[September 2021] Jody Day, the founder of Gateway Women is here interviewed by Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell for her ‘Love & Life’ Podcast. Karin is the author of ‘Single is the New Black: Don’t Wear White ‘Till It’s Right‘ and her work mainly focuses on the experience of women who are single not by choice. Karin herself is a childless stepmother. In this conversation, as well as discussing World Childless Week 2021, we explore how one of the unintended consequences of second-wave feminism has been an increase in circumstantial childlessness and my frustration that involuntary childlessness is a topic absent from feminist discourse; about the emotional, physical, and financial complexities of IVF—the real stats; about how to respond to the, “Oh, you would have made such a great mother!” comments; about the term “biological clock” and when/why it first appeared in modern discourse; about the pain of “not being chosen” for partnership along with the “not being chosen” to be someone’s mother; about grieving the loss of the “identity” of mother; about how we can “reclaim our worthiness” and find our place as women without children; about the fetishism of motherhood; about the societal and policy concerns surrounding childless women and about ‘disenfranchised grief’ and how to grieve the loss of something you never had. Click here to listen and/or read the full transcript of our conversation below. You can listen to the interview in full here or search for ‘Love and Life with Dr Karin’ wherever you get your podcasts. You can find Dr Karin’s website here and she’s also very active on Instagram @dr.karin, where you’ll also find @gatewaywomen
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
KARIN: Take charge of your thoughts. Take charge of your life. Psychologist, author, speaker, musician, former professor, and the host of Love & Life: Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell.
KARIN: Welcome to Love & Life. I’m Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell. Women without children walk the road less travelled. And for the vast majority of them this path was not of their choosing. In fact, of the women who reach midlife without children only 10% chose a child free life. 10% are childless due to infertility, while a full 80% are childless not by choice. As you know, I fall into that 80% and I know many of you are also in that 80% or are concerned that you might be, at some point. We often feel very alone, but statistically speaking, we aren’t. In fact, in America, one in six women has no children. And this stat is one in five worldwide. So we feel alienated, we feel like we’re out of sync with the vast majority of women in society. But there are a good number of us out there. I’m very excited to share with you the work of Jody Day of Gateway Women. She is also childless, not by choice, and she shares her journey, and her path with us today. Also sharing that next week is World Childless Week. So, if you feel alone, know that women worldwide next week, will be connecting in this virtual summit, building bridges finding common ground, and I quote from their website: ‘World Childless Week aims to raise awareness of the childless not by choice community to help the community find support groups that understand their grief, and help them move forward to acceptance. We are here for you, through the year, we get louder in September.’
KARIN: Today’s guest Jody Day will be participating in the summit as I said and also Katy Sepi who you remember from Episode 132 ‘Childless not by choice,‘ she’ll be involved as well. Here’s a little more about Jody. Jody Day is the British founder of Gateway Women, the global friendship and support network for childless women with a social reach of 2 million, started in London in 2011. She’s the author of Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning, and a Fulfilling Future Without Children, a thought leader on female involuntary childlessness. She’s an integrative psychotherapist, a TEDx speaker, a founding and former board member at Ageing Well Without Children, and a former fellow in social innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School. She’s a proud World Childless Week champion and ambassador for Perinatal Loss and Involuntary Childlessness Alliance (PLICA). She’s also a blow-in in rural Ireland, where she lives with her partner and their dog, and is working on a new book, my interview with Jody Day after this.
KARIN: Jody, welcome to the programme.
JODY: Hello, it’s lovely to be here.
KARIN: It’s so wonderful to share your work and your community with my community. So many of the women that I interact with on social media and who are part of the Love & Life family, so many of them, I think most women, assume they’ll be mothers, and many of the women in my community are in that stage of life and really wrestling with motherhood – what that means for them. Is that something that they can let go of, if it doesn’t happen without feeling a great deal of angst and sadness and grief, there’s just so much surrounding this topic and your work really addresses it in a most loving and supportive way so I want to again welcome you to the programme and ask you initially to maybe share a little bit of your journey, how you got to this space I think it always helps for people to understand that, that they’re not alone in this.
JODY: That thing about not being alone is so crucial. Whatever struggle we’re going through in life, it helps so much to know we’re not alone. And I just like to say thank you for your work which is also incredibly kind, compassionate and supportive so right back atcha. So I’m actually, I think I’ve covered quite a few of the different bases of ways that you can end up childless in a strange way, when I was a child, I thought I probably didn’t want children. I came from a very fractured and unhappy home. My own mother had me very young by accident and wasn’t really ready for motherhood. And so I got all of that transmitted to me as a kid, and I kind of grew up thinking that you know that I didn’t really want to have a family because family didn’t look like such a great experience because of course I was basing that on a very immature perspective, thinking that all families were going to be like my family because that being what you do when you’re a kid. And so I kind of went into young adulthood thinking I wasn’t going to have children, and I got accidentally pregnant when I was 20 in a very loving relationship. But I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified because the message I got from my mother, from teachers at school, from the culture was that having children ruins your life. Now that’s what I heard. Really what that was all about, is all about teen pregnancies, which were a huge thing. We’ve seen a massive reduction in teen pregnancies, which is brilliant, but they were so focused in school on telling us not to get pregnant they kind of put the fear of God into us. My growing up years, I was born in ’64, were the 70s, so sort of second wave feminism was really having a big impact on women’s lives, and many of our mother’s generation were seeing different opportunities opening up for us as their daughters that hadn’t been available to them. And those were the ones we were being encouraged to go for.
JODY: So we have these two narratives going on. And there I am 20, vulnerable, still very traumatised in an unconscious way by my childhood. And so I chose to have an abortion which was very difficult decision. I don’t regret it, because I would have been, I wasn’t ready to be a mother, I wouldn’t have been a good mom at that point, but I didn’t know that I would not be able to conceive again. So that relationship ended about a year later, and shortly after that I met the man who later became my husband. When we were getting serious, I said to him, I don’t think that I want to have children and he was like, okay, and then a few years later to be married for a few years, I was 29. He was part of the big and loving family, he was one of six, and I began to realise that maybe my idea of family life was a bit skewed, and that maybe it might be possible to have a different kind of childhood to one I’d had. So I said to him, I think I want to have a family and he’s like okay,
JODY: These two life altering discussions because you know it does not always go like that. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to conceive. So a couple of years later I had an operation called a laparoscopy where they send a camera down through your navel to have a look around. And when I came out of surgery, my very avuncular Harley Street private gynaecologist said, “First class property finest uterus I’ve seen all week. You lovely young people just go off and have lots more sex!”
JODY: And that was it. That was all the fertility advice I got. There was no damage from the abortion, no reason why I couldn’t conceive, no reason why my husband couldn’t conceive. We had what is called unexplained infertility. We then spent the next few years, my 30s, trying every alternative treatment there possibly was. I could have just walked around London stuffing bundles of notes through people’s doors because if someone said they had a treatment, you know, anything from sort of shamanism to strange things with eggs and cough mixture and taking every kind of vitamin you can imagine, I was up for it. Moving through my 30s getting increasingly desperate, I never called myself infertile I was always going to be getting pregnant, I never identified as infertile. I just thought I wasn’t pregnant yet. And we get to about 37, my marriage was a bit of a mess by then, my then husband, who was a very glamorous sort of hard living, hard partying, interior designer. Partying had become an addiction. Although, when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really know it’s a bit like those frogs, when you boil the water. It was very messy, and I was a very very good co-dependent wife of an addict. Keeping all of the shows on the road in our, in our business which we had together in our personal life, and it just came to a head one day when he said to me, I think we should move to IVF now, and I had this awful epiphany. And I thought, I can’t bring a child into this. I’d grown up in chaos. I just couldn’t do that to my kids.
JODY: I think that was one of those awful moments that changed everything. I think that was the genie out of the bottle, and gradually over the next quite short period of time, about six weeks, things got worse and worse and I had, to use St Brené’s term, a nervous-breakdown-slash-spiritual-awakening. And I woke up in my life, and I thought, oh my goodness, who made all these terrible decisions. We split up not long after that. Because of the baby mania, as I call it in my book, I think I was back out there and dating, on the very very brand new world of internet dating with indecent haste. I wasn’t ready I was coming out of a 16-year relationship with someone I’ve been with in my 20s my 30s and I just thought I’d meet someone, do IVF. That was my plan, put it on a post-it note and I thought it would succeed.
JODY: I had no idea that this silver bullet of IVF, that I’d been led to believe always worked, fails 75% of the time – that’s the global figure. For a woman, in her early 40s, as I was then, I was looking at a 3-5% success rate. I had no idea. But in the end I didn’t get to try to see if it would work for me because I had two relationships post divorce. One of them didn’t want to have children, and the other one. Luckily we didn’t get to that point because it was a very volatile relationship and there was some nasty kind of narcissistic elements involved. So by the time that ended, I was 44 and a half, and even my Pollyanna optimism, could see that if I met someone, it would need to be at least a year before we could even think about doing IVF I’d be 45 and a half. I knew that for me it was game over. And that was the beginning when my internal narrative shifted from thinking of motherhood as something that would happen for me eventually, and childlessness as this kind of inconvenient waystation, to realising the childlessness was going to be the rest of my life. And I fell into a profound pit of grief and found no support or understanding whatsoever.
KARIN: Yes, and you speak to this disenfranchised grief and others in this space are providing platforms and groups, and connection because it is something that, it’s the loss of something you never had. Thank you so much for sharing your story, because I think it can be very confusing for women because they have received so many messages about, we can have it all and do it all and be all. And we don’t need a man and we don’t need this. We don’t need that. We can be Ms Independent and we feel that and we’re thankful for our grandmothers for everything they did to fight for our rights, but we also do deeply desire connection, and oftentimes we desire I think most of us, desire, some of those traditional connections such as motherhood and when we don’t experience that we can, especially with the single issue, the feeling of, well, I shouldn’t even want this, I don’t need a partner right I should be strong-independent-woman. And then the shame of feeling like I want this, and then realising I feel additional shame because I feel like I shouldn’t want this, and I think the same can be true, like you mentioned some of the second wave feminism. This ideology that can be really hard for us to sort out.
JODY: Yes, and I think a lot of circumstantial childlessness can be an unintended consequence of those feminist changes, because certainly when, for many of us are our mothers and our teachers encouraged us to get a higher education and get into the professions that they had no idea because it has never happened before, what that might do to kind of the dating and mating patterns, and how it might be that actually, we would, we will create a generation of women who were much more highly educated, but not at the same time, when many more men in that generation became more highly educated. So what we saw was, you know, many more educated, professional women looking to partner with men of an equal or higher social status, or educational status. At a time when, actually there were many more women like that. And it’s kind of a numbers game as well and it’s very hard, because the dating rhetoric, perhaps the rather misogynistic dating rhetoric, is that you didn’t try hard enough or you were too picky or this, that and the other. No, I was just working and getting my life ready, so that I was in a place for a great partnership and hopefully a baby. And then that window was so small. And life is long, female fertility is short and the fertility industry gives a lot of misinformation, a lot of hope about how we can extend that, when actually, especially when we move into our late 30s and 40s which is when so many women and couples, seek that support the stats are so against us, and the media doesn’t represent that. So people aren’t sympathetic, they think well, you should just do IVF or you should just do this. It doesn’t work most of the time, even if you can afford to do it, emotionally, financially, logistically, culturally, there are so many reasons why it may not be right for you.
KARIN: Right, and as you spoke to the financial pieces. It’s no small number, and we always hear the stories of that Hollywood star who got pregnant at 49 and of course the other piece of this story that isn’t often told is that oftentimes those are donor eggs, and so that may not be revealed. And so again this perception that ‘Don’t worry IVF will save the day,’ may not be accurate.
JODY: Absolutely. I completely acknowledge that those celebrities are real people with real families. It’s not up to them to be a Public Information Service and tell the world exactly how they got pregnant, that’s between them and their children and their partners. It’s just so difficult because as you say it is a biased perception that comes out that you can get pregnant at 50, but also what we don’t hear about is all of the other celebrities and people with extensive resources, who threw everything they had at the same problem – as much money and health and the best doctors in the world, and it still didn’t work. We don’t hear about the amount of surrogacies that don’t work, that end in miscarriage, you know the donor eggs that don’t work. We only see the success stories, and it gives a very false impression of the success of these procedures. As for the money, it can be stratospheric.
JODY: In the UK, depending on where you live, there is a little bit of what’s called a postcode lottery on whether you get support, maybe for one or two rounds of IVF, but it’s very very patchy and that is not all childless women need, they don’t just need help getting pregnant. Most of those going in will come out without a child, and then they just come out into a void, or worse than a void they come out to a world full of censure and pity and judgement.
KARIN: You spoke to it, that there’s ‘Well if you had put aside your career and gotten serious about meeting someone, and if you hadn’t been too picky you should have married that guy when you were 24 and you actually had eggs left,’ there’s a lot of that, of course I deal with that in my space, it’s why I wrote my book because I heard all those things. And I thought, so the solution, according to some people would just be to marry someone, and that was the solution. I mean sometimes life just doesn’t play out as planned and people, of course they see someone hurting because she didn’t get to become a mother or because she’s single longer than she wanted to be. And of course they want to fix it, but unfortunately there can be that blaming that it’s your fault that you’re in this predicament. And that doesn’t help. And I know people want to control and they want to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense because it’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around and cognitive therapists and cognitive psychologists speak to this, our brains are primed to make sense so when we see someone and I hear this all the time and I know people mean it in the best way they’re like ‘Oh you would have been an amazing mother. Oh my gosh,’ and I’m thinking, Oh wow, okay, what am I supposed to do with that?! And I know that they are coming at it with this it doesn’t make sense. If that doesn’t make sense that Karin, who seems to be so nurturing and loving and all these maternal instincts, it doesn’t make sense that the world wouldn’t have provided her with a baby.
JODY: That’s based on the assumption that the world is a place that makes sense.
KARIN: Well, exactly!
JODY: Many people become parents who don’t want to become parents, or don’t have the resources either financial, logistical, emotional, social, many other reasons why it might be really difficult for them to be parents. Life isn’t fair and the universe isn’t just and as human beings, as you say we’re meaning-making machines, we are always trying to make sense of that, through different types of belief systems and to that piece about you know you would have, you would have made a great mum. I do have a rejoinder to that, if you’re feeling courageous, because it is a bit of a conversation stopper. Thank you – you would have made a great childless woman.
KARIN: Oh my. Yeah, I can see that stopping conversations! That’s a boundary that’s clearly establishing I’m not open to having this conversation.
JODY: But also just maybe a moment to reflect on what does that mean. Because what I think they’re trying to do, in that moment of saying you would have made a great mum, is they’re trying to rescue us from the status of the identity of childlessness. They’re trying to say, I really wished you didn’t have to be one of those childless women. It’s actually also a bit of a put down. The unconscious bias of pronatalism, which is in all of us, is part of our culture, I had to root it out in myself before I could explain it or help anyone else with it, is that being a parent is to be a more grown-up grown-up and to be a proper adult in a way that being childless either by choice or not by choice just isn’t.
KARIN: It’s interesting and I agree – obviously there’s strong cultural pressure and as a developmental psychologist, I’ll argue that there’s probably a biological pressure too, nature versus nurture, our urges and our impulses and our drives, there’s a natural piece of that that’s probably genetic, the drive to procreate. So I think we’re experiencing that on a biological level as well.
JODY: Yes, that’s’s interesting, the whole talk about the the the idea of having a biological clock only really came to prominence in the 1970s. It’s only when women started to have a lot of other opportunities, other than having children, that people started talking about the biological clock ticking. It never really came up before that. But I think in a way, perhaps it’s more a social clock than a biological clock. It’s very interesting. I agree with you, there must be a desire to procreate as part of our species, but there’s a very interesting book which is called The Baby Matrix by Laura Carroll which looks at some of the research on this. It’s not an instinct like like eating or drinking, we don’t die without it, so it’s more subtle in humans, as the interpretation of so many of our instincts are as such a complex species. Not everyone has it, not every woman wants to be a mother. Many child free women have been very clear from very, very young, and not necessarily from unhappy homes like mine, just very young that it’s not for them. And I really admire that. That they know that and they live at a time when it’s possible to follow that belief.
JODY: There’s the cultural belief that they must be unnatural women or deviant women or cold women or child haters. I have to say, every single one of them that I know, many of them work with kids, they are some of the loveliest and quote unquote, maternal women I know who just didn’t want to be biological parents. And I think there are some people who become mothers without really wanting to become them, and it just sort of happens, and they make the best of it. Some of them do a great job too being mums. Then there’s the rest of us, either 10% of women who reach midlife without children, it’s for infertility reasons, 10% choose it as what’s called child free and 80% are childless by circumstance.
JODY: Certainly for me in the decade that I’ve been doing this work, the circumstance that is growing more and more is not having a willing or suitable partner during the fertile years. That seems to be really growing in the reason that women are joining Gateway Women, and don’t have a child. It’s a bit of a double whammy because there is the cultural shaming of them as not being partnered, but also there’s this idea that they weren’t chosen to be the mother of someone’s children, as an addition to sort of not being chosen to be someone’s partner. Now, these are internalised and as you know in your work externalised kind of things, but it’s really important work to unpack that in yourself. That’s why work like yours is so important to start to de-stigmatise almost your own beliefs about this so that you can occupy your life in a way that works for you.
KARIN: It’s always getting back to those beliefs and the meaning that you ascribe to them and then the thoughts that are being fuelled by the beliefs, and then the feelings that are being fuelled by those thoughts and we have more power over the meaning that we ascribe to every situation, even profound circumstances that we didn’t ask for or want like childlessness, we have more power over the meaning we ascribe to that but sometimes we feel very stuck, we don’t believe that there’s another alternate vantage point that we can resonate in. I hear from members of my community about being chosen. I spoke with one woman, she said it was the loss of a child she never had, her own internal sense was that she was not chosen, that somehow she wasn’t worthy to be a mother which to her was the most important role that a woman could embody. She was not only going to miss out on this amazing experience that’s so integral to the female experience, but also she had not been chosen, and the layers of grief – just even saying that in the last 30 seconds as I hear myself talk – I’m thinking the layers of grief.
JODY: Gateway Women supports women who are grieving – not just the baby, maybe not just the baby and the partner and all those things, but also grieving the identity and the identity of motherhood, the social status that that brings us in society as a fully realised woman. And also participating in so many of the rituals of life that go with parenthood and motherhood, from the baby shower onwards to the first day at school, to having siblings and having children together with children growing up, maybe going to college, maybe getting married and having their own kids, being grandparents, giving grandchildren to your parents. All of those things. Once we move into mid-life pretty much all of the sort of social occasions and celebrations are around parenthood and partnerhood. And if you don’t have either of those, who celebrates you? And how do you celebrate yourself? It’s really challenging.
JODY: However, I think the work it takes to own your worthiness in those conditions produces women of such profound psychological and spiritual maturity, because they have to go so deep to find themselves underneath all that and clear out all the pronatalist baggage and clear out the sexist baggage and so much in order to reclaim their worthiness. The women that I work with who’ve been through this process of grief and transformation have come out the other side, they are amazing. There’s parts of me that wonders if there’s a reason why we’ve never seen so many childless women in our society, whether chosen or unchosen, you know, educated liberated women in midlife, not bringing up children. I thought maybe the world actually needs us, because we’re actually pretty awesome. Public perception of us is that we’re, and this is a quote, is that where a bunch of ‘weeping weirdos.’ Newsflash, not true, we’re actually pretty awesome,
KARIN: Who would say something like that?
JODY: A childless woman herself! She came to a talk that I gave, I used to do a talk and then meet up afterwards so people could chat, but giving a talk felt like a lot less pressure than coming to a support group or something. There was this idea which is true that you can just kind of come in, sit there, if you think everyone is a weeping weirdo, you can just leave. And she said that was her thoughts, so she kind of snuck in at the back, and then looked around the room thinking oh my goodness, everyone looks really normal. In fact, they look quite cool.
KARIN: It’s like you spoke to earlier about the tension in a breakdown-slash-moment-of-clarity, every crisis is an opportunity, if we’re able to see it that way. And because it’s the road less travelled, at least currently now based on statistics, maybe it won’t be in the years to come, but because it’s the road less travelled, because we don’t have these roles that we, like you said earlier, we can easily step into and all of the parties and all the celebrations and even the social connections, mothers meet other mothers right? They take their kids to preschool or to the mommy meetup and they meet other mothers, so their friendships on their adult female friendships are also perhaps a bit easier to cultivate because of that role of mother. But because we don’t have that, it’s as you spoke to, we have to do this deep digging and determining whether or not we’re going to decide that then our life is in fact less valid and less worthy, and that our existence is meaningless. And we have to decide, even if everyone else thinks that about me, I don’t have to carry that definition of my identity around with me.
KARIN: I love that you talk about identity and status, because that’s some of the work I did in my dissertation surrounding identity development, and it’s something that we are cultivating and it’s something that we continue to evolve in our identity throughout life. And again for the woman who is childless, she doesn’t step into these roles that she just gets by virtue of now I’m a mom and again because our culture, at least in the US, I would imagine in the UK as well we really glorify mothers. I used to work in child welfare, my first job was a therapist for kids in the child welfare system in the Southside of Chicago. So a lot of these kids, the mom had a drug addiction, so that’s why the children were pulled from her, father’s were usually not around, and the bias, these kids would sometimes be in a foster home for 10 years and the mother would make promises to get clean and the addiction is messy and ugly and horrific so not trying to minimise her struggle, but what I saw as the advocate for the children, was this bias to… If the mother after repeated attempts to get clean and finally did get clean for two months, yanking the child out of the only home the child’s ever known to place the child with the biological mother and again I’m speaking to this glorification of mother. And in this case that it’s the bio mom, that should have the right to have her child back even after 10 years of not being able to care for the child, with this other foster mom in place, who has been the mother. What mother are we speaking to, just because this woman had this child in her womb for nine months. The true mother was then not able to keep the child. These sorts of things are really speaking to our notion of motherhood. And again, so often any other identity, other than motherhood can seem like the consolation prize or the, well that’s nice, you got your doctorate and that’s nice, you’ve got that CEO role because it’s a nice second best to the ultimate role a woman can step into which is motherhood.
JODY: That sounds like a really tough experience that you were describing, to be part of watching those kinds of things happening with those young kids. In my psychotherapy training I specialised in child and adolescent psychotherapy. I work with adults as well but I spent a lot of time working as the school therapist, schools for young children and sort of older and teenage children, so I have some idea of what you’re talking about and how complex those situations are.
JODY: I write about the fetishization of motherhood in my book and in my work, because I believe we’re also living through a very distinct social moment in the glorification of motherhood, this is more of a middle-class motherhood, professional women’s motherhood. I believe it’s actually a backlash against the Women’s Liberation Movement. It’s almost like a new glorification of the role of mother that wasn’t really there when I was growing up, in the 70s it was not cool to be a mother. If a pop star or a film star got pregnant they had to drop out of the public eye until after the baby was born, and their children were never seen with them. It was not cool to be a mom. And then we fast forward to when Lady Diana got married in about 1982 which was when I was leaving school and then she’s pregnant, she wore this huge navy blue polka dot maternity smock. And there was something slightly shameful about being pregnant in public because it meant you’d had sex. It was a private family matter. And then we fast forward again to Demi Moore in 1991 being on the cover of Vanity Fair, just wearing body paint with a pregnancy bump that was sort of the first celebrity pregnancy bump. And then we go forward another 10 years to Beyoncé being pregnant with twins, and she practically broke the internet with a huge pregnancy belly dressed up as the most gloriously beautiful sort of African fertility goddess on Instagram.
JODY: So we see this real shift in my lifetime, between pregnancy and motherhood being a private family affair to it being a commodified, monetized, commercialised and fetishized thing.
JODY: So something very interesting has happened in the culture about how we view motherhood as being part of a woman’s status, and now even a z-list celebrity in the UK, all she has to do to really make the cover of those awful weekly magazines that are in the supermarket is to be pregnant. It’s become a notable female achievement. Now I don’t want to downplay it. It is an amazing thing to happen for that woman, for her partner, for their family. But it’s become a public achievement in a very interesting and problematic way. And I think that gives women who don’t have children or can’t have children or haven’t met someone to have children with, it really makes their experience feels so much harsher. Because it’s like that’s the one thing my body was meant to do, that’s the one thing people will always say look at her. She’s done a brilliant job at life she wins, you know she’s had a baby. And that’s so untrue. We adulate pregnancy and having a baby but actually culturally we still don’t give nearly enough support, actually, on the ground to families.
KARIN: Over here at least and probably there as well, we hear a lot of the mommy shaming so once you do have this baby then there’s ‘This is the way it’s got to be and I hope you didn’t use any drugs during delivery,’ and then ‘I hope that you’re growing your own organic vegetables’ and there’s just a lot of, again it’s not something I’ve ever experienced, but a lot of mommy shaming as far as the right way to raise this precious bundle. If you deviate then I think women can feel a lot of pressure on that end as well.
JODY: It’s extraordinary isn’t it? I’ve worked out I think childless women get all the shame and then mums get all the guilt. But no one’s getting out of this with an easy ride.
KARIN: Exactly. So when I’m dealing with the concerns of my community which I spoke to earlier, and as those who are in the helping space, as a psychologist I looked at the research, you as a therapist you do the same. And then of course we also borrow from our own experience. And so a lot of women who are in their late 30s, early 40s, this fertility window is coming to a close, they feel pressure, angst, urgency. And sometimes, in some instances they may feel tempted to ‘settle.’ Just try to find someone, ‘I just need a sperm donor, let me get him here real quickly, before my fertility is done!’ And of course my message is all about not suddenly doing that, having almost married the wrong person for the wrong reasons in my 30s. At the same time by not settling, by waiting for and holding out for a really extraordinary exceptional partnership, you may then not be a mother. I’m curious how you address this with your community, when someone is in that scary window of their fertility.
JODY: Well I, I say that there are many difficult moments along this path. I think that what you described as the fertility window closing, for me that period of my own life I felt like I had one foot in two camps – I’m not going to be a mum and I am going to be a mum. They were both a reality and it was really really hard to make any decisions about anything because it was a very panicky, I describe it as the tunnel. My very first blog talks about being in a tunnel that’s getting narrower and narrower, and you get to a point you can’t even turn round, you know you’re just, just so claustrophobic in this awful place where it’s like every decision I’ve ever made has brought me to this moment. And it weights everything with with the most terrible fraught tension about making the right decision in that moment. I support women when they’re on the other side of that, because interestingly, in the first years of Gateway Women over a decade ago, I used to run workshops and offer resources for women who were in that still hopeful place as I called it. And I discovered that no matter how much support I gave them and how helpful the workshops were ultimately, I couldn’t give them what they wanted. They didn’t want to be me. They didn’t want a role model, they didn’t want to be childless. They didn’t want to know how to inhabit a childless identity in a peaceful way. I represented everything they didn’t want to be. So my work, all of the resources I offer are actually more helpful when women are at the other side of that when they know it’s definitely not going to be happening for them for whatever reason.
JODY: I think the most helpful thing in that place is to meet women like me, or see women in the media who are childless, and have made their peace with it, because it’s very difficult to be it if you can’t see it, and our culture over represents motherhood. And when it does include childless women in films, in fairy tales, in the media, we are usually represented as the deviant woman. If there is a sort of a psychopath or a deviant women in film or a novel, she will be childless or child free. The culture really really supports this idea there’s something wrong with women without children from Cruella De Vil, psychopathic puppy killer also single. Snow White’s evil stepmother. The witch in Hansel and Gretel eats children.
JODY: There are very deep tribal archetypal roots to this fear around the childless women that come from the survival of our species, and they operate on a deep level. But it means that in our society we don’t see realised, happy women without children, not just child free women who’ve made that choice, but women like me, like you, who have come through the pain and grief of that not happening. And they found a different way, a different core of meaning around which to shape their identity. And I think the most helpful thing for me when I was in that stage would have been to know, okay, I don’t know how but you can get through this. And the message the culture gives to childless women is you will never get over this. Your life will forever be destroyed by your childlessness. Abandon all hope all ye who enter here. That is not true. How terrifying is that? If you have an option of a guy to get pregnant with at that point, I mean those kind of ‘Whoops pregnant’ things, they’re not available to gay lesbian and bisexual women often, but if there is an opportunity to get whoops-pregnant, I can’t blame anyone for taking the option. And some of them work out, and some of them don’t. Life is weird.
KARIN: It is. I love that you’re speaking to folklore and you spoke to the stepmother which I am, and that’s a fun one, right? I mean, did Disney just doom all stepmothers to be wicked and evil?
JODY: It’s older than Disney I’m afraid!
KARIN: Absolutely, it’s older than Disney for sure. I appreciate that you’re providing something other because it’s so sorely needed and what sorts of things would you like to see in society in general to create more space for this, this life that even though it may not have been chosen, it really can be wonderful and beautiful and just as fulfilling as any other life. And I think like you said, there’s very few messages that would assure a woman that happiness is possible after childlessness,
JODY: I think my work is really all about bridge building. Bridge building on a macro level between friends who have children and don’t have children is really difficult and important. Pronatalism and the glorification of motherhood at the moment has done a really good job of dividing women which is incredibly sad. So I’d love to see more bridge building. I’ve been on some podcasts recently where the podcast hosts have been mothers who are very curious to understand their own blind spots. And that is fantastic, I would that part of my work to have a bigger audience. Get me on to Oprah, get me on to Brené Brown, you know what I mean, I really really want to talk, to help people start to see their blind spots. Because what this is, this is about speaking across difference, and that is fundamentally a huge piece of work in our culture, almost all of our sort of social problems seem to come down to not being able to manage difference very well. And this is one aspect of it.
JODY: I’d love to see more protection, and more recognition of the challenges that women without children face in the workplace, in the taxation systems, in their family systems, in their communities. There are lots of practical things that need to change, including an awareness that one in six women in the US is reaching midlife without children, it’s an average of one in five around the world, is that they are all going to be ageing without children as well. Yet, they will have spent their life paying into the taxation system. Why should it be so difficult that they might not get a little bit of extra support when they’re ageing without the natural advocates, hopefully not always, of their adult children, it can be very vulnerable, especially if you’re also single to be ageing without children. When you add sexism and pronatalism and ageism together you get this unholy trinity of prejudice against ageing, single, childless women, and it just makes my blood boil because I think that’s something structural we can do. And I think we need to be speaking to it and about it more.
KARIN: I hope you get on Oprah’s show and Brené Brown and whoever else has a platform. You’d think Oprah would be down for it, she’s not a mother. Your voice is so needed and I’m so thankful that you’ve shared with my community today. And I do hope that you are able to reach all those big influencers that are out there who have large platforms where when folks are able to share on their programmes and in their spaces. It really can make an impact on our culture so Jody thank you so much for joining me. Tell my listeners about your book and I know you said you would offer them a free download of the first chapter, and let them know about the book and and where to find you across social media. Thank you.
JODY: My book is called Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning, and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. It’s published by Bluebird which is an imprint of Pan Macmillan in the UK and it’s available in bookshops or online, and also you can find me on Instagram @gatewaywomen. The website is gateway-women.com. We have a fantastic private online community which is not on Facebook with a very big and active subgroup which is the singles group for our members who are also unpartnered as well as being childless. We also have a childless stepmothers group. Other groups which are unique in the childless support world, we have a group for women of colour, childless Christian women, Muslim women and Jewish women and for LGBTQIA+ childless sisters. We aim to be diverse and inclusive and really anyone who is childless, and is facing a life of permanently involuntary childlessness is welcome to join us, we’re a pretty awesome gang!
KARIN: I love that. Thanks again so much for joining me today and we’ll have the promo code in the show notes and I’ll promote on social media if that’s okay with you to let my community know more.
JODY: That’s absolutely fine with me. You’re a pretty big influencer!
KARIN: Well, I’m active! Thanks again, Jody, I really appreciate your time today.
JODY: Thank you Karin, it’s been delightful to speak with you.
KARIN: The Love & Life hack for this week is the life unexpected can be hopeful fulfilling and meaningful.
KARIN: As always, thank you for sharing a portion of your day with us. I hope that Jody’s words and her story have been encouraging for you and that you’ll take advantage of World Childless Week, and everything that’s going to be offered there. Head over to my website for your free empowered dating playbook, if that interests you, I’d love to connect with you via my weekly newsletter and stay in touch that way. Take charge of your thoughts take charge of your life. This is Dr. Karin Anderson Abrell and until next time, make it a great week!
Love & Life is produced by Tim May and host and executive producer, Dr Karin Anderson Abrell.
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