I was so delighted to be the first guest for the 2021 season on Shani Silver’s “Single Serving” Podcast. You can listen here on her website where you’ll also find shownotes and links to other podcast plaftorms. A transcript of our wide-ranging and delightful conversation is below. And a big thank you to “S”, (you know who you are!) one of the members of Gateway Women ‘Single Life’ subgroup as well as Shani’s own membership community, for suggesting me as a guest on the show. To listen go to https://www.shanisilver.com/home/jody-day or search “Single Serving” at Apple, Spotify or iHeartRadio. Thank you Shani for having me on the show, for your fantastic questions and your promise to Tweet Jennifer Aniston for me!
Transcript below starts at 7-mins into the show:
SHANI: I am joined today by Jody Day who I was introduced to by this audience, which is one of my absolute favourite ways to connect with guests. So I will first say a huge thank you to the audience member who posted Jody’s content in the Facebook group. Welcome, Jody to the podcast.
JODY: Hello, it’s lovely to be here with you.
SHANI: I’m so excited to talk to you. I can’t even count how many times I have said out loud to this audience that I’m good on the singlehood argument. I think I’m pretty good there. But I always come up against, ‘But what if we want kids?’ And for me, somebody who is childfree by choice, very much so, that’s a boulder I cannot move. And I need more voices than my own in this space. And I cannot thank you enough for joining me today. This is a pleasure.
JODY: It’s such a pleasure Shani to be here with you. And I think I know who that member is so, thank you to her too.
SHANI: So for those who don’t know about you yet, and who are about to what would you want an audience of single people to know about you as we begin our chat.
JODY: Okay, so I’m in my mid-50s – I’m 56. I spent the most part of my 40s single after crashing and burning my way out of a relationship-cum-marriage, which I’d been in for 16 years – sod I’d been with someone since my early-20s through to my late-30s – and then I found myself single and childless at 38 and it really shocked me, because I was not prepared for how people were going to view me as a single childless, middle-aged woman. And I think I had imagined I had a certain amount of social status, and what I discovered when I got divorced was that I didn’t, that actually my social status belonged to my husband. It belonged to the partnership, it didn’t belong to me – I became social plankton! And because I also didn’t have that kind of thing of being a mother, I really had no identity in society.
JODY: And I had been a feminist when I was younger – as a teenager, I was politically very aware. But I went to sleep in my marriage. I think it was part of ‘surrendering’ – that whole thing – I was so desperate to have a successful marriage coming from a very unhappy family start that I think I made a lot of both conscious and unconscious compromises, to try and make that marriage work. And when I came out of that, it was a very rude awakening on very many levels. I had a couple of relationships in my early-40s – I had what I call, I call it ‘babymania’. It was the very early days of internet dating and I was out there but I was the walking wounded – I was not really in any shape to be dating, but my mission was to “meet someone and do IVF” – I mean, I could have put it on a bumper sticker!
JODY: Anyway, it didn’t work. And I dated some very unsuitable people – and I was very clear about my aims, but it didn’t work out for me and then at forty-four-and-half (because these things really matter, the ‘halves’ when you’re still hopeful of having a family) I split up from my most likely post-divorce relationship, and realized it was game over for me and having a family. And then I realized that I fell into a pit of grief over my childlessness. So that’s the kind of the potted thing…
JODY: I’d also like to say that my single years which, for me lasted until I was 52, were profoundly the most shaping of my adult life – they were the most creative, the most productive, the most consciousness-raising – I owe so much of who I am today to those years. And I was thinking about it before our call, in some ways, I still feel kind of single, even though I’m in a very happy relationship – because the consciousness that I developed during that time just feels so me and so precious and I never want to lose it.
SHANI: You have that in common with every very happily partnered person I have interviewed, they have all told me in some capacity, that they still retain a single identity. And it’s educated me so much on the value of maintaining mine, someday, when I am also, in a partnership. I would agree with you on the value of single years, I have, like I would call these my ‘awake’ single years, I spent about 10 of them asleep, it’s possible to be asleep as a single as well. And I would say that the ‘Great Awakening’ happened about two or three years ago and that’s what this podcast was born out of. It’s cool to hear you say that there’s that retention of a single identity. And it’s rare that you hear it, but I think there’s so much value in it and so much value in coming to live that. And I look forward to doing it one day.
JODY: I remember that my partner, when we were first sort of getting to know each other, at one point, he looked at me and he said, “So you don’t need me to fix your life. You don’t want my support. You don’t need this. You don’t want that.” And he was like, ‘Well, what do you need me for?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t need you in my life; I want you in my life.” And he went, “That is just the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard.” And I guess that’s the core of the awakening work that we share.
SHANI: It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard as well. That’s really poignant, to let that sink in. And to – God again, I’ve heard that recently, too! I feel like I’m being told something universally.. I’ve heard – like heard a very similar story a few times lately. If it’s not about need – it’s about want. And there’s a difference. I think relationships are a choice that you make every day. I think both people have to make that choice every day.
JODY: Yeah, well certainly, having experienced it when that’s not happening…
SHANI: So your work is a huge part of why we are chatting today. Can you tell everybody what, what it is that you do? And then what you love about it? And what drew you to doing this kind of work?
JODY: Sure. So I’m a psychotherapist, an author, a social entrepreneur. And I’m known for my work as being the founder of Gateway Women, which is a global friendship and support network for childless women – and that’s women who are childless not by choice. And, it started a decade ago this year, 2021. And it’s interesting, you know, what’s called me to the work? Well, the work called me rather than the other way around…
JODY: I had spent a few years trying to talk to basically anyone who would listen about how I felt about not having children. And the list of people who would listen was basically no one. I would just get ‘bingoed’, you know – I’m quite young looking for my age and so it was always, “Oh, you still got time!”, “Why don’t you have one on your own?”, “Have you thought about adoption?” or, “Really, you’re not over that yet?” Or whatever it was. And I realized that nobody would actually let me talk about the thing I was trying to talk about, which was not “I want to have a baby” – it was more, “I’ve accepted that’s not going to happen – and I’m trying to work out what that means for me.” And you know what – everyone just either wanted to shut me up, shut me down or fix me. But no one would actually hear what I was trying to talk about.
SHANI: And that in common, too.
SHANI: It’s because you’re communicating a very different idea that people aren’t so used to casual hearing in passing, I think when you’re trying to change minds, it’s very, very difficult to get people to listen to you.
JODY: Maybe they hear part of it, and then they just click into the bingo. They think, “Oh, it’s this bit.” And this included therapists, doctors, Dr. Google, you know, all of them. I couldn’t get an answer, I couldn’t get a hearing. And so I’d been blogging for a couple of years on a personal blog – about films, I’d seen, things I was doing and I’d got to a point where, one of my three readers, all of whom knew me, said, “When I read your stuff, now, I can hear you talking.” And that seemed like a really significant thing for me that I suppose I had, ‘found my voice’, on that platform. And so then I had this idea that I would write a blog just about my childlessness, about the conversations I was trying to have. And I did an entrepreneurs 30 Day Challenge thing with John Williams, and the challenge at the end of that was to create my website and to get a talk booked – my first talk booked. And I did, and the first day after my first blog was published, I got my first piece of PR – after the first blog! And then I gave my public talk about six weeks after that. There was a journalist in the audience for that; it was a sort of Women’s Business Club, and about nine months later that led to an article in The Guardian, which is a liberal British newspaper, but it went viral. And it was, “I may not be a mother, but I’m still a person” or something like that.
JODY: And so, right from the off, I think the thing that was so powerful for me is that from that very first blog, women from all around the world started leaving comments on the blog, saying things like, “How do you know the exact words that are in my head?”, or “I thought I was the only person who thought these things?” And I remember sitting at my desk, in my little studio apartment on my own my life in absolute pieces around me because I was grieving and I didn’t know I was grieving so I mean, everything was just, you know, such a state, – unopened mail, you name it. And I thought I had tears running down my face, I thought, I’m not alone.
JODY: And that was the beginning of Gateway Women. And what happened over the next few years as is that I kept creating what I needed and didn’t exist. And as I did so, I found that other women needed it too and, a decade on, it’s this global organization with a reach of 2-million women, with workshops all around the world and a fantastic community and a book. I’m apparently now I’m the ‘Grand Dame of Childlessness’, or apparently I’m the ‘rock star’ and someone the other day, told me I’m actually the ‘Beyonce of Childlessness’, which is so far my favourite.
SHANI: That is outstanding!
JODY: But I want the outfits and the moves!
SHANI: We all do. We all do. Did you find – I had to teach myself how to read the emails from readers and listeners because I couldn’t take it at first. I couldn’t absorb that much love and thanks from an email or a DM, I didn’t know how to accept it. I really didn’t. I had to teach myself how to do it. I’m glad I did. It was worth it. It’s kind of overwhelming at times?
JODY: The emotional labour of receiving is hard. And I think if we’ve been either through our childhood or maybe through years of kind of almost emotional malnutrition, it can be almost a bit too rich.
SHANI: Yeah, that is, that is certainly the case for me. So my audience is familiar with me discussing my choice to be childfree. They’re very familiar with it at this point. But can you describe for us what it means to be childfree not by choice or childless because I imagine and now having watched videos with you in them, that it is very, very different depending on the individual.
JODY: Yes, I mean, being childless, it’s going to vary from woman to woman. But ultimately, it means you hoped to become a mother and that may have been a very huge part of your idea of what you thought your adult life was going to be like. And you have invested and pre-invested a great deal of your identity around the identity of being a mother, of being a mother with all of your friends, within your family. Of your life course, your life goals and your life milestones all being connected to being a mother. So when you realize – and it can be a very shocking realization or a slow realization – that that’s not your path – it’s not just that you lose the children that you wanted to have – and you grieve them, you know who they are, you imagine them and grieve them – you’re also grieving your identity over the life course: grand-motherhood, great grand-motherhood, being a ‘soccer mom’, or a this kind of mum – all of the things you’ve imagined – the children’s birthday parties, teaching them to ride a bike, visiting them when they leave college or the graduation ceremonies, being with your sister and brother and having children together – all of the things you’ve imagined. The levels of loss are epic and they are not in any way recognized because it’s what’s called disenfranchised grief. It’s a living loss. It is with you for the rest of your life, and which it’s socially unacknowledged to recognize. And it is a profound and life-changing loss.
SHANI: While simultaneously, I would imagine, watching everyone around you that you’ve ever met, become a parent.
JODY: Pretty well much. I mean, I certainly when I started writing my blog, I didn’t know anyone else, either in my family, in my circle of friends amongst my colleagues at work, or even in public life, who was childless not by choice. I knew a couple of childfree women in my circle of friends and that was it. I knew someone who’d decided to adopt and it’d worked. I knew someone who decided to do IVF because she was having trouble, and it’d worked. I didn’t know anyone who had wanted to become a mother, or not wanted to become a mother, who hadn’t got their choice. And yet, you know, when I started researching and writing about it, I found that for my age group, born in 1964, it was one in five women in the UK, one in four for my cohort. And I was like, well, where the fuck are they? I don’t know any! And it is a very common experience that women have when they come to Gateway Women – they don’t know anyone. However, what I’m seeing definitely my younger members, in the older end of the Millennial generation, around 38 to 39, is that many more of them are familiar with other people in their life, who don’t have children, either by choice or not by choice. I think it is becoming more common. And actually, in my book, I talk about how I think there’s going to be a big rise in both voluntary and involuntary childlessness in the Millennial generation, for a lot of complex reasons.
SHANI: I tend to agree with you, except every time I just blame it on online dating – that’s where my mind tends to go every time. I watched a video of yours on your website, and I hadn’t ever heard the term ‘social infertility’ before. So thank you for educating me on that. And quickly, would you tell everyone, I assume that everyone has watched everything that I’ve watched, but could you tell everyone what social infertility is?
JODY: Well, social infertility is essentially now an accepted definition of infertility with the World Health Organization. So it is not having a suitable or willing partner to start a family with during your fertile years. And that can be for many, many reasons. I mean, quite a few of my members are also childless by relationship so that they are in a relationship, but their partner is either childfree or perhaps has children by a previous relationship and isn’t willing to have more. And that’s very complicated, too. So it’s not necessarily just about singleness. And I think we also need to include the LGBT community in this because often childlessness is seen, like so many things are, as a sort of heterosexual, white, middle-class issue. But it’s an issue that affects all of us and I think social infertility and medical infertility can come together for lesbian, gay and queer women in complex ways.
SHANI: So I asked that question because there is a phrase that I’m assuming comes up within the childfree space that I would love your thoughts on, as my thoughts have been very heavily influenced by my own upbringing in this way. What about the “Why not just have one on your own?” argument. I can’t really imagine what it is like to feel that.
JODY: First of all, that’s what we call a bingo. It’s one of those classic phrases. If the person decides that you look like you still could have a child that is still quite a likely thing they will say to you. It is a really extraordinary one though because I’m actually the daughter of someone who had a child on her own. It wasn’t a plan – my mum was a sixties Catholic teenager gone a bit wild in London, and I was an unplanned pregnancy born to an 18-year-old teenager, and my Dad’s not on the scene. So my Mum brought great shame on her family by doing this. So much so that I was born in the ‘Catholic Home for Fallen Women’ and was meant to be put up for adoption, except my Mum changed her mind at the last minute and the Nuns kicked her out with nowhere to go because her own family had turned their back on her because of getting pregnant. My grandparents relented, and six weeks later, I was reunited – my Mum was taken in by her parents again. But it was the most shameful thing a generation ago, to be an unmarried mother. And it was all over the British papers that unmarried mothers were the ones that were going to ruin society. It was the most shameful thing you could be. Fast forward a generation and now the most shameful thing you can be is to be a single childless woman. You know that is just completely unexpected. We’re the ones now that are going to break the social care system, break the economy, break society. Wasn’t the last time I looked – and in fact Bella dePaulo’s amazing research shows that single childless women are actually the ones holding civic society together!
SHANI: You’re welcome.
JODY: Yeah, yes, exactly. And we all pay taxes so that everyone else’s kids can get an education, get vaccinated, go to school, go, you know, all of those things. But hey, we’re not doing anything – we’re just burning the world down with our childfreedom and childlessness and our refusal to date unsuitable men!
SHANI: I’m certainly trying to. I’m on it.
JODY: So I think the idea that it’s now acceptable to have a baby on your own, I think the first thing is to say back to that is, ‘Why didn’t you?’. Because it’s like a slam dunk easy? And I think it really takes away this idea that what we wanted, and what we want, perhaps for our children, is for them to be born into a stable and loving relationship. And sometimes now, it seems that when people are saying that it’s as if that’s an optional extra that no one really needs? And considering so many people have actually been brought up by single mothers who didn’t choose that and may have seen how incredibly hard that is… the idea that this is some kind of box-ticking thing, oh, we have a partner, but that’s just an extra you don’t really need that, is such an insult. I have to say, it’s also an insult, you know, to those potential partners out there, that they’re just some sort of, you know, lifestyle optional extra. You know, we want Dads or other Mums for our kids and it’s okay to want that. The reason we call it a bingo is that it’s a way of saying ‘this isn’t really a problem because here’s is a solution. So stop talking about it.’
SHANI: Yeah, it’s incredibly invalidating.
JODY: Yeah, it’s shaming. It’s “get back in your hole and stop complaining. There’s still stuff you can do about this. So come back to me when you’ve tried everything.”
SHANI: Come back to me when you’ve tried everything that I told you to try.
JODY: Which I would never do, by the way.
SHANI: Okay, well, thank you very much for that. Another thing that I rarely, if not never, hear is that someone else acknowledging that we, very broadly, generationally speaking, were raised one way, and then had to go and look for partners in another. And as I mentioned, I’m really confident in my ability to communicate to single women who are not single by choice the fact that dating is so hard and punishing, it probably never makes me angrier than when I think of the people in my community who want to be parents. And it just, it really upsets me because I don’t – how do I put this? – see, I don’t even know how to put this stuff. Maybe it’s there’s nothing that you’re held back from more, that’s more upsetting to me, because it just seems so fucking unfair. That is the most unfair thing to me is when I speak to single people in my community who want to be parents, and who want to be parents in a partnership, and that is a valid want, and they just can’t fucking meet anyone. And I don’t know how to fix it. So it makes me very, very angry. I know how to fix if you want to like your single life more come to me, my digital door is open to you. But I don’t know how to stop being angry about this for them on their behalf. And I’m wondering, in your opinion, is it okay to be this angry?
JODY: Absolutely. It’s okay to be angry. And I think one of the things that is really upsetting about wanting to find that partner that you will then form a family with can also be that for women, you know, men have more time to find that partner. There is a fantasy that men have forever – that is a really potent – I use that word advisedly, myth, about male fertility – male fertility also declines rapidly. A little bit older around about the age of 40, it starts to go down very, very sharply, which is one of the reasons often why a lot of women partnered with men in their 40s and older, you know, the combined quality of the sperm and the quality of the eggs does lead to a heartbreaking increase in miscarriages, in pregnancies in your early 40s, those final years, when you’re just hoping you might manage to have a child. But they do have a little bit more time and there are the outliers, you know, like Charlie Chaplin, and things like that, who, but they are not, that is not a predictable thing – they are the outliers of male fertility. So men have, a lot of men don’t know that as well. So they imagine they’ve got all the time in the world to, you know, to have a family. If they perhaps knew that their time was limited, maybe they’d actually get themselves organized a little bit sooner and stop playing the field or whatever it is they’re playing.
JODY: I think the anger for me is the powerlessness. Because this is not something we can fix for ourselves, or we can fix for anyone else. I was sort of, really in relationships, from teenage years onwards – I moved from sort of one long term relationship to another to a marriage. And then I left and I was just crazy for a few years and then I was single, but I didn’t really know how much it changed until I started dating at 40. And I was really shocked that suddenly it had become commercialized, and almost I’d become commercialized – it was about making deals in some ways – the whole thing was, was very icky. Something that really helped me actually was some of the work around the numbers, which I really explore in my book as well, about how our generation – I’m sort of the last year of Baby Boom, the first year of Gen X – in the last 50 years, we’ve had women’s women’s access to the pill, women’s access to legalized and safe abortion, women’s access to higher education, the professions and fertility treatments – in one generation. It has completely changed the dating and mating landscape. But we are still operating on these kinds of weird 1950s rules about how relationships happen, who asks who, you know, who has value, who doesn’t have value, what those unconscious contracts are. And the unconscious contracts that our parents had, do not fit the life we’re living. I don’t know any woman for whom having a job is an option – now everyone has to work. And those early years of your 20s, in your early 30s, your mid-20s to mid-30s, you know, when your fertility is probably at its peak for having children, particularly, you know, 25, to sort of 31/32 – these are really hot career years if you’re trying to build a career. So what’s happened is women have gone into a working world that was designed around a male pattern of fertility, which is to work your ass off in your 20s and 30s, and have kids in your 40s. That works for male fertility, it does not work for female fertility, there is a huge clash of paradigms. And women like us are the ones that are sort of living that. But because we’re told, is something wrong with us. If we’re single, and we’re looking for a partner, we have to change, when in actual fact the system is stacked against us. And we’re still looking to ‘marry up’ or ‘partner up’, we’re still looking for a partner of the same socio-economic or maybe slightly higher status than us, or all failing, that taller than us. And, and, you know, but there aren’t as many of them to go around because there are now so many more smart, educated, professional, independent, educated women. And we haven’t had a massive increase in men of that kind. So there are now many more women looking to partner a much smaller pool of professional, or let’s just say solvent, men
SHANI: Do you really think so? Do you think that?
JODY: The numbers back it up – this is in my book, it is not our fault. I mean, in China they call it the problem of the A1 women and D4 men. We saw it in Sex and the City all that time ago when Miranda partners with her really cute plumber guy, and the problems that came out of that. There’s this sense of we’re out of sync, we’re going through the biggest upheaval in our sort of social setup in the developed world that we’ve ever been through since the beginning of patriarchy. And this, this mismatch between woman’s desire to partner and her children, and find an appropriate and stable partner for that, and how things are organized – it’s a really bad mismatch, and it’s not our fault. Nothing wrong with the women who are out there looking for partners to have children with.
SHANI: I couldn’t agree more that it is not our fault. I tend to I trust the numbers because their numbers, right. But I definitely question the sources and the the structure of the data gathering, because I have a really hard time believing that there are too few people of any cohort; I have a hard time believing that there are not enough people out there. For us, that is hard, because I know how big the planet is and I know how many different kinds of people can be drawn to and fall in love with people who are dissimilar from them. So I tend to worry about telling women that there aren’t enough men – of course, this is a very heterosexual argument. But you know what I mean.
JODY: I agree with you, I think it’s to be really to be really clear, I’m talking about finding them within that particular window when you potentially still have fertility. I think for me when I moved beyond that period, and I thought, well, if I’m not looking for someone to have children with, and I am heterosexual, what kind of guy am I looking for? And I realized I had no idea. And I thought, this is a really good time not to be dating – I’m not going to think about this until I know what it is I’m really looking for. And actually, I was then, you know, single for six, seven years, because actually, I realized I wasn’t looking for a man. There were a lot of other things I was looking for and I found that for me, probably a combination of the menopause and those other life changes that actually a period of celibacy worked really, really well for me. I missed touch, and I was very happy that a cat came back into my life from when I’ve been married, but I actually didn’t miss sex. And I didn’t miss being in a relationship. But I was coming from the privilege point of view of having had, you know, having had that sense of having been in a very long relationship in my marriage. So singleness for me at midlife felt like a little bit of an adventure. But that may not be how it feels to everyone. So I don’t want to kind of globalize my experience. And I realized actually, also that of all of the people I knew who were partnered, I didn’t really want to be with any of their partners, and I thought well if this is what’s out there, I’m really happy just to stay single. And I developed a mantra for myself, which was ‘single or secure’ – so I thought my next partner, if I have another partner (because I came to a point of accepting my singleness was probably lifelong, and I decided to embrace that possibility), and I thought, well, I’d either like it to be someone who is securely attached (and this is a psychotherapeutic term) or I’ll stay single. Because, I also thought, if I’m ever in another relationship again, I get to be the tricky one! I’m tired of being the grounded, one that holds, holds the artist or the entrepreneur together!
SHANI: And I am too… for those who don’t know the term ‘secure attachment’, I strongly recommend reading the book Attached and I will link to it in the show notes if you haven’t yet read it. But I know many of you have. I have a feeling that was a very thorough answer on making me feel less pissed off all the time. So thank you very much for your efforts. I really appreciate that.
SHANI: What does being childless look and feel like in an effort to broaden perspectives for those of us who either don’t have or don’t want children so that we, I’m thinking of this from the perspective of wanting to be more supportive to our childless friends. In one of your videos I heard you mentioned being left out of parties. And that one stung so much because I remember the first time I went on Instagram and I saw a picture of a group of people that I was friends with all of them, and I wasn’t invited because it was like a kid’s birthday party, and I just sort of realized, like, this is what I’m going to be left out of. And I’m going to need to get okay with that or speak up loudly. But that moment of feeling like I had been passed over socially, was really hard to take. So I would like to be more supportive of people that I know. And certainly this audience, I’m wondering how you think we might be able to be more supportive to our childless friends.
JODY: That’s a really beautiful thing to ask. Thank you.
SHANI: My pleasure.
JODY: I guess, just as there is no one kind of childfree woman, there’s no one kind of childless woman. And it varies over time as well. I mean, my childless experience has changed so much. You know, there was a time when I was childless, but I saw myself as someone who was definitely still going to be a mother. So all of my friends were having children and I imagined that those children would one day be the playmates of my children, so I didn’t any complicated feelings about them, except, hurry up, when is it going to be my turn? I struggled with unexplained infertility. When I became single and childless, I think actually, strangely enough, my singleness was more of a barrier to being accepted in my social circle than my childlessness, at first, because childlessness was something I was struggling with privately. And I guess, I was a, you know, reasonably attractive, middle-aged woman and suddenly I was not welcome, and not invited. And my delightfully chaotic, now clean, but then still struggling with addiction, ex-husband was invited everywhere. So it was really hard. But for years, everyone had been telling me ‘you should leave him’. And then I left him and I got on I was dropped, you know, so it’s because he was the guy.
SHANI: One of the other things I’ve hated. The way that single people are treated in the world is the difference between a spare single woman and a spare single man, the spare single woman can’t come along, because she’s going to steal someone’s man away. But the spare single man – Oh, let’s bring him we can introduce him to someone – like that is yet another double standard. We could be here all day discussing them, but it’s just, it’s, it’s fucked. That’s what it is. It’s fucked. I don’t like being seen as a threat, while a single man, just like me, is seen as an opportunity. That doesn’t make me feel good socially at all.
JODY: No, it’s not meant to make you feel good!
JODY: I came to understand over time that I, it was hard for me because I lost my sense of safety in a group of women. Because I had always been able to talk to my girlfriends about anything, you know, do you think he’s having an affair? Can you have a look at this lump? You know, whatever it is, however gross it was, or person it was, you could go there. But when I got to the point, when I realized I wasn’t going to be a mom and my friends were, it became this baby elephant in the room that we couldn’t talk about. I couldn’t talk about my envy and my grief and my longing. And they just didn’t know what to do with me. So one of the reasons I think that people started to exclude me from things is because they literally didn’t know to how to have the real conversations that we needed to have in order to maintain the friendship. We needed to have some really uncomfortable conversations. And there’s this myth that female friendship can survive anything. It doesn’t always survive childlessness unless you can talk about this.
JODY: It’s like that thing that childless and childfree women aren’t allowed to have any opinion whatsoever about parenting or children, as if we have never been a child. And, I’m a trained Child and Adolescent psychotherapist but hey, what do I know?! No opinions allowed. And, lots of lots of my members are teachers and paediatricians and other really, really important professionals in children’s lives, but they’re not allowed to have an opinion about their sister’s parenting skills, or even offer support. So there’s this strange siloing that goes on around parenting and … the nuclear family is really bad at including childless people, and childfree people. Yet it’s a very fragile system; it can fall apart very quickly, a nuclear family and that can really affect the children. Yet this extended kinship system, which is really, really normal for human societies, yet industrial and post-industrial Western societies have shifted to this nuclear family model… it doesn’t work and it excludes childless people. So on every level, you find these doors shut in your face, socially, and within your family – you go home for Christmas and you’re offered a tent in the garden so that your sister’s kids can have your bed… and yet when you go, ‘That’s absolutely not okay with me’, you’re told you’re being ‘too sensitive’, rather than actually, ‘Hey, there’s a patriarchal double-standard – I’m actually still your daughter – and that fact that my sister managed to reproduce and I didn’t – where’s the memo that says that this meant I had to sleep in a tent?’
JODY: So I think there’s no one way to be a friend to the childless, but I’d say probably, whatever the first thing that wants to come out of your mouth is – bite it back. And then ask a curious and non-judgmental question.
SHANI: And don’t be afraid to have a hard conversation.
JODY: To have a really interesting conversation and have your confirmation bias trashed.
SHANI: I think the friendships that are meant to survive that will.
JODY: I call it the threat hashtag #FriendshipApocalypse of childlessness. Often, women who come to my community are in pieces and I had the same experience – I thought I must be a really bad friend that my friendships were just fragmenting around me. I thought I just must be fundamentally unsuited to friendship. And through the wonderful women I’ve met through Gateway Women, and through the new women I’ve met… I do have some new friends who are mothers, I do have some very old friends who are mothers. But they have one thing in common. And that is they did not collapse their identity into motherhood. They are still them – and that’s not easy. And I don’t I’m not against those women that did collapse their identity into motherhood because I have a sneaking feeling I would have been one of them. I think I would have put my children’s photos all over Facebook, I would have said to everyone that I was ‘so and so’s mum’. I think I probably would have been like a seriously bad offender. So I am compassionate towards those women because I have some idea of maybe the identity longing that is that’s wrapped up in that. Because I look at the way I surrendered myself and my identity in my marriage – I think I probably would have done the same in motherhood.
SHANI: I have a couple of friends. Well, I think I’m at the age now where all my dearest closest friends are if not already parents working on parenthood or planning for it very soon. There are certain people in my life that I don’t care how deep down the parenthood rabbit hole they go, they will still be my friend and I will do whatever I have to facilitate that happening. Like there’s just no, there are certain friends in my life who are family. And there is no distance that I’m comfortable with that, that motherhood would put in between us as I feel like, Can I participate? Like Can I still be a part of that world in that life? I certainly hope so. The kids are super cute, but like, it’s, I still want to be a part of it. I still want to be a part of my friend’s lives despite their lives massively, massively changing. I don’t know if it’s like arrogant or selfish but, I want there to be room for me and I’ve liked wormed my way in because I want to be a part of this part of their lives.
JODY: Yeah, I hear you and I’ve heard myself say that and then I’ve seen it not work out. Because I can imagine that if I were childfree, and I wasn’t going in with my own longing and pain into that situation, then I might be prepared to put up with anything, if you know what I mean. But when you’re you’re carrying your own unresolved, unspoken grief and loss and your envy and your longing and your sense of exclusion and your face pressed against the wall of this party that you always wanted to be in – you bring all that with you too – it gets very complicated. And I think unless you have friends who have some inkling of how hard it is for you to show up for them, after a while, it just grinds, the gears just grind. Sometimes those friendships drift apart, and they can come back later. I mean, I’ve been childless for a long time, I’m in my mid-50s now. You know, my best friend from school, she’s got three grown-up children and she got divorced six years ago. You know, we’ve really reconnected and that’s been lovely. I have new friends who are mums. I have a very dear friend who, I’m godmother to her daughter, who did do the whole ‘have a baby by yourself” thing in her in her 40s, so I feel I’ve got like the whole range. I’ve also got godchildren who are now in their mid-20s and nephews and nieces and their mid-20s and older, who see me as a different kind of woman – as a woman who’s lived a different kind of life. And they admire me for that, and they come to me for that, because I’m the only one of their aunts that doesn’t have children. So I’m not “so and so’s” mother. I’m Jody. And they really see the difference. And they really value that.
SHANI: I look forward to that. And see, this is why I need you on this podcast because I’m very dedicated to maintaining friendships with the mothers and fathers in my life. But I also don’t come into it with any longing. There is zero longing there. So it’s a completely different, like entrance into my mission. Because it there’s just no, I’m not grieving this, I’m not longing for this. This is why I have to talk to everybody. And every like, there’s so many different things that impact the life of a single person, so much more than just the dating advice that gets firehose them all the time. There’s so many, like different pain points and things to discuss that I don’t, I don’t see enough of. So thank you for broadening my perspective. And now I understand a different side of things. Look at that. Look, we’re learning here today, friends we are learning here today.
SHANI: Speaking of my friends, the audience has some questions for you. I opened up our interview to the members of my Facebook group, and I have a couple of questions that I would love to ask if you don’t mind.
SHANI: Fabulous. Here is the first one. “I always thought I would have kids but never got married and didn’t want to have them alone. And now I’m 45. My question is how to handle or feel better handling, telling new acquaintances, especially professional ones, that I don’t have kids. I think my reaction is probably mostly due to my own hangups but I always feel weird when people ask if I have children and I have to say no.”
JODY: This is a question I get asked a lot is I think it’s one that as a childless woman we all have to deal with. And I would say that, certainly in my experience and the experience with many of the women I’ve worked with, being asked that question and the way it makes us feel changes over time, as well, as we become more comfortable with our childlessness. Whilst we are still grieving our childlessness – and a lot of women don’t know that what they’re experiencing is grief – and you add the grief to the pronatalism, which is the ideology that says that the only acceptable way to be a fully mature adult is to be a parent, you add sexism to that which says you either need to be hot and dateable or you need to be a mother, but you don’t really have any roles outside those. You add ageism and sexism and pronatalism together and we’re dealing with an awful lot of assumptions that people make about us, but also that we have internalized. We have to do the work to root out our own negative beliefs about ourselves that we’ve introjected from the culture. Because when you no longer have any shame, about your singleness, your childlessness, then when someone asks you that question, there isn’t a tender button they can push on.
JODY: So, I think when I was when I was still grieving my childlessness, and people would ask me that I came up with the answer, “Unfortunately, not.” Do you have children? Unfortunately, not. Because I wanted them to know that it hadn’t been a choice. Because at that point, I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to be confused with someone who had chosen it. I had some pretty negative ideas about childfree women that I also had to root out in myself and in my consciousness and test out with my childfree friends. And it also sometimes would put the shame back on them – but do you know – people, even complete strangers, can be remarkably prurient about a woman’s uterus. ‘Why not?’ is often the follow-up question. This could be from someone you’ve never ever, ever met, and you’ll never meet again. Or it could be from your new boss, or it could be in an interview, it could be anywhere.
JODY: And women, we’re such compliant emotional labourers – give us a question and we’ll try and answer it! You don’t have to answer it. You know, there’s actually a whole section on how to answer this question in my book, Living the Life Unexpected. But I think step one, take a breath. You know, think about who’s asking this question of you and how much of an answer they deserve. And you know, to paraphrase Brene Brown, do they deserve your story? Do they get to be one of the people that hears your story? And you can have a range of answers – I like to think of it as a kind of almost like a deck of cards, and you’ve got about 10 different answers from jokey one to use at a cocktail party (remember those?) to, maybe a serious one. So you can have everything from, “Oh, no, I forgot!” or “I don’t think so…”
SHANI: That’s so good!
JODY: S0 that’s a funny one, or it could be “Unfortunately not” or, if you’re a little bit further advanced and a bit more comfortable with your childlessness – and this is more the kind of thing I would say now, it’s like, “I’m really curious as to why it’s important to you to know that?” Because that’s a way of opening up a really interesting conversation. Sometimes… because sometimes they could just be an asshole, you know? And they’ll go, “Well, everyone has children!” or something and… so ‘take a breath and read the room’. Because actually, now, I often just say, ‘No’ – but the really interesting thing is because my childlessness is no longer the most important thing you need to know about me. Because childlessness is a part of my identity, it is not all of me. A decade ago, it was the most important thing you needed to know about me. And now just a part of me. You know, I’m a writer. I’m a psychotherapist, I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a lover, I’m a daughter, I’m a this I’m a dog owner. I’m childless. I’m many things of which childlessness is just one. But when it was raw, for me, it was a very hard question to be asked. And I think you need a range of answers, including ones that protect your tender, hurting heart – you do not owe them your pain.
SHANI: Remembering that other people are not in charge of you is so important, particularly if you’re a woman; it’s like we’ve sort of been raised to please and raised to absorb other people’s discomfort so that they’re not uncomfortable even if we are. And you don’t owe anyone anything and they are not in charge – they are not in charge of the conversation, they are not in charge of the words that come out of your mouth. Hopefully, they don’t have to be in charge of your emotions. And I’m hoping that that with work like yours, in reading books like yours, that that shame. and maybe guilt can be diminished so that those tender buttons become a little bit more fortified. Because I think that you’re right, I’m no longer ashamed of being asked, “So are you seeing anybody?” I also have 50 responses that I can give depending on the situation and you better hope you find me on a good day. But that’s only because I got to that place where I remembered other people are not in charge. They’re not. Thank you for that.
SHANI: Second question. “How could we handle questions such as, ‘Have you thought about adoption, surrogac,y doing it on your own”, pretty intimate questions that sometimes make me feel like I have to defend myself and my choices?” This is similar to what we discussed above, but I like the way this person asked, ‘defend myself and my choices’. I would love it if we could discuss some strategy here.
JODY: Absolutely, I mean, you know, following on from what you said before, you do not owe them an answer. You can have some jokey ones, you know, you can say “I can give you the number of my gynaecologist you can discuss it with him like I did”, you can turn it back on them, especially with the “Why didn’t you just adopt?” You can always go with, “Why didn’t you?” You can also say, “Actually, that’s kind of like a really personal question that I’m not really into getting into that right now” and, and change the subject. You know, say, “Maybe we could talk about that another time when we know each other a little bit better? So how are your kids doing?” You know, just bat it back – if they’re putting you in a position where you feel you have to defend yourself, maybe it’s actually time to kind of rise above that, you know, and just you’re just not gonna go there. You don’t owe them an answer to those questions. Because what is the subtext to that? It’s basically, “Did you try hard enough? Do you deserve my compassion?” I mean, fuck you. Sorry.
SHANI: No apology necessary. I find that the age of offensive small talk needs to be over because a lot of the time right these people aren’t coming at you maliciously. They’re just trying to make casual conversation. This is not a casual conversation topic anymore.
JODY: I could not agree with you more. You know with one in four or one in five people now being childless, with 90% of those not by choice, this is a social landmine. This is no longer a safe question! Be British and talk about the weather… and even that’s becoming unsafe! What about your dog? Talk about anything – “Hi. Have you seen any great movies recently?” Anything just stop asking… If someone’s got kids, I guarantee within two minutes they will tell you. You do not need to ask.
SHANI: It’s very similar to vegans. I find that like, we shouldn’t have stopped going to school, ever. Because right when you stop going to school that’s when you need to be taught so much. And I want there to be adult school, I want there to be – Here are ways to make small talk with somebody that are not offensive. Here are all of the things about the world and human beings and interactions and relationships that you don’t know that if we don’t teach you, you’re going to learn by trial and error. And a lot of that’s going to be extremely painful and shitty, and it didn’t have to be. But now once you’re 18, you’re done. Go, you’re fully baked – what?!
JODY: We’re living in such a complex society that we’ve created – the idea that you’ve got it, you’re ready to go at 18. I mean, the human brain isn’t even fully mature until the earliest at 25. We we do need adulting school. And it shouldn’t be just for those that can afford therapy either.
SHANI: Yeah, yes, thank you. I’m the biggest advocate of mental health care and the boulder I come up against there is money. That’s what’s so hard for me is like God, I love therapy, I think everyone should go to therapy. Not all of us can afford it. And that’s what do we do? Like, what do we do? It makes me really frustrated sometimes?
JODY: Well, as a society, if we invested in the mental health of our children, young people and adults, we would save money in every other area, including sort of prison costs, health costs, so many other things. So it’s just another example of how humans are dumb.
SHANI: Yeah. You know, yeah, some of them are getting a little bit smarter by making more financially accessible digital therapy options, which I don’t know how the industry feels about doing these things over like video chat and phone and whatnot, but I know they exist. I know several of them exist. And I have friends that use them and like them.
JODY: I think whatever makes whatever makes it more accessible, you’ll find you know that I think a lot of therapists may have been a bit reserved about it, I’ve been working online for years, I’ve seen the benefits to others and I get therapy myself that way. And it’s interesting because I still occasionally see a trauma therapist, and she was someone who I had seen in person when I used to live in the UK, and I don’t now, I live in Ireland. And I had a trigger a triggering situation. And so I reached out to her and we did a session on Zoom – I was astonished that it was possible to have the same experience in this way. And although I really, really miss being able to see people, I am so grateful that this technology is available.
SHANI: Same. I gave it a try, because I was talking about like one particular route for that on the podcast once. So I wanted to try it first before I spoke about it and I didn’t find any sort of difference in quality at all in between talking to someone in person and talking with someone over Zoom. I think I was more used to the physical comforts of going to an office – I think it lended a sense of importance to it, just the ceremony of it.
SHANI: So maybe just create ceremony for yourself. If you want to put on a bra where you typically wouldn’t maybe that’s the way to go.
JODY: What are they?
SHANI: The real loser in this pandemic or bra manufacturers
SHANI: I’m assuming that wanting to become a parent and not being able to do so is rough, to put it mildly. Are there coping skills or resources – in addition, obviously, to Gateway Women, which will be linked to in the show notes, please go click on it. Are there any resources or coping skills that you have found particularly helpful in the childless space as a whole?
JODY: It’s a good question because when I started, there wasn’t anything. And I have to get comfortable with saying that my work has been a game-changer. And also a lot of the women that I’ve worked with over the years who have found who found peace and they found meaning again in their life, some of them have gone on to create their own offerings. And it’s wonderful now to see that there is more out there than there was a decade ago. A decade ago there was nothing apart from a couple of really great blogs from America and Canada and they were very much about adjusting to life as a childless woman after failed infertility treatments. But there was nothing in the space for women who are childless by circumstance – with those circumstances, you know, varying incredibly widely. I never had fertility treatments myself and actually, only 10% of women who are childless, are childless due to infertility. 80% are childless by circumstance – it’s so massive. So now I’d say that there are podcasts are coming along. and probably the thing that’s most I would talk about most is World Childless Week – so this was started five years ago by Stephanie Phillips in the UK and it’s now going to be in its fifth year this year, happens in September, I think it’s the second week of September in 2021. And it brings together all of the organizations like gateway women, the blogs, the podcasters, and, and all childless people around the world for a week. And the website’s live all year round. So just Google ‘World Childless Week‘ and you will find so many different resources to explore. As Stephanie says, ‘we’re live for one week, a year, and we’re here for the rest of the year.’
So I’d say World Childless Week and a wonderful podcast, called The Full Stop Podcast, which is two women and a guy, because there are an awful lot of childless men out there too – two British women, one Australian guy – The Full Stop Podcast. I think these are the two I would recommend most.
SHANI: And I will link to both in the show notes if you’d like to check them out. Thank you. So we are speaking in 2020. So when this episode goes live, it will be January 4 2021. So this is a bit of a time capsule. And I was super nervous to record with you, not the day before the episode went live because things change pretty quickly, and 2020 – and I like everything to feel new and relevant. But I am pretty confident that we’re it’s almost a new year mindset. So that might lend itself well to the first episode of The New Year. Along those lines, though, what are you most looking forward to in this new year that we’re in?
JODY: Goodness, there are so many, so many things that haven’t happened in in 2020. Last year. I think I’m really looking forward to it not being 2020. I’m looking forward to the beginning, the tentative tiny beginnings of being able to make a plan again, any plan. We have been in voluntary isolation since February 2020, to protect my partner’s 90-year-old mother who lives with us. So we have not been out been anywhere, seen anyone, done anything at all. And that won’t be possible until she can be vaccinated. So you know, it could be 12-14 months of isolation. I’m lucky enough that the two people and many animals that I’m isolated with are all lovely. I know many single childless women who are doing similar things on their own, and it sucks. So I’m looking forward to making a plan. I’m looking forward to getting back to working on the second draft of my novel, which I haven’t been able to work on in 2020. And it’s a novel that features a single childless middle-aged woman, she’s the kickarse heroine at the middle of the novel, it’s a social comedy. My dream is that it will be optioned by Jennifer Aniston’s film company and turned into the next Bridget Jones. It’s basically a comedy about being a single childless, middle-aged, menopausal woman and at the end of the novel, her arc is not resolved by either a relationship or a baby, which, as anyone who watches movies knows – it used to be marriage, the end of the film, and now it’s a baby. Awesome, great guy. It’s always I did. That has to be the resolution to a woman’s story. And it’s like this has got to change.
SHANI: when it’s out, we have your back. Please send it to me. And we will tweet at Jennifer Aniston until she notices. Like you have in your community too, ‘Would you mind tweeting at Jennifer Aniston?!’ just to see, just to see,
JODY: I want us I want our experience to be to become part of the mainstream. And not just being childless, there are childfree characters in the novel as well. And there are mothers and there are not mothers and… I just want us to… we are part of the story of what it means to be a 21st-century woman. And I want us to be included in the story that our culture tells about women.
SHANI: So do I. I was very, very disappointed that at the end of Sex and the City, all four were partnered. All four.
JODY: Yeah. What a copout.
SHANI: You know, it just there have to be we have to tell more stories. We have to have more happy endings for women than just partnered married baby. There have to be more stories than that. I have to see them. And I don’t and I really wish they did it would love to read them.
JODY: I have a habit of writing books that I want to read… I wrote, Living the Life Unexpected because it didn’t exist. And after that, after my novel, I’m going to be writing a book about what it takes to become a conscious, childless elderwoman. Because there isn’t even a single word in the British language in the English language for an older woman, that is a term of respect other than grandmother – all of the others that insults. So I am hashtag #ApprenticeCrone – I’m going to reclaim Crone, I’m going to reclaim ‘old’, I’m going to reclaim ‘Witch’ – so someone wants to call me a witch? You mean magical and powerful? Yeah, I’m cool with that.
SHANI: I just want to go to the movies. That’s what I would like to do in 2021. I just want to go to the movies – that used to be my, I was suffering from pretty severe anxiety a few years ago and that was my coping skill – I would go to the movies in the middle of the day, by myself and I would sit in a cool dark theater, barely anybody in there, and just shut my brain off for two hours. And it’s a love of mine. And I haven’t been able to do it. And I’m very much looking forward to doing it again.
JODY: I want to eat food I haven’t cooked.
SHANI: Wouldn’t that be nice?
JODY: Yeah. Wouldn’t that be nice? I mean, my cooking skills have really, really improved, but still, I’m just longing to have to sit in a cafe and restaurant. to go to an art gallery.
SHANI: Be like that.
JODY: I’m an introvert. I’m looking forward to turning down invitations!
SHANI: Oh, my God, necessity has been the mother of so many skill sets during this pandemic, how many people learned how to cut their bangs. There’s just all kinds of things that we didn’t know how to do before this happened. And now we know how to do all these interesting things. I want to go to a restaurant, I want to sit inside and I want the waitstaff to not have to wear hazmat suits. I want there to be somebody sitting at a table next to me, which I didn’t think that was ever going to be something that I wanted. And I would like to get up and go to the bathroom without having to put on PPE. That’s what I would like to be able to do. These are wild times we live in anyway.
SHANI: If you could say something to every childless person ever, what would you want them to know?
JODY: You have done nothing wrong by being childless. And you are nothing wrong by being childless. You have nothing to prove to the world.
SHANI: Replace a childless with single and that’s exactly what I would say as well. Society needs to do a better job of doing the shit for us. We shouldn’t have to work so hard to change the mind of the globe on this stuff like there should be more welcoming to different ideas about the way women, or anyone, exists and shows up in the world.
JODY: I agree – I think I think our lack of capacity to see, tolerate and talk to difference is actually at the core of all of the issues we’re facing in human societies. We need to get so much better at seeing and talking and understanding to people who aren’t like us.
SHANI: Fully agree with you. And with that beautiful word of wisdom. I will wrap up this episode. But before I do, please tell everyone where they can find you online. I’m going to link to Gateway Women. But what else can they keep up with what you’re doing these days?
JODY: Okay, well, so I’m Gateway Women and I’m on Instagram and on Twitter @Gateway women. And we’ve got some amazing things coming up in 2021 – our Online Bee, which is our ‘Plan B Mentorship Program’ which is online, starts again in April. And enrollment for that is now open – that always sells out every year – it’s a year-long program. We have one for North America and Australia and one for UK/EU. And also, thanks to the pandemic, our Reignite Weekend, which is the kind of ‘signature weekend’ that I created in 2012, is also now online. And because it’s online, which is brilliant, it’s now available in Australia, and also in North America – and that is led live – with facilitators – in February in North America and in March in Australia. And that’s really exciting. Look for me in your bookshop, Living the Life Unexpected and you will hear from Shani when my book about the single childless women is ready – I just know it!
SHANI: Without a doubt, that is my ask to all my guests, email me anytime you are creating anything for this audience and I will tell them. We have to share these resources because no one else is sharing them for us. So thank you so much for joining me this was such a joy and a pleasure and in my opinion, the perfect way to kick off 2021. Thank you so much.
JODY: Thank you, Shani.
If you would like to explore more about being single and childless and get support around that, here are some more resources:
Gateway Women hosts a very busy ‘Single Life‘ subgroup in the Gateway Women Online Membership Community
Two of our members, Joss and Julie were both interviewed for this Full Stop Podcast episode ‘Single & Childless in a Pandemic‘
Jody’s book includes a section on ‘Grieving Alone: Solo Women’s Grief’ in Chapter 4 of ‘Living the Life Unexpected‘ (expanded in the 2020 2nd edition).
Jody’s interview with Donna Ward, author of ‘She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life’ here
Jody’s blog ‘Forty, Single & Childless – Dammit!’ here
Jody’s blog: ‘Double Whammy: Single and Childless’ here