service at their “Mother” church. It was a family day. However, gradually that original meaning has been lost and has been overtaken by the “Mother’s Day” first introduced in the US by Anna Jarvis in 1914 and falling on the second Sunday in May. Interestingly, Anna Jarvis was childless and the scope of her Mother’s Day also included Aunts and Godmothers, although the focus is now on mothers only. Both traditions have now been subsumed into what is now a commercially-led celebration of birth-motherhood, alienating those who have lost their own mothers, or who have not had the chance (or chance yet) to become mothers themselves, those who are childless stepmothers and the many childfree women who choose to be involved in the lives and welfare of children.

For those of us in the UK, we get two onslaughts of media around the day – both on our own Mothering Sunday and then on the US and global Mother’s Day celebrated in May. A double-dose of smugness, cloying sentimentality, alienation and disenfranchised grief. Hooray – let’s all buy cards for that!

One of the many difficulties or expressing anything that isn’t 100% supportive of ‘mothers’ when you’re childless is to invite accusations of being bitter –  and I’d like to explore that for a bit. First of all, what’s the big deal about feeling a bit bitter? It’s a valid human emotion to feel when you’ve spent a good part of your adult life hoping, planning and trying for a baby and it hasn’t worked out, whilst for others it has. Perhaps it’s because bitterness is one of the faces of anger, and ‘nice girls’ aren’t meant to get angry?…. bull***t!  Anger is part of grieving and suppressing anger doesn’t work anyway – it just goes underground and wreaks havoc on your mind and body. Staying stuck in bitterness could be a problem, but by ‘negatively valencing’ anger (to use Karla McLaren’s insightful work on understanding emotions) we do exactly that – we make our anger ‘off limits’ and thus it’s more likely to hang around in unhealthy ways. Anger is a necessary human emotion needed to correct injustices and to protect ourselves – physically, psychologically and socially. It has vital work to do, if only we’d let it, rather than either letting it fester or explode.  I think bitterness probably has a lot more to do with not allowing ourselves to take the actions and have the conversations (both individually and culturally) that anger wants and needs us childless women to be having!

Silencing ourselves for fear of sounding bitter is much more likely to make us bitter. We need to understand that anger is an entirely valid emotional response to the unfairness we’re having to make our peace with.

Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of grieving the life unlived, the mother we’ll never be and the children we’ll never have is that our grief is hidden and unrecognised. How can you grieve something you’ve never had? is the unspoken (or spoken) reaction to our pain. I write about this in my book Rocking the Life Unexpected in the chapter on childless grief:

What we, and others, often fail to realise is the depth and reach of our loss: that not only will we never have children but we will never have a family. We will never watch them grow up, never throw children’s birthday parties, never get a chance to heal the wounds of our own childhood by doing things differently with our  children. We’ll never be grandmothers and never give the gift of grandchildren to our parents. We’ll never be the mother of our partner’s children and hold that precious place in their heart. We’ll never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our siblings and watch our children play together. We’ll never be part of the community of mothers, never be considered a ‘real’ woman. And when we die, there is no one to take our lifetime’s learnings onto the next generation.

I read this passage out in my Reignite Weekend workshop and, even though it was me who wrote it and I’ve read it out many times now, it still has the power to shock me and it hangs heavy in the air as I finish…  It certainly doesn’t sound like ‘nothing’ to me; it sounds like a very big ‘something’. And to carry that around on Mother’s Day without ‘minding’ is not to honour our grief-heavy hearts.  And it deserves to be honoured because grief has a purpose – it’s not there to make us miserable and turn us into the ‘difficult one’ at family gatherings – it’s there to heal our hearts so that we can love again. Love our life again; love the path we’re taking again; love those around us again; love ourselves again. Grief isn’t out to hurt us, it’s out to heal us. But only if we honour it, make space for it, listen to it and find others who will listen to what it has to say. Because grief is a dialogue, not a monologue and you need to find other childless women who understand that. And to accept that your family and perhaps, specifically, your own mother may not be able to hear your grief. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it or them. Each grief needs its own ‘grief club’, as Melody Beattie calls it, and the grief club for childlessness is the private Gateway Women online community. Some club huh? (It’s more fun that is sounds, honest! The dark humour and sisterhood of others who get your grief can be powerfully joyful.)

So, what to do about Mother’s Day this year? Get real, that’s what. Stop pretending to yourself and to those around you that you’ll be fine, you can handle it, it’s only one day in the calendar…

Maybe that’s true, or maybe it will be true in the future (that’s how it is for me these days having come out the other side of my grief). But if it’s not how it is for you this year, don’t fake it!  No matter what anyone says, your grief has a right to be there and the sooner you acknowledge that you are mourning and let other’s know that too, and the sooner you seek out those empathetic others who understand what your grief has to say and can listen to it without trying to fix you, the quicker it will pass.

grief speech bubble

Here are some ideas about how to honour your childlessness this Mother’s Day:

  • If you plan to see your own mother, perhaps either skip the celebrations this year or plan to see her on a day other than Mother’s Day. If anyone says you’re being ‘selfish’, try not to lose your cool – the lack of empathy around this issue is culture-wide and isn’t exclusive to just those around you! Explain that you see it as ‘self-care’ rather than selfishness and that by doing your grief work, you stand a good chance of being able to rejoin the family celebrations next year. If your mother is struggling to understand why it’s hard for you, you might like to share some of the articles on this website with her – often that can be a great way to start a new conversation. Grief is a dialogue, not a monologue yet, because we’ve become almost allergic to grief in Western culture, we’ve lost a lot of our skills in talking about it. Educate yourself about your grief and what it’s there for and help others learn this language too. We all experience grief and loss in our lifetime – often many times – so it’s a skill that’s always going to come in handy.
  • Perhaps this year you could create a ritual on Mother’s Day to let go of your dream of motherhood. You might like to try the ‘Declutter Your Dreams’ exercise from my book (Exercise 8) or create one of your own. It’s not important what you do – it’s important that you do it, and that you honour your dream and create a physical and emotional ritual for letting it go.  You can do this alone, with another GW or perhaps with your partner – it’s hard on them too all that’s not being spoken and felt today.
  • Get together with some other childless women on Mother’s Day (or a day near it) and celebrate the day together. Consider creating a ‘letting go’ ritual together such as each of you writing a postcard with the names you were going to give your children, then attaching it to a helium balloon and all letting them go together (thanks to M.W. for that beautiful idea). Afterwards you could all give each other a bunch of flowers and then have lunch together to celebrate all that’s to come. You can connect with other Gateway Women through our global, private online community or our international meetups groups and even if there’s no-one in your area, you could chat online and share your stories – being heard and understood in this way helps our grief to become unstuck and start moving along as the river of healing it’s meant to be.
  • If you are  attending a church service on Mothering Sunday and dreading it, consider contacting your vicar or priest beforehand to discuss how hard it can be to be excluded from many of the rituals (like giving a flower to every mother) and such like. If it’s a Church of England service, remind them of the origins of this day was about visiting the ‘Mother Church’! Speaking up for ourselves is a powerful way of honouring our grief. Even if it doesn’t make a difference this year, just knowing that you’ve tried will make a huge difference to your grief. You might like to tell them about this website as I would hope that such a growing pastoral issue is one that the clergy would like to understand more about. Single childless women have, historically, found a role within their local congregations but this has become harder in our generation with the fetishisation of motherhood and the increased ‘othering’ of the single, childless woman as something to be shamed and shunned. Childless couples are less ostracised within the Church, although they’ll probably get a lot of pitying looks and prayers for a miracle baby – long after that’s either helpful or appropriate. That can drive you away too.
  • If you’re also mourning the death of your own mother on Mother’s Day, you might like to do something on this day that she would have enjoyed or perhaps to visit places that were special to her. Consider writing her a letter about how you’re experiencing life without her, and then creating a ritual to ‘send’ it to her – like burning it and letting the wind take the ashes, or burying it in her favourite beauty spot, or letting the river or another body of water take it to her. Whatever honours that connection. I’d also recommend that you share how you’re feeling about losing your mother with other childless women on the Gateway Women online community. What grief needs is to be heard and understood in order to complete its healing.
  • Being a childless stepmother on Mother’s Day is a difficult position and not made easier by all the well-meaning platitudes of others that you are a mother. You’re not, you’re a stepmother and no matter how close you are to your step-children, hopefully they also have a wonderful and loving mother in their life too. It’s not your day, and they know it and you know it. Children hate it when adults try to pretend something’s other than it is too. Yes, you deserve a day too, but this isn’t it. It’d be great if that pain could be acknowledged but it often seems that a stepmother’s feelings come last, and childless stepmothers even lower down the list. Let your partner know that you can see that it’s a tricky situation for them too, and arrange to do something special together to celebrate all that you do for their children. Allow yourself to be spoilt! And if that’s not a conversation you’re able to have right now, make sure you can have it with other childless stepmothers on the Gateway Women online community. Grief gets grouchy when it’s not allowed a voice…
  • Take a break from Facebook or, even better, do some serious pruning / hiding of all those friends and family that ‘trigger’ you (you know which ones!) I wrote a post about it last year called Childless and Miserable: You Need to Get Off Facebook which is one of the best read posts on this website! And if you can’t face the possible backlash, (which will be much less than you imagine) just deactivate your account for a while. It’ll all still be there when/if you want to return…. Life without Facebook could be your private gift to yourself this Mother’s Day!
  • Spend some time discovering the many role models that are amongst us and have gone before us – we’re not the first women to be childless and the stories of others can support and inspire us. I’ve been curating a Gallery of Childless and Childfree Role Models over the last couple of years and am always looking for new nominations… take a look and let me know who you’d like to see added.

Once we learn to acknowledge our grief and to do our grief work, we can experience the healing that is its gift. This year, do something differently and honour yourself and your childlessness on Mother’s Day.

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Click here for a list of all currently scheduled Gateway Women workshops

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Photo of Jody Day, Founder of Gateway Women (UK)

Jody Day (50) is the Founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life Without Children’ (Published Autumn 2013). She set up the Gateway Women in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women (like herself) as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. Jody runs private sessionsworkshops and retreats for women coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them as well as private meetup groups in the UK & IrelandUSAAustralia,  NZ and Canada as well as thriving private online community.  In October 2014 she was made a Fellow of Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School at Cambridge University for her work as a social entrepreneur. She speaks regularly in public, in the media and online about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today and is becoming known as ‘the voice of the childless generation’. For more about Jody and Gateway Women, click here.

About Jody 82 Articles
Jody Day is a British author, trainee integrative psychotherapist and the founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women. She’s a founding member at AWOC.org (Ageing without Children) and a former Fellow in Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School. She's the author of 2016’s 'Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children' (Bluebird/PanMacmillan). Gateway Women hosts online communities, workshops, retreats, courses, social events and private sessions for childless-not-by-choice women. Jody lives alone in London with her cat, a stereotype that she warmly and humorously subverts.
Contact: Website

26 Comments on Honouring Your Childlessness on Mother’s Day

  1. God bless all on this website and Jody for writing this blog! I’m 42, single and childless and praise God, coping with this status, though still expecting it to change. I pray we continue talking and advocating about our experiences because people are ignorant to them and to the impact their comments have on us at times. I hesitate saying Happy Mothers Day because many feel they can’t say it back to me because I don’t have children. I welcome it because I have mothered, nurtured many people and to withhold saying it back to me makes me hesitant to say it to others…the silence or awkwardness is a bad feeling.

  2. Love the article. I have tried to look for a Gateway meet up in California but there aren’t any in Orange County. Have you had any interest in that area?

  3. Hi Jody,

    Many thanks for this post. It’s been my first Mother’s Day after the realisation that having children will not happen for me. I’ve had almost a year to get used to the thought, but Mother’s Day is difficult – and I am one of those who celebrates it twice – in March with my Mother in Law, in May with my own Mum.
    I’m not sure my MiL understands at all what is going on with me, which made the day even harder. But I did make it through without a major melt down and for that I bought myself a present – a sparkly ring that seems to twinkle at me with all the opportunities ahead that I can take because I don’t have a young family to look after.

    My own Mum is having a hard time with it and grieving alongside me, which is great and horrible at the same time. But it gives each of us someone to go to and tell about the times we felt excluded when people talk about children and grandchildren.

    Keep up the good work, your writing has helped me a lot, especially looking for and seeing the good things that still lie ahead. Thank you x

    • Hi Tina – thanks for commenting and I’m glad the article helped. Having two Mother’s Days – ugh – double tough! And strangely yes, I can see how your own Mother grieving is both a support and another source of heartache. I’m so glad you’ve found GW and you might like to join our private online community so that you can have some support around Mother’s Day – quite a few of our members are non-UK so have May 10th on the horizon… Hugs, Jody x

  4. An infertile friend of mine who is only in her 20s had a crying fit on mothers day as well. We had all gone away for the weekend and had decided not to bother with Sunday lunch that day and we would have dinner a bit later on and we were staying in a hotel and had gone downstairs for breakfast around 8.30am and at first it was ok and then it started filling up with young families and I could see her lips were trembling and then a family came in and were making a big fuss along with bunches of flowers and my friend had to leave the room because she was crying so much and she cried most of the day as well triggered by that. My attitude was that they don’t give up do they and I also think that the more you want to avoid things like that which upset you the more they will come and find you in order to upset you. Personally I think they have spoilt mothers day with the over commercialisation of it.

    • Hi Joanne – I’m so sorry to hear how tough it was for your friend. I’m so glad she had an understanding friend in you to help her through the day. Hugs, Jody x

  5. Thank you for this excellent article. I have shared it with friends and wanted to send you the article I have written to accompany it, in case it is helpful.

    ‘I wanted to wait until Mothering Sunday was over until I shared it. The article is one of the best I have read on this subject. Mothering Sunday is always tricky – for those without children (whether married, single, bereaved or alienated); for those mourning the death of their own mothers; for children who have lost mothers; for childless stepmothers. This year even the Google meme rammed home the message. The fetishization of birth motherhood has been flooding adverts everywhere for weeks. I guess because it seems to be a lovely, fuzzy, warm consumer event which (like Valentine’s Day which is going the same way) is primarily a secular celebration with no embarrassing religious connections. So everyone can share because, after all, everyone has or had a mother. Not so. As someone who was brought up by a widowed father from early childhood I do not appreciate the removal of fathers from parenting which is implicit in most of the Mothering Sunday rhetoric. And this essentially commercial day has now become one of the church’s major outreach events.

    This makes it tricky for clergy. Over many years I have seen many valiant attempts to address the issue of this essentially excluding event. I have sat through a sermon on Hannah specifically addressed to me – with the naïve implications a) that Hannah’s own problem has to do with her desire for a baby to cuddle, rather than the much more serious issues of the worthlessness (and disposability) of the barren woman within a tribal society; b) that it just takes prayer and I am simply suffering from a lack of adequate faith; and c) in an astonishing lack of biological understanding, that it is always all about the woman’s need for a child, and the woman’s failure to conceive. It takes two, clergy people! I have sat through many attempts to say this day is not about mothers but is a celebration of all womanhood. And have been forced to be quite rude to well-meaning clergy insisting that, even as a visitor to their church, I too must have the posy. No, clergy. It is not about womanhood. For the childless woman (whatever the reason she is childless) Mothering Sunday is a reinforcement of her apparent failure of one aspect of womanhood, never a celebration. For the childless man, to be asked to give his beloved that posy of flowers so she can be included in the fun, is an act which totally fails to acknowledge his own unspoken grief. And it is about grief. Continuous, lifelong, unspoken.

    Do I have an answer for how to celebrate or acknowledge this day? Yes, clergy friends – celebrate it. Use it for outreach. But don’t try to address the issue of childlessness on this day. Read this article and begin to understand the depth and complexity of childlessness. And the variations and iterations of it. Give people room in your church to be different. Never use the word ‘family’ when you mean ‘household.’ Acknowledge the variations within those households. Think outside the box when looking for those to work with the children and young people – not having a child does not mean the adult lacks the ability to engage with children. And make room for grief, for adult emotions, for adult sermons, for adult acts of worship.

    Childlessness is about exclusion: exclusion from all that a person expected of their future, from all that their peers are experiencing. The inclusive church needs to think a bit harder about all its marginal people, whether that marginalisation is based on family-structure, race, class, sexuality, disability. First of all, it needs to spot where its margins are.’

    Clare Sargent

    • Hi Clare – thank you for sharing my article and also yours with us. The Church really needs to wake up to this and you’ve really broken down the issues cogently and compassionately. Let’s hope they can do the same! Hugs, Jody x

    • Hi Clare, I have only just seen this blog post and your reply. I’m so glad you wrote this. I am a childless stepmum and vicar. Believe it or not, I am the only person in my church who doesn’t have children. Mothering Sunday is such a trial every year. I try to get through it by celebrating the fact that we are all children, that we are called to be a family that is about more than ‘being related’, and by reminding people that Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother.” But it still doesn’t make it any better, and it has its own problems. I really hope the church will learn, and that I will be part of the learning process.

  6. Dear Jody,
    Thank you for all you have done for childless women around the world,it helps to know I am not alone. But I had to learn to go to the right people for support. I feel the same way you mentioned that our culture does not want to hear about this issue. I find it interesting that the women who came up with the idea of Mother’s Day in the US was childless. I am an involved Aunt and Godmother and those roles have brought me much joy! I send my Gateway Women in the UK much love, hugs and prayers for this weekend! Xo Sandy

    • Hi Sandy – thanks so much for your comment. There’s a great expression in recovery circles (12 Step programmes) which is ‘don’t go to the hardware store for milk’ which I often share with members who are struggling with those in their life who can’t/won’t understand their pain. It gets so much easier for us (and for them) when we find other childless women who want to hear us as once we feel fully heard, we no longer feel the need to keep trying to share our truth with those who aren’t ready to hear it. We are rubbish at grief in Western Culture!
      Thanks for your wishes for those of us in the UK: we’ll be supporting you in May!
      Hugs, Jody x

  7. Oh Jody, I just adore your fierce advocacy for our emotional selves!! Still in the trenches myself, I wholeheartedly trust my grieving process during this time when I have faith in little else. The judgments, misconceptions, and downright blank stares I get when sharing or expressing my grief out in the world have been both striking and many. It takes a lot to stick to my guns that #1 grief is not a choice and #2 grief IS an act of self compassion.

    And TWO MOTHER’S DAYS?????? I’m so sorry. And speechless.

    I’d also like to say that

    “A double-dose of smugness, cloying sentimentality, alienation and disenfranchised grief. Hooray – let’s all buy cards for that!”

    could very well be the best sentence ever. It sure had me laughing.

    Sarah

    • Thanks for sharing the article on your blog and for commenting. I’m sorry that you too were affected by DES and I’d like to share your website here for any others who may be looking for the support and outreach you provide: Here is a quote to help with google searches!

      Around the world, thousands, maybe millions of people are totally unaware that they were exposed to Diethylstilbestrol DES, a toxic and carcinogenic drug. All of these people are not receiving proper medical treatment, or making truly informed decisions about their healthcare, as a result.

      See https://desdaughter.wordpress.com/ for more information.

  8. This is a wonderful article and resonates on so many levels. I lost my mother when I was young and grew up feeling bitter on Mother’s Day. I’ve been very fortunate with the opportunities life has given me for healing that sadness and anger.
    Just one small note: Please do not encourage the release of helium balloons with messages! It does feel like a lovely gesture, but there can be bad consequences for the environment, and the animals who may be harmed by the litter.

    • Hi Eyespider and thanks for commenting. I’m so sorry you lost your mother when you were young and I’m glad you’re in a better place. Thanks for the heads up about the balloon. Hugs, Jody x

  9. Jody,
    I can only say that I have immense respect and admiration for all you have done in bringing this painful subject out into the open. I have felt immense pain, and suffering and have not been able to “get over” it. I’ve read your blogs for the last couple of years. I realize I have talked to people over the years, both mothers and non-mothers about my “situation”. For the most part the mothers have been kind, not patronizing, but what could they say really other than,platittudes, and the women I have met who did not have children don’t seem bothered by it very much. I would so very much like to meet women such as the ones in your group. I live in the Tampabay area on the west coast of Florida. I see there is a group in Miami, but it is about four hours away. I honestly don’t have the guts to start one myself, but wondering if you have heard from other women in my area who might be interested or if you do in the future, I could contact them. I am very isolated in my pain over not having children. In addition I am going to be sixty-one on Monday, I had two brief unfulfilling marriages, and lost my own mother when I was twenty-seven. I feel like a complete failure as a woman in so many ways. I see a therapist, but she herself has children, and is a grandmother . I don’t think she can possibly understand how I feel, although she is a sensitive and understanding person. I don’t like to complain, even though I feel I must sound like the complaining sort, but I think if I don’t cross to the other side as you have done, in terms of acceptance of what will never be, and how to listen to other people talk about their children, and grandchildren ad nauseum without being pained– I will not be able to escape these chains of misery. I want to be at peace so very much.

    • Hi Dvora – thanks for sharing your story and your pain with us. I’m so sorry to hear that you haven’t been able to find the necessary identification amongst the women you’ve spoken to in order for your grief to feel ‘heard’ and begin to heal. I really recommend joining our private online community as a first step as a way to start having those conversations in a safe space. And if you could suggest a location and a day of the weekend (morning or afternoon) that you’d like to attend a group in your area, I’ll set it up for you. Hugs, Jody x

      • Oh, Jody, You have literally brought tears to my eyes. I know you understand,and I am so grateful to not have to overexplain myself or rationalize why I feel the way I do. Thank you for that. Any evening of the week except Wednesday or would be wonderful or Saturday anytime or Sundays afternoon. You are a godsend. If you could get a group together in my area that would be the best birthday present ever. Thanks so much, and the fact you answered so quickly is a godsend. You truly are an angel of Childless women.

  10. I think this is a very good post. In my experience it is necessary to confront those feeling of anger and bitterness and not let them “fester underground” so to speak.

    • Hi Debbie – I’m so glad you get that anger needs to be honoured and worked with, rather than suppressed. ‘Bitterness’ is a very strange word – and very gendered – no one ever speaks of a man being ‘bitter’. Men are allowed to be ‘angry’ and I think we are too! I really recommend Karla McLaren’s work on anger if you haven’t yet found it. It’s helped me, and my clients, so much! Hugs, Jody x

  11. Thank you for this, Jody. And I adore the Gallery. In my daily Pinterest check, I am always thrilled to see a new addition to the board pop up. What a great way to collect evidence on the value, joy, and usefulness of a childless life.

    • Hi Kara – so great that you love the Pinterest board too. Whenever I find a new addition, I’m so excited too. It’s been over 2 years now and it’s over 400 women now! Hugs, Jody x

  12. Having had 6 miscarriages I feel like I am a mother albeit to lost babies – but feel like my friends and family have forgotten how hard this day is. It’s also the anniversary of one of those miscarriages so a doubly hard time. Your book and posts have really helps me deal with the grief and move on. Not forget but accept and move on with my life. Thank you for that. It’s taken years but I am now rocking a different life

    • Hi Anne – thank you for taking the time to comment.
      My heart cracks to think of losing 6 babies, 6 little lives. It’s so sad that those around us cannot understand that time does not heal these losses, but that rather we get used to their weight. I’m so glad that my work has been a support to you and that you feel that life is beginning to rock again.
      Hugs, Jody x

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