Today is International Women’s Day 2018. Started by the Suffragettes in the early 1900’s, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911 and this year’s theme is #PressforProgress.
Yet it can be hard if you’re a childess-not-by-choice (CNBC) woman sometimes to feel that you belong to the global tribe of women, as womanhood and motherhood are routinely conflated.
Whether it be the way that Facebook algorithms target you with nappies, ‘back to school’ offers and prams, the rise of terms such as ‘Mumpreneur’ or even, for heaven’s sake, a local women’s running club calling themselves ‘MumsRun’, it seems that whichever way we turn, the one in five of us who aren’t mothers (90% of those not by choice) can feel invisible.
At work, this invisibility shows up in the way that organisations routinely conflate ‘female-friendly policies’ with ‘family friendly’ ones. And in the way that women without children are expected to uncomplainingly pick up the slack for their colleagues on maternity leave or with childcare issues. Yet if they seek compensation, recognition or reciprocity for this, or even have the temerity to point out that they too ‘deserve’ to spend Christmas with their loved ones, are branded as ‘unsisterly’ or ‘difficult’.
In public life, it shows up in the way that political rhetoric rarely strays from addressing ‘hard-working families’, entirely ignoring all those who willingly pay their taxes to maintain our civil society for everyone’s use. It even happens to future Prime Minsters too – who can ever forget Andrea Leadsom MP’s gaffe about how being a mother gave her a more tangible stake in the future than her childless rival Teresa May MP? Or the way that the former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard was derided for her childlessness. So much so, she joked with former US President Barack Obama: ‘You think it’s tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister.’
And at home it happens behind closed doors when childless daughters are left out of important family discussions about wills, inheritances and family plans. And you’d be surprised how common it is that she’s given the sofa to sleep on at Christmas (and not expected to ‘mind’ about it!) whilst her sister’s kids get ‘her’ old bedroom. (No, it’s really not just YOU this has happened to!)
As someone who is no longer slammed to the floor by grief over my childlessness, I now have the strength to point these things out and to try to do something it about them. It’s why I gave my TED talk in 2017, hoping to create a short video that could be shared by you to help explain our situation to others. Because when just getting through the day is a major achievement, speaking up for yourself as a disenfranchised minority is really not top of your to-do list.
This #IWD2018 I stand up for the 2 million childless-not-by-choice women in the UK, and the many more globally who read this blog and gain strength from the community of childless women that gathers here, and over in our private online community.
It’s time for an end to unfunny ‘jokes’ about ‘crazy cat ladies’ and sneering jibes about ‘career women’. It’s time that workplaces recognised that women without children (by choice or not) aren’t there to carry the load for inefficient workflow planning when our colleagues are on maternity leave (and which we are happy to support by the way, just not at the cost of it all landing on our desks!) It’s time that marketeers and social policy thinkers understood that not all women are mothers or grandmothers and that not everyone has a family poised to take care of them in old age.
The shaming of childless women is a way to keep us silent, to keep us apart from each other. But our numbers are growing and our influence, when we act together, will be substantial.
You have done nothing wrong by being childless. You are nothing wrong by being childless. You are a woman and you as valuable as any other woman, any other human being. So, as we #PressforProgress for women, let’s make sure that includes childless women like you and me too.
Thanks for your courage and steadfastness; and for the joy and hope that you’ve injected into a very important global conversation.
Emily’s anecdote up top reminds me of an incident a few years back, when I met a woman about my age (early 50s) at a friends’ gathering. Her husband had walked off when she turned to me and asked if I was married with children. When I answered in the negative on both counts, she raised her arms in a hallelujah-like gesture, smiled widely and leaned in: “Isn’t it great NOT to have kids? I feel so lucky!” It took everything I had to stop, take a deep breath, and say “well actually no, and I’m not sure why you’re making that assumption.” Then I walked away, my heart beating fast. It took awhile for the shock to subside, but I realized that, as you’ve pointed out, on my life path, I will continue to encounter vastly differing responses to childlessness – from women and men alike. It’s my – all of our – work to stand up, break the silence and shake off the stereotypes.
Your posts help buffer the sting of such interactions. Much gratitude for your posts, guidance and humor too 😉
Thank you for this post Jody. It really nails it. Reading it I remember attending a 40th birthday party of a friend of my husband. They have a young child so it was a family friendly BBQ. We arrived and put our offerings on the table in the dining room before heading out to the garden. OMG! It was awash for want of a better phrase (sorry for any feathers that get ruffled) with prams and babies being swung and bounced and toddlers being chased around. What was most staggering though wasn’t that we were judged or pitied for being without issue, it was that we were completely and utterly invisible to everyone there except one other couple and a single guy, who spotted us like a beacon gets spotted as they too were childless or in the case of the guy, hadn’t brought their child because they were a non resident parent. We spent what became a pleasant afternoon with enjoyable conversation as a little satellite totally unnoticed by the parents. They really did look straight through us.
Our lives may be different, we may worry about different things, have different challenges, but we still exist and I for one am glad of the work that Jody and many others are now doing to put us firmly on the map.
Gosh Emily, I totally empathise! And thanks indeed to Jody for this post and all the others that have made me feel “wow, it isn’t just me!”. x
Hi Marie – thank you for your appreciation and I’m glad that you felt less alone after reading this post. Hugs, Jody x
Hi Emily – Thanks for commenting and for sharing your example of how ‘invisible’ we can be. I’m often asked by those for whom this isn’t their experience, ‘What do you mean, invisible? Give me some concrete examples!” (As if I’m making it up, or being ‘oversensitive’). Our experience is SO common yet somehow it seems so hard for many (not all) to empathise with. When we were kids, one of the worst things a group could do to an individual was to ‘send them to Coventry’ (which for not-Brits means for everyone to agree to not speak to them, not respond to them, pretend they didn’t exist). It was cruel and it hurt. We are social beings, we need (and we seek) group validation our whole lives. Childlessness is like being sent to Coventry, except that those that are doing it are either unaware of it, or don’t think it’s cruel… Hugs, Jody x
Yes, I think you have to experience the invisibility to know it and not everyone doing the blanking is aware that they are doing that or of how it feels to be invisible.
Wow Jody, thank you, your words are so inspiring and resonate in my soul. Here in New Zealand our Prime Minister is a woman, and now she’s pregnant, so it seems like every news story mentions how wonderful she is, being pregnant and having such a huge job. There’s no thought to those of us struggling every time we see another smiling picture of her and “her bump”. It’s so in your face every day, I’ve stopped looking at the newspaper. It’s exhausting, but knowing that there are incredible women like you in my corner makes it a tiny bit easier. Thank you for putting having a voice for all of us! You are appreciated.
Hi Fiona – thanks for your comments. Yes, a pregnant prime minister – argh! (Although I notice she’s getting a lot of flack for it, it seems that no matter what a woman does with her uterus it’s a problem!) So glad my words helped today. Thank you for your appreciation. Hugs, Jody x
Hi, I’ve been working since 1988, mostly office work, and in my experience it is women that are the judgemental ones regarding not having children (and sometimes regarding the fact that you’re single as well). I’ve never felt judged by men in that regard. To be frank, this International Woman’s Day thing does my head in, as I’ve never felt much ‘sisterhood’, or that women support each other much really – unless they’re friends or family, it’s dog eat dog! And not much thanks for covering for your female colleagues when they dash off because their child is sick!
Hi Mhairi – I take your point about women being judgemental of other women – we are all conditioned by patriarchy, both men and women, and as the ones on the ‘losing side’ of that particular game, women have more to lose and thus can be more competitive with each other. I too found more judgement than support from other women when I was grieving my childlessness (including from some ‘friends’) and it wasn’t until I started connecting with my ‘tribe’ that I truly found the support and sisterhood I needed. I hope you’ll find it here too. Hugs, Jody x
Thank you Jody, so nice to be acknowledged that CNCW are also valued on this day and not through what we have ‘produced’ but more being a woman and being human. You are awesome for speaking up ‘strong’, ‘fierce’ and hopefully heard loud and clear by those that need to make
Changes ???? ????????
Hi Karen – thank you! We are worthy (and often awesome). It’s a shame the world hasn’t worked that out yet, but we’ll get there… Jody x
Thanks Jody for your article. As a CNBC woman too I’m happy to celebrate IWD or any event that honours the contributions of ALL women whatever their family status may be.
I hope all women will continue to Press for Change in the exclusionist, patronising attitudes of anyone who thinks being childless not by choice means we don’t have a voice. Newsflash – WE DO!!!!
Hi Hannefah – thank you for your comment and I agree. I too am happy to celebrate ALL women regardless of marital status, sexuality, parenthood status, race, culture or any other difference. It’s time that OUR voice was included as part of the mainstream, and together we will make that happen! Hugs, Jody x
Thanks Jody for this – it’s helped me get through the day xx
Hi Heidi – so glad it’s helped. I heard of another crazy pronatalist thing today – the Body Shop are giving out free lovely bags hich on one side say ‘Rocking it like a Mother’. WTF?!
Wow! Thank you for this post, Jody! I feel stronger just reading your words, empowered to keep speaking up for the childless not by choice!