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!
This Mothering Sunday in the UK I have been invited to speak at the service at St Martin’s in the Fields (London) which is being broadcast live on BBC R4 (and available online afterwards). It feels like an incredible ‘moment’ for us childless women, to have our stories, our identities, honoured on this most painful and complex of days for us.
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 forced 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 Living 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 create our own family. We will never watch them grow up, never throw children’s birthday parties, never take that ‘first day at school’ photo, never teach them to ride a bike. We’ll never see them graduate, never see them maybe get married and have their own children. We’ll 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 leave our stuff to, and no one to take our lifetime’s learnings into 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.
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 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. Listen to my talk at the 2016 Mother’s Day Service in London to be broadcast by the BBC. Also, Kani Comstock’s book Honouring Missed Motherhood (2013) has a section on creating rituals, including the full text of an alternative ‘Mother’s Day Service: Honouring the Feminine’ (p122) which you might like to consider sharing with your church, or create you own ritual with friends.
- 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.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Future Without Children’ (2016, Bluebird/PanMacmillan). 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 sessions, workshops 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 & Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. She speaks and writes regularly 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.