Above is a short clip from the interview. You can listen to the full interview on the Knitted Heart website here and read the full transcript below. And please, please do leave a review on Apple Podcasts - it's hugely helpful for podcast creators who put so much love, work and expenses into creating podcasts!
I absolutely loved being interviewed by Ben A. Eisner for his ‘Knitted Heart‘ podcast in February 2021. Ben describes Knitted Heart as being about “the inter-connectivity of everyone and everything, and our collective responsibility to heal, restore, and unify the world we share. Knitted Heart aims to facilitate inward-looking conversations with uniquely passionate artists, actors, activists, philosophers, and scientists.” As you can imagine, we covered a LOT of ground in this show, including talking about things I’ve never discussed before, such as:
- the midlife breakdown/breakthrough I experienced that marked the end of my marriage which I describe as a ‘control-alt-delete of the soul’ and which I later came to learn was something which is called a ‘spontaneous Kundalini awakening’ in Hindu spiritual teachings;
- what the significance is of the ‘gateway’ in Gateway Women
- the misunderstood superpower of grief and why not understanding the power of grief is soemtihng that is holding our society back
- and why I think that perhaps the difficulty our culture has with ‘difference’ is perhaps at the root of all of the social problems we are dealing with.
Transcript of Jody’s interview with Ben A. Eisner. Click here to listen
BEN: Hi, everyone. Ben Eisner here. Welcome to another episode of Knitted Heart, where I talk with endlessly curious masters of their craft about their passions, professions and their shared hope to bring unity, reconciliation and a reframing of public discourse through their work.
BEN: My guest today is global thought leader on women living a childless life, Jody Day. Jody is the British founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women with a social reach of over two million. From her arduous journey, Jody carries heart-healing wisdom for all of us, and I’m so grateful to share this invigorating conversation with you. The gift of grief is truly the pearl of great price that we all are invited to behold and with that, I give you the very lovely and the oh so wise, Jody Day.
BEN: Jody, I read your book and I’m really excited to talk to you. You’ve spent so much of your life, for lack of a better term, labouring over the idea of being a motherless woman and your story was really gripping for me because there’s so much othering going on in the world, period. Colour, sexuality, gender, you name it, the list goes on and on and on. Motherlessness, if that’s a word, is something that’s either discounted, ignored or just othered in almost, I’m pulling this from your book a lot, almost in a subversive way that we almost forget about that. I’m a huge fan of Audre Lorde, she was a black, lesbian feminist and she talked so much about difference and how Western culture likes to figure out a way to take anything that doesn’t fit the white model of, quote, unquote, success or homogeneity and take difference and separate it into deviance. I just think that was such an interesting way to say it. It’s like it’s not difference, society likes to make it deviance.
BEN: Jody, sorry if this is a big set up, but I’m really seeing your life of work as kind of writing that, instead of saying well, you just got to take your label. I’m a motherless woman and I’m just going to be in my own category and you might not understand me, but I’ll just go in my own little pocket of people and we’ll just comfort each other and stay here. But I just see something that you have such a gift to offer the world and I want to unpack that. It’s almost like I’m concluding everything I read and I’ll let you expand on it, but I feel like the gift you are offering to the world is something that a lot of us overlook in terms of the importance of our own journeys and knowing that motherhood is an umbrella, an archetypal umbrella that all of us need, but also long for.
BEN: I think the conclusion I’m coming to is, it has little to do with actually bearing a child, there’s something deeper about motherhood and motherly wisdom that I’ve gleaned from so many of my favourite women figures. I’m wearing an Angela Davis shirt right now. There’s so much motherly wisdom that I have gleaned from women who have never had a child. And I would just love for you, Jody, to maybe just tell me about your story of spending so many decades just longing for motherhood and then finding that there was a new way of actually celebrating and being who you truly are, and it has nothing to do with the societal expectation of your value in the whole system because you had a kid. If you could just talk about your story and how it led to Gateway Women.
JODY: Thank you so much, Ben, that was an amazing introduction to my work and I’m really touched to see how you respond to it. Very moved by that. Thank you. So I’m 56 and a half now, and I chuckle a bit because when you’re younger and particularly when you’re still hopeful of having children, those halves are really important, and then they get less important again when you move past your fertility window, whatever that might be, and it’s going to vary for each of us. But those years when I was longing, craving to have a child, a biological child, started within my marriage.
JODY: Interestingly, I didn’t grow up wanting to have a child. I actually had a pretty strong idea when I was growing up that I didn’t want to get married and have children. I recognized later that that was a response to my own mother’s unhappiness and also being mothered by someone who was still dealing with the unhealed wounds of her own childhood. So it wasn’t a great experience for either of us, mother or daughter. So, I think my young consciousness way was, well, I’m just not going to do any of it.
JODY: It wasn’t until I got a bit older and I met the man who became my then-husband and even then, I said to him, “I don’t think I want to have children.” He went, “Okay.” That was the big conversation, that’s as much as we discussed. And then a few years later, I was 29, we got married when I was 26, I understood that, actually, children weren’t going to be my childhood, it was a chance to do something differently and maybe even heal some wounds. And that those children would be the combined product of my husband’s and my DNA and wouldn’t that be amazing? And I went, “I kind of think maybe I do want to have children,” and he was like, “Okay.”
JODY: Those two conversations are enough to derail a lot of relationships, but we were very young, we didn’t think things through very clearly. So I tried to get pregnant and I was unable to conceive. Now, that really surprised me because I had been pregnant at 20 and I’d had a termination, so this was before I met my husband. I got pregnant and I was absolutely terrified because what my mother had told me, what my school had told me, what the culture had told me, was having a child is going to ruin your life. It’s like all your opportunities will be gone. And I just thought as the child of a very young mom, who was the child of a very young mom, I grew up with that narrative around me of ‘all the things I could’ve done with my life if I hadn’t had you.’
BEN: Wow. Yikes.
JODY: I’m 20 and it’s just about to kind of kick-off again. So I had that abortion and I thought well, everything works. And so when I still didn’t conceive by the time of 33, so I’d been trying for nearly four years, I had an operation to check that everything was okay. The gynaecologist who did the operation talked to me afterwards and said, “Absolutely first-class uterus. Finest uterus I’ve seen all week.”
BEN: Whoa. In fact, you’re the model. Your uterus is the model for everyone.
JODY: Yeah, I know. That was it, that was the fertility advice, that was all I got.
BEN: Holy cow.
JODY: And so I struggled with something called unexplained infertility, which is the medical terminology for we don’t know. My then-husband seemed to be fine, I seemed to be fine, but I was never able to conceive. So the years truck on through our 30s, we are a pair of interior designers doing really well. It was his business. I gave up my business. I was in technology PR. I probably would be on a yacht now if I hadn’t closed down that company because I was one of the few women in technology PR a long time ago. And I thought well, I’ll give up what I do and I’ll put my grand building and everything efforts into my husband’s business because in a couple of years’ time, I’ll be pregnant and then his business will be the one that supports us as a family, so it makes sense for me to put my efforts there.
JODY: And then I didn’t get pregnant. So, nearly a decade later, I’m still doing a job which I can do, but I’m not into it particularly. And my then-husband, his charisma and artistic ability had sort of spiralled into the dark side of workaholism, followed by alcoholism, followed by addiction. So, we were in a mess with the infertility, the addiction. I had the nice little matching set of codependency. So, we were in a real mess.
BEN: What a recipe.
JODY: Yeah. I came from a family full of substance abuse, so I did that thing that I didn’t become an alcoholic, but I married one. So when our marriage broke down, when I was 38, and that was my what Brené Brown famously calls, “a nervous breakdown, slash, spiritual awakening.”
BEN: Whoa. And they go inextricably together.
JODY: Yeah, which literally rocketed me out of my marriage. I realized later, because I was not spiritual at all at that time, that actually, what I had fits a textbook definition of something called a spontaneous Kundalini awakening. It was a very physical, very spiritual, full-on experience.
BEN: Can you talk about that?
JODY: It was like control-alt-delete on the soul. Yes. It started in the office with someone else who was going on maternity leave, that I had to pay for because it was our business, and I could feel myself starting to lose my temper, which is not like me and I thought I need to get out. So, I kind of rushed out of the office, I was on my way home in the car and I had this sudden desire to kind of just turn the wheel of the car really fast, just put it underneath the truck and I was like, what is going on? Got into the house, sort of leant against the front door, like, what is going on?
BEN: Where am I? Who am I right now?
JODY: My office manager rang me about my behaviour in the office, which she called me on, and I lost it. I lost my temper. I had this feeling of heat actually in my buttocks, like I was sitting on a fire. And then this incredible sensation went up my spine, through my body and left the top of my head and it was as if, basically, the top of my skull had come off and there was white light leaving my skull, going straight up to infinity at about a billion miles an hour.
BEN: That’s powerful.
JODY: Yeah. I remember having this moment when I thought I’ve lost my mind and oh, shit, I’ve lost my mind. And then I had this image of what looked like a walnut, it was tiny, and I was in that walnut, in this huge stream of energy that was leaving my body, this tiny walnut in the sort of stream of energy and I thought, but I’m in here and I’m okay. But I wonder if anyone will ever know that I’m in here. And then I think I probably lost consciousness because I came to. I was alone in the house, so I don’t know exactly, but maybe it was about 15 minutes and I found myself on the floor. And as I came to, I actually didn’t know what the floor was, what was up, what was down. I think it was as close to a rebirth as you can get as an adult.
JODY: I felt like I was seeing the floor for the first time. Seeing my hands for the first time. I called my then-husband, he came home, my mom came round and actually, I did go to a psychiatric unit because no-one else really knew what to do with me. And as I sort of healed from that experience, really, what I just needed was rest, there was nothing wrong, I’d just blown an enormous fuse. I came back into my life and it was like waking up again in your own life, middle-aged and going who the hell made all these decisions? Having a completely fresh pair of eyes on your own life and having a chance to choose to do things differently.
JODY: That was when my HSP tendencies, my highly sensitive person tendencies started to really become aware. And, really, all of the feelings that I’d repressed since a very young girl growing up in an unsafe environment, if you imagine they all came back online simultaneously. So, it was the most massive reset, but also a huge challenge because I had to learn how to be this new version of myself. So six weeks later my marriage is over and I’m living this new version.
BEN: You said something that stuck out to me, you said, “Instead of falling apart, something remarkable happened, I fell together.” Do you feel like that was kind of that epiphany? I feel that walnut was almost like a cocoon or something, I don’t know. Did you see it that way?
JODY: It did. It was protecting me. And when I look at what a walnut looks like, it looks almost like a human brain, which is interesting. But the image I had in my mind was actually more from one of the films that I’d loved when I was a teenager, which was about people being injected into the bloodstream and being really tiny and going round the human body in a little submarine. It was like an adventure story. You’re in the bloodstream and you’re running around and I felt like that.
JODY: But when I fell together at a later date, so that’s a piece in my book when I realized I was definitely going to be childless, that’s a few years later, I’m 44. But what happened sort of between 38 and 44 is I had all of the old programming from my life that was still running, but I also had all of this new awareness about my life that I was trying to make sense of. And I was desperately looking for teachers, for wisdom, for guides, for therapists, someone who could help me to make sense of it. I was looking at Buddhism, I was looking at meditation, I was looking at yoga. I was looking at anything that seemed to have a system to help me understand the fact that I now had these incredible perceptions and awarenesses.
JODY: And I realized I’d been like that as a kid but I’d suppressed them, and I’d also suppressed them in my marriage. I’d made some conscious and unconscious decisions early in my relationship with my husband, I met him when I was 21, where I actually suppressed a lot of who I was in order to make the relationship work. I’d grown up in an unhappy home, I really wanted to have a happy marriage. I parked a lot of myself out of view, put some of my gold into my shadow as well as some of the darkness. I just thought no, these bits don’t fit. If I want to be loved, these bits don’t fit. Some of those bits, when they started to come back, I had to build a new relationship with them. So I suppose I had a pretty dramatic midlife breakthrough.
JODY: It led me towards training to become a therapist and I think gave me an intense curiosity about human process. I realized I’d always been fascinated by those things, by philosophy, by process, by mysticism, by personal growth. And it was as if, suddenly, I had permission, like okay, you’re not going to have the 2.2 kids and the cute, artist husband and live this slightly bohemian, slightly rakish London life, there’s a whole other plan for you. I don’t know what it is but it’s deep. And I went deep.
BEN: Wow. That’s powerful. What was the moment when you started to feel like you know what? Yes, I am going to step off the ledge here and start being vulnerable and talking to other people out there who might identify with and benefit from all of the pain, the loss internally, but also the restoration and the coming back together that you experienced? Can you talk about that?
JODY: Yes. The vulnerability of doing that was driven by desperation. I probably started realizing that I wasn’t going to meet someone else and do IVF or ART and it was going to work. Throughout my 40 to 44, I was going through this process of going okay, this probably isn’t going to work out. And then when I got to 44 and a half – okay, this is definitely game over for me, I shifted my conversation with people I was trying to talk to. And so instead of it being about what am I going to do if this doesn’t work out, I so badly want to be a mother, it’s not happening, it shifted to I’m definitely not going to be a mother, I’m really trying to work out what that means for me and nobody would let me talk about it. Nobody. I would get binged: “Oh, you’re still so young,” “Oh, maybe you could have one of your own,” “Oh, have you thought of this? Oh, have you tried adoption?” “Oh, really, kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Oh, you can sleep in and travel.” Just all of this stuff started coming at me and I realized that nobody would let me talk about the thing I was trying to talk about, which I didn’t have a word for yet, it was my grief. My grief terrified people.
BEN: Wow. Fascinating. You bring up that term, bingo, and I actually wrote that in my notes. Maybe expand on that. What is a bingo in this context?
JODY: I don’t know if bingo is a game that you play in America?
BEN: Yes, it is.
JODY: You have a certain number of numbers you have to get to win. So I borrowed the phrase initially from the child-free community, which is those women and men who’ve decided not to have children. Child-free bingo, they get a slightly different selection of phrases. One of theirs is “Who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?” or “You’ll regret this one day,” “Oh, you’ll change your mind.”
JODY: If you’re childless not by choice, it’s more around what you can do to make sure you can still have a child, so it’s either discounting your pain: “Oh, it’s not really that bad,” “Why don’t you have one of mine,” “Children aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, oh, you dodged a bullet there,” or it’s about things you can do to make it happen, “Have you thought of adoption, fostering?” No, of course not. “You can have one on your own.” Well, that’s not for everyone. And actually, also, what do you do, just order it on Amazon? It’s amazing, the things people will say that they have no awareness of what they’re saying. And on a really bad day, you can get a full house, which is why we call it bingo. And these comments can come from people who know you really well. And people at the bus stop. The amount of prurient interest in your uterus, as a woman, is quite extraordinary. It’s like your uterus is public property. You see it with pregnant women, when, suddenly, their body becomes public property and complete strangers will start asking them, “Oh, can I touch? When are you expecting?”
BEN: Oh, wow. Yes. You’re right.
JODY: It’s very strange. It’s like, what happened to me being a private person?
BEN: Wow. Yeah. I was just reading through the greatest hits of those bingos that you reeled off. It’s like, “Oh, I read this article,” or “You can always adopt,” like you said, and “I’ve got three kids, you can have one of mine.” But you spoke to it, Jody, you saw that people didn’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to deal with your pain or more rooted, they don’t want to face their pain. Is that a common denominator you’ve found?
JODY: Absolutely. I mean, what is empathy? Empathy is when you feel someone else’s feelings and we allow ourselves to step into them. And we connect with them as we say, “I’m going to share this feeling with you and feel it.” Well, when we feel someone’s grief, what that triggers is our own ungrieved losses. And we all carry so many ungrieved losses because we live in a grief-phobic society.
JODY: So, as well as the “I don’t really know quite what to say to this woman” awkwardness, there’s also this “Oh, we’re going to talk about…” And it can be very unconscious because these comments can come from people that, otherwise, can be very sensitive people. These comments can come from therapists. It’s a real big pronatalist blind spot, it’s “You’re not allowed to talk about it.” And actually, I asked Saint Brené about this when she gave a talk in London a few years ago, why do you get shut down? Why do you basically get shamed when you try to talk about this? And she referred to a piece of research she’d done and when she got all the coding back from her research, she noticed that everyone who’d struggled with infertility talked about their stories in the past tense and she thought perhaps it was an error in her coding, and she went back to them and found out that every single one of them wasn’t able to talk about it when it was happening to them, they could only talk about it in the past tense because they’d had to deal with it.
JODY: And Brené Brown said that infertility and childlessness, in her research, is the number one area of human empathy failure. So, I also like to say to people when I tell them that, women who are struggling, I promise it’s not just your friends and family, this is a big, big issue we struggle with. I think that childlessness, as well as having very modern connotations, I think it has very deep tribal roots. The fear of the childless woman, the fear of childlessness. It probably comes from a very deep time when we needed to have lots of children for our family to survive, for our tribe to survive.
JODY: Childlessness was a curse and I think that lives on in our collective unconscious. So there are so many elements to why childlessness is still something that people really, really struggle to inhabit, really, really struggle to accept. And circling back to when you opened our conversation about difference, I think that perhaps the difficulty with difference is perhaps at the root of all of the social problems we are dealing with. All of them.
JODY: Our inability to tolerate it, to speak across it, to be curious about it, to be accepting of it. It’s at the root of all of our problems.
BEN: It’s interesting that we’re really zeroing in on that because if you look at the rock that you throw in the pond and all the ripple effect of how structured society that’s acceptable for all of us to fall in line with, it kind of does start with the nuclear family in terms of cultural expectations of, quote, unquote, success or admiration or whatever. And it’s just so crazy that everything kind of matriculates out of our offspring and generations and moving from this to that so that we can have a, quote, unquote, respectable family name. And I think that, to me, if I decode all of that, it still comes down to us othering anything or anyone who doesn’t fit the perfect equation of the average existence of 2.5 kids, the white picket fence and all that kind of stuff.
BEN: So, I think what I’m really interested in hearing from you, Jody, is what is the attraction for … Because you have a very respectable following of women who subscribe to what you are teaching and respect everything you’re saying and come to you for comfort and hope. You talked about how, at a certain point, you gave up hope and you were done with hope, you don’t want to have to even deal with the farce of what hope could be. What brought you back to say, “You know what? I’m not ready to let go of hope because I have something to say and there are people that are desperate and hungry and ready for the wisdom that I have gleaned from going through this loss and very valid pain and othering?”
JODY: Well, thank you for calling it wisdom. It’s healed wounds. I don’t think there was really a moment that I decided, I mean, this is Gateway Women’s 10th anniversary year this year.
JODY: It started as a blog, me just typing into the void. I had been trying to have these conversations with friends and family for a couple of years and I simply had not been able to get anyone to listen to stuff I was thinking about, about my childlessness and what it meant and starting to think about the social and the cultural and the historical and all of the things that were coming to me about this is not just me, there are layers and layers and layers to what I’m experiencing.
JODY: So, I started a blog thinking, well, maybe one person will read it. And the day after my first blog was published, I got my first piece of PR. About six weeks later, I gave my first talk. There was a journalist in the audience at that talk, and there were only eight people in the audience, one was the journalist. She interviewed me for an article that then went into The Guardian, that kind of went viral. It’s still being read and shared now, almost a decade later. And what happened was women from all over the world started commenting on my blog with these incredibly powerful words, which have been used in other contexts too. It’s basically “Me too. How could you know the exact words that were in my head?” I thought I was the only person thinking these things.
JODY: And I sat at my desk in my flat, on my own, just with tears running down my face. It’s still very moving now because I realized I wasn’t alone, that these crazy thoughts I were having were really normal. I just wasn’t meeting the people. And then I found out that one in five women of my generation my age were childless, and I was like, where are they? Because I’ve had the experience of not knowing any, not in my family, not in my social circle, not in my colleagues, my acquaintances, in the public eye, no-one, so I really felt intensely alone and that is the experience for a lot of women, not all women. And those younger women who are coming up through in Gateway Women now, kind of the older end of the millennials, 38, 39, many of them know lots of other women in this situation because it’s becoming both voluntary childlessness, being child-free, and involuntary childlessness are becoming more common. And looking at the data, I mashed it up in my book, I think we’re going to see a big increase in both voluntary and involuntary childlessness coming up.
JODY: So, I started talking, the void started talking back, I kept going and then I started creating the things that I needed for my healing that didn’t exist. So I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a meet-up? I created a meet-up. Because I’d come out of quite a few years of being in 12-step programs, healing my codependency, I had a lot of experience of the power of peer-to-peer healing. And I’d also discovered in those groups that I was quite good at holding space.
JODY: So I thought well, okay, I’ll get a group of us together, like a sort of 12-steppy thing. I don’t need to be an expert, I just need to have an agenda, have a container, hold the thing safely and let’s see what happens.
BEN: Love that.
JODY: So, that was my first group – that lasted-10 weeks. I ran that group four times. I developed all of these resources and that became the core of the Reignite Weekend, which is the program that I run, which has run nearly 50 times now, and that program became the core of my book, Living the Life Unexpected. I’m quite techy, that background leftover from being a tech girl back in the ’80s and ’90s. Google had just started their new Groups function and I thought ooh, we’ll have an online group, see what happens. Because I didn’t want it on Facebook because Facebook is self-harm for childless women because it’s not the place you want to be when everyone else you know is having kids, it really isn’t.
BEN: And posting pictures of their new babies and all that.
JODY: Yeah. So it’s really hard if you’re grieving and literally everyone else in your social circle is procreating. It’s very painful. So I started it on Google. Actually, one family Christmas, when I was in my room on my laptop, quote, unquote, working, I just thought hey, I’m just going to start a Google group – and it was a huge success. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a social entrepreneur, lots of the things I’ve tried haven’t worked, but over a decade, enough of them have worked that now Gateway Women’s reached two million women around the world and I’ve given my TED talk. I’m the global thought leader, I’ve been called many things, the grande dame of childlessness, the patron saint of childlessness, but recently, Jobi Tyson called me the Beyoncé of childlessness and I’m taking it. I’m going to keep that one for a while.
BEN: I love it. So talk to me specifically about the name, Gateway Women, because it’s a powerful name and I can interpret what way or meaning it might carry, but I want to hear from you specifically. How did you come up with that name in particular, and why is it significant?
JODY: Well, it’s a very good question because it was a real download. Over the years, I’ve loved naming things. Lots of my friends have asked me to name businesses and stuff like that. I enjoy that part of marketing. And so I was trying to think of a name for this new blog and this new project and literally, it was just Gateway, came up as Project Gateway and then it was like Gateway Women. Yeah, I’ll do that. And then the first person, the journalist or someone, asked me why Gateway? And I thought about it and I thought well, my entire life, I’m fascinated by thresholds and I realized that whenever I was traveling around the world, particularly in Asia … Travel, remember that? I would always find myself in old temples, in a dark interior, photographing an opening that looked out to the light. I have so many pictures of these.
JODY: Which, actually, I’ve been told in my psychotherapy training these are actually birth memories. I’m just fascinated by the light at the end of the birth canal.
JODY: I mean, what is birth if not a massive threshold?
BEN: Right. Powerful.
JODY: So when I worked as a psychotherapist, my training, I worked for a couple of years in schools as the school therapist. I think the group that I had the most instant connection with were adolescents. At one point, in one quite rough school, they called me the teenage boy whisperer because I used to get these boys who were just about to be thrown out, I somehow was able to reach them and have powerful conversations because they were on such a threshold, they had one foot in childhood, one foot in adulthood. And I realized I’ve always been drawn to thresholds. In Gateway Women, it’s what is a gate? It’s either something that is in your way that is preventing you from going where you want to go, or it is something that opens you and you step into a new reality.
JODY: And for me, becoming or not becoming a mother, menopause, ageing and also the exit, death, these are the thresholds that I find just so juicy and interesting because we go through a transformation of consciousness when we cross them and I just love that.
BEN: That’s so good. I love it, Jody. That’s really powerful. I think that that’s why this is not only a special interest topic and I think that’s the reason that I was so drawn to what you’re doing because there’s something in it for all of us, all of us who want to evade other’s pain because we don’t want to face our own pain and we have to other a difference or sideline someone who is experiencing pain that we can’t deal with. I don’t relate in any way other than beautiful women I know, like my wife, Rebekah, who … Women carry this extra weight of responsibility, like you said in your book, to have all your ducks in a row, to have your career all mapped out and to have your children all birthed and your house all mortgaged and your partner all on their successful trajectory and everything needs to be dialled-in and buttoned-up by age 35 and if you can’t, then you’re a failure. That is a lot of societal weight and pressure. I can’t imagine-
JODY: It is unspeakable and it’s illogical.
BEN: It’s illogical.
JODY: What has happened in the last 50 years is that, in the developed world, we’ve had the biggest shift between the relationships between the sexes since the beginning of patriarchy 10,000 years ago. Which is in one generation, my generation. We’ve had the introduction of the pill. Legalized and safe abortion, women’s access to higher education, women’s access to the professions, fertility treatments all in one generation. It has totally changed the dating and mating landscape for women and men.
JODY: We are still running alongside that, this very, very ancient idea of how things need to be. If you imagine, women have entered a professional working world which was built around the male template of fertility. Sow your wild oats in your 20s, get your shit together in your 30s, have your kids in your 40s and 50s. It works for men. But women have gone into that system and it doesn’t work for female fertility. At school, they are still teaching it’s really easy to get pregnant, don’t get pregnant as a teenager, which is fantastic. Teenage pregnancies have really, really come down in all developed countries. But what they’re not teaching is actually, your fertility is finite, your eggs will age, that maybe, difficult as it may be, maybe 25 to 35 is the time to be having your family and then go to university and then start a career. If we’re all going to be working till we’re 80, why do we have to try and get all of that done in the first 35 years? It’s mad.
BEN: Yeah. What’s the rush? It’s madness. Yeah, it’s holding the standard that white men have paved the way for, it’s holding that standard to everyone else and expecting women, who carry so much more pressure, to fall within that system, a lot more weight that is not validated, identified or spoken to and I’m so glad you speak to it, Jody. I’m just really glad you speak to it because it’s super important.
JODY: These issues are structural. Racism, sexism, pronatalism, these are structural issues, but the way they’re framed in the media and the way women frame them for themselves, they see them as personal failures. I need to improve myself to attract a mate, I need to do this or do that. And it’s like well, actually, no, because in the time that so many more women have been getting higher education and moving into the professions, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the number of men their age doing it.
JODY: So we have the same number of men in those professions, but there are now many more women who are looking to partner with the same men of an equal or slightly higher socio-economical, educational status because we still have this idea that women have to marry up, as if it’s Jane Austen times. So there’s all of these unconscious programs that are running and they’re all in conflict. And at the end of it, you have a lot of women going, “But I did everything right.”
BEN: Wow. I ticked all the boxes. What’s going on?
JODY: How come I’ve ended up on the ‘you failed’ heap? No, you didn’t. The system is structured against you.
BEN: Yeah. It’s the whole society equates womanhood with motherhood and if that box is not checked, it’s like they don’t quite know how to put it into the matrix.
JODY: And you don’t really realize how much society equates womanhood with motherhood until you start to move through your 30s. It all looks like a big, fun and laughing games until then and suddenly, it’s like people around you are getting married, having kids. You seem to be the one that isn’t. You don’t understand why, nobody understands why. And then, suddenly, it’s like it’s the end of the game, it’s like musical chairs, you’re the one that’s left without a partner and suddenly, it’s like you’ve done something wrong. When I got divorced at my late 30s and I started dating in my 40s, I didn’t really understand, I didn’t really see it coming, how people would view me as a single, childless woman. I thought that the status I carried was partly mine. I discovered that the status I had in society was because I had a partner. Once I became a single, childless, middle-aged woman, I was like social plankton. I mean, the only invite I would get would be for a dental check-up.
JODY: It was like, what happened? It’s brutal. It’s brutal the way women are judged, unless they fit into that box. And I’m lucky in some ways, I’ve always not fitted in. As a kid, I’ve always been slightly off-centre. And I think this was something I was able to inquire into, but I grieved motherhood not just because I grieved and loved the children I never met, but because I grieved the identity of motherhood. I wanted to finally be one of the normals. And without motherhood, I couldn’t be one of the normals. I was always going to be one of those childless women. One of the deviants.
BEN: One of the deviants. Right. I think the importance of going through that emotion for you and then passing it onto others, it reminded me of when we lived in Nashville for a while. My wife had a small circle of friends and her mind idealized, “If I could just be one of them, then everything will open up and I’ll feel good about myself, my social life and everything,” and it just wasn’t working. She just couldn’t quite get them to get her, if that makes sense, and she had this moment where she was asking “Why can’t I just be accepted within this group? I’m doing all the right things. I’m nice, I’m funny, I’m a great cook, I can play tennis.” Whatever. She heard this just strong voice say, “Because you would lose your compassion. I don’t want you to lose your compassion.” And I see such a need and importance, kind of the space you’re holding, Jody, for compassion because it’s such a needed but missing part of our collective getting together and embracing and loving and accepting and celebrating each other.
JODY: Thank you for that, because I really relate to that. My childlessness, the grief of childlessness, it broke me, broke my heart in such a profound way that I really wondered if I could survive it. But it also broke me open.
BEN: That’s beautiful.
JODY: And I feel so much more intensely now, so much compassion for all of those who become othered, for something out of their choosing. I realized that what is it to be a refugee? What is it to be differently-abled? What is it to be the non-dominant ethnicity in your culture? Suddenly, I realized there were so many ways to have the experience I was having. And I also realized that although I’d had quite a tough life in many ways, I’d also had an incredibly privileged life. And this experience had woken me up, and I was never going to go back to sleep. Childlessness, for me, I think, has been the door that has brought me into something that we’ve been talking about, which is applicable to the human condition. How do we deal with being different? How do we make a space for others who are different? How do we open our hearts? How do we heal our hearts? And childlessness is what brought me to that place. And I’ve seen, through my work, those women who go deep with it. I see it. It’s like a bit of a soul clean.
BEN: Wow. Powerful.
JODY: When you don’t get what you want in life and when everyone then judges you for it, a little bit like your wife and her friends, there comes a point when it takes you right down to your baseline and you can see things more clearly. And from that point, with support, with compassion, with love, with others who get it, you can build yourself up again.
BEN: So powerful. Jody, do you have something, an excerpt or anything you want to share or read that is pertinent to everything we’re talking about?
JODY: I’m not sure it’s pertinent to everything because it’s been a very broad-ranging conversation.
BEN: Well, everything’s connected, so it is pertinent.
JODY: I want to read something just about the grief of childlessness. It’s a passage that people often quote from my book, so I know it speaks to a lot of people. It’s called Grief Is Good.
JODY: “In Western culture, we’ve become fairly hopeless at coping with grief, with loss. We fail to recognize its power, its meaning and its healing, and run from it as if it were death itself. Yet grief is the emotional and psychological process that enables us to deal with loss. Avoiding it makes us emotionally stuck, unable to cope with life, unable to move forward.”
JODY: “Becoming aware of the possibility that we may not have children, that we may not have the family of our dreams, is a heartbreaking loss. Unlike many of the other losses we may have experienced, the end of fertility or the possibility of bearing a biological child is an irrevocable and definite loss. It’s a kind of psychological death and it’s profound. Facing up to it changes us forever.”
JODY: “What we, and others, often fail to realize 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’ll never get a chance to heal the wounds of our own childhood by doing things differently with our children. We’ll never watch them grow up, never hold their hot little hands in our own, 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 possibly get married and have their own 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 in a society that equates motherhood with womanhood. We’ll never be able to hope that someone will be there to support us with the practical and emotional challenges of growing old, let alone someone to leave our treasured belongings to, visit our graves, or take our lifetime’s learnings into the next generation.”
JODY: “If you take the time to think about it all in one go, which is more than most of us are ever likely to do because of the breathtaking amount of pain involved, it’s a testament to our strength that we’re still standing at all.”
JODY: “And yet, because the loss of our future children is an invisible loss, we often fail to recognize ourselves that what we are experiencing is grief, and others don’t seem to have a clue what depth of pain and distress we are in. Some women are in such pain that they find themselves having suicidal fantasies. I did. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to live the rest of my life with this level of hurt. If we miscarry, lose a baby or infant, fail to conceive or never have the opportunity to try for one, our loss can remain invisible to others. It’s known as ‘disenfranchised grief’ because it’s a grief that our society does not recognize and which consequently many of us feel shamed for experiencing if we allow ourselves to experience it at all.”
JODY: If we had lost a living family by some tragic event, we would never expect ourselves to get over it. Yet we and others expect those of us who are childless to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, count our blessings and get on with things. No wonder so many of us are struggling. The treatment we receive is not just neglectful, it’s downright cruel and sadly, knowing no better, many of us treat ourselves in exactly the same way.
BEN: Thank you for sharing that. That’s beautiful. You’re a great writer, by the way.
JODY: Thank you.
BEN: Well, I think that’s a great way to just wrap our beautiful conversation up, Jody. You talk about grief as a gift.
BEN: Why don’t you just tell me how you have seen Gateway Women and everything that you’ve invested, all of your time, energy, hopes, longings and counsel, how you’ve invested all of that into giving this gift of grief back to the world and what does that look like? How is the rest of the world able to just open their hearts and receive that generous gift of grief? What does that look like?
JODY: Wow. That’s an extraordinary question and that feels like wanting to define, I guess, my legacy, what I’m hoping for. I genuinely believe that grief is a missing ingredient in our culture. We see so many books, management books, self-help books which are focused on change. The thing is change, even good change, even desired change, comes with a side order of loss. You cannot change something without letting go of something, and the emotion that allows you to let go of something is grief. So, we can’t actually move forward in anything without grief, but everyone focuses on the bright, shiny stuff, no-one’s looking at the shadow. And actually, grief is the engine of change. It’s the secret superpower of change because it allows you to process, physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, what you’re letting go of to make space for the new.
JODY: The new world that we want to create, you have to grieve the old world. And there are a lot of people who are grieving the old world and feel the grief of the world, and that is actually the work of emotional warriors. As a culture, we have to grieve what we’re letting go of in order to make space for the new. So, that is the power of grief, and that’s why I love it so much and that’s why I bang on about it so much.
BEN: It’s good. That’s wonderful. It’s so important and needed. Grief is the connecting dot that brings us all together, because we all are made of the same stuff, we are all quanta. Quantum physics holds us all together and there’s this collective consciousness that we all share, and our grief is such an important part of being able to let go of our fears and the stuff that we don’t want to look under the bed and see about ourselves. But I feel like seeing and hearing your story, Jody, and how you’ve gone through and then how you are then imparting that gift of grief and turning it on its head and seeing the pearl of great price that it actually is, that’s the paradox that I will spend the rest of my life banging that drum and talking to anybody who has committed their life to unearthing through that grief.
BEN So, I am so thankful for everything that you are doing, all that you have sacrificed to work through your emotions to step over that threshold into the confidence, being who you are without apology of not fitting into the mainstream box of what success is. And that’s a message a lot of us, including me, really need to be reminded of on a daily basis and come face-to-face with it. And I am just grateful for your courage, really, and what you’re doing, Jody.
JODY: And I’m on the next threshold now, which is I’m now on the threshold of becoming a conscious, childless elder in a society that has no positive words for older, childless women at all. Just grandmother, that’s the only word that’s positive, the rest of them are insults. So, I have accepted my next challenge.
BEN: I love it. Banging that drum as loud as you can. Yeah, do it. Well, Jody, thank you. This was so great, I feel totally enlightened and encouraged that we had this conversation. I’m just really honoured that you took the time to talk to me about this because it’s super important.
JODY: Thank you so much for reaching out. It’s been absolutely such a brilliant and wide-ranging conversation and I think we could probably go for another hour, so we’ll probably just stop there.
BEN: I know. I set my timer because I’m like, I can just go forever and it’s like, you know what? I should probably respect the time of my friend, who’s in Spain and it’s 7:00 PM and you’ve had a long day, and so I appreciate you doing that. And I can’t wait. Hopefully, when COVID is a thing of the past, that our paths cross again and we can meet in physical space. That would be wonderful.
JODY: I really hope that, too. Thank you so much, Ben.
BEN:: All right, Jody. Have a great night. Peace to you.
JODY: You too.
BEN: Thanks for listening, everyone. If you found this insightful, please share with everyone that came to your mind as you listened. For more information on Jody’s work, visit gateway-women.com. In addition, you can check out Jody’s book, Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. Also, you can visit my website, knittedheart.com to hear previous episodes, investigate further resources and hear more about my ongoing work as a filmmaker. If you like what you hear, please leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts and share with your friends. This is the best way to spread the good word, which allows me to constantly broaden my reach with future episodes. Peace to you until then, and bye-bye for now.
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