September 2021: Jody Day interviewed by Katie Overy for her 'The Grief Relief Podcast'. The clip above is about how Jody answers intrusive questions about whether she has children. You can listen to the full episode here in which Katie (who is childfree by choice) and I discuss my story, about the experience of the disenfranchised grief of childlessness, about the bingos that childfree women experience as well as childless women, about my new 'conscious childless elderwomen' project, about the shifting nature of friendships when you're childless and your friends all have kids and how this can shift again when they start having grandchildren, about how not every miscarriage journey ends with a 'rainbow baby', about how our society doesn't like childlessness because it reminds us of the inconvenient truth that not every problem can be 'fixed', about how powerfully second-wave feminism changed the message mothers were giving their children in the 70s and 80s and how this may have impacted choices that later led to involuntary childlessness, about how the internalized prejudices against childless women (pronatalism) live in us too and why it's so important to recognize and change them in ourselves first, about how childlessness is no longer my identity, thanks to grief. And so much more! You can find Katie on Instagram @ThatGriefReliefPodcast and @iamkatieovery and find 'That Grief Relief Podcast' on all podcast platforms. And you can find Jody on Instagram @GatewayWomen
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
KATIE: Welcome to another episode of That Grief Relief Podcast, my name is Katie, and this week I’m joined by a lady from Cork, just south of cork we discovered, in Ireland. Hello Jody, how are you?
JODY: Hi, I’m really well thank you, I’m in West Cork, or ‘the Republic of West Cork’ as it’s sometimes called!
KATIE: But you don’t sound like you’re from the Republic of West Cork?
JODY: I’m not, I’m a London girl. I’m genetically half-Irish, but born and brought up in the UK, and now I’ve been living here for a few years, and I’m what’s known here as a ‘blow-in.’
KATIE: Is that a foreigner, or is that a term for an English person in Ireland?
KATIE: I reached out to you on Instagram because of the wonderful work you do with Gateway Women. I won’t introduce it, I’ll hand over to you, if you can let me know what you do and what is Gateway Women.
JODY: Damn, I thought you’d do this bit for me!
KATIE: I’m afraid not. Who’s going to explain it better than you?!
JODY: Gateway Women started as a blog 10 years ago this year. I was struggling to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t a mum when that had been a big dream of mine, and I was trying to talk to people about it and no one would let me discuss it. They would all shut me down with what I came to learn were called bingos, which are these short statements where they say, ‘Oh, you could have one on your own, Oh, you’re still so young, Oh don’t worry you’ll meet someone,’ or ‘Here have one of mine,’ or ‘Oh gosh you dodged a bullet there by not having kids’ or ‘Kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.’ These extraordinary, short, totally empathy-free statements that even some of the most empathetic people can trot out that just shut you down. It means ‘We’re not going there in this conversation.’
JODY: I consulted Dr. Google, therapists, no one seemed to have any help for me. I’m a writer, so I had been blogging for a few years on a personal blog, and I thought I’m going to start writing about this. So I started a blog called Gateway Women. The day after my first blog I got my first piece of PR, extraordinary, but you know blogs were big news a decade ago! Now it’s like ‘A blog – what’s that?’ It was a big thing back in the olden days. Women from all over the world were commenting on my blog. It got picked up by a journalist who came to a talk that I gave and wrote an article about me, that came out in The Guardian in early 2012 that went viral. It is still being read and shared. It’s called, ‘I may not be a mother, but I’m still a person.’ And really it just took off.
JODY: I was training to be a psychotherapist and on the side I was continuing to write my blog, continuing to talk, a little bit like you, it was something from my personal experience that I started being open about. And suddenly, it was like the world leaned in and went, ‘Oh yeah, me too.’ And here we are 10 years later. It’s now the best-known and most trusted resource for involuntarily childless women in the English-speaking world. It has a social reach of around 2 million. There is my best-selling book, Living the Life Unexpected: How to Find Hope, Meaning and a Fulfilling Future Without Children. We run workshops, we have an amazing online community, we have social gatherings all over the world. They’re a little bit on pause during the pandemic, many of them have gone online and a lot of them are just resting. But at one point we had 100 free social meetups around the world and across all the continents. It’s quite extraordinary. I’ve given a TED talk. I’ve been called the patron saint of childlessness and more recently, and perhaps more memorably, the ‘Beyoncé of childlessness,’ but I have neither the moves nor the outfits! I’m taking it. It’s extraordinary, it’s been an amazing journey for me. I’m now a qualified psychotherapist. I run Gateway Women, I have an amazing team that work with me, and now it’s about moving forwards and into the next part of the journey for me.
JODY: I’ll be 57 this week. And the next part of the journey is becoming what I call a conscious childless elderwoman. This is really for all women without children, however you arrived at that, as we get older in our culture there is no word of respect for older women other than grandmother. So I think there’s a big piece of work to be done socially, in the culture, to change the thinking around that but also to support women who find themselves in elderhood without grandchildren. And perhaps that can be the moment when their grief really gets triggered because it often comes back for a second pass at that point, which can really knock the ground out from underneath people.
KATIE: The whole grandparent thing is always interesting isn’t it? I know that we touched on this briefly because I don’t have children and that’s not what I want in my life, my parents were never those parents that wanted us to have children, however I know that’s actually the exception as opposed to the rule. Women and men of a certain age, they want grandchildren and I understand that it’s having that love and everything without the ultimate responsibility. But I’d never thought about it in terms of childless people getting to that stage in their life where I guess friends in your social circle are becoming grandparents.
JODY: It hasn’t quite happened yet, I have a couple of nieces who’ve had children recently so I’m a great aunt which is rather lovely. I don’t have any siblings, my nieces and nephews are from my ex-marriage, my ex-husband, and that’s really special because they’re sort of chosen, but none of my peers are grandparents yet. I think I’m in that sweet spot between all of the kids leaving home and going to university and launching into life, and gradually settling down and getting married. And I know from the women who are in my community who are my age or older, a lot of your friendships come back, because there is what I call the #friendshipapocalypse of childlessness.
JODY: I lost every single one of my friends to parenthood. I was the only one who didn’t have children, I had a couple of ‘child free’ friends which is more commonly used to describe, for example, your situation where you’ve chosen not to be a parent, but they’d got what they wanted. They didn’t want to be mums, and they weren’t. And then everyone else who wanted to be mums was. And I was just kind of left marooned on Spinster Island as I think of it, having got divorced. And everyone was busy. And I was grieving, and it was incredibly hard. I think as you then get older, some of those friendships come back, not all of them, but some of them come back. It’s then you just getting settled into enjoying having your peer group around you again, and then many of them disappear into grandparenthood. They just become obsessed with their grandchildren in the way they were obsessed with their children, and I think it’s very natural and I don’t want that to sound like a criticism, I’m pretty sure I would have been exactly the same. I’m sure I would have bored for Britain about my children, had them all in the Mini-Boden catalogue, change my profile picture on Facebook to my kids’ picture, and just bombarded everyone.
JODY: I think I would have been an empathy-free zone for childless women because I was so desperate for the identity of motherhood, I think I just would have gone into it full pelt. So I understand how it happens, but we hear less about what it’s like for those women and men who get left out of that. Because, if you type in something, anything, to do with parenting into the internet, and it practically breaks it but childlessness, not so much. Still, when you consider one in five women is turning 45, an average of one in five in the developed world is turning 45 without children, and that only 6-10% of those are childfree by choice. That’s an awful lot of people, an awful lot of women and the numbers are roughly similar for men who are childless not by choice, but we don’t hear about their stories. We do hear more about the childfree choice now which is great. That is becoming definitely less stigmatized. For women your age, they’re sort of the elderly millennials, as you’re apparently known as.
KATIE: Born in 1981 I am literally the first millennial!
JODY: Yes, you’re the elderly millennials, you’re welcome! As these women moving into their 40s, I think we’re seeing early indications on data and statistics that would suggest there will be a much higher proportion of both voluntary childlessness (childfree) and involuntary childlessness. Because also, your generation has lived through two massive global downturns. So there are lots of structural things around family-building and partnering that have been torpedoed during your 20s and 30s
KATIE: For sure, and you’re right, certainly people are coming more to terms with say women wanting career over family or what have you. I, however, live in the Middle East, and that is just not a thing, and I’ll give you a true example. I went to see my doctor the other day and she said, ‘Do you have children?’ I said ‘No.’ She said ‘Do you plan to have children?’ I said ‘No’ and she was like, ‘Oh, well, why?’ and I always try and make, not a joke out of it, but lightheartedness of it because I don’t want to enter into this conversation, but without disrespecting her culture or decision or whatever. I say ‘Oh no, they’re not my cup of tea.’ And that’s where I leave it. And then she goes, ‘Oh, just have one.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s okay!’ As you can imagine it’s a huge thing culturally here. But that’s voluntary childlessness, if that’s the terminology that we’re using. But obviously, for you it was involuntary, so tell me your story because that’s exactly what you’ve said, wanting to share your story and hopefully this is an additional platform to share that.
JODY: Thank you. ‘Just have one’ – that’s an extraordinary response. And in a way that may well be one of the bingos that childfree women get, because they also get a series of bingos, probably the most common one is ‘You’ll change your mind.’ I can’t imagine how many times you’ve – yes I can tell from your face you’ve heard that one! Maybe ‘Just have one’ is another one of those?
KATIE: Bear in mind I live in Dubai. I said and this is a very genuine reason again about me is that it’s the world’s toughest job, hands down, the world’s hardest job. I don’t believe I’m cut out for it and I don’t want to be cut out for it. Um, I like doing what I want, when I want and leaving the house when I want, etc. And I said this to her, I said ‘It’s a huge responsibility, I don’t think I should be responsible for an animal let alone a child!’ and she said, ‘Oh, you could just get a maid.’ I thought, this isn’t a conversation that’s going to go very far. I changed doctors, it was fine. I can’t be doing with that every time I need to go and see one.
JODY: Women who are childless experience exactly the same comments in gynaecologist and doctor’s offices, with people who don’t understand that all of those options are closed for them. Like ‘Why don’t you just adopt?’ As if it’s never occurred to you, or you haven’t looked into it, or you haven’t tried. There are very, very personal reasons why that’s not an option for you.
KATIE: I guess because, in theory, she wouldn’t have known, it was the first time I met her as a GP, she wouldn’t have known why I don’t have children or don’t want children. So I guess that’s something that you must have faced time and time again, and how do you deal with that, do you just go straight up and go, well actually, X, Y, Z. Or do you just try and avoid the conversation because it’s not worth it?
JODY: It varies, and it varies enormously depending on where you are in your grief. When you’re raw in your grief and someone asks you that question and then gives you their opinion about what you should do about it, and this can be anything from a doctor to a complete stranger or at a job interview or anywhere. Suddenly the world has an opinion about your uterus and what you should be doing with it and they’ve got the answer. When you’re really grieving, it’s too painful, you often feel attacked, you might just do everything you can to get out of there. Or you might be quite angry, and get into a bit of ‘one of those childless women.’ That was a quote, you know, ‘You’re too lovely to be one of those childless women,’ you know, meaning ‘We don’t want to put you in that camp, we want to rescue you.’
JODY: I started to develop different answers. One of the things I recommend – because I get asked this a lot, how do I deal with all these intrusive questions – I would say you need a range of answers. For example, funny ones to just diffuse the moment, like at a cocktail party (remember those?) and someone would say, ‘Do you have children?’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t think so….’ Then they would kind of laugh and the moment would pass. Or maybe you realize that it’s a social opener, they’re actually not trying to trip you up, you can just go, ‘No I don’t, I’m guessing you do?’ and you just kind of lob it back to them. If it feels like a teaching moment, which is not always, sometimes I might say something like, ‘Actually, you know, one in five women or for my age, I was born in 1964, one in four women my age doesn’t have children, only 10% of those by choice, it’s actually a really common situation for women like me, you probably know others like me. It’s really hidden, but it’s a really big thing around us these days. And also, maybe you know someone else who doesn’t have children who might have wanted them.’
JODY: Now, the extraordinary thing is since I started asking that, which was about three or four years ago, I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t know someone impacted by this issue. A friend, a grandchild, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, someone at work, a neighbour. They’ll kind of think about it and they’ll go, ‘Oh yeah,’ and it’s like, this is a huge societal issue that we’re not talking about. So that’s what I mean, you need a range of answers, and you can have a few kind of arsy ones in there as well. I wouldn’t do this one, I’m not quite this person but I do know someone who says, ‘That’s a fascinating question to ask I didn’t realise we were going to get so intimate so quickly! How much do you weigh? How much do you earn? What’s your favourite sexual position?’ It’s like, this is a really personal question and people need to stop asking it. Let’s just go back to talking about the weather, for goodness sake it’s doing enough interesting things these days.
KATIE: Let’s just talk about COVID, I mean, that’s a staple now.
JODY: Probably. Also if someone’s got kids, particularly a woman, chances are within two minutes you’ll know. You don’t need to ask
KATIE: That’s a really interesting statement. As well, backed up with the fact that the amount of pressure that is on people who have had one child and then it’s like ‘When are you having another one?’ It’s like well, hold on, I’ve just given birth to a human being!
JODY: This extraordinary, public prurient interest in a woman’s uterus. When you do become pregnant and you have a bump, It’s like you become public property. People want to talk to you about it, people want to touch it, sometimes even without asking, there is this sense of public ownership. And you’re right, if you have one child people say ‘Well it’s not fair not to have another one.’ And it’s like, ‘And you are…..?’ Sorry.
KATIE: ‘…Nice to meet you.’ It’s fascinating. We can talk about that for hours and hours and obviously, that’s why you’re doing this amazing work with Gateway Women. This was the post that I picked up on Instagram with you, and I do want to get into the story if you don’t mind and thinking about why you haven’t had children, couldn’t have children and all of that. I must admit, that off the top of my head I know many women that unfortunately have suffered miscarriages, but yes they have gone on to have children. The post that I saw, you said that that hasn’t happened for you. And that you’re not alone. And so what happens to those women and where’s the support to those women who yes you’ve gone through, awful, awful times but you have this wonderful thing at the end. And so tell me about that.
JODY: The miscarriage narrative, and thank you for doing that podcast with Chris Whitfield talking about setting up support for men going through miscarriage with their partners, that is so important. So that is another part of what it is called disenfranchised grief, Men’s grief around childlessness is disenfranchised, it’s not allowed, there’s no space for it. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage and one in five women is ending up without children. For many women that miscarriage is not followed by what’s called a rainbow baby, it’s followed by childlessness. Miscarriage can be the end of their family-building journey, not a tragic part of it until they have a child. But it’s this: our society really doesn’t like what childlessness represents, which is a lack of agency, a lack of choice, that actually sometimes even the nicest, kindest people with the best data, enough money, who’ve done all the right things. There are some things in life you can’t control, you can’t fix, you can’t create a happy ending. And this really shakes the idea of our society. In fact, death and grief really shakes the idea that we actually have control over things and being childless after miscarriage is not a narrative that the miscarriage community wants to think about, even though it’s incredibly common. And that’s because, in a way, childlessness and childless women, we’re the bad fairies at the christening, we’re the outcome no one wants. For every woman who wants to be a mother, we are their worst dream. They don’t want to be us. They don’t want to even think we exist. It’s a very natural human way to kind of just push out of sight what is uncomfortable. I mean, we represent the death of children, the death of family. There’s an unconscious almost fear of us that maybe our childlessness is catching.
KATIE: I can envisage it.
JODY: My story is that I grew up in a pretty fractured and unhappy home with a mom who had me very young, by accident. So I cut short her sort of groovy 60s teenage years, and then she became a young mum. She got married when I was three to someone who wasn’t my dad because she was under such pressure from family, an unwed mother, Catholic teenager, all very shocking at the time, and was in a very unhappy marriage with a child very young. I grew up in a home where my mom was really unhappy, motherhood hadn’t been her first choice and also she wasn’t really equipped for motherhood, she’d had a really rocky start herself. When you have a mother who has been un-mothered, it was difficult for both of us. So I grew up with the unspoken idea that having children ruined your life. This was also the message I got at school, it was also the message I got from society. At that time, teenage pregnancies were still a really big thing. They have been massively brought under control now. But it was still a really big thing then, and the only sex education we got at school was really about how getting pregnant was incredibly easy. You have to be super careful, don’t even sit on a warm seat that a boy’s been on! It was like ‘Oh my god I’m going to get pregnant.’ So we grew up with a fear of pregnancy.
JODY: So I was a teenager in the 1980s but my growing up years were the 1970s I was born in 1964. Being pregnant wasn’t groovy then, being a mum wasn’t groovy. If a pop star or a film star got pregnant they had to kind of drop out of sight. No one wanted to see them pregnant because it really spoiled how cool they were. Then they didn’t necessarily bring their children into the public eye, their children were kept away from the public eye. So there was this sense that pregnancy was a private slightly shameful thing that happened behind closed doors, it meant you’ve been having sex, you just wore a huge maternity smock to hide your bump.
KATIE: And usually navy with polka dots.
JODY: Navy, exactly as Princess Diana’s was in sort of 1982. If we fast forward from Princess Diana being pregnant in 1982 to Beyoncé being pregnant – practically breaking the internet with a huge and glorious pregnancy bump, and being a sort of fertility goddess- pregnancy has gone from being a private family thing to being a public female achievement. The status of pregnancy and motherhood has really changed in my lifetime. Then we also bring in the 1970s, second-wave feminism was really starting to take effect noticeably in women’s lives and there were opportunities coming up for me that my mum hadn’t had. And she didn’t say ‘Don’t have a family, don’t get married,’ but it was like ‘Don’t rely on a man, have a career, get your education, see the world there are so many amazing things for you,’ that she would have loved to have had.
JODY: So if you imagine I launched into adult life with all of these messages. And I thought, I’m not going to have children, because also I thought having children meant having my childhood again. And I was really happy to be launched into the world on my own, so much so that when I got pregnant accidentally when I was 20 I was terrified. I was in a lovely relationship with a really nice guy who was totally up for getting married and having the baby. I was just that thing – I’m going to follow the path of my mother and my grandmother, I’m going to have a baby, and I’m going to ruin my life. And I was like, No, I’m not. So I had an abortion. I don’t regret it, it was the right thing to do. Looking back now, at 57 on my 20 year-old self, I was emotionally still the walking wounded from my childhood. I was carrying a lot of unprocessed trauma that I would have had nowhere to put it except to pass it on to my child, as my mom and my grandmother had had no other option other than to do that. I think I would have been a really shit mom at 20. So I didn’t regret it. A few years later I got married to a different guy, I said to him when we were courting, ‘I’m pretty sure I don’t want to have children.’ He was like ‘Okay.’ We got married, a few years later, I’m 29, and he’s part of a big, big family, he’s one of six. And I saw something different about family, that I hadn’t seen growing up.
KATIE: I was going to say, more of a family unit.
JODY: I thought okay, this doesn’t have to be just the way I’ve experienced it. I started to realise that having a child wouldn’t be having my childhood again. It would be having our child, his and my child, that combination of our genes and that started to seem delightful. And so I said, ‘Actually, I think, I do want to have children.’ And he was like, ‘Okay.’ These two huge conversations that can derail relationships, luckily, they were both fine. So we started trying to have a family when I was 29 and I wasn’t able to conceive. I just presumed it would take time. I’d had the abortion, I knew that everything worked. A few years later, I had an operation called a laparoscopy, which is where they stick a camera through your navel and have a look around at everything. When I came out the surgeon said to me, ‘Finest uterus I’ve seen all week, you lovely young people just go off and have lots more sex!’ That was it. That was the fertility advice, and there was nothing wrong. There was nothing wrong structurally there was nothing, there was no damage. There was nothing wrong with either of our hormones. There was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t conceive that they could see.
JODY: But I couldn’t conceive and the years went on. I tried everything. I tried every alternative practitioner. I peed on every kind of stick. I stood on my head after sex. I did all kinds of things, I stopped eating things, I changed job because it was near a road that was very polluted. I forced fed my then-husband vitamins. He worked with quite toxic paints. I made him start using non-toxic. All kinds of things. I mean, I could have gone around London just randomly sticking fifty=pound notes through people’s doors, shamans, any kind of alternative practitioner that said they could get me pregnant including some quite serious doctors. I followed loads of protocols and nothing happened and this put a huge amount of pressure on our relationship. He was a very glamorous interior designer, quite fast living, had quite a big party life –
KATIE: Was it Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen?!
JODY: No, but he does look a little bit like him actually, I think Laurence stole his look from my ex-husband.
KATIE: Very unique UK reference – apologies – anyone who doesn’t know who Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is, google him.
JODY: Yes, you’ll know what Jody’s ex sort of looks like. So he was partying quite hard and the idea was that when you get pregnant, you know I’ll quit. We were running an interior design business together, we were kind of Z-list celebrities in London. It all got a bit messy, and by the time we were just thinking about maybe doing fertility treatments, I had a nervous breakdown from it all because I was holding the whole show together. As the very, very well-trained co-dependent daughter coming from a background full of substance abuse, I was holding the whole show together, the marriage, the business. My infertility, although I never called it infertility, I didn’t think of myself as infertile, I was someone who was trying to have a baby, it was just a matter of time. I had a nervous breakdown. I also realised I couldn’t bring a child into the marriage because I looked around me and saw the chaos and thought I can’t do this. And that was the end of my marriage and I was sort of spat out into the dating world in my very late 30s. I’m quite geeky, I was a very early adopter of internet dating, my friends were appalled ‘Who are you going to meet..’ this, that and the other. Now it’s really normal. It really wasn’t normal then.
KATIE: ‘Plenty of Fish’ was groundbreaking.
JODY: It was, yes. I was on something called ‘Love and Friends,’ which was also a similar thing to ‘Plenty of Fish,’ and I did have two quite serious post-divorce relationships. One of them, he didn’t want children, one of them did want children, but we never managed to get to the point of trying IVF and that was lucky, because actually it was a very unstable relationship. I later came to understand that there were strong narcissistic elements in it, so it was really quite traumatic for me, a lot of coercive control and emotional abuse and things going on. So when that finally came to an end and I know that I had hung on to things I shouldn’t hang on to because they were my last chance to try IVF and have a baby. I reached 44 and a half, that relationship ended and I realised that even if I did meet someone, we’d need to know each other for at least a year before we could even think about doing IVF, I would be 45 and a half, and even my cast iron hope-slash-denial couldn’t really find a way around that. And I was like, it’s over. My childlessness is not a temporary, inconvenient waystation on the path to motherhood. This is permanent.
KATIE: Was there a definitive moment that you remember thinking, and forgive me, did you think ‘I’ve lost.’
JODY: Yes. It was just after that relationship broke up. I’d moved into what London estate agents would call a studio flat and which, in the olden days, we used to call bedsits. A one-room, pretty grotty apartment that belonged to a friend of a friend. I was 44 and a half, single, childless, broke, deeply unhappy, wondering how my life had turned out like this. And I was standing at the window, had a really amazing view of the west way which is a very big motorway in London that goes through West London. So a bedsit overlooking a motorway – I hope I’m painting the picture of how bleak this day was! It was February, a grey February afternoon, it was raining and I was just watching the rain, just, watching raindrops run down the windows that needed cleaning, finding their way through the dust, feeling very, very bereft. And I just thought, it’s over. It was a moment of like, it’s over. I’m never going to be a mother. It felt like a whole pack of cards, a whole house of cards that I’d been living in for 15 years, fell down. I was just left standing there, not really knowing how to take the next step forward in my life, kind of, even if I wanted to.
KATIE: Out of your hands now.
JODY: But also something extraordinary happened in that moment, it was as if there were two lives I’d been living for a long time, there was the unconscious life where I was sort of psychologically nesting, preparing to become a mother. Now I can’t be in this relationship because of this, I can’t be with that guy because of this. I can’t be with my husband because you know this and the other. I can’t take this job because it doesn’t have maternity leave. I can’t start studying for a new career now because then I’ll be pregnant. I was always factoring in becoming a mother into every single plan. And then there was a life I was actually living, which was a single, childless, middle-aged woman trying to make her way through life, and many of the opportunities that came my way, I didn’t take. Because I felt unconsciously they would get in the way of my chances of being a mom. What happened was that these two life paths came together at this point, there was a sense that my energy, unconsciously, had been so divided, I was like divided against myself. And they came together. And I felt a real shift in the energy in my body, like right down in my belly. And I was present in my life, for the first time in a very, very long time.
JODY: I started to think, Okay, well, when I was 20 I used to look ahead to when I’d be 50, if I ever got that old. Old is a moving target, old is always 20 years older than you are! I thought at that point, forgive me the vanity and optimism of youth, I thought I can achieve anything. All I’ve got to do is put my mind to it. I’ve always been a grafter, just put my mind to it, work towards it, you know I can achieve my goals and I thought well, in that case, why can’t the years from 45 to 75 be like that. And then I had another thought which was: when was the last time I had a thought like that? When was the last time I had an open-ended thought about life. It had narrowed to this one thing – motherhood or bust. And now I was at nothing. I’d like to say that there was a hallelujah moment and I knew what I was going to do and everything was going to be fine… But I’m glad I had that moment of opening, because after that I fell into the most massive pit of grief, but I didn’t know it was grief. I just knew it was deep. I’d had quite a lot of trauma in my life, I’d overcome a lot of things in my life. But I fell into a pit that I had no idea how to get out of, or even if it was possible to get out of it.
KATIE: How did you get out of it? How long were you in that pit?
JODY: Well, it was two years before I discovered that what I was experiencing was grief. Because childlessness is a form of disenfranchised grief; it’s a grief that is not socially recognized or acceptable. So that’s when I was talking to everyone, and no one would let me talk about my childlessness. I went to see therapists, I went to see doctors, and nobody named what I was experiencing was grief. It was depression. It was a midlife crisis. It was this, it was that, the other, but no one named it as grief. I then started my training to become a psychotherapist which was something I’d wanted to do many years earlier, but I had decided I needed to be a parent first, because I wouldn’t understand the human condition until I was a parent. So this internal prejudice that we’ve been talking about, we internalize it as well. So I believed I wouldn’t be a fully adult human until I was a parent. And then I thought, actually, me and the human condition? We know each other quite well, I reckon I’m Okay. I started my training and in my second year we were doing a weekend training programme on bereavement. The trainer was explaining the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief model. I was totally getting it, like, wow this is really resonant, a little light bulb was going off. I went home that evening and I mapped out the five stages of grief against my experience of childlessness. And I was like, I’m grieving. Holy smoke, I’m grieving. I’ve got goosebumps because it was a life changing moment for me for two reasons. Number one, I thought, I don’t know how but I understand that this is a process, and that means one day I’m going to be on the other side of it. I am not going to feel like this forever. I don’t know how to get there, but I know it’s possible. So I was in hell with no exit door and someone just said, ‘Okay, the exit door’s over there. We can’t tell you how to get there, but there is a door out of hell.’
KATIE: You got a map at all? No, right, I’m on my own.
JODY: That was the first I knew that there was a door out of here. Then the second thing is like, I’m not going mad. The experience of grief is cognitively so confusing. It’s like living in a hall of mirrors, you have the most random insane thought processes that can be quite disturbing. Your personality undergoes a massive change, all of your friendships, everything. There is nothing in your life that is not touched by the process of grieving. It’s like a complete wholesale transformation, and not an Instagram lovely la-la-la of transformation, your whole life goes to shit, and you have no idea what’s going on. That’s what grief really feels like, no one really wants to talk about it, like you said, there’s a map, we’re not going tell you where the map is but there is one.
JODY: That was really the moment for me. I think it was actually just after I’d started my blog, or I started my blog just after that weekend, and I became a grief junkie. I started reading everything I could about grief. I’m a writer and my background is English literature and I started reading very, very widely in the grief literature and just this sense that this was such a fundamental human experience, and that right back to the ancient Greeks, and right back to the Vedics, as far as you can go back in written human history, people have been writing about grief. It is such a universal experience and that gave me great comfort that I was not experiencing this kind of mental meltdown. But that actually what I was going through was something fundamentally human, and yet I still wasn’t allowed to talk about it.
JODY: And when I’d say to people, ‘I’m grieving,’ they say ‘But you haven’t lost anything. How can you be? No you’re not. How can you be grieving? You haven’t lost anything.’ And I’d be like, well, if you’d like to spend an afternoon on the inside of my head and my heart, and then tell me that this isn’t grief, maybe then. I became very passionate about it, very passionate about helping people understand grief, and also supporting women through grief. I was giving talks and writing blogs and women were saying, you seem to understand this in a way that no one else does. Can you do something, can you support us, can you create, and I was like, I’ll give it a go. I’d had a lot of experience in 12 Step groups, particularly after my marriage broke down, I was part of a group called Al Anon which is for friends and families of addicts and alcoholics. I had got so much support and learned so much in those rooms with other people who’ve been through so many similar experiences to me and I’d heard what it’s like to sit in a room and hear someone share a different story. There’s so much in it I resonated with, and I began to understand the power of peer-to-peer healing. I thought, okay, I don’t need to be an expert, I don’t need to have all the answers. If I can bring childless women together in a safe space, with good boundaries with a clear structure about how we’re going to sort of support each other in this time and confidentiality, maybe the same thing would happen and it did. Those first Gateway Women groups, I turned what I learned from running those groups into a workshop called the Reignite Weekend which is still running. It now runs in Australia and New Zealand, in North America and Canada, in the UK and Europe. I’ve got a team of trained facilitators who lead that weekend and that weekend transforms lives. I wrote my book and I’ve become like, as we say the grief lady, the childless grief lady, you’re That Grief Relief podcast I’m that childless grief lady.
KATIE: So I know what your Instagram handle should be! It’s quite phenomenal you have a phenomenal story. I didn’t know your story, I’ve looked at your Instagram but I don’t look at Instagram accounts of my guests in great detail because I want the first time for us to have this conversation, as you would like to think you could do if I were to meet you in a coffee shop. I think I have to admit I probably, even in my space of being voluntarily childless, if I did meet someone like you and you’d briefly touched on your story, I don’t know how I would react, what do I do? I normally make a joke but I can’t make a joke. So what you’re doing and I’m not here to blow your trumpet but I just think what you’re doing is fantastic because these women, especially the first woman that told you about this, that these women needed someone and they clearly needed you. No disrespect, it didn’t have to be you. It could have been someone else. But it wasn’t, it was you and you’ve brought these women together, and for them as you say, to be able to speak openly and safely, I think is the real key word as well.
JODY: There’s a lot of shame around childlessness, still, which is incredibly sad. It takes a lot for a childless woman to open up. A lot. We are so used to being shut down that we very rarely share our stories, unless we know that it’s a safe place to do so. This is why a lot of people presume that the childless women in their lives are childfree, because they don’t talk about their pain. They hide it, because they’re tired of having it diminished and dismissed. So people presume they’re more okay with it than they are.
KATIE: I think as well then you don’t want to then turn into that you’re preaching to people, well actually you should be educated about this and it’s not uncommon and childlessness is a big thing… As you said earlier with your standard answers, you want to educate people, but you don’t want to come across as preaching.
JODY: You have to pick your moment. Not every moment is a teaching moment.
KATIE: Yes, I feel I need to learn that myself ironically.
JODY: Also I’m not always in the mood. I was not put on this earth solely to educate everyone about childlessness. It chose me. Childlessness chose me in so many ways. If it wasn’t for my life’s work, I don’t think about it much anymore, because that’s the extraordinary gift of grief. My personality, my life has been transformed into one where my children live in my heart, but the love for my children, which is what created the grief I went through, has now been integrated into who I am. Five years ago, ten years ago, it’s like ‘Hello, my name is Jody and I’m childless,’ and my childlessness was there, it was the most important thing you needed to know about me. And now my childlessness is part of the context of who Jody is. ‘Hi, I’m Jody, now I’m a writer, I’m a psychotherapist and I’m a partner, I’m a dog mum, I’m a new country dweller, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend. I’m childless, I am many things, I am childless but I am so much more. That is the transformational gift of grief is that its integrated it into me, so I don’t necessarily want to talk about my childlessness anymore. And something really bizarre, I really noticed as I came to a place of peace and integration with my childlessness and maybe also being slightly older, people stopped asking me. People stopped asking me whether I had children, or about my childlessness or why not. It was like, I’m ready now! Come on, ask me!
KATIE: How did you feel about that?
JODY: It took me a while to notice it. And also for those years – I’m now in a happy partnership and have been with my partner for nearly five years – but I spent a long period of my 40s single, and to be honest, I don’t think I met a lot of people during that period. Being single and childless in your late 40s, I used to joke, it wasn’t always a joke, that you know, the only invitations I got were to dental check-ups. You become like social plankton, I’m afraid. And also self-employed, working from home, it wasn’t a very social period of my life, so I guess I wasn’t maybe meeting as many people. When I met my partner at 52 and started meeting more people through him, people I never met before, so they didn’t know anything about my story. I just noticed I wasn’t being asked.
KATIE: That must have been quite, I mean I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but was it a relief?
JODY: Oh, massively. Because I spend a lot of my time thinking, writing and talking about childlessness it was quite nice to not be seen for that. I have a a red jacket that I wear that’s on the back cover of my book, I wore it when I gave my TED talk, and the very first press photo of me was in that red leather jacket and so people really know me for that red leather jacket. I call the version of Jody who talks about childlessness I called her red-jacket-Jody. I kind of put her on for public appearances. And then I take her off. You know, because that is not the most important thing about my identity anymore. I guess I’m just a natural campaigner and advocate.
JODY: One of the reasons I’ve stayed talking about it even though I don’t need to talk about it anymore is because I don’t want there to be nothing there for the next generation of childless women. Those young women who could have been our daughters. I don’t want there to be nothing for them. And I don’t want them to go through this experience in the same cultural background as I did, because the extraordinary thing is the work that I’ve done and the work that Gateway Women has done has changed the conversation. And people sort of look to the UK as the pioneers in the world for more advanced thinking and talk and programmes for childless women, and most of them have arisen out of my work. They’ve been people who’ve been part of the Gateway community and have gone on to do other things, or have trained as childless therapists or have started to talk about it in their art or in their work or in their writing.
JODY: I was at the Barbican a few years ago for More to Life Than Children which was a one-day event that was part of Fertility Fest. And it was including childlessness in the story of fertility, very important festival that Jessica Hepburn created, and that’s a big shift as well as I wasn’t speaking, I was chairing the day. Almost everyone who was performing that day, poets, artists, songwriters, campaigners, speakers, almost every single one name-checked either my book, or knowing me personally, or the transformation they’ve been through, through being part of the work that I do. I didn’t even know some of these people. And I was thinking, Okay, I really might have to accept that I have actually done something, because as you said before it could have been someone else. But childlessness and being a childless campaigner chose me.
KATIE: I think that’s great and I love the fact that you can acknowledge it, I mean that’s certainly something that not a lot of people can do, especially women.
JODY: It’s really hard. It’s really hard. I still I feel a bit ashamed for doing it live on camera, I mean, because there’s part of me saying, ‘Oo don’t get too big for your boots!’
KATIE: No, exactly. Well I’m here to tell you, you’ve done good things and there are clearly thousands of women around the world, and men as well, that would say the same thing. Damn right! As you should, get that red jacket on and just like Beyoncé your way around live! And how are you today, Jody?
JODY: Fantastic. In many ways, I feel what is known in the literature as ‘adapted childfree,’ which is I feel quite childfree. I don’t feel there’s anything missing from my life that I don’t have children. I don’t feel any less than a woman who is a mother. I also no longer feel less than the version of me who would have been a mother. I no longer see the life I’m living as the booby prize life where you didn’t get to be a mum, but this is what you’re doing instead. Being a mum would have been a messy imperfect human experience. The one I’m living as childless is a messy imperfect human experience. They have equal value. They are different lives, they have equal value, so I don’t spend any time sort of wondering what-ifs anymore. The grief dealt with all the what-ifs. And I call myself childless because I do want to acknowledge the path that it took to become who I am today and also out of respect to my childfree sisters, whose internal experience is very different, and doesn’t often involve grief. It’s not a straightforward ‘Ooh, I’m childfree I don’t want to have kids, yay!’ It’s often a lot more complicated and it’s a decision that gets revisited many times and comes under a lot of cultural pressure to keep making sure we’re making sure. You’re now turning 40, over the next few years you may see that pressure intensify as people see you in your sort of last chance saloon.
KATIE: It’s very interesting you saying about the different stages because I’ve always known I didn’t want children. I never played with dolls. I used to like cut Barbie’s hair off and set fire to it and stuff. I was a very strange child. But then when my mum died quite suddenly in 2010, she died of a heart attack and so it was very sudden, so what she had in her handbag is what she carried with her every day. Right. And in her handbag, was a small photo album with pictures of random things, like a work photoshoot that we did for our company website that I’ve emailed her that she printed out on A4 paper. I remember looking at it and thinking, this might sound strange, and thinking, Oh, she really loved us. Then I thought, wow, should I, am I doing this wrong? Am I being selfish not having children and should I think about this? At the time I just met my now husband, now separated. And so it was too early to have a conversation with him and what have you. I inquired about freezing eggs and then I only thought about that for about a year.
KATIE: Then when my dad passed away shortly after that, I thought, oh God, do I need to have children? Like is this what’s going on? Because my brother had just become a father for the first time. Anyway, my point is, it’s so interesting you’ve touched on the fact that it does resurface. I don’t just walk around every day going, oh I don’t want kids, but certainly as I’ve actually just passed 40, as I’ve gotten older, it’s becoming more certain to me that I don’t want children. More and more solidified, it always has been, but it’s more solidified. I think you’re right, I think perhaps I’ve matured in the way that I reply to people. And again, especially in this region, because before I would say I don’t want them, not interested. Quite disrespectfully to people perhaps like yourself, people that have lost children or different situations. I was just bouncing through life going, Oh no, definitely not, like, little shits not interested at all! Not for the life of me thinking about other people’s sensitivities. So that’s another reason why I love doing this podcast because you know if we can all educate each other and do positive things then happy days.
JODY: I didn’t really understand the childfree choice and I was quite negative towards it. Particularly when people would presume, in those early days of my grief, that I had chosen not to have children. Because I was prejudiced, I thought I don’t want people to think I didn’t want children, because I had carried the belief, which is a cultural belief that I had internalised, that child free women didn’t like children, that they were somehow unnatural women and I didn’t want to be one of them. And then as I started to really look for literature to support me, I found that the only women who really had written about the child wish and not wanting to have children and wanting to have children were really child free women. So I started reading a lot of child free literature and I started to realise that actually the idea, the cultural idea of a child free woman, that I had internalised which was wholly negative didn’t match the lived experience of women who had chosen not to have children. And also, although some of them had not experienced grief, some of them had. Some of them have become childfree after, perhaps, a pregnancy that was unplanned that then ended in a miscarriage and they grieved. There can be grief and kind of letting down important people in your life, maybe they were under a lot of pressure in their families and things like that to have children. There were just as many complex ways to be child free and internal stories about being child free, and that’s when I realised, I’ve been sold a complete lie again about what this experience is about.
JODY: The book I think that really, really blew my eyes open was Meghan Daum’s collection of essays called Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It is a fantastic collection of essays, which really come from men and women who are writers on their journey to being child free, and that’s when I found how diverse it was, and also how some of them were similar to becoming childless, and some of them were very different. But there wasn’t this kind of one story.
KATIE: Absolutely. You’ve recommended a book, but as you know I always ask for an Instagram or a podcast, it doesn’t need to be related. What do you have for me?
JODY: Well I think the podcast that I would recommend is called The Full Stop Podcast, and it is amazing because it’s a podcast for the childless not by choice community. It is three amazing people, rarely in the in the childless world – one man and two women. The two women I know very well, they’ve both sort of been through their childless journeys with Gateway Women. I’ve got to know them both very well. And so just search The Full Stop Podcast, they’re on Instagram and they’re also on most podcast platforms. It’s amazing because they invite so many different people, men and women too, and it’s a very jokey one. I left a review once that the way they record it, is it sounds like you’re just walking past a table in a pub, and there’s this really interesting conversation going on at that table and you just find yourself gradually kind of drawn towards overhearing it and then they say oh look, why don’t you pull up a chair? It’s very friendly, it’s not preachy, it tackles a lot of very difficult topics in such a relatable way. And it really deserves a bigger audience.
KATIE: Brilliant. The Full Stop Podcast. Love it. Wonderful review as well because I think that’s what everybody wants from a podcast or radio show, is that you’re welcoming in a friend to join the conversation. So Jody, thank you so much for taking the time, I really really appreciate it and everything obviously you’ve done for the community and talking about your story in such depth and if it wasn’t for people like you sharing your story and there’s something we always say on the podcast is that, hopefully, even if just one person hears this and hears your story and it helps them, then that’s the best thing as well. If you’ve been affected by anything that you’ve heard today, please, please feel free to reach out. I’m not a professional. Jody’s very much a professional and an expert but I’ll put all the links below in the Episode Notes, but feel free to reach out, I can point you in the right directions or reach out directly to Jody and she can as well. And we’ll just go from there or certainly if we can help in any way, that is what we are here for. So, Jody, thank you so much for everything. And I will speak to you very soon I hope.
JODY: Thank you Katie and, and thank you for making space for grief in our society. I think the more of us that understand grief and understand that grief is actually a form of love, and it transforms us and it heals us, it’s nothing to be afraid of. So thank you for making space for grief.
KATIE: Yeah, It can be scary but it’s nothing to be afraid of, especially if we do it together. Thank You Jody, lots of love. Speak to you soon
JODY: Thanks so much. Bye.